At the beginning, middle, and end of each year, Teach For America sends a survey to its corps members and asks us to rate a number of areas with regard to our performance as teachers and the staff’s performance as guides to our professional development. While some of the questions change from survey to survey, a handful remain the same. One that stands out in my mind is how likely I would recommend TFA to a prospective candidate. I always save my survey responses, and, in this case, I have noticed that my response to this question has steadily declined over the past year and a half.
It’s ironic, too, because this past week a friend’s daughter, a very intelligent young woman at one of our nation’s top universities, asked me about the program and if it might be right for her. Last year, regardless of how she felt about education, I would have said “Look into it! It might be a fit for you!” Over the summer, I probably would have said “If you’re interested in teaching, this is a great way to get your certification.” But, this past week, my gut told me not to subject another human to the TFA sales pitch. Instead, I asked her about her interests and what she wants to do with her life. She sounded very passionate about education, so, since she is a math scholar, I referred her to several programs and highlighted the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship.
As I think about this devolution of my opinion of TFA, I realize that it has little to do with the core of the program. I think TFA is a decent program. It connects the dots for prospective teachers by finding them a job and enrolling them at a university to ensure they are eventually certified for the job. That’s amazing.
Also, considering the fact that it gets drawn into political crosshairs every day, I think the organization does an outstanding job staying non-partisan. Even when it comes to pro- and anti-union rhetoric TFA largely stays away from the political arena.
What irks me about the program is the idea that it is a movement. On every survey I am asked if I feel part of a movement. So I feel the need to say that I have studied movements, I have been part of a movement, and from my perspective Teach For America does not look or feel like a movement.
Movements have leaders who reach out and care for those within the movement. Throughout the entirety of my placement in TFA, I have felt like I have had to be the one to reach out and say that I wanted to be part of the corps experience. I have had to be the one to make the connection. Yet, there are people hired to run this “movement” and who should be connecting with corps members individually on a weekly basis if this is to be a true statement. Look at any community organizer and look at what they do. Whether they organize church groups or student groups, labor unions or block clubs, community organizers go out and connect with the people of their movement one-on-one and ask “How are you doing?” and “What can we do together to make things better?” Community organizers don’t simply send a blast email. Community organizers don’t simply come into a room and observe. They roll up their sleeves and they get to work alongside the people they aim to aid. If TFA is to make any corps member like me feel more personally connected in the future, then staff–in particular MTLDs (aka our mentor teachers)–must roll up their sleeves.
Maybe I am getting this wrong. Maybe the movement is supposed to be this corps of teachers creating communities within their schools. If that’s the case, then yes I organize events at my school and yes I connect weekly with my students’ parents, but I was busy getting my bearings in year one–learning about my school, university, families, new city, and teaching in general. Now, as I approach this period when I can organize my school community, I am practically out the door and I can tell you that there are plenty of other second-year corps members right there with me.
I am proud to be a teacher and I know that regardless of what I do next year I will be working to make this world a better place, but part of me feels like a victim of fraud. I did not expect my work in Milwaukee to be easy and I did not expect anyone to be sympathetic. I did, however, expect to be part of something bigger, and all I have seen is a skeleton that connects several working parts. Teach For America is good for putting great people in great places, but I have yet to see great things from the organization itself.