Most Frequently Asked Question: Why Teach For America?

Like most education policies or programs, Teach For America is widely scrutinized. The well-known nonprofit organization has been the topic of many news articles, many of which imply that the program consists of unknowledgeable college students who aren’t ready to confront the reality of low-income school districts. Well, there’s no denying that this may be the case for some students, however it’s unfair to make such broad generalizations. Additionally, some assert that Teach For America “core members” might lack perspective and experience necessary to connect with students in these school districts. However, empathy is a universal emotion and isn’t contingent on having similar life style.

When searching for future careers, Teach For America stood out to me. The program seems to have genuine intentions, which is what initially attracted me to it. Like most in the Education minor, I have a strong interest and passion for equitable education reform. However, I firmly believe that five courses and a strong base of knowledge in politics isn’t enough to make legitimate contributions to education policy. Teach For America is an outlet for me to gain perspective and recognize real needs in schools. Of course, many schools need new books and technology, but there are more than just tangible needs. I believe that a school is more than just a place of learning. It’s a safe haven and hub for creativity and ambition. Schools don’t need to be adorned with recognition or teeming with technology to produce successful and motivated students. Schools need empathetic and motivated teachers as well as enough resources necessary to make students feel like they have what is necessary to succeed.

People have also asked me “what makes you think you’re cut out to teach in those kinds of communities?” Well, my high school in Maine catered to the needs of a large percentage of low-income students. Many students had free or reduced lunch, parents who worked multiple jobs, minimal access to new clothing or hygienic products, etc. I also attended college in Boston, where I volunteered at an after school program in Roxbury. Roxbury is a “neighborhood” in Boston where approximately one out of every ten people are a victim of crime, drop out rates are high, and the median income is well below average. Roxbury is the epitome of low-income stereotypes, and unfortunately history and even current institutions in place continually reinforce them. At the after school program, I tutored children on various subjects and assisted the directors of the program in brainstorming certain activities that are both fun and educational. Some of the children were extremely receptive to tutoring, however most children had already appeared to give up on schooling. One seventh grader said to me, “it’s not like I’m even going to college, that will just be a dream.” No child should ever feel discouraged from pursuing more than what is “expected.”

In addition to tutoring, I observed a teacher and teacher assistant in a Roxbury middle school. The school was once again in a low-income community, and the quality of the building and supplies reflected that. Classes had cardboard in the windows, few textbooks, minimal decorations, broken desks, and teachers who made it evident that they’ve given up on students. The school was pending review to be closed if students didn’t achieve certain test cores. Teachers were forced to teach strictly to the standardized tests and students were forced to sit quietly and absorb facts. Schools like this need the most help, and it’s not because there are poor quality teachers, unmotivated students, and administrators who have no hope in the school. It’s due to inequitable schooling, inherent biases in testing, and institutional neglect. I don’t necessarily believe that Teach For America is the remedy for systemic unfairness in schools by any stretch of the imagination. However, I hope to use Teach For America as an asset to one-day try to make an imprint in the realm of education, however that might be.



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5 Responses to Most Frequently Asked Question: Why Teach For America?

  1. askamypart2 says:

    Gabby, this was a really nice post on TFA and I really liked your idea of getting experience in the classroom to eventually make system-wide changes in the classroom. I think we can all agree that TFA has its merits, and when people such as yourself enter the program it certainly helps to maintain and transform the mission. My question for you is that since TFA has a two-year contract, how would you go about correcting for the high rate of teacher turn-over? I know that this is a really big problem, especially in low income schools where consistency for children is really low. I was just curious to see if you had any ideas about how that could be changed! Again, really interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. gabbylap says:

    Thank you so very much for your comment! I completely agree that teacher turn-over is crippling the stability of many low-income schools. Unlike some people, I don’t believe we should necessarily incentivize extending contracts in impoverished school districts. Rather, there should be mentorship, seminars, guidance, and a support group of administrators. There should be open dialogue amongst teachers and the administrators as well, teachers should’t have to hold back if they feel that the school and how it operates is setting up certain students to fail. Also, in certain grades I believe it would be extremely helpful for teachers and students to progress through certain grades together, which will enhance relationships and provide a level of comfort for students who might be deprived of stability outside of school. Just an idea! Not really sure how it would work in practice, there are obvious constraints.


  3. courtneykennedy says:

    I am a tenth year teacher, and have always taught at Title 1 “at risk” or “priority” schools. Being in the Washington DC area, I have had the experience of working with quite a few Teach For America “corps members”. I have noticed that the majority of the TFA teachers are enthusiastic, passionate, and eager to make a difference. They tend to be excellent at building relationships with students and work tirelessly to increase parent/community member involvement.

    Unfortunately, while passion, empathy and a strong desire to make a difference are all extremely powerful qualities to have, those qualities alone do not automatically create an effective teacher. Many TFA teachers do not have enough training to be equipped to work with students who are grappling with academic challenges. Five weeks is not enough time to learn how to begin working with a 5th grader who is reading on a kindergarten level, or how to help that 2nd grader who has not yet mastered basic number sense.

    The TFA teachers also tend to have a lot of difficulty with classroom management, because they are not equipped to handle the challenging behaviors that are so common in my school-particularly the behaviors stemming from a desire for power and control. (ie: Figuring out how to address the kindergartener who routinely calls you a racial slurs, or gain respect from the 3rd grader who tirelessly argues with every single direction that you give)

    I think that Teach For America’s goal to “eliminate educational inequity” is truly noble. However, the program must include more training for their “corps members” in order to give our nation’s most vulnerable students the high quality education that they deserve.

    If you are considering joining TFA and/or working with at-risk populations of students, I highly recommend that you read Eric Jensen’s book “Teaching With Poverty in Mind”, and look into his theories of Brain Based Learning. It will truly help equip you to understand and address the needs of your future students.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. gabbylap says:

    I truly appreciate your comment! Likewise, I completely agree that passion and empathy is not enough to compensate for the immense responsibility of managing a classroom. The lack of training causes me concern as well. However, I’m fortunate enough to have my dad, who’s a teacher in a low-income school district. I’m hoping that his coaching and support in conglomeration with the training (as short as it might be) and previous exposure to Title 1 schools will soften the transition. I’d really love to learn more about your experiences at the school you teach at! Also, I will most definitely be checking Amazon for a used copy of that book!


  5. marrisarose says:

    TFA will always be a controversial topic in the education field so I commend your courage for not only showing passion towards the organization but writing about your struggle with the program. From reading your post it seems as though you are using TFA to get in classroom experience to use for future work in the education policy field. Have you looked at other short term teaching programs? One I have been looking at for a while is called the Capital Teaching Residency through the KIPP Charter school program in DC. Not only does the program require much more in-classroom training than TFA, it also has a longer commitment (about 5 years) which alleviates some of the problems that TFA perpetuates in their programming! Great blog post!


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