The night before the Teach for America (TFA) summer institute — commencing virtually for the first time due to the pandemic — I lay in my childhood bed at my parents’ house with tears in my eyes. On a whim, I typed “TFA criticisms” into the search bar and read article after article of valid, powerful critiques of the organization that I — bright-eyed and full of naive optimism — had just committed to for the next two years.
As a junior in college, TFA’s “mission” of ending educational inequity appealed to students like myself: hardworking and passionate about the intersection of social justice and education. But shortly after I started the program, I realized I was unprepared for the two years that lie ahead.
Cut to my third year in the classroom, and I still wrestle with what led me to Teach for America in the first place. I’ve oscillated between blaming myself for not doing more to learn about the widely available critiques of TFA and forgiving myself for falling prey to what felt like an aggressive recruitment strategy.
As TFA cuts a quarter of its staff after reporting its lowest recruitment numbers in 15 years, I feel angry. Angry about feeling hopelessly underprepared after being told that my leadership skills would make me a good teacher; angry for my students, who deserved a much better education than I was able to give them for those two years; and angry that I’m now forced to confront what feels most shameful: that while I joined TFA to be a part of the solution, I was actually a part of the problem perpetuated by the organization.
Parachuting In, Unprepared for Duty
During the first quarter of the 2020-2021 academic year, I needed to make my first-ever parent call. One of my students, Justin, was consistently unresponsive during Zoom classes, failing to engage with classwork or respond in the chat. With his mom’s cell phone number in hand and a sick feeling in my stomach, I called my own mother.
“I’m so nervous,” I said. “What if she yells at me?”
In my experience, when kids weren’t doing well, blame often fell on the teacher. I was anxious to be on the receiving end of complaints from Justin’s mother about how I wasn’t doing enough to engage her child.
My TFA training didn’t set me up to communicate effectively with families. Neither did my experience as a student. I grew up attending Title I schools in north central West Virginia that were mainly comprised of white students from middle- and low-income families. As a student, I didn’t attend a school that modeled healthy dynamics between adults and learners; instead, I witnessed teachers who power-tripped and students who taunted teachers for their inability to discipline them. In teacher training, I heard horror stories about parents who refused to take accountability. I carried these experiences with me into my classroom.
Once I was in my placement school, the families of my Black, Latino, and white Middle Eastern students, a majority of whom spoke a language other than English at home, deferred to me in a way that felt undeserved, almost as if I was perceived to be a savior that could parachute in and fix all their child’s problems.
I never once had a parent challenge me over an incident that occurred in class. More often than not, I was taken wholesale at my word. I felt a vast power imbalance between myself and my students’ families, for which I felt unprepared and uncomfortable. This power imbalance is one that is inherent to membership in TFA, where college students are enticed to move cities for an impactful post-grad experience and find themselves embedded in low-income and disenfranchised communities, of which they have no knowledge.
When I eventually worked up the nerve to call Justin’s mom, I introduced myself through the Spanish interpreter and explained the situation. “Thank you so much for calling,” she said. “He just had surgery and he’s been pretty low energy. When I’m at work, I can’t check in with him. We can figure this out.”
This was the first of many moments realizing that TFA did not prepare me for the power dynamic that existed between students’ parents and me, and just how harmful my assumptions and expectations could be for the development of my students.
Unsustainable Practices Lead to Burnout and Turnover
Research shows that teacher retention is a core tenant of creating the stability students and communities deserve, particularly for schools that serve students from low-income families. But TFA schools often experience high turnover, with 27.8 percent of TFA members still teaching after five years, according to a large-scale, nationwide analysis of TFA teacher turnover administered by Dr. Morgaen L. Donaldson and Susan Moore Johnson from the University of Connecticut. While teacher pipeline programs such as TFA attempt to solve the teacher shortage in the short-term by guaranteeing schools a renewable resource in the form of new, freshly graduated teachers, retention issues remain. This begs an important question: When schools know that they’re on the receiving end of that supply, what need is there for meaningful, lasting change to the school’s culture or approach?
In my third year, I became one of the more senior content teachers at my small charter middle school — not senior in years spent teaching, but in years at the school itself. From the beginning, I was told that I would be working close to 60 hours a week. When I quickly found that that was untenable for me, an energetic 21-year-old, I wondered how anyone could possibly make it through more than a year.
The Teach for America mindset is that a two-year commitment is enough to take a bite out of systemic inequities in education. Whenever I felt like I wasn’t putting in enough hours to make a difference, I felt immense guilt. When I felt immense guilt, I recommitted myself to spending more hours working. Then, I’d burn out after a couple of weeks and the cycle would begin again.
Young teachers who have recently graduated and are free of familial obligations are an ideal source of renewable energy for schools. When you know you will likely have to replace someone in two or three years, what incentive is there to ensure a continued work-life balance? When you know you’re replaceable, what’s a little burnout? Thanks to TFA, you can leave after a few years and they’ll find a new young, energetic and inexperienced person to fill the spot.
Is This the Best We Can Do?
Privilege, opportunity and happenstance led to my first encounter with TFA at a career fair during my junior year of college, where I was eventually recruited. For no reason other than I wanted a change of scenery, I found myself in Metro Nashville Public Schools. With barely a month’s worth of virtual training on lesson planning, pedagogy, content specific best practices, assessment, DEI work and classroom management, I was nowhere near prepared to teach a culturally and linguistically diverse sixth grade class completely online during the height of a pandemic.
I was in Nashville because I’d been told that I was needed by TFA and others in my echo chamber who congratulated me for making this “sacrifice.” I believed I could make meaningful change, yet armed with scant preparation and my own awakening to the harm I was doing, I was mired in guilt over my inability to do so.
The truth is, all teachers are operating within a broken system and my first few years in education have made me understand just how much it is like the Wild West. In December 2022, I decided to leave the classroom. I’m not sure whether I’ll be back, but I knew I needed time to reflect, take accountability for my actions and look after my mental health.
Still, I believe that TFA bears some responsibility for the harm that many corps members inevitably perpetuate. Plucking idealistic, energetic young adults with a savior complex straight from top colleges — many of whom have never taught and lack the cultural competency to adequately support students in their classroom — and telling them that they can make a significant difference in an environment heavily shaped by racism, classism and political strife sets them up for failure.
How can we reconcile the teacher shortage and the problems of an organization like TFA that supplies teachers? Who would fill in the gaps if organizations like TFA ceased to exist?
Until we have real, meaningful policy change to address things like teacher pay and retention, disparities that necessitate an organization like TFA will continue — and if TFA ceases to exist, another pipeline will take its place.
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