This is the second in a new series of ‘guest posts.’ The more intelligent TFA corps members quickly realize that something ‘just isn’t right’ about TFA. Quitting is a tough, but brave, thing to do. Writing about why you chose to quit is even tougher and braver, which is why I appreciate this guest post from former TFA corps member Jenna Harrison.
Why I Walked Away from TFA (And Why You Should Think About It)
January 7, 2013 is a day that I almost wish never happened. I recall spending the better part of that afternoon glued to my phone like my life depended on it. As a second semester senior, this was my big break. I needed a job. I needed a plan. At least that’s what I told myself. I didn’t quite know what I wanted out of my life, but I did know that I wanted to make a difference in someone else’s. That’s when I found Teach for America and all my problems were solved. …Or so I thought.
I mean in theory, who wouldn’t want to be a part of Teach for America? Who wouldn’t want to participate in a “movement bigger than oneself” to help “bridge the opportunity gap” and bring about “transformational change”? At the time it sounded like a dream, and thanks to some clever marketing, a few witty buzzwords, and a lot of personal naïveté, I was hooked.
Finally, around 3 o’clock, my phone rang and on my screen flashed the exclamatory subject line: “Congratulations and Welcome to the 2013 Corps!” Whoa. It was real. The organization that I dreamed for years to be a part of was accepting me (me! of all people!) to work with them to help change the world. After reading further I learned that I was placed in Los Angeles teaching Secondary Science. I was enthralled. I was proud. It was now my turn to join an organization with so much prestige, to leave my native Philadelphia and move to the West Coast, and to use my talents in science to help change the lives of those less privileged than myself. You could almost say I felt saintly.
From January 7 onward, life felt like a blur. The second I signed my name in blood to TFA I began my “On-Boarding” process, completing various background checks, flying cross-country to California to take rigorous certification exams, and participating in interviews with potential employers. Suddenly my last chapter of college became engulfed in TFA’s mission, and while I was a bit nervous, I couldn’t help but feel like I was a part of something greater. Finally, with much anticipation, on June 11 I boarded my flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and never looked back. That’s when everything started to change.
In retrospect, I truly started to feel negatively towards Teach for America my very first day of training. During those five weeks I was expecting to be welcomed by TFA staff, to learn a bit more about the region I would be teaching in, to get to know some of the colleagues with whom I would be spending the rest of my two-year commitment, and most importantly, to learn how to become the most effective teacher I could be. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, I felt like TFA was utilizing its summer Institute to indoctrinate each of the bright-eyed, optimistic, young college graduates they recruited even more than they already had begun to brainwash during the On-Boarding process. Slowly but surely I found myself falling victim to a grueling, almost sadistic daily routine. Each morning my peers and I woke around 5 AM, got ready, grabbed breakfast, took the bus to our school site, spent one hour as lead teacher in a classroom of summer school students, took a break for lunch, and sat in seminars led by TFA staffers until roughly 5 PM. Afterwards, we would take the bus back to our dormitories, have a quick dinner, and spend the better part of each evening devising lesson plans to ultimately be torn apart by our Corps Member Advisors later the next day. For five weeks the pattern continued. Eventually I started to lose sight of the outcome I was once so passionately working towards. Each day just seemed like another obstacle in the way of my survival as a young teacher. No wonder TFA teachers are known to experience burnout at such a high rate.
Aside from the “boot camp” mentality that is associated with TFA summer Institute, there are a multitude of other shortcomings that need to be addressed. In short, five weeks simply is not enough. Before entering the program, I strongly believed that cramming five weeks of pedagogical training into the brains of young college graduates was indeed just as effective as a well-paced, four-year undergraduate program. However, upon my entrance to the classroom I found that to be downright untrue. Hands-on experience in the classroom was indeed enriching, but one hour each day was not nearly enough time to foster the skills (and even physical endurance) it takes to teach competently, differentiate learning, check for understanding, and manage a classroom in a non-dictatorial manner.
Moreover, majority of the seminars led by TFA staffers were more detrimental than helpful to my development as a first-year teacher. While I appreciated the sentiment behind the sessions on culturally responsive teaching, many a time they continued to contribute to the racist mentality I believed that TFA was perpetuating through its recruits. Majority of these sessions consisted of a person of color preaching to a room full of Corps Members that white people are the reason why our students suffer. As an individual who is very well-versed in white privilege, I believe it is downright ignorant to blame an entire country’s shortcomings in educational equity simply on race. Instead of wasting precious instructional time on essentially brainwashing its Corps Members, Teach for America should focus its efforts instead on recruiting CMs that are well-versed in ALL of the injustices individuals face in our global society – regardless of their sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious background, etc.
As for sessions focused on improving pedagogy, there is no word more descriptive than pitiful. From a teacher who had a class size of 40 in a school boasting a 37% SPED population with no in-class RSP support, a 45-minute presentation on IEPs is simply inadequate. Period. In terms of classroom management, I remember being told by a TFA staffer that student obedience yields success. To this day I have never felt more sick to my stomach than I did in that moment. As time went by, I realized very quickly TFA did not value my students as the unique, incredible individuals that I grew to know and love as my own. Instead, they were just skewed data points in “scientifically-based” studies released to the public each year.
I think it goes without saying that many nights during Institute I found myself very frustrated with Teach for America. This was the exact opposite I had felt before joining the corps – an organization who prided itself on being truly dedicated to closing our nation’s opportunity gap. However, the more time I had spent with the organization, the more disappointed I became. More than anything, Teach for America has arrogantly shed its humble roots. While many consider TFA an incredible charity organization, people need to realize that teaching is by no means charity work. Our students, regardless of color, zip code, or background, deserve a top notch education. With constant turnover in low-income schools and an extremely CM low retention rate (that TFA refuses to release to the public), Teach for America denies that basic right to our students. In recent years, Teach for America has become incredibly corporate, drawing much of its funding from the Walton Foundation, an organization that exploits many of our students families, and using its political ties to push its own agenda towards the privatization of our nation’s schools, “no excuses” charters, and Common Core Standards to even further perpetuate the educational inequity it claims to fight against. There is also an enormous savior complex amongst many CMs and staff alike. Our students need no one to “save them.” Instead, they deserve individuals devoted to living in community and working together towards collective improvement. As the proud product of a Jesuit education, there is something to be said about working “with” a community as opposed to working “for” one. Teach for America has no grasp on this concept or on the idea of social justice in general. On a similar note, it should go without saying that recruiting CMs that clearly desire the position as a resume builder does nothing but objectify our children. I can’t begin to describe the number of other Corps Members I met who straightforwardly admitted they were using Teach for America as a stepping stone to medical school, law school, etc.
As Institute came to a close, each of TFA’s newly-indoctrinated drones (myself included) began work at his or her placement school site. While my students very quickly began to become the center of my universe, at the end of each day, I felt myself breaking down more and more. I was burning out. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew that academically I was failing my students – whom I loved (and continue to love) as my own children. I could not stand to subject them to TFA’s fraud any longer. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I just couldn’t take it any more. I felt reduced to nothing. After a letter of resignation, a number of exit interviews, and a scathing message from one of my region’s staffers, I had resigned from Teach for America. My TFA nightmare was finally over, and I was headed home to Philadelphia to pick up the pieces – but not without some minor harassment from my “superiors.”
While I understand that commitments of any kind should never be broken unless under extreme circumstances, the over response I received from TFA staffers during my resignation process was downright disturbing. For about a month and a half my life became a constant guilt trip as I continued to receive text messages, emails, and phone calls “urging” me not to “give up on my students.” In fact, my personal well-being was less important to TFA than the two hours I spent every other day with each of my students. On multiple occasions I was told that I was overreacting to my situation and that my resignation had the potential to destroy the lives of my students forever.
My favorite statement I received in response to my resignation reads below:
I assume it [your reason for leaving] is severe, given that you are cutting your commitment even shorter than we had understood from you previously. This is an extreme situation, Jenna; you are putting your students, the school, and our partnership at risk given the time of year that you are departing. I know this was not your plan when you applied to TFA, or when you accepted your offer, or when you accepted the role at Dr. Rhodes’ school. However, regardless of your intentions, it’s leaving both the school and TFA*LA in a lurch.
…please do consider the commitments you make, going forward, and who they will impact in the short and long term.”
At the same token it is important for me to also communicate that teaching was an incredibly rewarding experience for me, and my students have ceased to leave the center of my universe. It makes my day every day to continue to be an important figure in their lives, whether or not I am still in the classroom. I can only hope that the time I did spend with them was positive enough to leave a lasting impact. However, one year later, I continue to see the detrimental effects of Teach for America in my own city. After the layoffs of thousands of veteran teachers in inner-city Philadelphia, I can’t help but look to Teach for America. The replacement of veteran teachers with significantly cheaper, severely inexperienced ones is an incredible detriment to our students. The fact that TFA charges already-suffering public districts for the use of its CMs is the icing on the cake. While it was brought to my attention that the new San Diego Corps has been placing its CMs in vacancies that couldn’t be filled previously by the city, implementing this in one location simply is not good enough. If every location followed San Diego’s lead, TFA would make a significantly more positive impact on its communities.
Although my thoughts towards TFA are overwhelmingly more negative than positive, I do believe that the organization was truly created with the best intentions in mind for our students. At the time of Teach for America’s launch, there indeed was a tremendous teacher shortage in our country, and I strongly believe that the organization and its Corps Members had a very positive impact on America’s schools. However, with the transformation of our nation’s political climate and economic status, among other reasons, not only is Teach for America detrimental to the American public education system, it is perpetuating the very flaws that it initially set out to improve.
I would like to believe that Teach for America would be open to constructive criticism, but in light of recent events, I can’t help but feel the organization is a well-oiled, political, corporate machine. If the organization as a whole truly did care about the welfare of our nation’s students, they would be more open to discussion and less concerned with political clout and fiscal stability. Again, I do believe many TFA staff have the best intentions in mind, but as an organization TFA is simply dodging bullets and failing to address some very valid arguments posed by some of our nation’s most prominent figures in education.
To be honest, I would love to see a world without Teach for America. While its initial intentions yielded a positive impact, TFA is doing nothing but perpetuating the educational inequity it claims to fight against. My opinions on the organization have not changed since day one, and although I would have liked to voice them while involved with the program, I felt it was too risky as I had seen a few fellow CMs asked to leave for being brave enough to share their thoughts. I do feel that Corps Members are cogs in the well-oiled TFA machine, and I know that I am not alone. If anyone out there reading this is interested in Teach for America or is about to begin summer Institute in a few short weeks, I ask of you what I constantly asked of my students: Do your homework. It will save you one heck of a mess in the future.