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Letter to the Editor: Why Teach for America

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

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.

Despite criticism, Teach for America draws student applications

in News by

Despite controversy around its model for school reform, Teach for America continues to have a substantial recruitment presence at the college. Founded in 1990, TFA trains recent college graduates to teach in underserved public schools around the country. TFA teachers, collectively known as the “teaching corps”, commit to a minimum of two years of teaching, though many spend between three and five years with the organization. This year, Teach for America trained 4,100 teachers, drawn from 830 different colleges and universities.

This method has faced criticism from some educators, researchers, and activists, who argue that the TFA teaching corps is not experienced enough to adequately address the needs of the schools they are placed in; that TFA’s two-year commitment exacerbates high turnover rates at underfunded schools; that the finder fees that TFA charges — thousands of dollars per teacher — amount to a massive cost for school districts strapped for cash; and that the organization displaces veteran teachers. Especially grating for these critics is the fact that many TFA alumni do not continue teaching after they leave the program. A 2015 study by non-partisan research organization Mathematica Policy Research reported that over 87% of TFA hires do not plan to remain in teaching throughout their careers. TFA argues that its alumni continue to fight for issues around education equity whether they remain teachers or not, pointing to the fact that around two-thirds of their alumni remain in education-related fields.

Like many schools around the country, the college has a designated representative from TFA, facilitated by the Career Services office. Since July, this position has been filled by Brent Patrone, who taught math in Detroit for three years as part of the TFA corps. Patrone has already made two visits to the college this semester, where he has tabled at Sharples and met with students one-on-one. During his second visit, Patrone held an open discussion for students on education reform with Anne-Marie Frassica ’09, an alumni of both Swarthmore and TFA. Patrone plans to return to campus in the upcoming weeks. He noted that over 60 Swarthmore alumni have been or are currently involved with Teach for America. In 2014, 12 students applied to the organization, and 3 of them joined the teaching corps. In 2015, 9 students applied, and 5 joined the corps.

Associate Director of Career Services Erin Massey explained that Patrone’s outreach efforts are not unusually intense.

“All of these types of outreach are similar to how other organizations recruit on campus,” she said. “Most organizations offer a mix of tabling when they want to reach a wide number of students, information sessions for a more in-depth overview of their organization and on-campus interviews if they plan to interview an average of 10-12 students.”

At the same time, the college may receive more attention from TFA than other schools. Though he serves as TFA representative for 16 schools across Pennsylvania, Patrone explained that he places a greater emphasis on recruiting at Swarthmore than other colleges.

“With Swarthmore being such a service oriented campus with a lot of very competitive students, we have found that students from swarthmore become great corps member teachers. We have found that Swarthmore graduates match our values and mission very well,” he said. “The efforts in my portfolio have been more focused on Swarthmore’s campus, due to the high quality of candidates for the corps”

Yet despite this high praise, not all students feel as warmly about TFA as the organization apparently does about them. Joy Martínez ’16, an educational studies major currently involved in student teaching for her teaching certification, expressed deep concerns about the teaching model of Teach for America.

“My initial response with those issues of turnover rates… is that it can be damaging to the students, and it’s damaging to the whole view of teachers — ‘if you can’t do, teach’, or ‘it’s a placeholder’, or ‘it’s a resumé builder,’” she said. “I think some people who are involved in education policy or with Teach for America may say, ‘well we’re doing something, and this is fine.’ But it’s fulfilling some kind of temporary need, it’s not the solution. It’s the band-aid, it’s not the corrective surgery that the education system needs.”

In particular, Martínez expressed the sentiment that the short tenure of TFA teachers undermines important social and cultural functions of schools in America.

“There is damage that is done, I think, by having a high turnover rate.” she said. “A school is a place in our country and our society where friendships and relationships and family and community is formed… In areas that don’t have many communal spaces, it becomes more and more imperative for there to be teachers there to help facilitate those relationships, and to have student clubs, and to have their seventh grade students go back to the elementary school and do a Shakespeare performance. Things like that, those relationships that schools so naturally facilitate, that just doesn’t happen within a system like Teach for America.”

Amit Schwalbe ’16, also a current student teacher and an educational studies major, expressed a similar criticism of Teach for America’s method.

“I think on some level it sort of signals a lack of respect for the students who those teachers then teach, because we are giving those students teachers who have zero qualifications,” he said. “This teaching experience for them is this experimental process. So on some level it’s as if these students are their opportunity to experiment when these students, for a variety of factors, often need teachers who need the most experience.”

Jennelle Harris ’08, an alumni who is currently employed with TFA, pushed back on criticisms about the short tenure of teaching corps members. Harris joined Teach for America shortly after graduation, has worked with the organization in various roles for six years, and is currently employed part-time in the role of strategy manager. She admits that the teaching model of TFA can be disruptive — she remarked that the Harlem charter school she taught at experienced a 70% turnover rate in her last year with the corps. But she argued that TFA alumni, even if they do not become teachers, remain active advocates for education equity wherever they go.

“TFA feels as though it is incumbent upon everyone to understand that the outcomes of the urban education system are unfair. It’s not just about people entering the corps and teaching for a few years. Ultimately, TFA is creating a network of thousands and thousands of veteran teachers who are passionate about urban education. And they take that wherever they go… I think it should be appreciated that TFA is pulling people to a movement that needs as many people as possible, and making them feel passionate about the issue,” Harris said. This year, the TFA alumni network passed its 50,000 member mark.

Harris’ experience at Swarthmore was directly connected to her decision to work at Teach for America. The values she encountered at Swarthmore, she said, helped to solidify her commitment to working in the non-profit sector.

“Swarthmore always made me feel like it was partially my responsibility as a person with the privilege to go to a school like Swarthmore to be curious about issues that were affecting other people, and about social justice in general,” she said.

Sarah Timreck ‘14, who worked for TFA as a student recruiter in her senior year at the college and is currently in her second-year in the teaching corps and expressed similar sentiments about the importance of TFA’s work despite the criticism that the organization faces. Like Harris, Timreck saw a connection between the values of TFA and those of the college.

“I think one of the major reasons I did ultimately join the corps was because of the commitment to service that I feel Swarthmore does instill in its students. The commitment to social justice that i think very much aligns with the work that corps members do in their classrooms every day,” she said.

But for Schwalbe, the good intentions and hard work of teaching corps members may not be enough to justify the organization’s methods.

“I don’t think that Teach for America is creating more Justice in the world,” he said. “Is their motivation or their theory of change to provide elite people with some kind of experience of having come into contact with how hard and rough inequality in American schools is?..I see that as a piece of what’s going on with Teach for America, and that is extremely troubling to me because those people who are always at the center — people like me who are privileged in a number of ways — stay at the center of the paradigm.”

By this reasoning, the fact that TFA picks its applicants from prestigious colleges and universities may be a problem rather than a positive feature of the TFA program. Because TFA teachers tend to be privileged, at least in an educational sense, he argued, they do not share experiences or understanding with the students they serve. “many of the union teachers in Philadelphia are Black women who come from Philadelphia. Those people have a lot more in common with Philadelphia students than if I were going to go on to be a Teach for America teacher,” he said. “For me that’s a deep concern pedagogically. I think that any sort of culturally responsive pedagogy involves students having role models that they see themselves in.”

Though Martínez emphasized that she didn’t see the issue as black and white and that she did not want to fully deny the merits of TFA, she expressed related ideas about the gaps in their method.

“I wish that they would work with other groups to say ‘there’s a larger issue at hand in America and our public school systems. And it has to do with issues of race and gender and socioeconomic status’… What I haven’t seen from Teach for America when I’ve been researching and looking into it is an effort to really help those schools themselves and those school systems and those communities, and to use the culture, language and community that are already there, and build up on that..”

Martínez noted that TFA proudly publicizes the number of their teachers who come from non-rich, non-white backgrounds, but was skeptical as to TFA’s genuineness.

“Their corrections seem more like PR to me,” she said. “As someone looking at their web pages it doesn’t seem like an actual step toward the direction that I think and I think others think that it should go in.”

As an alternative to TFA’s model for education reform, Schwalbe pointed to the college’s own educational studies department, which offers an undergraduate teaching certificate program. Schwalbe emphasized that this sort of program is rare among the college’s peer institutions. He argued that by making teacher training accessible at the undergraduate level, this offering allows would-be teachers to get into the profession without paying for costly graduate programs. Avoiding these costs, he said, is precisely what leads many young people to programs like TFA, which provide training and teaching experience for free.

For some TFA veterans, such as Timreck, however, there is still room for optimism in the organization’s potential for improvement.

“Every organization can grow from its criticism, and can grow from the feedback that that criticism can provide,” Timreck said. “But I will say is that in my experience with the teachers that I know, and the corps that I feel very fortunate to be a part of, that we are all such committed individuals, and we are all going into our classrooms every day, definitely determined to give our kids what we think is best. At the end of the day that determination to be just 100% for-our-kids is what Swarthmore has instilled in me, and I think that the values that Swarthmore holds are very parallel to [those of TFA].”

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