Teach For America: Feel Good Spin vs. Dose of Reality From A Corps Member
I often receive notes and email from Teach For America teachers who have regret about their decision to join the corps (Please encourage teachers to send them to me. I will publish them here on Cloaking Inequity to give them voice). Should you believe the positive spin from your local TFA lobbyist, Mathematica, TFA recruiters, College of Education Deans, the wealthy and powerful, neoliberal foundations, Democrats, Republicans and everyone else?
Her letter about her TFA experience speaks for itself. Without further ado:
Every year since 1990, Teach For America, an organization that seeks to end educational inequality, has recruited college graduates and sent them to teach in hard to staff, challenging communities throughout the United States (Donaldson & Johnson, 2010, p. 300). Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America believed that, “If top recent college graduates devoted 2 years to teaching in public schools, they could have a real impact on the lives of disadvantaged kids” (Kopp, 2003 p.6). I write to discuss my experience in this organization and to relate my view of the result of my time trying to change the educational trajectory of disadvantaged students.
My recruiter told me that every year thousands of children do not get the education they deserve due to poverty, poor instruction and lack of opportunity. Too many students are not able to access higher education, much less graduate high school. Why should someone’s place of birth dictate his or her educational and therefore social, economic and professional opportunities? I was sold. To fix this problem and change the outcomes of these students’ lives, I joined Teach For America. I believed in the organization’s mission statement. I thought that if I could prove that kids in poverty could learn despite issues of poverty, violence and extreme instability that I could contribute to the end of educational inequity.
My Five Weeks Training
After graduation I joined more than a hundred fellow corps members recruited to teach underprivileged kids in a Southern TFA location. I graduated from college and immediately started training for 5 weeks in the summer. TFA taught me to create a lesson plan and develop management and student investment plans. They gave me time to practice teaching first graders for an hour a day for three weeks. I then moved to my placement site, and interviewed with one charter school. I was told that I could not refuse the position.
What Really Happens
My First Year. I was first assigned to teach fifth grade Math, Science and English Language Arts at a charter school in an impoverished neighborhood. I was not prepared to develop a curriculum for all three subjects. I was not prepared to handle a classroom of fifth graders and their behavior. As a result I was angry, I had a lot of questions, I wanted to know how to teach and teach well but was continuously exhausted by trying to teach myself to do so while on the job.
My Second Year. My principal left the school system and my new principal assigned me to teach a new grade. I was assigned to teach elementary Math and Writing. Though I was able to develop lessons and deliver them with moderate success, I was not able develop much beyond my own frustrations. I taught for four more months before being the second of more than ten TFA corps members to be fired or leave the school.
My Third Year. After leaving the elementary school, I taught special education students for six months at another charter school. I then spent the rest of the year as a middle school an English Language Arts inclusion teacher.
Was Joining TFA a Mistake?
I left teaching because I was not prepared to control a classroom knowing that I could not bring my students the quality education they deserved without proper training. I also left because my school showed no interest in fixing very serious culture problems or implementing changes that would help TFA teachers further their professional development. Furthermore, the competition and judgment between faculty members caused by comparing test scores created a negative environment for both employees and students.
From my perspective, the majority of the kids that I taught did not have big positive changes in their academic trajectory. I presumed that I could overcome the obstacles of learning to teach despite insufficient training from TFA. I assumed that I could work with kids affected by poverty and community violence, while navigating politically complicated and disorganized charter schools in order to change lives. Ultimately, the stress from moving grade levels and subjects every year and working in unstable charter schools whose practices are driven by more by money than the desire to deliver quality education resulted in my leaving the teaching profession and my placement site at the end of three years.
Kids growing up in impoverished areas of my Southern TFA placement site still suffer from the effects of high rates of teacher turnover, inadequate classroom instruction and difficulty preparing for higher education. Ultimately, the students I taught still struggle with such issues and are not receiving a significantly better education because of my decision to join Teach For America.
The writer asked for anonymity because she fears retribution from Teach For America. See for example the story of Jay Saper, Why Teach For America Kicked Me Out.
You might be thinking to yourself, this sound like the experience of many first teachers, and you would be right. But isn’t the point of reform to change the paradigm not perpetuate it?
Thus, despite the endless positive spin peddled by TFA lobbyist, Mathematica, TFA recruiters, College of Education Deans, the politically powerful, neoliberal foundations, Democrats, Republicans and everyone else…clearly this counter-narrative from a TFA teacher is poignant.
p.s. See my review of the recent Mathematic study New Mathematica TFA Study is Irrational Exuberance. Also, Diane Ravitch citation of our research on TFA in her new book Reign of Error on P. 137 J
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Donaldson, M. L., Johnson, S. L. (2010, May). The Price of Misassignment: The Role of Teaching Assignments in Teach For America’s Teachers Exit From Low-Income Schools and The Teaching Profession. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32, (2) 299-323.
Kopp.W. (2003). One Day All Children…The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I learned Along the Way. New York, NY: Perseus Books Group.