By Barbara Bent
Teach For America turns 25 this year. While the nonprofit organization has been successful for both students and its TFA corps members, underlying criticisms about corps member training are being addressed to ensure continued program effectiveness.
The $300 million initiative is the brainchild of Wendy Kopp, an undergraduate student at Princeton University who sought to turn recent college graduates into teachers at impoverished public schools across the country. TFA teachers undergo just six weeks of training before they appear in front of a classroom. Some think that this hardly seems like enough time to harness the skills necessary to teach a curriculum as well as manage students’ behavior.
Peter Szeremata, a second-year law student at Washington and Lee University, was a TFA corps member in Atlanta, where he taught sixth grade Earth Science. After graduating with a degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, Szeremata hadn’t quite determined what he wanted to do with his degree and decided TFA would be an appropriate course of action.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“If you can survive TFA, if you can excel in that type of environment, then you’re qualified to do a lot of different things” – Peter Szeremata[/pullquote]
“It really kind of evolved naturally,” said Szeremata. “I got past the first round of interviews, got a second one, and then I kind of started mentally seeing myself as able to do the job.”
While the science curriculum he taught was straightforward, Szeremata found himself a bit lost when trying to control the classroom. He recalled his shock and helplessness as he watched students fling handfuls of glitter at one another in the classroom. Eventually, he said he got the hang of the disciplinary system and gained confidence. Though Szeremata no longer wants to be a teacher, he recognized the program’s prestige and how it will help him in future career endeavors.
“If you can survive TFA, if you can excel in that type of environment, then you’re qualified to do a lot of different things,” said Szeremata.
Timothy Diette, associate professor of economics at W&L, teaches a course on education through the lens of economics. Many students who participate in TFA after they graduate have taken his class. He said a major criticism of the program is the brevity of the training period.
He gave an example of a former student who teaches high school math and another teaching special education students. He said the special education teacher would require a much different and perhaps longer training experience than the high school math teacher.
Other common complaints are classroom management and literacy issues.
Catherine Woodcock, a first-year law student at W&L, taught English to sophomores at a high school in Jacksonville, Fla. Many of her students read at a fifth grade level. In those types of situations, she said, it was about slow and steady improvement because she knew she could not ask for a dramatic change in literacy in two years.
Diette said TFA is aware of these criticisms and is working toward some improvements.
“They’re actually piloting some alternatives that would have students do another year of commitment, but the first year would be a year of being mentored versus actually teaching,” said Diette.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Lately I have been hoping that I follow my TFA experience with a law degree or a degree to work in education policy,” said Nastoff. “However, I am totally open to falling in love with teaching and feeling that my time would be best spent there.”[/pullquote]
The TFA corps members have mentors who help answer questions or develop programs that enhance the TFA teaching experience.
Woodcock said her mentors helped her create a program at First Coast High School that altered the disciplinary protocol. For instance, instead of suspending a student for vandalizing lockers, a panel of students and teachers would assess the severity of the behavior and assign punishments accordingly. In this example, the vandal would shadow the janitor every afternoon for a week to learn how his or her actions affected others in the school and community.
While these experiences seem positive for the TFA teachers themselves, this achievement can come at a cost to other teachers in their communities.
Diette said some school districts are turning away “perfectly good, certified teachers” in order to fulfill fixed contracts with predetermined numbers of TFA corps members.
Originally, TFA corps members taught only at understaffed, high-needs schools. Now, many of these schools can easily find willing teachers, but they take TFA students instead. As a result, TFA affects the job economy in that community.
Another factor to consider is that TFA teachers are only required to stay for two years and then the majority of them move on to graduate school or other careers. This could create a sense of instability for their students.
Diette used the example of a former student who teaches freshmen and sophomores in Washington, D.C., with TFA:
“She won’t be there to write a recommendation letter for college or these other ways in which we build potentially meaningful relationships,” said Diette.
Though many TFA participants leave a career in teaching behind after their two years are up, some are more open to sticking around the classroom. Ariya Nastoff, a senior at W&L, will be teaching early childhood education next year in Los Angeles with TFA. She worked with young children throughout high school and during her undergraduate years through the Shepherd Poverty Program.
“Lately I have been hoping that I follow my TFA experience with a law degree or a degree to work in education policy,” said Nastoff. “However, I am totally open to falling in love with teaching and feeling that my time would be best spent there.”