Teach for America: A two-year crash course

By Caitlin Huston, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2012

Applicants to Teach for America hear about how the program looks for the best and brightest in student leaders. They hear about how leadership has been carefully studied and proven to produce effective teachers in underprivileged districts in the country.

How long do you think TFA corps members should be required to teach at the schools?


Teach for America Central Tenets

  • Set big goals
  • Invest students and their families
  • Plan purposefully
  • Execute effectively
  • Continually increase effectiveness
  • Work relentlessly

What they hear less about is what happens when corps members actually enter the schools.

The past two years represent a peak in University applicants to TFA, with 461 students applying to the program in 2011 alone.

But complaints from former corps members have been aired in terms of training, a lack of support and a two-year teaching commitment that community leaders say doesn’t help schools in need.

How prepared are the corps members?

After a five-week intensive training period in one of Teach for America’s institutes across the country, corps members are sent to their placement schools to teach.

The corps members have had, on average, one hour of classroom experience every day during the five weeks, in addition to workshops and coaching from peers or TFA staff members.

For many corps members, this is their first training in formal education.

In 2011, only 4 percent of incoming corps members were education majors, while 34 percent majored in social sciences.

The inexperience that comes with the program is something that TFA founder and CEO Wendy Kopp called an “incredible advantage” for the program in a Jan. 19 speech she gave at the University.

“One of the reasons Teach for America works is because we do take people who ask crazy questions and do crazy things that anyone who knows what they’re doing would never do,” Kopp said.

But some feel that entering an inner city classroom after five weeks of training does a disservice to the students.

Keith Johnson, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the union representing Detroit Public School teachers, said he feels TFA members entering into a classroom “marginalizes the profession” since other teachers have to go through formal training before they can teach.

“Why should we settle for someone that’s providing instruction simply because they were a math whiz or a science whiz or even a foreign language whiz?” Johnson asked.

Former corps members admitted to feeling unprepared for the initial transition into the classroom.

University alum Mike Dobbs, a 2007 Washington D.C. corps member, said he struggled to teach in classrooms where he had to purchase his own copy paper.

“A month is not enough to know how to set (a classroom) up, particularly in a place where resources are scarce,” Dobbs said.

University alum Rachel Rickard, a 2011 Baton Rouge corps member who left her assigned school after two months, said she faced unexpectedly large classroom sizes and was unprepared to manage 20 or 21-year-old high school students who were so close to her own age.

“The discipline was something that I struggled with,” Rickard said. “And when you have 40 kids in the classroom, everything that I struggled with was magnified.”

Rickard said she was under extenuating circumstances, however, because she was initially hired at a middle school but then got laid off before the school year began. Therefore, she had to quickly search for a new job at a high school.

But not all corps members felt unprepared.

University alum Joel Berger, a current 2010 Detroit corps member, said while he felt nervous about entering a new job, he could not imagine better preparation.

“I feel like I was as prepared as I could have been going into that first week,” Berger said.

During her talk at the University, Kopp further defended the criticism about corps members’ inexperience, lauding their leadership against the experience of traditional teachers.

“I really question the theory out there that the answer to this problem is to recruit veteran teachers in high income communities,” Kopp said. “I just think there are a lot of misconceptions out there.”

Entering the classrooms

Once in the schools, some corps members struggled under what they felt was a lack of support from Teach for America.

Dobbs said he felt he wasn’t getting support from TFA after his first year because his students weren’t meeting the standardized test results expected by the program.

“They focused on that test result and less on that teacher as a human being,” he said.

Dobbs said he also felt pressure under the program’s tenet of “pursue relentlessly,” one of the program’s six principles of leadership, to work around the clock for his classroom.

“I believe the word ‘Orwellian’ comes to mind,” Dobbs said. “I can’t help but think of reading '1984,' and all of the slogans and group speech.”

During her speech at the University, Kopp acknowledged that corps members sometimes get lost in the bureaucracy of TFA. It’s something she said she wished she had re-evaluated before the program expanded five years ago.

“I think we have lots of systems and lots of metrics and lots of goals and lots of accountability at Teach for America and (we’ve) invested a lot in that, and it took us far forward, but I think I would rebalance the energy that has gone around that,” Kopp said, adding that she would have invested the energy in “culture building” instead.

In Louisiana, Rickard was the only foreign language teacher in a school newly taken over by the state. The lack of support was one of the reasons she said she left the school and TFA after two months.

“There was very, very little support both from my school and from TFA in south Louisiana,” Rickard said.

Rickard added that she was told in training not to tell other teachers that she with TFA because some teachers looked down on the program for having only a two-year commitment.

“One thing that they advised us pretty early on was not to advertise the fact that we were here with TFA,” Rickard said.

University alum Brittany Turner, a 2010 Los Angeles corps member, also said she felt that other teachers thought of her and other corps members differently because of their membership in TFA.

“Other teachers had a stigma against us because we were Teach for America,” Turner said. “That definitely happened.”

Berger added that the initial training he received wasn’t the extent of his own learning.

“I get ongoing support even now from Teach for America that I consider sort of my introduction into teaching,” Berger said.

Two years to teach: beneficial or just a “pit stop?”

While TFA says it’s committed to reshaping education, some question the program's level of commitment because each TFA corps member is only bound to a two-year teaching tenure.

In Detroit, Johnson said he feels the two-year commitment doesn’t help the schools, as TFA teachers are not tied to the profession.

“They come here to just do two years, to have something to put on their résumé,” Johnson said. “Then they go on to their real careers. We need people who want to make teaching a career, not a pit stop.”

Kopp said in an interview after her speech that TFA was designed as a two-year program so it could attract college seniors while remaining competitive with other corporations and organizations that also ask for two-year commitments.

“College seniors think two years is the rest of their life,” Kopp said. “And we see that if we even move to a three-year commitment, our applicant pool would drop in half.”

She added that out of 24,000 TFA alums, two thirds are still working in education, either in the classroom or as administrators.

For Turner, the Los Angeles corps member, the length of commitment was part of the attraction.

“I thought Teach for America was a great thing to do in between college and law school,” said Turner, who is now deciding between attending law school and continuing to work for TFA.

Others, like Berger, say they’re now seriously considering teaching professionally.

“I’m really committed to being a teacher for more than two years,” Berger said. “I really want to get good at it.”

Though Dobbs has completed the Teach for America program, he still teaches at an elementary school in Virginia. While he had problems with the program, he says its two-year commitment is not a problem in the face of larger educational issues.

“The rate of turnover is so high that part of Teach for America’s mandate is to put highly motivated — to some extent brainwashed — teachers in the classroom who are going to work hard, and at the very least, be there.”