Why I Still Believe in Teach For America

2012 was easily one of the most difficult, most heart-breaking and most disappointing years for me professionally and personally.

I was supposed to spend the 2012-2013 school year teaching inner city middle/high school kids in LA – something I had left Spain (and job a really enjoyed) for. Instead, I was asked to teach Kindergarten in a rural charter school that had no idea what Teach for America was…or basically anything about me. That lasted a month. I could go on and on about where I went wrong, where TFA went wrong, where the school went wrong and how my plans went ass end up, but that’s not the point of this.

Spanish Teachers

The awesome team I worked with in Spain.

When I was asked to consider coming back to TFA to teach in my home state of Arizona, it was hard to say no. It was mind-boggling to friends and family that I would consider going back to work for an organization that caused some serious trauma in my life. Going back to teaching wasn’t about Teach for America – it was going back for what I believe so painfully in –that our kids deserve better and I want to be a part of the movement. Ultimately I had to say no. I incurred literally tens of thousands of dollars of debt because of my decision to join TFA, so now I have to be an adult with a decent corporate job and work it off. That’s life.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

Let’s start with this. I love teaching. I gravitate towards it. I l have a visceral reaction to teaching – I’m happy in mind and body in front of a group of people, trying to share something with them. I didn’t go to school for teaching, I went for journalism. Life takes you down weird paths and the universe steers you to places you’d never imagine for yourself. My first time in front of a classroom was as an aid in a special education class at Powell Middle School in Mesa (R. I.P.). Powell was a struggling school, with more visits from Mesa PD than was healthy and a population that fought tooth and nail both in and outside of the classroom for basic needs. The teacher in my class was a long term sub that wasn’t too fond of where she was or what she was doing. Those kids gave her a run for her money because they were absolutely in love with their actual teacher who was out on maternity leave. This substitute gave me (and the other aid) every opportunity to teach the class, which we took and ran with at every opportunity. Those children deeply touched me and I am still in contact with many of them

A former student and I at her high school grad ceremony. It has been 8 years since I had seen her!

Me and a former student at her high school grad ceremony. It had been 8 years since I had seen her!

Since then I have been involved with social work-education hybrid jobs including teaching middle and high school English in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer and teaching middle, high and post grad English & culture in Spain. I think it is important for me to point out that teaching in another country is quite different than teaching in the states. For example, when grading papers in Spain, I was discouraged from writing too much feedback because I was “working too hard”. Not that teachers don’t work hard in Spain, but the kids were expected to work just as hard and so were the parents. It was an odd concept for me and I still gave feedback, but my Spanish counterparts were definitely confused by some of my go-getter behavior. Teaching overseas has taught me that all the inane details (aka you must have X number of posters on the wall) that we require of our teachers here in the states aren’t required other places – and the students still did well (generally better) than ours…GASP.

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua - computer class!

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua – computer class!

Anyway, as a result of my brief foray into the world of TFA, I was unemployed for nearly a year, I accrued an absurd amount of debt (thanks to overpriced private school education that I literally got ZERO out of). This sucks…a WHOLE EFFIN LOT. I managed to get almost all the way through my twenties with no debt. Aside from debt, I left LA with an altered outlook on education in this country.

Now back to the point. Why do I still believe in Teach for America? Bottom line is, people aren’t exactly SUPER PUMPED to work in Compton, the south side of Chicago, Maryvale, etc. The best and the brightest hardly even consider teaching as a profession because society has trivialized teachers’ roles in a disgusting way, we value money over EVERYTHING and everyone wants to be comfortable. I am not saying that the best and the brightest aren’t teachers. I have MANY friends who are teachers and they are talented, hardworking, intelligent and creative. But at the end of the day, Mr. Summa Cum Laude from Yale who will live a charmed life as an investment banker doesn’t think twice about teaching. But who is the person throwing money at that senator who wants to defund early education in rural areas? Who was lobbying No Child Left Behind? They are people (and usually people with considerable wealth and/or power) who have no clue about your third grade teacher’s 12-hour days or your student’s school who has him reading 4 grade levels below someone in a richer zip code.

That is a hard truth to swallow, but it is the damn truth.

People gripe about the two year commitment with TFA and how it is perpetuating the teacher mill that low income schools experience. It’s a legit argument. The truth is, I don’t think TFA is trying to create life long teachers; TFA is trying to groom movers and shakers, politicians, administrators, policy analysts. Maybe they won’t teach for more than a few years, but they will carry those experiences and it will affect everything they do henceforth. But why would I want someone who only taught for a few years to be a politician and speak on behalf of educators?? BECAUSE AT THE PRESENT THOSE POLITICIANS KNOW ZERO ABOUT MRS. CRABAPPLE’S DAY TO DAY. Do you want someone who has been there? In the trenches? Lesson planning at 4 AM? Yes. Yes, you do.

Demonizing TFA corps members gets my goat. Ok, I will give you that there some weird political or administrative things that happen at TFA that I am not a fan of (I am a result of them!). But those fresh young faces, right out of college, with a diploma and a million choices at their fingertips chose to forgo that sweet job as an engineer at Boeing or an analyst at Charles Schwab or whatever it is their long list of accomplishments could have gotten them. They chose to teach in some of the most challenging schools in this country. People talk about how TFA corps members just use it as a launch pad into grad school or whatever. THERE ARE EASIER WAYS. I call bullshit.

[At a corps member's wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

[At a corps member’s wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

The people I met in the LA Corps were amazing people, dedicated to a social cause and ready to jump in feet first to an absolute nightmare. Let me say that again –an absolute nightmare. Are they generally ill-equipped? Yes. Do they flounder around and want to quit every day for at least half a year? Yes. Does your average first year teacher also struggle incredibly. Yes. The young people I met lived, breathed, ate, and slept teaching. TFA members generally aren’t used to this struggle for success. They’ve been academically successful, most of them natural leaders and extroverts in general. Because of this drive, they fought with every fiber of their being not to fail themselves, not to fail their children, not to fail the cause. Please take a look at that last phrase. To these people teaching is not just a profession, it is a cause.

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here...

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here…

We didn’t just talk about teaching and lesson plans late into the night – we talked about the big picture. How do you solve it? What is the root of the problem? Are we the problem? Where do we go from here? Are charter schools the answer? Are politicians the answer? How will we continue to fight? For the most part TFA does a great job creating a vision of sustainable change. The idea is that this change will come through corps members in one of many ways. Maybe they aren’t all meant to teach for life. But they will go on to work in many other fields and they will know firsthand what it’s like to be a teacher in a school that the state has long forgotten and the politicians have written off. This consciousness resounds in immeasurable ways.

So if you’re a teacher and you’re anti-TFA, I ask you not to judge until you willingly go to work in a school that is failing, where you might fear for your safety, where the kids distrust every adult they have ever encountered, where you’re constantly judged for expecting more, having vision, and seeing potential.

Don’t waste energy hating an organization and casting disdain on those who would like to see change. Your energy is better spent seeking reform productively. It’s urgent and it’s tragic that we are failing generations of young Americans.

Rather than looking outward to blame, look inward for change.

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