Last year a girl announced in class that her friend sitting near her had just been accepted into the competitive program Teach For America (TFA). I looked at the newly admitted girl in her bright yellow rain boots and rolled my eyes. This girl was going to get eaten alive. Not only did I doubt that she would make it through her two-year stint with TFA, but I also had major qualms about the program.
TFA, founded in 1990, promotes educational equality and excellence. The TFA motto sums it up nicely: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” The non-profit pursues this goal by recruiting and training top graduates as teachers for America’s neediest schools. The idea is that these graduates will have a positive impact on classrooms and the field of education.
Given my hostile-at-best reaction to rain boot girl, you might wonder what inspired me to even consider joining the TFA 2011 corps. Initially, I only thought about TFA in macro terms, making it easy to disregard the program**.** However, a few people challenged me to examine TFA in micro terms, allowing me to see how well the program suited me.
Through early October, I was doing a great job ignoring TFA emails. Then, at the end of a student group meeting, the boy I was meeting with asked if I was applying for TFA. As fate would have it, he was a TFA Campus Campaign Coordinator (CCC). I maintained my “no means no” stance and told him I would love to teach but I did not want to apply. Undaunted, he shared how he thought my experiences and personality would fit well with TFA.
That conversation deeply challenged my perceptions of TFA. Most of my assessments had focused on TFA’s broader implications: its possible negative impact on education reform and the teaching profession (would we ever seriously consider Doctors for America?). I was also worried that there were many over-zealous graduates bounding into TFA without thinking about realities of the job; not every teacher is going to be the protagonist of the next *Freedom Writers. *
**The CCC reframed TFA for me. Rather than thinking about whether TFA is the best approach to education reform, I started thinking about why I am passionate about teaching and education. I also thought about what I would need to be a successful teacher in terms of training, continued development, and community. The more I investigated TFA, the more I realized that it aligned with my personality: disciplined, analytical, and intensely passionate.
In talking with the recruiter and several TFA alums, I learned more about the program’s community and methods. TFA emphasizes data-driven teaching. Previously, I had thought of data-driven education as a series of standardized exams that influenced district and state education but were essentially meaningless in the context of the classroom. And yet, the value of classroom-level data is obvious because it allows teachers to correctly identify where each student is and then respond swiftly. I could see myself as a nimble TFA teacher.
One of my concerns with respect to teaching was that I would be isolated. I had heard that when teachers leave school and start working, they enter the black box of their classroom and receive minimum feedback. However, TFA has program directors who regularly visit and observe teachers, thereby providing additional feedback to help with teacher and classroom development. The community of TFA corps members would also be a shield against the risk of isolation: it would consist of people having experiences that paralleled mine. These peers could help me plan lessons, search for classroom management tricks, and adjust to a new city.
Last year, when I belittled rain boot girl, I did so because I believed she had not really evaluated TFA, and I failed to look beyond its idealistic mission and prestige. I wanted her to evaluate the day-to-day reality of her commitment. Ironically enough, my initial decision to not apply for TFA suffered from the same faults. In evaluating TFA- programmatically or personally, we must temper idealism with critical analysis, while still carefully avoiding cynicism. As Mark Twain observed, “there is no sadder sight than a young pessimist.”