Just thinking about placing myself in the front of a classroom causes me anxiety. I can actually feel my throat closing up and the sweat building up on my forehead. I have never pictured myself as an educator, but I have many friends who have an unyielding passion for it, and who would all make for excellent teachers. Those who want to be teachers, the ones who share that same enthusiasm and truly want to educate our youth and make a difference in our nation, I warn, should not teach for America.
Teach For America (TFA), a nonprofit organization whose goal is to “eliminate education inequity in America,” was founded by Wendy Kopp in 1989. Kopp, a graduate of Princeton University, studied the education system in America in college and created the nonprofit organization as her thesis. One year later, her idea came to fruition, and TFA began with just 500 members.
This past fall, TFA sent over 10,000 corps members into classrooms for the first time. And TFA hopes to continue to expand to 13,000 members within the next few years.
These bright young leaders, most of them fresh out of college and eager to change the world, start the corps with a five-week intensive training program. Upon completion of the training program, TFA promises the corps members that they will be ready to teach in classrooms on their own, and that they will have acquired the necessary skills and mindset for teaching students across all levels of performance.
It also promises a competence for handling demanding and troubling situations within the school districts and communities in which they are teaching. Some of those communities are a few of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the United States.
But the intensive training program is merely intensive by name and description. Former TFA corps members have shared their own negative experiences during the training program.
One former member, Olivia Blanchard, wrote in an article published in The Atlantic in September 2013, “Personally, I taught two 90-minute classes per week, a far cry from the 10 hours per week described in the publicity materials — and “experienced teachers” usually meant new TFA alumni with two years of classroom experience.”
The training program promised is vastly different from the reality, and that reality is hardly adequate preparation for the difficulty of teaching in severely low-income areas, let alone for teaching at all.
After training concludes, the corps members enter their classrooms in the school and district chosen for them, for a contracted two years. Corps members can teach any subject, ranging from English to physics, and any age, ranging from pre-school to high school, including special education.
If the mission of TFA is to ensure that “all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” why are we allowing ill-prepared college graduates to be at the forefront of such an undertaking?
It seems like such a promising plan — recruit fresh, smart and energetic young adults to fix the education crisis in our country that long-trained and qualified teachers have been unable to do.
But unfortunately, those short two-year contracts lead to poor attrition rates, and the complacency of many of the new corps members, who think they can fix something much bigger than themselves, only further perpetuates the problem.
One community and civil rights activist from Chicago, Jitu Brown, feels that the way TFA is set up completely nullifies its purpose. Brown said, “They get their badge of honor teaching for two years and they leave.”
Though it is anticipated that the majority of the corps members will then go on to education reform where they can tackle the issues at their start, many do not, and the dangerously high numbers of uneducated youth in our country remain a steadfast concern.
Editor’s Note: Samson Widerman’s response column, “Response: Defending Teach For America,” can be found here.