Teach For America: Turning Idealistic Grads Into Former Teachers?

Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren once said “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” That is but one of the reasons that teaching is one of the most important jobs — if not arguably the most important job in the world. Luckily many of the brightest people of our generation are inspired to go into this field. But there is constantly a struggle to get smart, able teachers into the areas where they are needed most. That’s where programs like Teach For America come in. But teachers being assigned to low income, high risk schools have some of the hardest jobs out there. And for the young, untrained idealists who join the program, it is often the first — and last — teaching job they’ll hold.

Over the last few years, I’ve seen multiple smart, devoted women go into Teach For America or similar programs and abandon the field of teaching shortly thereafter. I decided to speak to a few of them to see why.

According to one recent TFA grad:

“If nothing else, I have gotten an education on our education system. The first two years were rough. I was in a failing school in the Bronx. The school got a D on it’s report card and my principal said, ‘I’ve taken classes and gotten A’s. This is not my grade- it’s yours!’

For recent college grads, these programs might bring with them a vision of making an impact on young minds – a la Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds moment. But they often lead to disenchantment. One former teacher had a warning for idealists looking to get into the field:

“Potential teachers out there- beware! You are blamed for everything and children and parents and  administrators get away with murder. Prepare yourself to not be respected or appreciated ever. Teachers are under so much pressure to perform that there is a huge emphasis on test prep. You are lucky if you get to do projects.”

One New York-based teacher said the tight schedule of teaching during the day and then attending graduate school classes at night leaves no time for preparation. That’s especially problematic because program teachers are not provided with any sort of lesson plan, so you are really expected to come up with this as you go along.

Many of the students are also physically violent and teachers are not equipped to deal with that. According to one former teacher:

“You will have a student freak out and push chairs down and hit another child and you have to fill out an incident report and have the parents of both children curse you out and then face the wrath of the principal for letting this happen and then stay up late grading and lesson planning all over again.”

She added that most of the children are great but it is the adminstration at the school that can make things very difficult.

“Teaching at a poorly run school is like being in high school. There is so much gossip and back stabbing, it’s more juicy than Gossip Girl. There is intense favoritism and no real system of accountability or productive feedback — which makes you just pray to stay under the radar.”

That also gets in the way of the job, and attempts to make an impact on students:

“It’s so hard to reach every child, even though of course you want to, especially if one of the children is so disruptive that you constantly have to give him your attention and there is nowhere to send him. I can’t tell you how many times I have had sympathetic and well meaning friends say, “Why don’t you just call the parent?” or ”Can’t you send him to the principal?”

Yes, I call the parents, and like I said, they get upset with me (and no, the principal does not have my back) and no, I can’t send him to the principal because she will just send him right back then later email me passive aggressively telling me I need to be able to handle these things myself.”

Another woman who worked at a Harlem school with many TFA teachers (she didn’t enter a TFA program herself because they wanted her to take a job without visiting the school which she found a little disconcerting) said they were all just so trained from their heavy loads.

“TFA is very politically correct and into a certain type of teaching style modeled after the KIP program. But there’s no way they can prepare all these recent college graduates for the real inequity and chaos of failing public schools. It’s really difficult for anyone to teach in that environment and I mean really teach, not just keep the kids from killing each other. Why send upstarts with little experience and tons of platitude to the front lines?”

The main problem seems to be that these programs just burn teachers out. This Bronx-based teacher said she also got tired of people calling teaching an “easy” job:

“Teachers burn out so quickly because they are not supported or appreciated and they are overworked. No, I’m not done at 3 pm, I’m done at 4 pm (I have a 7 am- 4 pm job) and I am not really “done at 4″, I have hours of work left to do before I can call it quits. If you like kids, I recommend you tutor some on the side. It will make you feel good, but it won’t be all day long and it won’t be with twenty six of them at a time. That’s another thing, you make such a bigger impact one on one. It’s so hard to reach every child, even though of course you want to.”

Of course these negative stories are not shared by everyone. One woman I spoke with said her TFA experience was positive overall. But she didn’t go into it with the intention of making teaching her career. Another woman struggled with her TFA job in Baltimore but was much happier when she started teaching at a charter school in the city.

Of course, as we all know, the problems with the American education systems are numerous and not easily fixed. Teach for America is a program with wonderful intentions. But if they are making smart, passionate and aspiring people want to leave the industry immediately, then the program is backfiring.

(Photo: Columbia Pictures)


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    • Clinton Smith


      You are missing the entire point of TFA. Yes, it’s hard on the TFA’ers. Yes many will eventually leave the teaching profession. But what TFA really does, in addition to providing a way of funneling over-achievers into teaching, is to expose literally tens of thousands of leaders, over-achievers, succeeders, etc. to the total mess that is our public educational system. I watched my girlfriend and her fellow corps members in Newark start out teaching as idealistic and clueless young college graduates. Something like 15% dropped out. The remaining ones finished their 2 year terms — many went on to 3 years. But all were transformed. They were transformed from naive college students with blind faith in the monopolistic public educational system to seasoned experts who understand the many flaws in the system. Some started their own public schools. Some went on to charter schools. Few remained in NPS (Newark Public Schools) because the union in preference to maintaining their insane benefit package was happy to screw the youngest teachers by letting them get laid off. Actually a couple of them were featured in the NYTimes and WSJ commending their leadership and teaching abilities and talking about how insane it was that they got laid off. Anyway, through their time in the trenches they all came to understand just how dysfunctional the teachers unions and administration are. They came to really appreciate accountability and competition. And for those that left teaching? Well my gf left because she felt that whatever good she could possibly accomplish was more than eclipsed by the effects of the administration. But she was also intrigued by how environmental pollution (Newark has a lot of heavy industry with a lot of pollution) affects the physiological and neurological development of children from an epidemiological point of view. This has since driven her into medicine to better understand how to deal with these sorts of societal challenges. Now have these people failed? Has TFA failed here? Education isn’t just about training teachers. Education is an enormously complex system with contributing variables ranging from parents and family to teachers, the school administration, the neighborhoods (are their gangs? how economically bereft is the neighborhood) to the environment (how many kids get asthma or are exposed to heavy metals which could inhibit their true developmental potential). To view TFA through such a narrow lens suggests to me you have not spent much time interacting with TFA’ers.

    • mags

      TFA is crap. i’m sorry. they deliberately pick people who do NOT want to be teachers. it’s a naive idea that taking rich well-educated kids and sending them “into the trenches” like mr. smith claims will change something. it won’t. it’s nice that these naive over privileged kids like his girlfriend “learned something” (good for you!) but WTF about those KIDS AT THE DESKS? don’t they deserve actually educated teachers? this article, and the fallout from TFA that they’re talking about is all indicative of the larger problems, namely that we did not invest in the education of our own country b/c a) we were too busy running around “fighting Ruskies” and b) running around “fighting terrorism”. and here’s my conspiracy theory: it’s a lot easier to govern people and get them to swallow the slow death of the American Democracy when they are uneducated. but that’s just my conspiracy theory.