Help! I need your advice. Should I apply to Teach For America?

You-may-not-believe-in-this-but-the-advice-is-great-Read-all-the-way-down-you-might-learn-something

Teach For America (TFA) is soooo magnum sexy right now. For example, one of the “charities” that was sponsored during the past weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities was TFA. TFA was placed on a pedestal with the Wounded Warrior Project, UNICEF and the American Heart Association. A colleague of mine texted during the game, “Since when did Teach For America become a charity?”… For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA go here. One of these charities is not like the other…

Well, Students United for Public Education— a new student led organization— has risen up to oppose TFA. One of the members emailed me the following:

Students United for Public Education (SUPE / Stephanie Rivera, Hannah Nguyen, et. al.) are hosting a #ResistTFA Twitter Chat on Monday, February 17th at 8:30PM EST. The goal is to get #ResistTFA trending in advance of the final TFA application date this week. Please feel free to participate by Tweeting articles, POVs, etc. Also, if you could mention it in your blog and/or promote it via Facebook & Twitter throughout the day on Monday, that would be greatly appreciated, too.

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Students United for Public Education (SUPE) evolved out of the work of college students involved in defending public education from its attackers. In particular, SUPE was founded to fill a void in the movement for public education — before SUPE, there was no national student organization devoted solely to this cause. Under the guise of “closing the achievement gap” and “school choice,” for-profit corporations and their political representatives have sought to privatize and sell off public education. SUPE understands that a profit motive cannot guarantee a good education. Instead, only a robust and well-supported public education system — along with the courage and will to directly confront problems of racial and economic inequality — can provide a quality education for all.

SUPE is a community based organization because we know that public schools are the heart of every community. In other words, SUPE understands that in order for our goals to be reached, we must work with not only K-12 students, but parents, teachers, and community members as a whole. We are not here to tell any community or students what to do. Rather, we want to work with communities to find what their needs are, and have them lead the way in the struggle as we work as equals to organize the change they believe is best.

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Although TFA presents itself as a non-partisan, data-driven philanthropy, it is in fact a sophisticated and efficiently run political organization. We therefore oppose TFA as an organization on political grounds. We resist TFA because we believe that its approach to education is not only immediately harmful to the students, schools, and families that it affects, but also that it actively promotes a vision of both education and society more broadly that furthers inequality and degrades holistic learning.
#ResistTFA_Tweet CSommer_#ResistTFA
So here is where your advice comes in… As far as I know, no media outlet or blog has published a request for help from someone applying to TFA. I received a request for your advice from someone who wishes to remain anonymous because they don’t want to be punished by TFA. Have you ever wondered what their thinking process is as they ponder joining TFA? Well, here it is. In the comments, please leave him/her advice (or if you want to remain anonymous, you can email me and I will forward it to him/her) on whether they should apply to TFA by the application deadline this week.

I am an applicant to Teach for America.

I am currently in a teaching position, after a sort. I have daily interactions with children on a K-12 basis in an inner city environment. I am new and never considered a career in teaching before life sent me in this direction. Saying anything else would run the risk of sacrificing my anonymity, and that I already have the feeling I might need to censor my opinion or risk being asked to leave the program is absolutely reprehensible.

When I first heard of TFA, it was from a few different places. I looked through the website. I watched the sleek, expensive videos (JVH, do you have stats on how much they spend on these vids? Maybe we could insert them here?). I got excited at the possibilities. I gathered up my information, filled out the application, wrote the essays. The reason I did these things was because I genuinely believed that TFA would be the means I needed to transition into a full-time career in teaching; I am currently up to my eyeballs in student loan debt and just cannot afford to take on more, regardless of how passionate I am about the kids here and what I do. I was excited. I was pumped up. I told everyone I knew, including three veteran teachers that I have been honored to have as mentors in my career transition.

Not one of them was excited back. In fact, none of them were willing to write a recommendation for me.

I was hurt, at first. But my mentors have never steered me wrong; in fact, everything I’ve learned from them has been more valuable than any district-assigned set of classes I’ve had to take. I defer to them on almost every classroom decision and while I don’t know much about pedagogy or lesson planning or behavior management, their guidance has been key. So, I started doing my research, with the Google phrase: “Why not Teach for America?”

Imagine my surprise when I find an abundance of blog posts and op-eds absolutely shellacking the program. They all came down to just about the same set of complaints:

  • They do not recruit teachers for the sake of education. They have many, many corps members that are not planning to continue in a career in education. In fact, it seems like they specifically groom corpsmembers to serve their two years, and then move on to careers such as advocacy, politics, or corporate leadership. As an inexperienced educator looking to become fully credentialed, I appeared to be a statistical rarity. In fact, it almost seems as if they emphasize that being a corpsmember is little more than a means to an end, a sort of blip that’s only meant to be a resume booster.
  • In many places, the TFA corps undermines teacher unions. This seemed especially apparent in case studies in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta: all metro areas that had laid off hundreds of veteran teachers—individuals committed to the well-being of their students—apparently in favor of hiring fresh-out-of-college recruits with almost no education training or real-life experience. The practice creates resentment among veteran teachers for TFA corpsmembers, and families against them, as well. Why pay attention to these new kids, when they’re just another batch of “white saviors”, after all? How many of them could really know anything about working in an inner city environment? How many could actually know what these kids are going through?
  • TFA has a track record of undersupporting their corps members. Just Google the phrase “I quit Teach For America”, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. The first two to five years of teaching are always the hardest. How much more is that compounded for people with no formal training in education?
  • If you have a problem with their stance or practices, don’t talk about it. The little evidence I’ve seen thus far points to corpsmembers who have gotten perhaps a little too uppity in their tenures. Attend rallies? Advocate for students? Represent anything other than the party line? Don’t quote the buzz words? Expect to be asked to leave; Teach For America is not keen on hearing anything other than what they will tell you at your Summer Institute. In fact, while the website says you’re welcome to join the existing teacher union, there’s almost a sense of “but I wouldn’t if I were you” attached to that.

So what is someone like me supposed to do about hearing things like this? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. I have wanted to become fully credentialed for a while now, and it appears this is still the best avenue by which to do that. I want to make a difference, though I wish it could be in my hometown. That option is not available to me. And another $20-25,000 in student loan debt is not really something I can afford. I’ve been conflicted for a while over what I should do next, and I don’t know who to ask. I don’t feel like I’m among the average TFA candidates, but I don’t want to exacerbate the problem.

Thus, my question to the educational community at large is: Do I let the ends justify the means and become part of the TFA machine?

So what do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments or email them to me and I will forward them to him or her.

YOU CAN HELP: Do you have documents or information about TFA? Are you a TFA teacher that wants to share your experience in a blog. It’s okay if it doesn’t read like TFA’s slick promotion materials. Send to jvh@austin.utexas.edu

Please Facebook Like, Tweet, etc below and/or reblog to share this discussion with others.

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Categories: Teach For America, Wisdom

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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14 Comments on “Help! I need your advice. Should I apply to Teach For America?”

  1. February 17, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    Absolutely, NO. Don’t go TFA… it not only reflects poorly on your standing as a professional (Hi! I’m your child’s new teacher! With no advanced degree specifically addressing your child’s growth and development, and with only 5 weeks of training on how to read scripts and stuff, I am going to spend a year guiding your child’s academic, social, and emotional future! Aren’t you happy, parent?)…. it undermines the entire profession (would you go to a “doctor” or ‘lawyer” who only has a certificate from a couple months of quick training?), will leave you hanging when the real stuff hits you about a month or two into trying to run your classroom. Look at the alumni statistics for TFA… 95% can’t hack it. Many are washouts within the first year. Teaching isn’t as simple as TFA (and the corporate profiteers who are making money off of selling you) want to make it sound. It takes professional levels of theory, practicums, methodology, etc…. a full college degree… just to walk in the door of your own classroom SUCCESSFULLY. It takes ongoing study to maintain and grow within the profession.
    If you feel called to teach, then fully commit yourself. Go to a college program, and enroll. The best ones have competitive admissions and a high GPA standard to remain enrolled. For example, mine required keeping a 3.8. While you study, hire as an educational assistant or a substitute, to gain valuable, CLOSELY GUIDED YEARS of classroom experience. Please respect yourself enough to honor your chosen profession for what it is.

  2. Carolyn Rulli
    February 17, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    Instead of TFA – why not a Teacher Residency program? Check out UTRU for more information.

  3. Beth Harmelink
    February 17, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Association (teacher’s union) speak has it that Teach for America interferes with appropriate public ed reform in that it takes funds away from public schools. I personally have not researched it, but you might want to explore the issues on both sides before you pursue the organization. My personal experience: After Katrina hit New Orleans, Teach for America sent teachers and building leaders (administrators) into the ravaged schools to attempt to pull the education system back into place. A group of the teachers and leaders ended up in Iowa at our school district for trainings. I kept in touch with several of them for a while after that training. Two years later, their funding had fallen apart and they were struggling. Many of those teachers ended up getting displaced. I have since lost touch with them and when I look at their school website, Teach for America is no longer there. I would question sustainability of programming, funding…along with the political issues.

  4. Charlotte G
    February 17, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    No, Do not subscribe to this movement to eliminate good teachers and public education as we know it. This program is one of the main ingredients in the federally not-yet-mandated, yet-mandated recipe called CCSS. Parents are is shock as the learn what’s in the brewing concoction. Upsetting us is intentional, So parents revolt. They want us to. So they can blame every change they ‘must’ make on our unwillingness to cooperate with their agenda. Either way the end game for them is to control our education system and our children. States bellied right up to the kool aid bar. Drank the CCSS mandate to be. Schools need teachers to teach this garbage. Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, No it’s the government to the rescue to provide TFA teachers to save the day. Get rid of all of the veteran teachers, and fill their spaces with Brand New, indoctrinated robots to teach our children. So By failing, teachers(good ones), and students, the Government must take action(sarcasm). Government run Charter schools coming soon to a region near you. Public school is on the endangered species list. This is simply my opinion. I’m a concerned parent, taxpaying American citizen.

  5. Rhonda Browning
    February 17, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    No! Some student loans are service-cancellable if you certify and work in a high need field. You may want to double back a little, get one more year of education—your professional courses and do a change of major to Education or go to grad school and get an M.Ed, which should start you with a better salary. Sometimes this can be done online, but if not, go to a public university, preferably in the South where the cost of living is cheaper.

    My understanding is that TFA does not even take Education Majors. They don’t think they are smart enough if what they want to be is teachers. They end up with very bright, very young adults who are well educated and know NOTHING about Education. One man was placed with a retired teacher as his paraprofessional. She was not special ed. but had great professional knowledge and would call me for advice and relay it to him.

    I knew only one TFA who was good and she realized she wanted to be a teacher and started working on her Masters in Special Education while still a TFA. Her friend, who also showed potential, did the usual TFA thing and went to law school on a full scholarship. Both are now in the Freezin’ Nawth after their TFA stint in Louisiana. Most have no classroom management skills and they often speak strange dialects that the children don’t understand. A lot of northerners have that problem when they come south, but real teachers can cope and learn to speak inner city and rural quickly. These kids have problems. Plus they are often arrogant and don’t want to take advice from the real teachers so they get left standing.

  6. February 17, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

    Or, just to put an alternative view out there… you might think to yourself: here is an interesting program, with values I like (regardless of how others feel about them on here, if they align for you then that will help you be an authentic teacher), where you are given an opportunity to work in a community that you might never otherwise come to understand but by being a teacher there you will fully immerse yourself in seeing and understanding a new community. Maybe you’re not scared of the fact that people will judge you for your accent. Maybe you think it would be a good thing to teach children that sometimes new people will arrive from elsewhere, but that those people can bring something to the party nevertheless.

    Maybe you think that an organisation that takes an agnostic approach to school type, or thinks that commonly agreed curriculum standards are a good thing, is someone you’d like to work for.

    Possibly you also think: I get that teaching is difficult, that it *isn’t* solved in 6 weeks, but that I would like to learn alongside my experience. That I want to be involved from the outset and that I’ll keep learning throughout a two year programme in which I will get support from a great many people – INCLUDING THE EXPERIENCED EDUCATORS IN THE SCHOOL – to become as good a teacher as I can be in that time. And probably even beyond.

    If you think those things, then yes, TFA is probably a good fit for you.

    Thinking those things doesn’t make you better than someone on other routes. It certainly doesn’t make you a better educator. But if you know that those align with how you feel, and you want to be an authentic teacher with your own beliefs, then it’s okay to do the programme.

    As for other people on here, who have bad experiences of TFA and say no. That’s fine too. That’s their experience, and its worth heeding what they say as it is the sort of attitude you will hear a lot, and if what they say rings more true for you then avoid, avoid, avoid.

    But don’t let a series of commentors tell you that a programme that might make sense for you never can. We don’t know you that well. Good luck with what you decide. x

  7. Terrenda White
    February 17, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

    Take it from someone whose image was used in one of TFA’s sophisticated videos and media campaigns – there’s nothing more important than your OWN voice and the integrity of YOUR decisions. Be not tied to anyone’s agenda or ‘machine’ and think carefully about the example you set for your students and fellow colleagues in the profession. How can we teach students to think and act critically against dis-empowering forces, when teachers themselves are ‘hushed’ and ‘silenced’ and perpetually work in fear. TFA lays out a set package for debt management,etc…but there are other ways to manage this (as seen in other comments)…I would think more deeply about the sense of fear and general dissonance you suffer on a daily basis due to this affiliation–this will weigh on your sense of integrity far longer than the loans. – The harder path isn’t always easiest. Good luck! You’re not alone!

    • Terrenda White
      February 17, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

      …I meant the RIGHT path isn’t always easiest.

  8. February 17, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    Oddly, when people I know do ask my advice on this, I’ve noticed three things. (1) I believe they know something’s not right about their pending decision, for it promises too much and there are obvious holes in the logic of the organization that are just ubiquitous enough that one can choose ignorance and not put the pieces together. (2) I believe they already have their mind made up, but want someone to ameliorate their guilt, because this story is out there and is publicized. A simple google search in the Journey to TFA reveals all the concerns. (3) how else can you compete with highly qualified teachers, who have years of education, PD and time experience. TFA created and provided a niche for people to circumvent COEs, ‘unions’ and fair competition for jobs by taking those apart, and to my observation, they’ve done it by starting in communities of color on the coat tails of the so-called reform movement’s testing to prove deficit inertia. This soon to be TFA may not cogently put the dots together, but many of the ones who talk to me choose not to. Still, I feel a little sorry for them when they have no training and the wrong sort of education (English when they need math) and are put in a middle school classroom in a content area where they have no training but just managed to pass a praxis test. But most of the TFA I talk to just use the negative experience they have to further support their idea that the places where they were placed really do have a deficit. Few actually see that they were also put in there ill prepared as part of the problem they experienced in their classroom adventure. Blah, blah… I go on too long.

  9. February 18, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    Reblogged this on Middletown Voice.

  10. TimJ
    February 28, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    If you wanted to be a doctor, but had already gone to expensive law school, and couldn’t take on more debt, would you go to med school in Madagascar, just to get your license and then come back to practice in your hometown? No. And the reasons for that are many, of course.

    I feel for those who realize, only too late, that they wish they had gone into teaching. Going to school is expensive, but I think it’s also necessary – of course for the teachers, but ultimately for the students.

    Those objections you raise are incredibly important, and to ignore them so that you can pursue your bliss is to take part in what you’ve already admitted is problematic enough that you’re doing soul searching to see if you can square it with your conscience. That ought to tell you all you need to know.

  11. tricia
    March 19, 2014 at 5:18 am #

    So it’s late In the year of the worst year of my life. My child has a teacher from this I just found out. I could cry. Please contact me. I’ve been googling all night and I’m shoucked that this was not disclosed to me.

    • March 19, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      Let your school and district know that you are unhappy. Enlist other parents to also express their displeasure to your school board members.

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    […] Julian Vasquez Heilig Teach For America (TFA) is soooo magnum sexy right now. For example, one of the […]

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