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Field Notes

Why You Shouldn’t Teach for America

by Brian Cabral

An essay from the Spring 2018 issue.

by Brian Cabral | Field Notes | Spring 2018

Images by Francesca Ott

In October of 2017, I had a phone conversation with a recruiter from Teach for America (TFA) and nearly landed a full-time job. After I answered her questions about my upbringing and current life interests, she assured me that my application would be accepted if I submitted one. “You’d be a great addition for us,” she said. I considered this. I thought about how great it would be to land this job and to know what I would be doing for at least a year after graduation. But then I remembered that it was TFA and decided not to pursue it at all.

My reluctance to work with TFA has been shared by other people before me, but there are also many who believe in the mission and service of the organization. What TFA members are offered for their one- to two-year service at first glance is unclear, but the gist I got from my conversation with the recruiter was that TFA provides a livable, full-time teacher salary dependent on which region you teach in, health insurance, and the opportunity to spearhead a classroom without having a teaching license or any prior teaching experience. The recruiter also promised a strong network of TFA alumni and connections to graduate or professional programs as bait to try and recruit me. This is a good opportunity, especially for young professionals who have just graduated from college. But this tempting offer fails to consider the impact that such an organizational model has on the students at the low-income, underfunded schools that TFA partners with. I think that most newly recruited teachers who just graduated college are more invested in the benefits offered by the organization than the national concern of teacher shortages in urban public schools across the country.

As someone who values education, I am conflicted in my opinion on TFA. On one hand, yes, it provides graduating seniors like me job security for one- to two-years where we are able to gain experience and use TFA as a stepping stone to progress into our careers. On the other hand, no, it does not benefit the low-income, racially segregated student demographics in the schools that TFA works with. I situate myself as both a potential participant of TFA and a former student at one of those schools.

I attended Social Justice High School (SOJO), a small public high school in Chicago, between 2010 and 2014. The school is primarily comprised of Latino/Hispanic and Black/African American students. During my junior year, I overheard my principal in conversation with the school counselor about partnering with Teach for America. She had said, if I remember correctly, “They out they damn minds.” She justified her reluctance to partner with TFA with the fact that in other public schools, the majority of the TFA teachers are white college graduates. This is concerning, because despite obtaining a college degree, many of the TFA teachers are not knowledgeable about the school culture or culturally aware of how to teach the racially and economically diverse student population found in the schools they end up in. Had TFA promised to bring teachers of color to SOJO, I still think my principal would have said no. She firmly stated that the lack of teaching or pedagogical training hindered rather than helped the learning and development of high school students. A combination of these interactions and my relationships with teachers in high school inform the perspective that I have towards TFA. My biggest suspicion of TFA is the distinction between what the organization is, and what it does, compared to what it claims to do. 

Teach for America prides itself on being a nonprofit organization that provides a useful service for communities in need. One of TFA’s values is service: It directly addresses the teacher shortages found in many public and charter schools across the country. It asks college graduates, who are presumed to be well-equipped to become teachers, to join in order to gain experience and skills necessary for other jobs. At the same time, their participation in TFA will have a positive impact on students in the schools. Because of this, many college seniors see TFA as a viable option after graduating because they earn a full-time salary, gain experience, and are able to pat themselves on the back for serving communities that need teaching positions filled. Why, then, are people so critical of TFA? Why did I push away the idea of working for them?

TFA only offers temporary employment. To my knowledge, based on interactions with the recruiter and peers who have done TFA, I understand that the most time you can spend with the organization is two years. If you opt in for a second year, you will most likely be placed at a different school than the one you were placed in for your first year. This means that the service you are providing for schools in need of teachers is short-term and fails to address long-term needs. TFA teachers gain meaningful experience and learn how to manage a classroom along the way, but this short-term stint benefits the teacher more than it does the student body. Shouldn’t the learning process and achievement of the students be what’s most important?

I have peers who made the decision to work for TFA, who refused to join or who are currently weighing the benefits and drawbacks of joining the organization. I spoke with some of them in order to gain insight on this matter; my intention was to figure out whether or not they share my concerns about TFA. One of them, who graduated from Brown University, opted into a second year with the organization in the Los Angeles region, and was placed in a different school than he had worked during his first year. As a product of public schools, he initially joined to give back to the school system that had helped him get into college. He shared that despite not being placed in the school that he wanted, he was servicing schools that needed teachers, and that was enough for him. When I asked him why he decided to opt for another year with TFA, his response was simple: job security. However, he does not intend to stay in the field of education after his second year with TFA; instead, he said he’d rather work at a think tank. Another peer who decided to join TFA in the summer of 2018 shared a similar sentiment about the ways that TFA uses “service” to lure college graduates into becoming teachers. But she’s also a firm believer that TFA is a good option for those who intend to remain in the field like she does. “It’s good experience to become better teachers,” she said. Another peer of mine who graduated from Oberlin in 2016 mentioned that he joined TFA not for its mission, but because it allowed him to teach without having to go to school for teaching; it will be at most two years of his life and then he gets to move on. Once again, mandating a short-term commitment benefits the teachers and not the students in the schools.

As part of my independent research, I interviewed young men of color who had attended SOJO at one point in their high school trajectory. In those interviews, I asked them about their interactions with teachers, and many of them talked about teachers who have worked at the school for at least four years. Most of them were able to name at least one teacher from SOJO that taught or mentored them throughout their time in high school. One of the young men praised teachers at SOJO who have been there for a long time: “I wouldn’t have been done with high school without them… they annoyed me, yeah, but they cared for me,” he said. Remember that SOJO did not partner with TFA, instead, all teachers were full-time employees under the Chicago Public School system. Many had prior experience with teaching or student teaching, and because of those experiences, these teachers were able to connect with SOJO students and witness their growth as they progressed through school. For short-term teachers, this experience and interaction with students is not possible.

Teach for America has been successful at recruiting short-term teachers for many public and charter schools across the country. I mean, they almost had me too. The organization will continue to exist and expand, but the reason why I decided not to take an offer from the TFA recruiter came after considering the adverse effects on the students. A friend of mine told me that TFA is transparent about their short-term model, which is a selling point for college graduates because many want to go on to do other things. Why not provide them with an opportunity to get experience, serve as teachers and role models, and then move on with their lives? I get this. But who is this truly benefiting? Certainly not the students. Sure, TFA teachers have positive interactions with the students, but are their students’ academic needs being met? How do you leverage the inexperience of TFA teachers with the fact that many of their students are low-income and/or students of color? Previous research by Pedro Noguera and others has shown that schools of this demographic struggle the most academically—having short-term teacher guidance will not help this matter. 

While TFA has made improvements over time, it is still unable to improve the educational inequality brought about by teacher shortages in public schools. Short-term teacher appointments and trainings do not prepare teachers for the classroom, and it is a faulty way of framing ‘service’ for college graduates. TFA must rethink its organizational model to consider privileging the impact on the students of the communities they are trying to serve, instead of the convenience it provides the teachers. Maybe then I would have considered Teach for America after college.