Teach For America: #Avoid or #Apply?

Julia Ben-Asher

Last week, a new hashtag spread over Twitter like wildfire, perpetuating a years-old controversy.

#ResistTFA, a campaign to build resistance to Teach For America [TFA], a national teaching organization that places recent college grads of many majors and backgrounds in under-resourced urban and rural public and charter schools for a commitment of two years, was tweeted by many accounts last week, in the hopes to get attention to the unfairness of TFA’s program to both its participants and the students.

Teach For America is a well-known name around campus. Last year, Teach For America was the largest employer of Lafayette’s Class of 2013 at 14 students. This also placed Lafayette as contributing the fifth highest number of graduates to the corps in the small college category, tied with Holy Cross, DePauw, Grinnell, Whitman, and Williams. The closeness between Lafayette and TFA is clear past the numbers: representatives of the organization regularly attend career fairs and are stationed in Cosmic Cup and Gilbert’s for hours at a time to hold student informational interviews.

Given TFA’s apparent success in working with the College, did the controversy that #ResistTFA represents reverberate here on campus or with our graduates?

Brad Bormann ‘14 was accepted into the program through the early application track as a junior. A biology major, he will be teaching general science in a classroom of anywhere from fifth through twelfth grade in Newark, NJ. He will be assigned to an exact classroom towards the end of the summer.

Fellow senior Sophie Richards had been struck by the way TFA reached out to “people who are ‘leaders,’” she said. “I could do this,” she had thought, having had several leadership roles on campus, and began the TFA application process a few months after Bormann. As a mechanical engineering major with the knowledge to be S.T.E.M. teacher but little experience in front of a classroom, she arrived to the final round of the three-part application process to find most of her competition’s backgrounds bursting with education classes and teaching internships, generally from larger universities. The five-minute lesson each applicant was required to prepare was nearly second nature to many of them.

“One girl sang a song that she’d done with her [internship] classroom,” Richards said. “And there I was, writing numbers on the board.”

“Looking back now, I think it’s a good thing [that I didn’t get in],” Richards said. She is currently enrolled in an education psychology class, but due to the rigorous engineering curriculum leaving little room for other classes, that is the only education-related class she will graduate with under her belt. When this common lack of teaching experience is paired with TFA’s summer institutes, where corps members take classes and co-teach in a summer school classroom for several weeks before coming into their full roles as individual teachers, and which, according to many corps members are not effective when taken without some previous teaching knowledge, some corps members are left feeling unprepared and lost. Herein lies one of the major points to the #ResistTFA argument: inexperienced teachers’ presence is not fair to the children in their classroom.

“It’s putting the least experienced teachers in the neediest places,” Richards said.

Richards is continuing to apply to other teaching positions, but this time is focusing on programs in independent schools with stronger mentorship for first-year teachers–which she believes will be more helpful to her and better for her students.

Bormann says after deciding TFA was an ideal program for him as an underclassman with experience as a biology SI, he has “never looked back.” But, he acknowledges the other side of the argument.

“The education system is clearly not working, and what do you throw at it? Kids, right out of undergrad. Innately, that seems dysfunctional,” he said. “But truth is, the system is broken and the teachers there aren’t good, and what you have is a pool of talented, high-achieving new teachers. They just went through 15 years of being in a classroom–they know what a successful classroom looks like. If you have a passion for it, you’ll be good.”

Several Lafayette TFA corps members agree.

Jiselle Peralta ‘13 has been teaching in a charter school in New York City through TFA for about six months. She had completed a shadowing and teaching internship at same school the summer before her senior year and, “hooked,” was hired by the charter school, then by TFA, soon after. She recalls her summer institute as “really rigorous,” “awesome,” and “the most beneficial thing I received from TFA.”

“I have my bad days,” she said. “But then you have those ‘aha moments’. [The organization] can’t possibly please everybody; I take complaints with a grain of salt… so many people do it to figure out what they want to do with their lives and they might have a negative experience because their heart isn’t in it. Your heart needs to be in it.”

Stefanie Mircovich ‘10 spent two years teaching first and second grade in a large Baltimore public school.

“Your first year is such a wash-out that your kids don’t grow as much as they could with a more effective teacher,” she acknowledged, especially considering how many kids in the classroom are already years behind in reading and math. “The summer program…not helpful…something needs to change in the future.” She has ideas to improve TFA, including making it a three-year program, with one entire year of training rather than a few weeks.

“But [with] that said,” Mircovich said, “TFA brings in people into the field of education who wouldn’t otherwise be involved–really smart, talented people–and in the long term, it’s overall a really beneficial program.”

Mircovich’s contract with TFA has been over for two years.

“It’s hard to judge a program when you’re in the middle of it,” she added. “I think… there are a lot of long term benefits… and it kind of changes your life path but you can only see that a few years out.” While she could see herself eventually returning to teaching, after coming out of TFA, she wanted to be involved with education in ways outside of the classroom. She currently works with a data systems company in special education.

John Squarcia, a Lafayette professor of education as well as a retired high school teacher and principal who spent years hiring first-year teachers, has seen many classes of his own students go on to be teachers and TFA corps members and is an supporter of the program.

“Teaching takes someone who can accept criticism and who has a passion for what they’re doing,” he said. Whether they are applying because teaching is “what they’re really interested in, or because it’s something [they] can do before graduate school or a private sector job.”

Concerning the #ResistTFA argument, he said, “You didn’t hear these comments six or seven years ago when there was such a shortage of teachers in urban schools… because they were taking jobs no one else wanted. Now, there’s somewhat of a surplus… so it’s getting more competitive. You’re getting some of the best people out of the best colleges to give teaching a chance.”

“I think that’s great.”