Teaching for America: A Disillusioned Corps Member’s Experience
By the end of my junior year of college, I knew I wanted to join the Teach for America movement. I’d been raised by a public school teacher, I’d been teaching health in New Haven public schools for three years, and I’d studied poverty and the achievement gap as a sociology student at Yale. In short, I felt very informed and prepared for the challenges of a low-income classroom.
Throughout the application process, Teach for America (TFA) recruiters held my hand, assured me I had what it takes, and talked to me about the vast social and professional support network I would join as a corps member.
After my first year in TFA, all but one of my 22 special education students passed the state exam they were slated to fail. And after my first year, I am leaving the program early with a sour taste in my mouth.
Teach for America’s mission is to “enlist committed individuals” to work towards closing the achievement gap in education. But once those individuals are enlisted, studies show conflicting results as to whether or not the use of corps members (CMs) in the classroom is actually good for students and schools.
Based on my own experience as a CM, I’ve seen that Teach for America does work to select highly motivated teachers and to provide the teaching tools to ensure the quality of their work, but its chaotic management and poor use of its human capital stunt its own effectiveness. Furthermore, TFA’s apparent marriage with the charter school movement—now increased, as the Department of Education has begun to limit TFA teachers in non-charter schools—holds alarming implications for the future of the students we wish to serve.
TFA’s training philosophy is simple: educate motivated high-achievers in the “best practices” for teaching, and they will be ready for the classroom. The bulk of TFA’s training occurs during “Institute”—an intense two months where new CMs attend classes and training and teach summer school in their region.
Though TFA’s philosophy is controversial, Institute was effective. Not only were we trained in techniques that had been proven successful in veteran teachers’ classrooms, we got hands-on practice applying them, and we were constantly evaluated by our peers, our supervisors, and summer mentor teachers (non-TFA teachers in the schools where we taught).
Through the intensity and rigor of Institute, we learned how to become teachers. I’m not saying we magically became Mr. Escalante overnight, but we were certainly ready to be beginning-level instructors.
At Institute, CMs work in classrooms that reflect what they’re going to teach in the fall, and they receive specialized training in that subject area. If CMs haven’t been placed before the summer, though, all of Institute’s invaluable training may miss its mark.
TFA prides itself on placing upwards of 90% of its corps members in classrooms in each affiliated region. But the design of its placement process doesn’t reflect the priority TFA professes to put on it, and TFA’s mismanagement of resources around placement ultimately impedes the effectiveness of its training.
I had not yet been placed when I started Institute, and so I was assigned according to my preferences: I taught 8th grade English to ESL students. On the last day of Institute, I was placed in a charter school as a Special Education and Math teacher, without any training in these areas. It was mandatory TFA policy that I accept this offer.
To be fair, the budget cuts and hiring freezes of 2009 and 2010 made placement for the 2010 New York corps a nightmare. We were prepared to have our preferences go unheeded, as schools hiring corps members were sparse, and 40% of us had not been placed before Institute. A lot of this chaos was due to the hiring climate in New York City schools—but, when I managed to secure an interview using my own contacts and network, I was reprimanded, and I then learned how the clandestine placement process operates.
Each region has one to three “placement chairs,” each with a caseload of about 200 corps members, who filter corps members’ resumes to schools. However, despite the obvious challenges of the 2010 hiring climate and the importance of placing corps members early, the placement chair position is only part-time.
Even more alarming was the resignation of my placement chair halfway through the summer. She vacated her position—without finding a replacement—because she was promoted within TFA. This is reflective of a trend in TFA staff and management: Most staff members, with the exception of higher management positions, only stay at their jobs for up to two years before moving on to other roles or other organizations. There’s a constant barrage of new employees coming in and thus no stability or longevity in the positions that would require it—like a placement chair, for example, whose job is to network with schools and build stable relationships with hiring directors in order to place corps members.
Charter Schools and TFA
I was finally placed in a charter school in Brooklyn. According to my fellow corps members, I was lucky: charter schools are thought to be safer, they pay more, and they’re reputed to love TFA corps members.
I soon discovered why. As brand-new teachers, we didn’t have many habits or opinions that couldn’t be overridden in the face of the school’s philosophy, discipline system, or teaching methods. Plus, the charter schools appreciated our work ethic.
Fresh out of college (for the most part), and already de-sensitized to our own human needs from our intense Institute experience, TFA corps members won’t bat an eyelash at the demands of certain charter schools: lesson plans weeks in advance, nine-hour workdays, few off-periods during the day, and the distribution of teacher’s cell and home phone numbers to students and parents. My charter school required that teachers be on call to answer and return school-related calls and emails until 9 PM every week night.
This was the first full-time job most of us had worked, and we didn’t have the experience to know that we can say “no” or negotiate on these demands. Our support from TFA was not much help in that department either. While TFA has many resources for teaching materials and methods, and it’s happy to help corps members track data, there was little advice on how to maintain one’s sanity. Balance was talked about a lot, but there were few advocates for teachers who needed help with administrators, colleagues, or simply time constraints in charter schools.
Moreover, much of the support TFA did offer was an overlap with the charter school’s demands and training—right down to the same instructional videos. TFA’s mid-year trainings became a redundant, tedious experience, looming over our shoulders and adding busywork to an already hectic schedule. It was nothing like the helpful social and professional support I’d been promised while I was being recruited.
The marriage between Teach for America and the charter school movement is seen also in the drive toward concrete measures of teacher effectiveness and student achievement. CMs and charter school teachers alike are taught to “backwards-design,” or build lesson plans from objectives that are tested on interim or state exams. Yet, this has created a classroom environment that’s very focused on test scores. And Teach for America’s data tracking system, used to evaluate teachers, has only added to this pressure.
In light of the recent Atlanta cheating scandal (where three TFA teachers were accused of changing students’ answers), perhaps Teach for America should re-think its performance evaluations. While I understand the importance of standardized testing and the need for a concrete evaluation of progress and teacher effectiveness, I can’t fight off the feeling that the best interests of the students are being sacrificed to help secure funding.
When one of my special needs students couldn’t tell me how many quarters were in a dollar, should I have skipped over that information to make sure he can find the surface area of a cylinder because he’ll be tested on it? The answer from both my TFA and charter school supervisors was “Yes.”
In the end, my experience with Teach for America turned me off to teaching. The misalignment of its human resources reveals an organization that doesn’t know how to prioritize, and the data-driven philosophy it has adopted has questionable implications for teachers and students—especially students with special needs. TFA’s corps members and training methods have real potential, but Teach for America needs to reexamine its philosophies and management if it’s going to improve its chances of closing the achievement gap.
Photo courtesy of Perspicacious.
In addition to Teach for America, Christina has worked in market strategy and development for a range of institutions, including Phaidon Press and the Instituto de Empresa of Madrid, Spain. She is interested in exploring opportunities in these areas and plans to pursue a graduate degree in the near future. An operatically-trained singer, Christina enjoys performing and recording music in her free time.More from this Author