Teach for America
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
It’s on the dining hall tables, plastered on the walls, and bombarding your inboxes: Apply to the Corps! Whether you support Teach For America or not, it is impossible to deny that their marketing campaign at the Claremont Colleges is anything but aggressive. But do students actually understand what TFA is? Do they know what they are getting themselves into?
According to their website, TFA is an organization consisting of leaders who work in education, policy and other professions to ensure that children in the United States can receive an excellent education. Founded in 1990, the organization boasts nearly 28,000 alumni, and claims that their “corps members help their students achieve academic gains equal to or larger than teachers from other preparation programs.” TFA recruits graduates from over 600 colleges and universities across the country to enter the classrooms of low-income communities, giving them the opportunity to make a direct impact on future generations.
Once recruited, TFA corps members are sent out for two years to one of forty-six low-income areas across the nation, where they are placed in classrooms with students ranging from pre-K through 12th grade. Before they start teaching, however, they are subject to an intensive five-week training program in conjunction with any additional training from their particular region.
This training involves mastering academic content, receiving feedback from TFA instructional coaches, rehearsing lessons and constantly reflecting on their experiences. TFA’s website emphasizes that leadership, classroom management and literacy development are among the top elements to instill in its corps members throughout the course of the training period.
David Omenn, TFA’s Vice President of Recruitment for the West Coast and upper Midwest, describes the intense training period as, “the most fun [he] never want[s] to have again.” Omenn, who works in the Los Angeles-based TFA office, joined the TFA corps in the Houston area in 2005. A Political Science major from the University of Michigan, Omenn had worked in Washington, D.C. the summer before his senior year of college, but had felt disempowered by the position’s lack of responsibility and impact, a stark contrast with his experiences with TFA.
“Students are capable; they just need the opportunity… An individual teacher can make a difference,” says Omenn.
Placed in a school of about 600 students, 85 percent of which were Latino, Omenn had serious obstacles to overcome. Not only did he have to master the classroom setting, but he also had to reduce the animosity from his fellow educators. Some professionals felt that it was unfair for Omenn to hold such a high position considering his lack of experience in the workforce.
To overcome the animosity, Omenn stresses the importance of corps members earning the respect of their colleagues. He often sat and observed classes taught by the other teachers in the school, and sought to create solidly positive relationships in his diverse surroundings.
Meagan Biwer, who graduated from CMC in 2012, is currently teaching at TC Howe High School in Indianapolis through TFA. She teaches 7th grade science and 8th grade biology, and is generally pleased with her experience so far.
Biwer’s 6-week program in Phoenix and additional training with the company managing her school were “insane.”
However, she says that, “[The training] was more useful than I gave it credit for at the time, nothing really ever prepares you for walking into a teaching job in an underperforming school,” says Biwer.
Biwer receives a substantial amount of support from her fellow corps members in Indiana, and despite her busy schedule, she recognizes the significant merits of the program.
Omenn strongly emphasizes the value of TFA for graduates of the Claremont Colleges, as he believes that Claremont students have a passion for justice and leadership that can align them perfectly with TFA’s work. He notes that the last few years in particular have produced a steady increase of applicants from the West Coast, especially from the Pacific Northwest region.
Though most applicants from the Los Angeles area come from some of the larger state universities, Omenn highlights the power of Claremont students, citing their “tight-knit community” as a valuable asset for their development as teachers and leaders. For him, the best teachers operate as strong leaders.
This last point, however, has become controversial over past years, as it alludes to the paradox in TFA’s mission of whether TFA is striving to create the best teachers or the best leaders. Though the common intuition is that it should create teachers and education administrators, TFA is clearly focusing more on the big picture.
Diana Seder, Director of the Claremont McKenna College Career Services Center, is particularly interested in the TFA program and its influence both on students currently at the 5Cs and the recent graduates who participate in the program. Seder compares TFA to the Peace Corps in that it exposes young potential lead- ers to the educational inequities that plague the nation, especially in some of the higher priority areas including Detroit and the Mississippi Delta. However, she does not consider it an educational organization so much as it is a political organization. In her opinion, TFA is not designed to create teachers.
Omenn claims that there is a very high retention rate for TFA corps members. He states that 90 percent of them finish the entire two-year pro- gram and over a third remain in the educational sector. However, an April 2012 article from the Florida Times-Union brings up some of the problems with such a short-term and open-ended program. According to the article, about 100 Teach for America recruits arrived to work as teachers in the Duval County Public School District this year, but it is likely that as few as 11 of them will still be teaching in traditional public schools five years from now.
While it is admirable for these young corps members to set aside their careers for two years to help low-income communities, the long-term impact on the schools can sometimes dissuade districts from accepting TFA into their educational systems.
The Florida Times-Union article states that some school district officials say, “the financial investment in recruitment and training, plus the replacement cost when those teachers leave, makes the program impractical given the limited funding for education.”
Despite the controversies of the program, Seder emphasizes that TFA alumni who finish the program are offered exceptional benefits in terms of graduate school. For many graduate programs, TFA corps members can receive waived application fees and two-year deferrals, while some other programs even offer partial and full scholarships in addition to academic credits.
These partnerships have been made with graduate schools in a wide range of fields, including business, law, education, medicine, policy, and science and technology. This then takes us back to the paradox: should students use TFA as a means to enter the educational system, or should they use it as a stepping-stone to pursue careers that are not necessarily related?
This is not to say that Seder disregards TFA’s ef- forts. Overall, she considers it to be a successful program. Although the vast majority of TFA experiences are good, there have been various horror stories over the years. Many students have faced situations that they simply could not handle. This is a possibility that students need to be aware of as they consider joining TFA.
Seder does note that applicant numbers at CMC have dropped tremendously this year, perhaps as a result of the overly aggressive recruiting policy that TFA has adapted at the Claremont Colleges. Student leaders at CMC receive con- stant messages from TFA, even if they have already accepted a position after graduation or have declined more than once.
Seder is unsure of where the email lists are coming from since the Career Services Center does not provide any information about students to TFA. The overall effect of this, however, is that some seniors, already considering TFA as a backup plan after graduation, are turned off by both the horror stories and the persistent emails from the organization and decide not to apply
Despite all of this, and the fact that the number of CMC applicants has recently declined, TFA is hardly unpopular at the Claremont Colleges. CMC Career Services listed TFA as one of its top recruiters last year, and despite the low early application numbers there will undoubtedly be a considerable number of students applying from all 5 colleges this year.
Elena Lopez CMC ’15 is aware of the negatives of the program, but also wants to enter the educational sector and make a difference.
After seeing the movie Waiting for Superman, Lopez decided that she was extremely interested in education and teaching. Her interest for the TFA program was fueled by many of her high school teachers who had been through the pro- gram.
Biwer says, “The most difficult aspects of TFA are what make TFA what it is — I don’t have a background in education, but TFA is designed especially for those of us lacking experience. It is what it is.”
In the end, TFA has its positives and negatives, but the important thing for students to remem- ber is that this two-year commitment is not something to be taken lightly. For some, the ob- stacles of the low-income communities, diffi- culty in fitting in with the community, lack of long-term impact, or frustration at the system may simply be too much. For others, however, it might just be the experience of a lifetime.