This is the third in a series of guest posts. I sometimes get emails from people who have been accepted into Teach For America and who did a little additional research before signing a commitment letter. With so much honest writing about TFA on the web, they invariably end up being sent to my blog. Some even reach out to me for advice. It is not easy to turn down an offer from TFA, but this post, an almost Corps Member explains how she did it.
Teach for the Future, Don’t Teach For America
When Gary offered me the opportunity to write a guest blog, I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive. In my almost 25 years of growing up in the Internet age, I have never posted a blog. Myspace comments, instagram photos, tweets, and Facebook status updates I’ve posted in spades, but I’ve never taken the leap to full- blown blogging. So what, after all of this time, could tempt me in to a real live blog post? The answer: to share my own perspective on what seems to be an ongoing debate about Teach for America.
Why should you care what I think about Teach for America? Well, I’m just another would-be corps member, but having gone through the “matriculation” process myself, I understand how difficult of a decision it can be. During my own matriculation, I reached out and collected as much insight and as many opinions as possible, which is how I came to speak with Gary. I share my own experience with TFA in the hope that I can help out other potential corps members during what could be a turning point in their lives.
First, let me rewind and explain a little bit about who I am and why I came to be a potential Teach for America corps member. My name is Stephanie and I am a 24-year-old recent graduate from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. My mother was a single mom who was also a teacher for a federally funded free preschool program for low-income families. As you can guess, this meant there was never enough money to go around. I grew up knowing what it was like to worry about where your next meal would come from. I also grew up knowing that while we might lack money and materialistic comfort, we always cared for each other and knew what was important in life. What I learned from my mom was that it was important to love what you do, and be passionate about your life’s work. It was never a decision for me to be a teacher, teaching was always just in my heart.
As I completed my degree requirements (Bachelor’s of Science in Elementary Education, with an endorsement in Early Childhood Special Education), I worked to put myself through school and took out more loans than I care to talk about. My undergrad was a long and winding road with many struggles along the way, including the devastating loss of my mother during my “super senior” year. Imagine my intense relief and pride when I finally walked across the stage on May 1st this year! Before I graduated, though, I was completing my student teaching in a local Kindergarten classroom and beginning to feel the pressure of soon having to find a teaching job. Where I live, the metro Detroit area, we have many new teachers and not so many teaching jobs.
When my university supervisor mentioned Teach for America, it seemed like a great possibility! I had always wanted to travel and live in a big city, and all of the experiences I had had teaching in a low-income setting had been highly rewarding. Perhaps this was the answer to my soon-to-be job woes! I did some quick research and found myself on the Teach for America website. After reviewing the application requirements and deadlines, I decided to apply. I was only days away from the 5th application deadline, so I hurried to compile letters of recommendation and complete the application. After a successful phone interview, I was invited to attend the final in-person interview.
I showed up to the final interview with stars in my eyes, in a new suit, full of excitement and hope. As anyone that has attended the final interview probably knows, it was a fantastic experience in which the TFA leaders conducting the interviews recounted stories of their own wonderful experiences and filled us with the desire to change the world and end the achievement gap. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with my fellow interviewees, and reveled in the attention and respect I was given for my successful lesson plan. (It was only after I left the interview and reflected privately that I thought about the implications of my lesson plan being one of only two of the entire group that had any sort of educational merit and legitimate teaching strategies.) When it came time for my private one-on-one interview, I was nervous but confident that my experiences would make me a good candidate, and that my ideals matched those that the organization was looking for.
The interview went quickly, the interviewer seemed interested and moved and I even got teary eyed explaining why I felt I was someone the students could relate to, despite my pasty white skin and higher education. I wiped away tears as I shared how I knew what it felt like to not be able to concentrate on a test because you were afraid your family was about to be evicted from your home. The interviewer sincerely thanked me for being honest and emotional, and sent me on my way. I left that room with confidence, excitement and a feeling that I had found the right avenue for myself as an educator. I couldn’t wait to hear if I was accepted, and where I would be placed. The days passed slowly as I waited in anticipation until finally I received an email on the notification day (Thursday, April 17th, the day before Good Friday). It was the end of the school day and the kids had just left the building as I read aloud to the Kindergarten teachers waiting anxiously with me: “Welcome to the Greater New Orleans region!”
I was struck speechless, as the other teachers yahooed and clapped. “Your entire life just changed!” said my co-teacher and friend from across the hall. I smiled and said, “I guess I’m moving to New Orleans!” I texted a close friend to let her know I had gotten the news, but I kept it to myself otherwise. I wasn’t sure how to tell my grandma that I would be moving across the country in a matter of weeks. The email I had received gave some background about the New Orleans region, and a promise at the end that said I would hear from somebody “Today or tomorrow”. I went home and made a list of all of the questions I would ask of the person who was to contact me, who I believed would be the director of the Greater New Orleans region, as implied by the email. I waited and waited but no call came; I decided to cut them some slack, seeing as though it was in fact Easter weekend. The following Monday, after not having received any phone call, I sent a response to the welcome email asking that somebody please contact me. After all, four whole days out of my 13-day matriculation period had passed, and I was feeling anxious.
The following day I received a phone call from someone we’ll call Jessica, calling from the Greater New Orleans region. She apologized for not having reached out sooner and invited me to ask any and all questions I had about the region and the organization. She prefaced our conversation by informing me that she was not a corps member and had not actually taught in a classroom, she was on the fundraising team. This was my support during my time of need? Somebody whose job was to convince people to fund the organization?! Despite the feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me it was wrong to delegate the task of reassuring and informing potential corps members to somebody who had no personal insight in to what it meant to Teach for America, I posed my questions to her. I had a list of about 30 or so questions (I’m somewhat Type A, I’ll admit…), largely related to where exactly I would be teaching so that I could find a place to live, as well as more specific information about timelines for institute and what sort of curriculum I was expected to follow.
Almost all of my questions were answered with “well, it depends on the school you’ll be teaching in” (in regard to my curriculum specific questions, questions about class size and resources, as well as location) although she did inform me that I “would almost certainly be teaching in the city, although it was possible that I would be teaching in Jefferson Parish, a 20 minute drive from the city”. Well, that would make it easy to find a convenient place to live, I would simply have to move down to New Orleans sight unseen, secure an affordable apartment and hope that it ended up being close to whatever school I would eventually be placed in. She recognized my anxiety and fears and promised to pose the questions she had unsatisfactorily answered to somebody with more insight. Again, I waited for days until finally, 5 days before I was to give my answer, she emailed me with responses to my lingering questions.
The email began with an apology for failing to get back with me sooner (in the mean time, I had sent 4 emails throughout this time asking for somebody to please reach out and help answer some questions for me), she had been traveling for work. She informed me that the matriculation team had given my name to a Detroit corps member and inquired as to whether she had contacted me (she hadn’t). She answered one of my major lingering questions, which was whether the Americorps grant that would help repay some of my outstanding student loans with the completion of my 2-year-agreement was guaranteed (it wasn’t). She did clarify that housing would be provided during pre-induction and induction, and that I would go straight to institute from induction. I was also informed that between my acceptance and induction, it would be my responsibility to cover travel to and from New Orleans to interview with potential employers from various districts until I was hired. Not to fret, though, these costs would be somewhat offset by the $1,500 no-interest loan I was offered as transitional funding. (At this point, I should mention that a plane ticket from Detroit to New Orleans was $500).
While I had been anxiously awaiting further information from TFA, I had also been compiling as much information as possible from other sources, including personal blogs of former corps members and non-TFA teachers that were teaching in regions that had strong TFA influences. I had read some awful accounts of ‘holier than thou’ attitudes from corps members, and even a shocking declaration from a teacher in Chicago that said while public schools were being closed and teachers being laid off in droves, TFA was throwing multi-million dollar fundraisers and vowing to open new charter schools in the very same neighborhoods in which public schools were being destroyed. What!? Never had I been so confused and anxious as to whether I would be making the right decision in joining ranks with the organization.
I reached out to several professors from my college and one trusted advisor confirmed what I had been afraid of. He was a retired Detroit public schools teacher and former union leader, as well as a professor at my university. In no uncertain terms he told me that even with my traditional teacher training and student teaching experiences, nothing could prepare me for the challenges I would face in an inner-city school district. He agreed with Teach for America’s mission of closing the achievement gap (because what educated person with hopes for educational equality would not?) but was not shy in expressing his opinion that there was no way this could be done through inexperienced “teachers” creating a revolving door effect due to 2 year commitments. As any new teacher will soon find out, your first few years of teaching are simply not going to be your most effective as a teacher. To plunge in to environments in which students need consistency and experience more than ever with little to no experience in classroom management and strategies is simply a bad plan. I was almost certainly convinced, Teach for America was not what I thought it was, and I couldn’t let myself be a part of it.
So, it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I responded to Jessica and informed her that while I appreciated her response, I was leaning toward declining the offer. I was straightforward and honest with my reasons, and let her know that I was unwilling to risk displacing veteran teachers, and that I had read a lot of negative experiences from former corps members.
I informed her that if there were a possibility of my being placed in a region in which there were legitimate teacher shortages I may reconsider, but that I knew she had made it clear that regional reassignments were only made in extreme circumstances. Her response was to caution me not to take everything I read at face value, and to consider who was writing the articles and what they had to gain or lose. In an attempt to reassure me, she conceded that New Orleans was in fact a controversial region for education, but that TFA was attempting to provide a source of highly qualified teachers to affect change in a way that traditional public school systems had failed. She offered to find out more about specific teacher shortages in the region to ease some of my fears about displacing established teachers, as well as offered to connect me with non-TFA leaders in education that were working in the New Orleans region.
I accepted this offer and asked her please to do so, although I was skeptical with the deadline being only several days away. I anxiously awaited these further connections so I could feel as though I had done everything possible to inform my decision. No further contact ever came from Jessica, or from any non-TFA educational leaders. Although, I do feel that I must mention an email I received about a week after I declined the offer from a New Orleans corps member offering to answer any questions I might have and aid in my decision. I thanked him and told him I had declined the offer, to which he responded, “I knew I shouldn’t have procrastinated”. On April 30th, the day before I was set to walk across the stage and receive my teaching degree, I declined the offer to join Teach for America. I had made peace with my decision and told myself that I was doing the right thing. My goal was to find a teaching position that I knew in my heart was right for me, and would be one in which I could be the best person for the job. That simply would not have been the case if I had thrust myself upon the high-needs student population in a place like New Orleans.
As many fellow bloggers and former corps members have already pointed out, the model for “teacher preparation” used by Teach for America is simply inadequate. As my trusted professor advised me, despite my years of training and months of student teaching experiences, I could never be prepared for what awaited me in my potential future classroom had I accepted the TFA position. Here’s what I learned student teaching for Kindergartners: despite my 7 years of college, 2 years of experience as a teacher aide, and 4 months of student teaching prior to student teaching for Kindergarten, there were days when those 5 year-olds had me on the ropes! It took the support and encouragement of my cooperating teacher and the sharing of her effective management strategies to even wrangle a group of upper-middle class, happy and well-fed Kindergartners on their best day. How could I ever think I could move to an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, with what was sure to be little to no support from Teach for America, if my matriculation experience was any indication, and expect to gain the respect and effectively teach a population of students who maybe didn’t even have enough food to eat?
I believe that Teach for America has some great goals; it absolutely is imperative that all America’s children have the opportunity to receive an education and maximize their potential as humans and future world citizens. However, the best way to prepare our students for the future is to set the best possible example. Are we setting the best example by offering our neediest students poorly-trained and unprepared ‘teachers’ who will leave them after a short two-year stint to further their own careers and lives? Our children need teachers who are there for the right reasons, with the right training, and the right support systems. So I say to you, if you came across Teach for America because you wanted to make a difference in the world, I fully support you in your decision to go out and make that difference! I just beg you to do it the right way; decide what you want to do, and fully prepare yourself to do it in the most effective way possible that will make you proud of yourself for achieving your goals and setting a positive example.
I teach because it is the only thing that matters. TFA offered a guaranteed teaching position as the head of my own classroom during a time in my career when there are not many people who may do the same. It would have been so easy for me to accept the position, and job security, as well as loan forbearance and a possible grant to further my education. It would have been easy, but it would have been wrong. So here I sit, in metro Detroit, subbing day-to-day and filling out teaching applications by the dozens. I have a job interview for a teaching position for which there are 1200 applicants. Will I get the job? Almost certainly not. Will I spend the next year or two day-to-day subbing and forging a name for myself in the local districts? Almost certainly. Will I do so with the knowledge that every day I sub gives me valuable classroom management experience and a greater understanding of student needs and how best to relate to individual children? You’d better believe it. Doing what’s right is very rarely what is easy, but you just might find you’re a stronger and better person for it in the end. I appreciate your taking the time to read my ramblings, and I hope I have helped at least one struggling mind out there!