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Teaching the Educated

Victor Wakefield has a simple business card.

The front is plain, with his name and title—“Recruitment Director”—written in a basic font, followed by the standard contact information. For someone like a magazine reporter who has amassed a small Rolodex of business cards over the years, there appears to be nothing remarkable about this particular one.

But when you turn it over, in bold font is written, “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

Ambitious, to be sure. This credo makes sense, however, since for the past two years Wakefield has taught 5th and 6th graders in Gary, Ind. as a corps member in the Teach for America. Now, after finishing his commitment in the classroom, he is in charge of recruitment for the program on Duke’s campus.

Turns out, TFA was the top employer of Duke’s graduating seniors last year: 11 percent went on to teach in a classroom as a TFA corps member. (Take that, Wall Street.) But he had more facts and figures to truly explain the extent and impact of the program. Last year, Duke was also ranked ninth among medium-sized colleges and universities to contribute seniors to the corps. And historically, Wakefield added, more than 300 Duke graduates have given two years to TFA.

But even though TFA has been the top employer at Duke for three years running, the number of grads every year that enter the classroom has decreased.

“Interest has been pretty constant in terms of the number of applications,” Wakefield said, noting that last year’s application pool was bigger than ever. “That said, Teach For America has always had a pretty high bar for who is accepted. So one of my goals this year is to make sure I’m sitting down with the top leaders on campus and the highest achievers so we can bring that number back up.”

Which he has been doing even in the first few weeks of the semester. Already he can pinpoint why Duke has such a high rate of alumni entering the TFA corps. “From my own observations, I believe that Duke has contributed so many grads to the corps for two reasons in particular,” he said. “The first is that Duke always has a very rigorous academic program that challenges students to achieve at a high level. Secondly, Duke seems to have an enthusiasm for both leadership and for public service. I’ve noticed that many Duke students are involved in multiple student organizations, multiple academic or scholarship programs, many of which are also devoted to public service.”

This could be said, however, for any top-tiered academic institution. What’s unique about Duke, Wakefield said, is that there are so many opportunities throughout the University that allow students the chance to give back. Again, an emphasis on service is par for the course, but no school really matches DukeEngage, rolled out just two years ago and already a staple of students’ summers. And although the opportunities on campus to make a national—or even global—impact through service have increased, Wakefield said he doesn’t think this has deterred students from considering TFA.

“It’s intuitive to think that the efforts go hand-in-hand and help each other,” he said. “It opens the eyes of students to see what it means to make a tangible impact on society. These kind of programs, what they do is they ignite an interest and passion in the minds of Duke students, who then see Teach for America as a very tangible way to enter or to continue making systemic change.”

Wakefield said he always had a clear understanding of half of TFA’s mission—that is, placing teachers in underserved schools in an attempt to close the nation’s achievement gap. “What I didn’t understand as fully as I do now is the second part of TFA’s mission, which is essentially—from my understanding and interpretation—that we will have a movement of program alumni, who have taught successfully, working to lead society from all sectors with the hope and mission of closing the achievement gap and working for educational equality.”

This two-fold mission was further explained to me by Erin Oschwald, the executive director for TFA in the Eastern North Carolina region. Like every staff member with whom I spoke, she had, at one point, taught for two years in an underachieving school district. After graduating from Wake Forest, she worked in a rural North Carolina high school. And now she works to support teachers and help establish relationships with different school districts across the state.

Though not every TFA teacher continues his career in the classroom, Oschwald says that the program aims to give its members hands-on experience with the achievement gap so that they better know how to address the problem in their future professions.

Kerry Donahue is one of those who chose continue her education post-Teach for America. As a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross—a Jesuit liberal-arts school in Worcester, Mass.—she requested to be placed in a rural school in Eastern North Carolina. And although she had applied to the program to give back and do something  where her own achievement was not the focus, she explained that nothing could have prepared her for her first day on the job.

“During my fourth period I had an out-of-body experience as I watched one of my students stand on his desk as I struggled to run an icebreaker for the class. Feeling helpless, I wanted to be anywhere but there,” she told me. “That afternoon I sat at my computer and I seriously questioned my own ability to control a class and wondered what exactly I was doing pretending to be a teacher in North Carolina.”

But corps members aren’t really pretending. They are employed by the districts in which they are placed and they function as teachers after only a summer’s worth of training. The effectiveness of TFA’s strategy—place relatively green teachers in the classroom for just two years—has both its passionate advocates and fervent critics. In 2008, the Urban Institute released a study conducted in North Carolina that concluded, following five years of statistical research, that “TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers.” Extensive statistical data may tout TFA’s success, but on a personal level, the program’s critics attempt to combat such optimism with anecdotes that detail more negative experiences.

Donahue, for one, chose to leave the classroom behind. Still, she says that her temporary time with TFA has permanently influenced her professional interests. “There is no doubt that if it were not for TFA I would not be so dedicated to education policy issues,” she explained. “As a teacher, I found that I could make a big difference in the lives of my students. I taught a course that was required for graduation in North Carolina so it was extremely important to me and to them that they pass the end-of-course test and go on to graduate high school. I was the key lever in whether or not they passed.”

And it’s that type of impact—coupled with the last three years of history and a dry well of finance and consulting jobs—that make it likely that Wakefield will have another sizable recruitment class from Duke this year.

Since the program’s inception in 1990, the corp size in Eastern North Carolina, and nationwide, has increased rapidly, and TFA projects that 225 teachers will be entering classrooms in the area for the next school year. The program is just as intense as it is rewarding, Donahue affirmed before leaving advice for corps members-in-the-making.

“If you are applying to Teach For America, be ready for personal sacrifice,” she said. “It will hit you hard on your first day in the classroom, that the children sitting in front of you are totally dependent on you. That realization can be overwhelming—it was for me—but, more importantly, it is motivating. You have the chance to change their lives. Every child that walks in your classroom represents an opportunity to break down the negative effects of the achievement gap in America.”

Sounds like something that could go on a business card.

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