Teaching For America, Talking to Her Campus: The Inside Scoop on TFA

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With a job market at its tightest point in recent history and an influx of college students scrambling to find work after graduation, an unprecedented number of students are applying to go back to school—not just to learn, but to teach. Teach For America, the privately funded national teaching program that dispatches recent college grads to America’s most lacking inner-city and rural public schools, received 35,000 applications for its 3,800 teaching slots last year—a 42 percent increase in applicants from 2008. Yet while college grads across the country are swapping law school apps for teaching ones (more than 11 percent of seniors at Ivy League schools applied to TFA last year), the program has also sparked a national discussion on the effects of putting 20-something-year-olds who’ve just finished school themselves in some of America’s toughest classrooms. To understand what is drawing so many high-performing grads to the nation’s lowest performing schools, Her Campus sat down with two girls on both ends of the TFA cycle—one nearing the end of her two-year contract and another just about to begin. Hear their experiences racking up a teaching degree, some loans and a whole lot of stories and thoughts about the challenges and inequity in American education today.


Teacher For America, Memphis, 2010 Recruit
Age: 21 Hometown: Newton, Massachusetts University: Wesleyan University, class of 2010 Major: African American Studies She did what?: studied in Durban, South Africa for a semester, speaks (extremely) elementary Zulu Her Campus: So you’re headed to Memphis next fall to begin Teach For America. Any idea where and who you’ll be teaching? Miriam Leshin: I will be teaching math at a secondary school, so either high school or middle school … it will either be a charter or public school, in an under-resourced community. HC: Ever been to Memphis? Know anyone? Where will you be stationed and living? ML: I’ve never been … and know no one there, though an acquaintance from Wes [Wesleyan] is from there and very graciously gave me her family’s contact information, which is comforting. I’ll be living in an apartment somewhere, absolutely no idea where yet. We will see… HC: How would you describe TFA to someone who doesn’t really understand what it is? What about to someone who doubts the ability of a bunch of idealistic, fresh-out-of-college kids to teach in some of America’s poorest, most underachieving schools? ML: TFA recruits, trains and places mostly recent college graduates in under-resourced schools, with the dual goal of improving educational opportunities for the students and training the new teachers for careers in education, public service, etc. I heard an educational expert joke the other day that wealthy suburban schools would never take teachers with only six weeks of training. And that’s probably true. There is this idea that these lower-income schools can and should get these “lesser-trained” teachers. But that’s not to say that “idealistic, fresh-out-of-college kids” can’t make a difference in these communities. I think they can, but they/we/I have to be careful. You can’t go in expecting that you have all the knowledge and you are going to disseminate it to your students and your fellow teachers and your new community. It’s a mutual learning process and I think you have to expect to learn just as much from your students as you hope they will learn from you. HC: To backtrack a bit, how’d TFA get on your radar? When do you first remember hearing about the program? ML: When I was an underclassman, many of the seniors in my major, who I really admired and looked up to, were going into TFA. Then I did a teaching program called Breakthrough Collaborative in Atlanta two summers ago, and that put me in touch with a whole network of former and prospective TFA people. Many of my mentor teachers had done the program … Many of my fellow student-teachers were looking into it and now many of us are applying or are doing it next year. HC: What teaching experience do you have? What drew you to TFA and makes you want to teach? ML: So my major teaching experience was at Breakthrough, when I taught math and Spanish to rising 8th graders. Everyone says this, but it’s true: it was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I have done. Throughout that summer I constantly struggled with the idea of pursuing teaching as a career. Now that I have had some distance from the experience, however, I am starting to realize just how much I am attracted to both the idea and practice of teaching. I enjoy interacting with kids, and I enjoy taking complicated material and breaking it down into smaller, manageable and hopefully fun and engaging pieces. So I am starting to think that I might want to teach as a career, but I am starting with TFA to sort of test it out.
HC: Can you walk me through the application process? ML: You submit an initial application, which is short answers and essays, why you want to do TFA, how you are suited for the program, that kind of stuff. Then you hear back about either getting a phone interview, an in-person interview, or nothing. The in-person interview is an all-day session, during which you get to teach a sample lesson, do group activities, and have a one-on-one interview. It’s actually kind of fun. HC: How exactly did the matching process work? Why Memphis? ML: You rank every possible location. I wanted to be in the South, but not a rural area, because I was not going to be the only Jewish person in a rural community. I wanted a small Southern city, and I think Memphis was my fourth or fifth rank, so it worked out well! I’ve never been. HC: What are you most excited about? Most nervous about? What have you heard that TFA teachers find most challenging? ML: I’m really excited to start teaching, meet the students, see where I am assigned, etc. I’m also really nervous to do all those things. I’ve heard classroom management is very challenging, but that is true for all first-year teachers I think. Teaching is hard. You have to work really hard … that’s what I’m told. HC: Would you ever have considered going into education through a more traditional route? Why TFA instead? ML: I definitely would have. I want to teach in an under-resourced community, and I see TFA as a way of being placed in one, while also having additional support. I am not entirely sure that I want to go into teaching, so I didn’t want to enroll directly into a master’s program for a few years, then get out and teach and realize I didn’t like it. This way I can really try teaching on the ground and get a sense of whether it is something I want to do for a while or not. HC: You’re signed on for two years—any idea or plans for what will follow? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? ML: Oh gosh. I am hoping to go back to Durban, South Africa, where I studied abroad, during the summer between my teaching years, but if that doesn’t work out then maybe I’ll go after my two years. I have no idea. I could stay in Memphis and continue teaching, move to New York and work at a non-profit or I am also toying with the idea of moving to the Netherlands for some kind of graduate program.


Teach For America, Greater New Orleans/Jefferson Parish, 2nd Year Corp Member
Age: 24 Hometown: Puyallup, Washington Alma mater: Western Washington University, class of 2007 Major: The Social Art of Language She did what?: used to work for Clowns Unlimited Incorporated. Her Campus: So what made you decide to do TFA? What else were you considering, and where do you think your interest in education in general and TFA specifically came from? Carrie Craven: After graduating, I stayed in town and worked for a year as the Children’s Program Coordinator for a fantastic organization called Womencare, a domestic violence shelter in Bellingham. It was good and satisfying work, although not very well-paying. The benefits were great though, and the culture of the organization was fantastic. Even though I could have stayed and kept learning and advancing, I was itching to get out of town—to see something totally different. I had been predominantly in the northwest for 12 years, which was by far the longest I had ever stayed in essentially one place in my short-but-very-nomadic life. I needed somewhere new. I was also working part-time at a bilingual preschool and hated the way it was run … more like a money-making daycare than a place of early childhood development. I started talking to a coworker whose sister was doing TFA and that was really the first I learned about it. I wasn’t recruited like the majority of TFAs I know. I went home after our conversation, started reading up on it, and started the application that week. Finished it a couple weeks later, and that was essentially it. HC: What was your first day of school like? Did you leave wanting to come back? CC: The first day was great. The kids were excited and happy. I was excited and naïve. I remember writing to my mom, “I think this is the perfect job for me!” Although I feel similarly now, after a year and a half “in the field,” there was a solid period of six-ish months where that certainly was the opposite of how I felt. HC: Can you walk me through a day of school? After school? CC: Last year: 5:45: Wake up. Groan a LOT. 6:45: Arrive at school, set up for lessons, arrange desks, make and set out copies. Give self pep talk. 7:30: Kids arrive. Loudly. 7:45-9:10: Teach/try to prevent violent outbursts/repeatedly ask children to sit down and stop talking. 9:15-10:45: planning period. Work on lesson plans, grading, reorganizing the disaster left by previous class. Lament life choices. 10:45-11:15: Lunch. Continue “planning” activities. Sometimes students would be in classroom for lunch detentions or to make up tests. 11:20-12:50: Teach/try not to freak out at defiant, 17-year-old 8th graders with attitudes the size of Mt. Vesuvius. 12:55-2:20: Actually get to teach because 5th period is adorable and well-behaved. After school: nap when possible/grade/work on lesson plans until dinner/bedtime. That was my schedule for the first four months of the year, and it was exhausting and not actually very productive. Everything got better when I limited my work hours. Now I stop by 4 p.m. everyday, and my happiness level has SOARED. This year: 6am: Wake up (no groaning) 7am: Arrive at school, set up for lessons. (Desks were already straightened by students the previous afternoon). Use planning period to grade and plan and also to investigate new lesson ideas, meet with other teachers, contact parents, occasionally read The New York Times (sometimes I use articles and op-eds in class). After school: I lead the Foreign Language club twice a week, grade and plan for an hour or two. Then I have my personal extra-curricular stuff: I do an art residency at a local non-profit that is fantastic. Still get to work with New Orleans youth, but in a non-academic environment. HC: That sounds like quite the packed schedule. Can you talk a little bit about the training you went through before you got to your site? Did you feel prepared afterwards? CC: I hated 80 percent of it. It was like boot camp mixed with a return to the college dorms. The only part I really liked was actually being with the kids. Although the students in the Phoenix school where I taught were not accurately representative of the population I work with here in New Orleans, I recognize the institute experience ultimately as a necessary evil. I wasn’t 100 percent prepared even with it, but I would have been hopeless without it—and I even had a year of teaching in a foreign country under my belt. HC: How does the school you teach in compare to the schools you’ve attended? CC: It was a complete shock when I first got here. The physical structure is not incredibly different, although the cleanliness and décor struck me right away as less than what I’d expect from a school. The students are louder, more rambunctious and in general don’t have the respect for physical objects (books, desks) that my suburban peers had. They don’t feel a real sense of ownership toward the school. The classes in general are significantly less rigorous, and much of the staff seems less prepared and invested than my teachers were growing up. And it probably goes without saying that the racial and socio-economic make-up of the school is drastically different. I’m from a spoiled Seattle suburb, went to school with a bunch of middle-class white kids. This is a school where 75 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch. The school has performed at a “failing” level the past couple of years, and is therefore in what the government calls “corrective action.” But these are precisely the reasons I feel the need to do this job. Why should kids from my neighborhood receive a fantastic education at a public school while kids in this neighborhood get the shaft? Things are improving at the school where I work. You can see it, and it’s tremendously exciting. HC: Do you have any stories about your students that you think do a good job of summing up them or your experience teaching them? CC: Spring of last year, one of my 8th graders was shot and killed. It was a sobering experience to say the least. The class he was in had been one of my most difficult, but we had made tremendous progress throughout the year, and this was a final sort of bonding experience. We had an amazing day of sharing stories about [him]. Throughout the rest of the year, we had incredible discussions about relevant societal issues. Even though not all of my students were able to move on to the next grade, they all showed significant improvement in their LEAP scores and writing abilities. Even the one that straight up failed and is at this school again habitually comes by to visit and tell me how he’s doing. I actually ran into one of my old students from last year … during Mardi Gras. He grinned ear to ear and left his tough-kid posse on the corner to come hug me. He told me how he is doing this year in [high] school, and I felt so proud.
HC: It sounds like you’ve had a really rich experience with lots of great moments as well as endless challenges. Is there anything you’d wished you’d known going into TFA—about education and working with kids, the program? CC: I wish I had known the summer was going to be so expensive … I would’ve saved up more money. I wish I had investigated other options—Teach Nola for, instance—not that I would have chosen that program instead, but just to have had more of an idea of all the idealistic education-based programs in the community. I wish I had observed more classes in low-income/high risk schools. There’s a ton I didn’t know coming in… but it comes with the territory, as hard as that was and is to accept. You just jump in. Get drenched. Keep your head above water. You figure it out. Then you figure out how to float. Then you swim. Eventually, I hope to be doing the proverbial butterfly. HC: Where? What next? Think you’ll stay in education? CC: I’ll probably be here again doing the same thing next year. I’ve been LOVING it lately. I’m looking into opportunities to work integrating more of the arts into education. I would love to have a position where I focus less on academics and more on arts. I have enjoyed helping to coordinate school performances and presentations. I want to do more of that. Eventually I’ll go back to school, maybe the year after next. Maybe in art, art-education, social work, policy… I don’t know for sure. This experience has opened up a lot of doors. HC: Anything else you think people should know about you, TFA or anything really? CC: Even if TFA isn’t your bag, don’t forget about its mission, the problem it sets out to address. I will never look at our education system the same again. The achievement gap is a mind-blowing injustice and whatever you do, don’t forget that many of our nation’s children are getting the short end of the stick. Please do something to help, however you can, in whatever way inspires you. Sources: Carrie Craven, TFA New Orleans Miriam Leshin, TFA Memphis recruit http://www.teachforamerica.org/ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/education/04teach.html


About The Author

Katie most enjoys friends, non-fiction, and dessert. She graduated from University of Pennsylvania and is a contributing editor at Glamour magazine.