I am a current Teach for America corps member in the Mississippi Delta. I read your blog earlier today via a colleague (also Black) who teaches at the same school, KIPP Delta College Prep in Helena, Arkansas. I wanted to say that I find your comments dead on, although I risk losing my Americorps stipend for going in-depth about how I feel as a first generation Black college student from the inner-city (Compton, California specially), I will say that I was very disappointed to see the low number of students of color who would be my peers in the organization. Furthermore, I was rather distraught in the beginning with the way that the "achievement gap" is framed through TFA and made it very public, which did not make me too popular, that while we come in as individuals trying to make a difference in the achievement gap, we by no means can look at others as the reason why there is one. That was a very delicate way of getting out what I sensed in the atmosphere, that they, are not "saviors." I could actually go on for hours, so I will digress.
To be completely honest, I sought Teach for America for the wrong reasons. I, too, thought it would help in my quest to apply for law school. After having a wonderful first year of teaching (my class tested science MAP results that put us in the top 20% percent of the nation in science concepts and general science), I'm going to take a big leap and apply to law school in the fall. God willing, I can get into a Southern California institution and I will explain why that area is where I would like to be specifically. As originally planned, I do not want to attend law school to go into law; I have every intention of committing myself to public policy and public service. I have put heavy thought into starting a non-profit organization that offers the opportunity for ALL students willing to participate, regardless of race from low socio-economic backgrounds, a pathway to college readiness and gets them ACTIVELY thinking about themselves as students who can succeed on a college campus by taking them on trips to universities, studying for the SAT, focusing on their grades and mapping out realistic goals to get them to and through college.
As I think about this idea more and more, I've put heavy thought about getting together a small group of dedicated individuals that would be willing to see something like this happen. Specifically, college graduates of color that I have met through networking as a past Chair of the Black Student Alliance at my university and being involved in planning many California student of color conferences.
I am sharing this because I would like to know your thoughts on this. I plan on returning back to the community where I was born and raised and offering whatever I can because it was done for me. After a year of being in the Delta, I have realized how much I am seen as the "other." I am still a Black woman, still from a low socioeconomic background, but I am still foreign. I think developing a non-profit organization such as this, applying for grants to fund the program, and using grassroots methods of relying on people that I grew up with, that are like me and have attained a degree can be just as powerful as the concept of Teach for America.
I look forward to your response.
Amen, Prof. Naison, Amen! It's so good to know I am not the only one who feels this way about TFA. As an administrator at an Ivy-league institution where TFA recruits heavily, I have seen precisely the things you mention. I've had TFA teachers on my staff who have made it clear that teaching in low-income, urban schools was something to do while they studied for the GMAT, LSAT or GRE to enter graduate or professional schools to get to where they really want to be. Most of the ones I've encountered have no intention of pursuing teaching as a career or of having a profound impact on a child's education. For too many of them, (but of course, not all) there is no sense of commitment or altruism. As you state, it's just something that looks good on a resume. For the schools that rely on TFA recruits to fill teaching positions, the 2-year commitment guarantees a lack of dedication and continuity that does students more harm than good.
As an inner-city public school student in Philadelphia, I was exposed manyLOTS MORE BELOW
such "Urban Peace Corps" programs, but we always knew from the beginning
they were just passing through.
Teach For America however is the most insidious of all because students from elite private Liberal Arts Colleges and Ivy League Universities think SO little of public school teachers, they think the presence of their greatness for two years will elevate the "great unwashed students and teachers in urban public schools" to such an extent, a lifelong commitment is not needed.
I am certain many of them find they "cannot hang" as they were not prepared properly by TFA which blows their superior mindset out of the waters.
Still, amongst those who DO try to hang in there and make a difference, the disrespect, frustration and working conditions we teachers count as a given drive many away.
This is all a part of the "Anyone Can Teach" mantra which permits non-teachers of all stripes to dictate to education experts. Renowned "entre-manures" tour schools and teach one lesson at the chalkboard etc. in an effort to show their commitment to urban education. Please!
We teachers have allowed this as well, because we want to be accessible to our kids and their families. It feels awkward to declare ourselves as education experts.
We need to get over this before it is too late!
Fantastic piece, Professor Naison, and I'm honored to have graduated from the same university you teach at (in Lincoln Center, but I took classes at Rose Hill).
Your piece speaks to me primarily because I was one of those students at Fordham who was interested in TfA who came from a low-income community, look like many of the students I teach, was also a student who previously received special education services, and graduated from Fordham with a 3.2 GPA, above the 3.0 required by the program. I have also had experience working with the same kind of children I work with currently.
I got rejected by TfA outright after the paper application.
On the paper application (and in the group interview for NYCTF), I never mentioned any aspirations beyond teaching. Though I learned enough to get to where I am today, I'm not fluent in the language of privilege and business is dreadfully boring to me (no offense to anyone who's in business). Heck, my physical appearance doesn't show the typical businessman look: I didn't wear a suit to my NYCTF interview and ties make me uncomfortable after a certain period of time. If TfA wanted a candidate they could persuade for a career in finance, law, and business, I was definitely not that candidate.
To this day, I am still perplexed by the rejection. Wouldn't programs like TfA want to foster a stronger social investment by students who lived in those communities to contribute positively through a consistent and powerful teaching presence, especially if they were qualified?
For full discourse, I ended up getting accepted by the NYC Teaching Fellows as a member of Cohort 18 that same year in a cohort with 90% career changers. I've been teaching in a good school in Washington Heights in a community that resembles the one my family and I grew up into. I was able to graduate with a 4.0 at City College with my Masters in my teaching concentration. I have no aspirations of leaving the profession, but only to continue to become a stronger teacher, a more informed citizen within the "de-form" movement, and a more-informed advocate for my students and the community I teach in as a special education teacher.
If TfA is to truly advocate for educational equity, it should recognize that its current model doesn't reflect on its motto by any means. The more experience a teacher becomes, the stronger that teacher is within all areas of what makes a teacher. Borrowing from TfA's website motto, to me, consistency and experience are both essential in order to, yes, "ensure true educational opportunity for all."
I am a teacher and, to me, a long-term commitment with a strong focus on teacher growth in all facets is necessary to foster true education growth in their students. Not a two-year stint that'll allow candidates to use the thousands of children they teach in high poverty areas as "a (metaphorical) stepping stone to a career in business.”
Thank you again, Dr. Naison.
- Brent, FCLC '09
By now there must be hundreds of thousands of TFA vets. I don't think it makes much sense to stereotype them as slumming white careerists. Nor is it safe to assume that students
at elite colleges are children of privilege. Many students at those schools get financial aid, work 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet, and go deeply in debt to pay their tuition. I agree with Mark that
it would be better if TFA teachers stayed on longer. But this is a problem that goes way beyond TFA since many non-TFA teachers leave the teaching profession within 5 years.
I do not agree with the TFA quickie approach to teacher education and think it contributes to the problems TFA teachers have and to their abandoning teaching so quickly. Much
as I dislike the program, however, I have found those who volunteer for it are diverse -- and include some very committed radicals of all races -- as well as the careerists alluded to in these
While you are right that not all elite college graduates are alike,some do come from the working class,you are worrying about the wrong people. They ALL will be fine! You should be worrying about the poor students who were denied their rightful education because their untrained, clueless TFA teachers,as well meaning and intelligent as they are, are totally unequipped to teach urban unskilled youth and after one or 2 years, they have hardly begun to learn how to teach.I talk from experience,from the trenches, having been a NYC teacher for 45 years and afterwards, a mentor to TFA and teaching fellows! Doesn't anyone care about the students?
Janet Mayer, author of AS BAD AS THEY SAY? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx.
I agree with most of you and your assessment of TFA. I even agree to a slight extent with one of you who took the position that not all of the candidates are elites who are marking time while waiting to enter the career for which they prepared themselves. I do, however, think that is a very small percentage.
Coincidently, last week, I met a prominent gentlemen who lived in one of the most affluent Chicago suburbs. While discussing education, he revealed that his son is an executive with TFA. I gave him my card and asked to have his son call me to discuss the failings of the program and its misguided intentions and directions. I'm still awaiting the call which may never come!
Children don't need pity from those who feel they are doing them a favor; they don't need people who are not dedicated to enriching their lives to prepare them for lifetime learning which will lead to their success; and, they don't need teachers whose attention is divided between what they are doing and what they really want to do.
I pray that some of them will fall in love with teaching and make that their lifetime career; but, because I feel they are not properly oriented, they use this as a stepping stone for immediate employment.
Great teachers are born! Great teachers love what they do for children! Great teachers inspire and motivate students to reach their full potential! Unless one has this calling, that person does not belong in a classroom.
We have to be on guard and wary of the military/industrial complex, the prison/industrial complex and now the education/industrial complex. Those who are filled with greed have found yet another revenue source and they are exploiting it for all it's worth. We must fight for public education! We must fight to be respected as the professionals we are! We must stay united in order to do what is in the best interest of children.
TFA is not that entity! Helen
Robby and Janet
I would like to see someone do a longitudinal study comparing what happens to a group of TFA recruits, and the students they have worked with, for a period of 10 years I would bet large amounts of money that the differences in how their lives turn out would be astounding- a veritable "tale of two countries." I would venture to say that very few, if any, TFA members will end up in prison, unemployed, or living in poverty, while a portrait of their former students would tell a different story.
This is not TFA's fault, but their failure to acknowledge the limited impact their organization has had on entrenched poverty and racism in the US, as well as the reputation
joining TFA has gained as a form of resume padding for careers outside teaching, suggests we can count on little help from this organization in combating social inequality in
the US. Unless TFA corps members are radicalized by their experience, TFA is more part of the problem than part of the solution!