What do you know about Teach for America?
September 29, 2005 7:13 PM   Subscribe

What can you tell me about Teach for America, or similar programs?

I will be graduating soon, and I think teaching is something I might be interested in, but not long-term. (Probably 5 years max.) Have any MeFites been in TFA or a similar alternative certification program? I am an English major, btw.

I am specifically looking at the Chicago metro area. Right now, I am trying to sort through my various options and see which one, if any, is right for me. I went to the official recruitment meeting tonight and have been looking on the web. Personal experiences and anecdotes are most helpful. Basically, I want as much info as possible.
posted by kyleg to Education (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One of my students did Teach for America when she graduated. I haven't kept in touch with her, so I don't know about her experience, but I do remember from her application procedure, that you don't get a completely free choice of what city you go to. You have to pick a few cities from the list and they can send you to any one of them (or others?). So you may ask for Chicago, but you may not get it.

Of course you did say you went to their meeting, so presumably they explained the procedures to you, so maybe if your fairly confident you can do Chicago, it's because their procedures have changed and this is moot. I don't know..but if you don't either, you might want to ask.
posted by duck at 8:31 PM on September 29, 2005

I did TFA in inner-city Washington, D.C. and will be happy to chat with you if you have specific questions. Just e-mail me at the address on the MeFi profile.

I can tell you that it was two of the hardest years of my life but also two of the most fun and rewarding. I loved all of it and would do it again in a minute.

Your major makes very little difference (unless you can teach a foreign language or math/science).

You should also know that incoming corps members do not choose where they are sent. You give a list of places you'd prefer over other places, but none of the regional sites are off-limits, and you could be sent anywhere. You should really spend some time on the website and read through the information packet very thoroughly and carefully before you apply. I'd also recommend applying for the first deadline; it won't improve your chances of getting in, but it will give you some time between acceptance and the Institute in the summer.

Before you make the leap, I'd recommend doing some classroom observations at local public schools, as well as getting involved in something that brings you into contact with children, so that you can really evaluate if TFA is what you want. I will say that the 2-year commitment is taken VERY seriously, and quitting is not an option after the first year. All of this is to say that as wonderful an experience as it can be, it is also an important one that puts you in a position where dozens of other people rely on you and your dedication. E-mail me. I'd love to talk more with you.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:24 PM on September 29, 2005

I'm a current first year TFA corps member in St. Louis. I'd love to give you all of the advice I can and might be able to offer a slightly different perspective than yellowcandy, who is thinking as an alum. Contact me via the email in my profile.
What I'll say here:
It's difficult to say whether TFA would be a good choice for you without ever having met you. It really does take a certain type of person, as I've learned from meeting my amazing fellow corps members and seeing several whom I've known rather well not be successful. I love my job right now but can unequivocally say that it is the most difficult thing I've ever done. It takes an enormous- enormous- amount of dedication to your children and to the movement, but the rewards can be immediate, tangible, and fantastically fulfilling.
yellowcandy rightly points out that should you be accepted you will not have the final say in where you are placed- only in whether or not you accept the offer and matriculate. As someone who had Chicago at the very top of his list, I can tell you that the Windy City is an extremely popular region and your chances of being placed there are probably smaller than if you were trying for a region like here in St. Louis. However, they do take applicant desires and special circumstances into account in placement decisions. So I can't say how good your chances of being placed in Chicago are, but you might have to make a decision between TFA and your top-choice locale.
I can't recommend TFA highly enough for folks like me who are dedicated to and passionate about social justice, especially about making it so that children in underprivileged schools aren't automatically disqualified from the opportunities their more wealthy peers are afforded. It will give you the opportunity to make a difference at the grass-roots level for at least two years- and yes,the commitment is very serious- and be part of the larger movement upon your leaving the classroom (which not all corps members do).
Please feel free to email for more info, lots of stories, etc. I've only been in the organization for a few months, but belive me, with Institute and the beginning of the school year, I have plenty to share.
posted by PhatLobley at 7:23 AM on September 30, 2005

Here's a friend's essay on being dissatisfied with TFA. He says TFA teemed with weirdos, featured students having sex with their pupils, and seemed to comprise one big excuse on the part of Louisiana school officials not to improve their corrupt system.

But I've talked to others who were happier of course.
posted by johngoren at 11:25 AM on September 30, 2005

I have to say that after reading that essay, I have far more questions about Mr. Runkle than I do about TFA. Plus-- big surprise-- he's dissatisfied after quitting the corps.

Cognitive dissonance, party of one.

I've been involved with TFA in one form or another for more than a decade and I can attest that these kinds of stories are the rarest of the exceptions and not the rule.
posted by yellowcandy at 12:10 PM on September 30, 2005

I'm going to be an English teacher overseas, but I looked at TFA before deciding that it wasn't for me. Though I took lots of education courses at my university, I was concerned about my ability to work in a professional environment where I'd be at the bottom of the ladder in a district or area with enough problems to warrant TFA involvement in the first place.

From what I could gather from the website and the info packet I got in the mail, it seemed like the populations TFA served needed really experienced, really good teachers, something I wasn't sure I was, especially when it came to things like school board politics, corruption and waste, or trying to get families and parents involved in promoting education at home - things where lots of local knowledge and experience would be helpful. I also didn't see much about TFA teachers working within existing, accepted district procedural structures to positively change their students' education, and I didn't like the idea of being an outsider with little power to make changes my students needed from the school side of the equation.

Additionally, I'm a little worried about your stated desire to teach for a maximum amount of time. Do you think of teaching as a placeholder occupation or a stalling tactic? Not to be confrontational, but I think (hope?) that it's got to be a full-on commitment - in the end, you're serving a group of students who have probably seen their share of greenhorn teachers trying to Subvert The Dominant Paradigm/"get these kids motivated"/etc., only to have them move on to other positions in better-paying districts or other professions.

When I looked at it, I didn't want my whole experience to be one which reinforced the inherent advantages that I'd been given as someone who attended college and the disadvantages (economic, educational, social) that my students endured as implied by the TFA materials. Lacking the knowledge of how to transcend the boundaries, I decided against applying.

An avenue that might be more fulfilling, less permanent, more flexible, and more location-specific might be working with either a private, charter, or magnet school in Chicago or its suburbs, or an after-school/outside-the-classroom enrichment program. Best of luck!
posted by mdonley at 2:49 PM on September 30, 2005

mdonley :"From what I could gather from the website and the info packet I got in the mail, it seemed like the populations TFA served needed really experienced, really good teachers, something I wasn't sure I was"

I'm sure I'm not (experienced, anyway). But I'm also sure that these schools need dedicated teachers willing to work relentlessly for the betterment of their students no matter what. This I'm sure I am.

mdonley "I also didn't see much about TFA teachers working within existing, accepted district procedural structures to positively change their students' education"

This is what I do every day.
For differing perspectives on the organization you might check out these articles.
I really can't reccomend it highly enough for the right kind of people though.
posted by PhatLobley at 5:53 PM on September 30, 2005

I have some issues with TFA, but I won't get into that here.

Something to remember though...I'm sure they told you this at the meeting, but it's pretty difficult to get accepted. I think I was told about 1 in 8 make the cut. That's like Harvard! So you have to factor that in too..I'm not saying you shouldn't apply because of it, but you can't just say "I want to do TFA" and make it happen like magic. Have a back-up plan.

I'm also with mdonley and somewhat wary of the "I want to teach short-term" note. Teaching is hard in a lot of situations, and I'm pretty certain that any TFA placements are going to be in rough schools. Make sure that you really want to do it - start volunteering in the schools now.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 6:49 PM on September 30, 2005

My friend had an extremely bad experience with Teach for America. I think the whole program is flawed - school systems abuse it to toss their most difficult and challenging students off onto inexperienced teachers, implying that if they were dedicated enought, they could handle it. Well, that isn't true - my friend was damned dedicated, but was systematically undermined in any efforts she made by the principal and other teachers. She was given the most difficult, challenging students, some of whom had severe behavioural and emotional issues which disrupted the whole classroom - and then not only given no support, but actively restricted in what she could do to help educate them.

Teach for America should completely rework their entire structure - they should be supplements to schools systems lacking teachers, to free the experienced teachers to teach the difficult classes. They certainly should not allow those classes to be dumped on idealistic TFA volunteers.

I'm not saying this because I don't care about education or lack of education experience. My mother has worked on children's literacy in our subsidized housing community; she has also told me about her experiences with emotionally disturbed children. As a high school student, I became involved in the local school board and education issues for students who did not fare well in the mainstream system. I care a great deal about bettering education for disadvantaged students - but I think that TFA is betraying both the students and the volunteer teachers, while letting school systems weasel out of their responsibility to find fully trained teachers for their most difficult students.
posted by jb at 10:32 AM on October 7, 2005

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