Is Teach for America working?

This past weekend the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” series considered the question: Is Teach for America working? Responses ranged from “It changed my life” to “No” to “If anything, they work to hard.” But the opinion piece that caught my eye was “A Glorified Temp Agency” by University of Texas professor Julian Vazquez Heilig. Essentially, Heilig makes the argument that “more than 80 percent of [TFA] recruits leave for graduate school or another career before their fourth year.” He explains how these teachers “see a teaching stint with Teach for America as simply a résumé builder” and how TFA “is a revolving door of inexperienced teachers for the students who most need a highly qualified one.”

I have heard this criticism before (the prize for most hilarious goes to the Onion’s point/counterpoint article titled “My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate a New Generation of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have a Real Teacher?”) and it really rankles me. Here’s why:

The problem of educational inequity is caused by a multitude of factors: poverty, poor healthcare, lack of nutrition, underperforming schools, etc. It makes sense that the solution to this problem will be multifaceted as well – there is no silver bullet for the achievement gap. In my mind, we need as many people as possible working towards inventing and implementing various solutions. So when I hear education professors taking education non-profits to task for not doing enough it kind of feels like cannibalism.

I’m not sure if TFA is “working,” or even what that might look like, but I do know it worked for me. I fell in love with teaching the first time I stood in front of my own students on August 25, 2003. I knew, deep in my heart, I was doing at that moment what I would do for the rest of my life. That being said I had (have?) many, many doubts along the way. I did not want to be a teacher because it seemed like settling for 3rd place (not even 2nd!). Our society thinks teaching is really un-sexy and certainly a waste of time if you have any brains or motivation to speak of at all (“Those who can’t do, teach”). Even my own grandmother said, “It’s just that I had such high hopes for you!” and she WAS a teacher herself!

Within Teach for America I found a group of exceptional people who were not only interested in teaching, they loved teaching. People spoke about teaching in hushed tones of reverence and absolutely poured themselves out to be better teachers. As much as I “do my own thing” regardless of what others think, I believe having a community of smart, accomplished people who really value teaching has strengthened my own commitment to the profession. As Arne Duncan said, “Teach for America made teaching cool again.” Add to that the countless resources, examples, role-models, and friends I have encountered through Teach for America and there is no question about the role the organization has played in my life – I am a 10 year classroom teacher because of TFA. Without it, I would be doing something much, much less cool.

Thoughts about TFA?


One thought on “Is Teach for America working?

  1. Laura Nikstad says:

    TFA is a sticky topic for me too Abby. How can I speak badly about an organization that helped me find the profession I love (nay, my calling)? And yet, I think TFA is not a substitute for major structural changes that are needed in how students of poverty are educated in America. While many call for longer commitments, I wonder if I would have balked at more than two years initially. I remember in my third year of teaching hearing an NPR story about bright young Harvard grads talking about how excited they were to start TFA in the fall-all while I glamorously washed lab dishes at 7:00 am. I had to laugh at my own illusions of grandeur and the true knowledge that I still wouldn’t want to do any other job. Period.

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