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Letter to the Editor: Why Teach for America

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Shawn Sheehan is a career teacher from Oklahoma who cares about her students, but simply can no longer put her heart and soul into teaching without a living wage. Her dilemma is one felt and lived by many teachers in Oklahoma, the state where I grew up. Since high school, I had been aware of the plight of public education in my home state. Currently, Oklahoma leads the nation in funding cuts to public education, forcing administrators and teachers to find other jobs. Having failed our last public referendum in November, my state ranks 49th in the nation for teacher pay. All of these factors affect the quality of education given to students. When I started teaching last August, there were 1,200 unfillable teaching positions across the state. Now, with budget shortfalls cutting into teacher pay and education resources, I fear that the gap between the number of teachers willing to continue to teach and the demand for qualified educators will only widen.

The current crisis in education in Oklahoma is why I want to encourage Swatties to re-evaluate the role of Teach for America (TFA) in schools and communities. I understand TFA can promote a neoliberal agenda that can be detrimental to social justice. But in a place where the organization provides much-needed educational resources and research through collaborating with schools and districts, TFA is one solution, albeit an imperfect one,  toward the educational equity of underserved school districts. During a time of severe teacher shortage when Title One schools face sequestration, the choice to use TFA gives community leaders a chance to provide their communities with the opportunity of education, far from the ideal educational equity it may be.

What is causing such problems in schools in Oklahoma you may ask? First, I would consider the effect of legislation from the last decade, such as No Child Left Behind that used standardized tests from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to hold teachers and schools accountable through legal and fiscal ramifications for poor performance. Teachers are responsible for making their students pass standardized tests, or risk losing federal funding for their school. Administrators and schools also jump on this bandwagon by purchasing test-prep materials and technology that orients students toward testing strategies and learning. For underserved schools, poor test grades strip schools of even the most basic resources to support teachings. Such is my case, as I only got two class sets of textbooks to begin teaching three subjects. And the cumulative effect? My students’ test-taking behavior is flawless, but the same cannot be said about their test-taking abilities. It is regretful that such well-intentioned legislation can generate results that could not be further from its intent.

Second, the day-to-day experience of working with kids who may not have had the opportunity or environment to develop academic habits presents an ever-recurring mental and emotional obstacle. When I experienced teaching at my school first-hand, I started to understand the many challenges of teaching at an underserved school in 2017. I quickly learned that students can, and do, refuse to do work, listen to instructions, or partake in academic instruction. Disciplinary action often left me drained and deprived of any control of my class as other students watched on in amusement. The entire experience of the daily grind is overwhelming socially and emotionally, and colleagues tell me a good day in my placement school is a bad day anywhere else—so just imagine what a bad day was like. The tragedy of the situation is that students refuse what it is that you know they need the most to be successful members of society, begging me to ask whom social justice is for; it is dismal that I have recently developed a sense for picking out students who have “mastered the art of abusing the system” to shirk ever further from leaning,

These are just a handful of challenges teachers and administrators face day after day, week after week, and year after year. With such high academic expectations, little support, and classrooms of students who act apathetic toward academics, who would want to work in such an environment? Teachers are ready to leave the profession, and I have had many conversations with veteran colleagues who want to leave the profession because of all the issues with teaching, discipline, funding, and resources. Due to these challenges, proficient teachers I know have stopped caring about teaching: they are too burned-out from being unsupported, underpaid, and putting up with the daily “disrespect.” It can be a demoralizing experience to work through a year with classes of students whose actions and behavior indicate their apathy towards academics, and with broken tools to discipline students in the hope they adopt a more academics-prone behavior, and for many older teachers, with paychecks that cannot pay their bills. This is my conclusion on why teachers leave: they cannot financially, mentally, and emotionally afford to teach anymore.

It is no coincidence teachers who leave will adversely affect the educational opportunities of students, but what can administrators and school districts do in the wake of dwindling funding? Therein lies one role for Teach for America. When the challenge simply is trying to find teachers who want to teach, TFA provides a solution to a long-term substitute. While I understand the drawbacks of my two-year commitment, having a career science teacher for my students is not currently a reality for the community or students whom I teach. Perhaps my contributions may not be the closest option to educational equity and social justice, but the alternative is not having someone to teach my students. When comparing the choice between not having a teacher and having someone who wants to do his or her best to teach students, like myself, considering TFA as an option becomes paramount.

Having gone through the controversy of joining Teach for America from Swarthmore, I understand full and well the implications of being a teacher from the organization. I have heard and deliberated the arguments about TFA, but still decided to become a TFA corp member because I do not believe sacrificing the education of those today will bring about a better educational revolution tomorrow. Yes, I have heard the claim that TFA actually hurts underserved communities and that TFA co-opts community and resources for neoliberal school reform. Yes, these are all legitimate arguments, but they are only speculation without a concrete study of the role of TFA in each school and community. When my TFA friend’s first graders cannot tell her why they are important, perhaps my role, and hers as well, may be as simple as showing the students that some strangers really care about them enough to devote two years of their time trying to teach them. Just perhaps, I might suggest that these simple intentions are social justice too.
The more I teach, the more I believe teaching is becoming an unsustainable profession. Too often teachers are blamed for the faults of our schools and failing education system. I love my students, and I want to be their teacher and try to teach them something every day at school. Yet, the extra duties, responsibilities, and accountability of teaching strongly discourage me from pursuing it as a career. Of 15 teachers at my school, I will not see six of them next year, and three of which have already left before the end of the year. Yes, I could have selected a better program to partake in the education of students, but my school, like many others out there, do not have the privilege of receiving the assistance from such programs. This is where my and TFA’s reformed, broader definition of social justice begins to take form.

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