Before even applying to Teach for America, I was skeptical of the organization.
I am sure current Duke students and recent alumni remember the aggressive deluge of emails, phone calls and informational happy hours, some of which began as early as sophomore year, rallying students to join the movement. However, even a basic Google search of “Teach for America” brings up more than a handful of articles, editorials and blog posts that detail one corps member’s negative experiences or deeper examinations of the organization’s effectiveness.
Keeping this reality in mind, I convinced myself to keep my thoughts about my potential employer laced with sarcasm and doubt, even after I applied. My conversations with my recruitment director questioned the effectiveness of the two-year model; just after I was offered a place in TFA, I probed into the organization’s commitment to the safety of its corps members in a phone conversation with my region’s executive director. Beware potential employer—I thought—for I was A Self-Assured Undergraduate, Who Would Not Be Casually Drinking the TFA KoolAid.
Now that I have almost reached the halfway point of my two-year commitment to Teach for America, I have come uncomfortably close to many of its criticisms, in particular to TFA’s “high” attrition rate. In my first week of teaching, one of my closest friends in the organization quit, only to be followed by a number of other corps members in my region soon afterward. Opponents of Teach for America are quick to point out that after two years, 50 percent of TFA teachers leave; after three years, 80 percent leave. The statistics still sting, even if we keep in mind that TFA places its corps members in some of the most difficult environments, and that, as a 2004 study from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future found, one-third of all new teachers in urban public schools leave after three years. However, my experience in TFA has made me infinitely more aware that these issues are complicated, and that Teach for America’s challenge in finding and retaining good teachers is entrenched in nation-wide challenges in education.
Selecting educators who can withstand the psychological and emotional toll of being a new teacher in a high-poverty school while maintaining their drive to teach is not an exact science. Teach for America is touted for its selectivity—in 2011 alone, out of the 5,200 selected corps members, 66 came from Harvard, 53 from Duke and 80 from that also decent school down the road. Still, even some of the most socially well-adjusted and successful undergraduates can have difficulty dealing with the severe mental toll of being a teacher in this environment. For the months of October and November, I had a friend who regularly became regularly sick to her stomach with anxiety on Sundays. An Ivy League graduate and close colleague of mine began experiencing daily migraines in her classroom. Last week, a friend of mine advised a visiting future corps member that crying in one’s classroom closet was a rite-of-passage for first-year teachers. The problem of maintaining one’s mental health is not unique to TFA—in my own school, five of the eight sixth-grade teachers were rotating substitutes, who replaced teachers who were unable to handle the mental toll of working in such a difficult environment, despite their devotion to their students. Witnessing the gradual decline in mental well-being of some of my closest colleagues has brought me to understand that quitting can mean more than being a privileged post-graduate just trying to move on to an easier and higher-paying job.
Moreover, it is also necessary to send good educators to other areas of education in need of great leadership. From serving in administrative positions in failing schools, to opening new schools of their own, to becoming involved in public policy, to joining Teach for America itself to better the organization’s model from within, Teach for America alumni have sought a cross-sector approach to reforming education. This is a reality that is not accurately represented by teacher attrition statistics. Having good teachers alone does not solve the educational inequality that Teach for America intends to fight. Dysfunctional schools need good staff, educators need public advocates and the cause needs donors with well-salaried (i.e., non-teaching) jobs. In order to make lasting, large-scale change, we need to do more than find the best potential teachers with the endurance, the ability to think on their feet and the dedication to teach in high-poverty schools. We need to acknowledge that the United States has an education problem, and that bringing in thousands of the country’s top graduates to help is a decent place to start trying to fix it.
Teach for America has a ways to go to meet its goals; its model is and will continue to be a work in progress, as it continues to search for the best balance in finding and training the best possible teachers to reach the greatest possible areas of need. I may not be drinking the KoolAid yet, but I think it’s worth taking under consideration.
Priya Bhat, Trinity ’11, is currently teaching sixth grade math with Teach for America in St. Louis, Mo. This is her final column of the semester.