I almost fell for Teach For America. Its brochure told me I could “make a difference” after college by postponing my imaginary yet promising career for two short years in order to teach in a low-income area.
As a senior in high school, I did not yet know that “making a difference” meant shortchanging students in need of real teachers, deprofessionalizing the teaching profession, and leading the charge to privatize schools.
Over the next three years, however, Teach For America's narrative of “teaching as leadership” unraveled before me piece by piece, myth by debunkable myth. As I familiarized myself with the existing research, spoke with experienced educators, and underwent my own teacher training in the Barnard Education Program, it became clear that I did not want to Teach For America. I wanted to teach for real.
For those who have not yet been spammed by its campus surveillance system, Teach For America is a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by a Princeton graduate to place “our nation's most promising future leaders” in K-12 classrooms after only five weeks of preparation. It has since become a political powerhouse that has all but monopolized the conversation at elite universities about what it means to become a teacher.
TFA is the No.1 employer of Columbia graduates, perhaps because it seems like the best of both worlds. Recruits gain similar access to social and economic capital as former classmates pursuing two-year stints at McKinsey and J.P. Morgan, but now it's “for the children.”
Among elite liberals, working in education seems to automatically grant you “social justice cred.” But let's be clear: Working in education is not necessarily working for justice. Schooling is a tool for both social change and social control.
Career teachers, policy analysts, and college students across the nation have already explained why Teach For America does not benefit children. Even Teach For America's own corps members and campus recruiters have turned on the prestigious organization. The Movement for Black Lives is demanding an end to the corporate-backed education reform led by Teach For America as part of a broader platform for community control and economic justice.
Here is the gist of the critiques, all backed by evidence. Teach For America roots its mission in epistemological racism, recruits privileged people who will soon move onto more prestigious careers, preys on their desire to “make a difference,” boosts savior complexes, fails to provide adequate teacher preparation, overworks corps members into fatigue, depression, and alcohol abuse, indoctrinates low-income students in neoliberal ideology, displaces Black teachers in urban communities, drives down teacher pay and professionalism, bankrolls the expansion of charter schools, saps public schools of much-needed funding, and obsesses over advertising and promotion rather than addressing these problems, all while expanding worldwide.
This amount of awful seems overwhelming, but the problem is not the people who apply for TFA. Many recruits mean well, acknowledge at least some of the issues above, and would teach well with the proper training. The problem is TFA's organizational model. Amateurs in the field of education should not be forced on students (especially in low-income communities of color) and then be put on the fast track to administration and policymaking.
There are many pathways into the teaching profession, and almost all of them provide more preparation than Teach For America's five-week Summer Institute. Unfortunately, their shoestring budgets are no match for TFA's full-time campus recruiters, reams of glossy flyers, and Sweetgreen-level brand recognition. That means students interested in teaching should dig a littler deeper.
If you are unsure teaching is right for you, try working as a teacher assistant via Blue Engine. That's what Teach For America should do with its recruits. If you want to be a career educator, there are clinical-model teacher residency programs combining pedagogical theory with classroom practice as you gradually transition from co-teacher to lead-teacher.
First- and second-years can look into the Barnard Education Program, which offers undergraduates a track to teaching certification. By the time I graduate from this program in May, I will have completed over 500 hours of student teaching, 100 hours of fieldwork, and 60 hours of observation, not to mention courses in multicultural pedagogy, teacher inquiry, and adolescent psychology as well as the politics, history, and sociology of education.
This extensive background in education calibrates a teacher's bullshit detector, which spares students from harmful classroom practices imposed by corporate education reformers. With only 15 to 20 hours of actual teaching experience before assuming responsibility for dozens of young souls, Teach For America recruits often know no better than to implement the organization's bad pedagogy.
If you are one of the many students who may apply to this controversial program, be aware of all options rather than only listening to the loudest voice in the room. TFA threatens the well-being of students, their communities, and, at times, their own recruits, so don't Teach For America.
Teach for real.
Daniel Bergerson is a Columbia College senior studying history and urban teaching. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielBergerson and read more at The Dandruff Report. The Red Pen runs alternate Thursdays.
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