Teach for America Eats Its Young
February 2009. I submitted my application to Teach for America, a job option for an increasing number of college seniors. I applied to be a bilingual teacher because I feel passionately about the importance of bilingual education, and thus embarked on a series of applications, interviews, tests, and mountains of paperwork—everything from background checks to transitional funding for the summer training, to language proficiency exams, mock lesson plans, and role playing exercises—that comprise Teach for America’s rigorous vetting system. Over the last 20 years Teach for America has worked to eliminate educational inequality and the educational achievement gap in the United States. The organization has grown to become a nationally recognized player in education reform, has expanded its reach to 35 regions, and increased the size of its “corps," to over 7,000. To date, more than 17,000 “corps alumni,” have taught millions of students.
I do not want to detract from or disparage the incredible and urgent work that TFA, and in particular its corps members, have taken on. However, my experience with TFA as an organization, from the moment I was "inducted” into the corps in June until I was forced to defer my position with them this October, was an utter nightmare. I am not the only one who lived through the TFA nightmare, and my story must be told because Teach for America’s mission is so important. By treating corps members the way they did me, they are doing a disservice to that mission, and to the kids who they are supposed to be serving.
When I was accepted, I was ecstatic, although my joy was tempered slightly when the applications of my two closest friends were turned down. I was signing up for something challenging, but I was eager to begin my career after college. After “Induction,” a week-long series of redundant introductions and welcome-to-the-corps events, Summer Institute began. TFA’s Institute is a five-week training intensive and is notoriously difficult. Corp members woke up at 5 a.m., were on a bus by 6:30 to teach summer school classes in public schools all morning; in the afternoon, we took classes to learn everything from curriculum development and teaching techniques to classroom management and working with parents and families. The late afternoon into the wee hours of the morning were spent lesson planning, revising, rewriting, and more planning, as well as attending more classes, workshops and events. I had been warned by former corps members about how exhausting Institute is, but it always seemed that it was a rite of passage, and designed purposefully to make you feel as if you could do anything if you could survive those five weeks.
Everyone tells you that your Institute experience is made or broken by your CMA – Corps Member Advisor. This is the staff member with whom you spend the most time, whether in small group training workshops during the day, when the CMA observes you teaching and offers feedback, or when he or she provides feedback on the multiple drafts of lesson plans you needed before you're able to teach those lessons. Your CMA is your liaison with TFA, your go-to person for any questions, issues, or problems, your editor, cheerleader and critic. And it just so happened that I, and my fellow CMA-group members, got a bad one. Gwendolyn*, a TFA alum with 2 years teaching experience, was not competent when it came to teaching us how to teach. One of the cornerstones of the Institute Experience is getting constructive feedback on your lesson plans. Gwendolyn was inconsistent; at first she chastised a group of us for having such different lesson plans, telling us we should all be working together on formulating our lesson plans (LPs) and that the drafts we turned in should be the result of that collaboration. A few weeks later, those of us who had taken her advice seriously, were pulled out of a workshop by Gwendolyn and our School Director (SD) Stephanie, and accused of plagiarism for turning in the same LP drafts. From the very first week, it seemed that Gwendolyn hated me. Sometimes I would get LPs returned to me with zero comments, completely blank, while other CMAs obviously took a great deal of time to give their advisees the best feedback they could. When it came time to teach a lesson on which I'd gotten no guidance or feedback, Gwendolyn and other TFA staff would observe me, and I would get obliterated with criticism.
Teach for America is obsessed with surveys. Surveys of Corps Members, surveys of staff; they want feedback about everything. At first this struck me as a good idea—maybe they want to hear what we think!—but it quickly became apparent that our surveys were not being used to help TFA serve us better (as they claimed). They were being used to weed out corps members who were having trouble, who didn't like the way TFA operates, and who “didn't care enough about the kids.” None of the surveys were anonymous, but we were all assured that this was so TFA could address our individual concerns. After the first round of surveys, rumors began to circulate about the consequences of giving poor feedback about our advisors. One advisor directly confronted a member, saying, “So, I heard you gave me 6 out of 10 on this survey item,” and then stood there threateningly, awaiting an explanation. People lived in fear of answering surveys honestly, but we couldn't get out of filling them out; advisors and school directors would pursue us by phone, e-mail, and even come to our dorm rooms late at night if we hadn't responded to the weekly midnight deadline.
I didn't fill out the first survey, for fear of repercussions. When all of us at our school site were confronted by our school team leader, Stephanie, and assured that our feedback would not be used against us, I complied. I was quite frank about the lack of support—and sometimes outright hostility—I felt from Gwendolyn. It became clear very quickly that this was a horrible mistake. Stephanie confronted me, told me I was unprofessional, and essentially threatened me with being put in the “Tracker.” Being in the “Tracker” is like being put on probation: one wrong move and you’re screwed.
This was only the first negative experience I had with Stephanie. She was a wiz at undermining my authority in the classroom, and providing me with lots of harsh criticism and very little support. I left every conversation with her wanting to cry. Without tooting my own horn, it should be noted that as a teacher at Institute, I made incredible, meaningful gains with my students. They learned new skills, improved at old ones, and ultimately wrote and published as their final project some beautiful poetry that surprised me, other teachers, and each other. The class average on the midterm exam was 93%. Mr. Hasson, the veteran public school teacher whose classroom I was teaching in, and who is not affiliated with TFA, was amazed by my connections with the students. He praised the effort and care I and the other teachers put in, and helped us through many of the obstacles that arose over the summer. Having taught at MS 143 longer than any other teacher, Mr. Hasson was an expert on teaching 6th grade. He told us that he learned more from watching us than we did from getting his feedback. While providing valuable criticism and comments, Mr. Hasson was a huge source of support and inspiration.
When the midterm exams were drawing close, Mr. Hasson and I sat down to discuss where students’ strong points and weaknesses were, and devised a plan to have students come in 30 minutes early for extra review time. It was time they desperately needed, and when I asked Mr. Hasson if he ever had students come in early, he said “all the time.” I announced this to the students on a day when Stephanie was observing me, and promised breakfast and extra test review the following morning. Immediately, Stephanie started speaking very loudly in the back of the room to whomever would listen, saying things like “She can’t do that!” and, “Well, she is going to have to cancel that test review, she didn’t get my permission!” My poor co-teacher Ms. Naar bore the brunt of her rant while I finished teaching my lesson. Stephanie completely undermined my authority; students were turning to face her in the back of the classroom while I was teaching. When my lesson was over, she yanked me out into the hall and yelled at me for “thinking that I could just change the school schedule however I liked,” and for how “unprofessional” I was. I explained that Mr. Hasson and I had discussed this together, and that he agreed we needed to do this if we wanted our children to do well on the exam. Stephanie forbid the review session, saying it was “illegal,” and made me go back into the classroom and tell the students that it was canceled. Mr. Hasson and I managed to make up the time during another lesson, but not until the damage to my feelings, and to my authority in the students’ eyes, had already been done.
In contrast to the feedback I got from Mr. Hasson, and the very clear results of my students, Stephanie and Gwendolyn could not be remotely happy for me, or give me anything except harsh criticism.
When we were reviewing all of the midsummer exam statistics, the 93% average on the midterms—the most important statistic of all—“somehow” didn’t make it onto the powerpoint presentation shown to the whole school. I never got any credit for the positive work I was doing unless I demanded it, or unless it was coming from Mr. Hasson. The two people who were supposed to be supporting me and the other corps members instead became my enemies. It might sound as if I was paranoid, but the truth is that TFA breeds paranoia amongst its members.
I don’t think my school experience was representative of everyone’s during institute. The experience we had in my CMA group, with our advisor, was not representative of CMs in all CMA groups at our school. But at 143, in Gwendolyn’s CMA group, something was deeply wrong, something that many of us had tried to raise with the school staff through surveys and one-on-one meetings, and until the very last week of Institute, no one took notice or tried to make it better.
Meanwhile, through all of the day-to-day misery, stress, anxiety, and conflict that made up so much of Institute, there was an even larger issue looming on the horizon. Unbeknownst to us, it kept many of us from being employed, and made the entire struggle we went through for naught. With the economy in the tank, city educational politics a mess, and thousands of teachers in NYC unemployed and draining city funds in an “excess pool” of teachers, the city had instituted a hiring freeze in the spring. We started being told that we were going to have to be “flexible,” if we wanted to be hired, meaning we might have to teach a different subject or grade level. Still, TFA said they were confident we would all be placed. The “Placement Period” was until November 2nd, so if you were not hired before the first day of school in September, TFA said they would pay 90% of our salary during that time. If you weren’t hired by November, you would be on your own, and could defer until next year; we were assured repeatedly that it wouldn’t come to that. Not after all the work we had put in during Institute, after we’d started attending grad school for our Masters in Teaching (which started the week after Institute ended).
The first day of school came and went, and TFA was still “super confident” that we would be placed. Slowly though, my friends and I started feeling pressure -- to switch out of Bilingual and become Special-Ed teachers (with no Special-Ed training); to move from our placement city of New York to Newark, New Jersey. I joined TFA so that I could be a bilingual teacher, and now I was being told that if I wasn’t flexible, I wasn’t guaranteed a job.
One close friend, also a bilingual teacher placed in New York, had moved from Utah at the beginning of the summer. Running out of money (it took a while to get our first TFA paychecks), she told TFA that she desperately needed some other options, and couldn’t wait in New York much longer. They gave her the choice of moving to Houston, Baltimore, Las Vegas or one other city, and told her she would have to move within three days. School had already started in all of those places. When talking to a TFA rep on the phone, Denise asked some basic questions: Who would pick her up from the airport? Where would she live? Would she have a teaching position lined up, or would she have to go on interviews in the new city? The TFA rep told her, “You need to take a leap of faith.” Needless to say, Denise stayed in New York, eventually switching out of the bilingual program to get a job.
The first week of October rolled around, and I was owed my second paycheck from TFA. I got a call from my Placement rep at the TFA office. Bad news. It looked as if the restrictions on bilingual teachers would not be lifted, and I would not get a job this hiring season unless I moved to Newark, or left the bilingual program. Clearly, TFA had not anticipated having to pay salaries for so many unhired teachers for as long as they did, and were trying to get us to leave, or switch to another region, before they had to pay us more money. I looked for other jobs in New York and elsewhere, and when I was given a good job in another state, I decided to defer with TFA until next year. I would have quit outright, but I owed them money for my grad school tuition and the “Transitional Funding” loan I had received over the summer, and would not be able to pay it all back right away. The same day I accepted this other job, a week after being told that there was no chance of being hired as a bilingual teacher this year, my placement coordinator phoned me saying I had an interview that afternoon for a bilingual teaching position. There was nothing I could do but laugh, and tell them that it was too late. They had convinced me that I had to leave, and now that’s what I was going to do.
Throughout my entire experience as a TFA corps member I felt manipulated, lied to, unappreciated and not respected. During Institute I felt like the TFA staffers around me wanted me to fail, and during “Placement Season” no one could give me a straight answer or support. Ultimately, I still don’t know what my fate as a Teach for America corps member, or as a teacher, will be. I’ve taken a job in another state for the time being, and I am happy. But I can’t help thinking that I could be making a big difference teaching in a bilingual classroom.
*certain names have been changed