It's September, which means that the next round of bright-eyed, eager college seniors have already started applying to Teach For America. For those potential new teachers, I have one question to ask: Do you actually believe that you will be in the teaching profession in five years? If the program wasn't prestigious, would you do it?
Do you actually want to be a teacher?
I'm not asking whether you want to serve children in low-income communities, or investigate a potential interest in education. Unless you answer yes to the question, "Do you want to be a teacher?" you should not apply to TFA.
I should know; I made just that mistake. I was a corps member for the 2012-2013 school year, and I admit that if anyone had asked me this question before I applied, I would have answered no.
I thought I might be interested in teaching as a career but I joined because of broader reasons: I wanted to help people, investigate an interest in education, and be part of national movement. I wanted a job (and a prestigious one, at that). These were not good reasons to join one of the most demanding professions in the world. Even if I'd been more sure of my ambitions, the right desire says nothing about possessing the requisite skills for this line of work.
There are two important reasons to consider your answer to this question before turning in your application.
If, deep down, you do not want to be a teacher, you are not likely to stay past the two-year TFA commitment. This is crucial because despite how miserable it is to be thrown directly into the water without being taught to swim, many TFA teachers do make significant improvements during their second year. However, it is right at the point when most teachers are finally becoming somewhat proficient in their craft that many of them leave the profession entirely. More than 50% of corps members leave after two years, and more than 80% leave after three. If TFA teachers stayed in the classroom for life, the first year or two of flailing might be acceptable. As it is, however, too many students are given first-year teachers for the bulk of their education. These teachers, as one study shows, perform significantly worse than traditionally certified teachers. Many students may feel like asking, as The Onion painfully captures: "Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?"
If you do not want to be a teacher, you will almost certainly be miserable for an extended time in your first few years. TFA trains its teachers using a sink-or-swim method that has not changed since the early-1990s and, like many before you, you may be flailing for a long time before you even start to swim. Failing at something is hard enough when you aren't told that the future of American education depends on your quality as a teacher. And being expected to be excellent when you have next to no training in a high-stakes field does not exactly contribute to strong mental health. Simply stated, stressed-out teachers teach worse.
I was miserable in my year as a third-grade teacher. In order to receive my teaching certification from The New Teacher Project, I was expected to teach at a level above that of an average first-year teacher, compared to a pool including those who actually had years of training. My training consisted of a five-week institute, where I taught a class of seven summer school students for one hour a day and just three weeks overall. While teaching full-time, I attended a three-hour seminar every other week, which largely involved reading articles and discussing classroom issues (that is, when the majority of participants were awake, after an eleven-hour day of teaching).
Nonetheless, I was still expected to plan an entire year-long curriculum, submit detailed lesson plans for each class every week, maintain constant contact with parents of 75 students, track countless types of data through various spreadsheets, and create and grade all of my own assignments. I often worked 90 to a 100 hours a week to stay on top of my work (and compared to many of my colleagues, I felt like I was barely working at all). Yet I constantly felt like a failure.
I still learned a lot during my time in the corps. I saw first hand the severity of educational inequality in this country, an experience that will undoubtedly impact the rest of my life. I was able to forge meaningful, lasting connections with my students, many of whom I am still in touch with.
I absolutely did not need to join TFA to have these experiences.
In fact, I've known several colleagues who actually helped other teachers instead of putting them out of work.
These colleagues were corps members of City Year, an organization that places its members in teaching assistant roles in schools across America. City Year corps members assist lead teachers by working with small groups, monitoring individual students for comprehension, or even adding an additional set of eyes for disciplinary issues. In an environment where many teachers are severely overworked, City Year corps members make a significant impact in the classroom.
City Year differs significantly from TFA in its goal, strategy, and regrettably, its prestige. TFA was founded during a teacher shortage, and still operates under that assumption, aiming to add new lead teachers to the workforce each year. Today, however, there is a teacher surplus, especially in urban regions with the most TFA corps members. Cities like Chicago and Atlanta continue to lay off teachers and close schools, choosing instead to sign contracts with TFA (and, by extension, its cheaper workforce) that guarantee employment to several hundred new, inexperienced lead-teachers each year.
City Year, on the other hand, wants to supplement rather than supplant the existing teacher workforce, making teachers' lives easier instead of putting them out of work. The City Year corps member I worked with at my TFA site taught a small reading group of six to 12 students each morning, allowing lead-teachers to place other students in smaller groups. She assisted her lead-teacher in classroom management and discipline, and she attended our grade-level meetings to discuss planning, data analysis, and new teaching strategies. In essence, she made every single one of our lives easier and allowed all of our students to receive a higher quality, more focused education.
Unfortunately, City Year is nowhere near as high-profile as TFA, both because of how it presents itself and how it treats its corps members. Instead of attempting to close the "achievement gap," an amorphous concept that is tied to socio-economic status as much as it is to educational opportunity, City Year attempts to close the "implementation gap."
According to City Year's website, the implementation gap "results when staff members' time and school resources are not sufficient to meet the intensity of student needs that exists in many of today's lowest performing schools." Closing the implementation gap is less sexy than closing the achievement gap, but it is a reasonable, necessary, and an achievable goal. City Year also does not have the prestige of TFA because it does not claim that its members are "highly qualified" and hence deserving of full-time salaries. Rather, its members are paid through the embarrassingly underfunded AmeriCorps program and are forced to live on food stamps. Still, it remains more effective, beneficial, and less morally questionable than TFA.
If you really do want to be a teacher, I can understand the impulse to join TFA. Just know that you may be helping to put experienced teachers out of work because your district has signed a contract with TFA and is laying off experienced teachers in favor of cheaper, less experienced ones. You may be supporting the effort to drastically decrease the power of teachers' unions. And you may be harming students in your first year, which for them might be the third, fourth, or fifth consecutive year they've had a first-year teacher.
My advice? Don't ask TFA to change; help City Year take its place.