This is the first in a series of posts that I will publish over the next few days written by Anna Martin, an alumna for Teach for America who has stayed in her original placement school in California for seven years, five years longer than the TFA demands of its recruits.
Martin calls herself “conflicted” about the organization, which places college graduates from top schools into schools with high rates of low-income students after providing them with five weeks of training.
The organization is a favorite among current school reformers, and is supported by the Obama administration, as an innovative way to rejuvenate the country’s corps of teachers. TFA’s many opponents say, among other things, that five weeks of training is hardly enough to prepare a young person for the difficulties of teaching needy children and that this approach devalues the teaching profession and winds up hurting the students who most need the most experienced teachers
Martin has written several posts on her experiences with TFA, each focused on a different aspect of the experience. Here’s the first. Come back tomorrow for the second installment.
By Anna Martin
“Is anyone from your corps year still teaching in our district besides you?”
-- Comment in my school’s staff room during lunch
This comment, from a second-year Teach For America corps member to me—a seven-year veteran teacher and conflicted TFA alumna — is emblematic of my love-hate relationship with the organization.
I can’t deny that I would not be teaching where I am if Teach for America had not placed me here seven years ago. For that reason alone, I am extremely grateful; I love the students and families with whom I work.
On the other hand, I seem to be a rare bird in the TFA world. Sadly, in the lunchroom that day that day, I couldn’t think of anyone else from my corps year still be teaching in the district. Since then I’ve come up with one name.
Sure, I know plenty of fellow alums who have gone on to other districts and other, mainly charter, schools. But very few stay where they were first planted.
Just staying is, in fact, antithetical to TFA’s vision of how it will achieve its mission that “one day all children will receive an excellent education.” As I learned on my recent trip to Washington, D.C. to attend its 20th Anniversary Summit, Teach For America is in the continual process of expanding its reach.
In an email to all alums, founder Wendy Kopp shared TFA’s vision for 2015, which includes as its main priority: “By 2015, we aim to field more than 15,000 corps members (and more than 8,000 incoming corps members). At this scale, Teach For America will provide 20-25 percent of the [national] new [teacher] hires and reach more than 900,000 students across the nation’s 60 highest-need urban and rural communities.”
Interestingly, at the summit’s opening caucus, Wendy announced that over 3,000 of the 10,800 people in attendance were current corps members. Don’t try to tell me they were all just there for the free drink tickets. Nope. As the hiring booths and flyers advertising for alum to come teach at new schools attested, I believe the majority were looking for their next job prospect after finishing their initial two-year commitment.
I was not prospecting—seven years in I am still committed to teaching and working at my placement school. I joined Teach for America in 2004, just as I graduated from Barnard College in New York City. I had spent the past year finishing my thesis and working as the program director for a college-access program that recruited young college students to provide SAT and college counseling to juniors at the only public all-girls high school in the country at the time.
One day after returning from Harlem’s Lower East Side, I went along with some of my college coaches to Columbia University’s hiring fair (mainly in the hopes of free food and drink) and ended up talking to a TFA recruiter. In subsequent weeks, I was invited to a luncheon with Wendy Kopp, given a copy of her book, and taken to coffee by a TFA alumna who was at Columbia Teacher’s College.
I surprised myself; I was never a “joiner,” but I applied to, was accepted by, and joined Teach for America. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
During TFA’s Summer Institute, I taught summer school English to 18 year olds at a high school in Watts in Southern California. I had never taken any educational coursework before that summer.
The Watts school was different from my placement after the summer institute, a school in San Jose where I was slated to teach 7th grade English and world history.
During that first year of teaching, I was literally an intern in my own classroom. As required by my emergency, probationary credential, I took full-time credentialing coursework (22 units) while teaching 6 periods of students a day (our school had acquired funding to increase our school day the year before I arrived). Did I go to the staff lunchroom during the first six months I taught at my school? No. I had no time.
I can tell you that it took a lot longer than my two-year commitment for me to build the relationships with other teachers, families, students and their siblings that I have now.
Last year, I attended the high school graduations of my very first classes of students. Even though I don’t live in San Jose and commute about a 90-mile round trip every day, I was at my former student Juvenal’s graduation party until after 10 p.m. laughing with his mother about him and his two brothers, now all in high school. When a student or former student brings in their younger sibling, a toddler or 5th grader, they believe me when I talk about having them in my class someday.
Being the rare bird who has stayed with my placement for seven years gives me a unique, if slightly tortured perspective.
I didn’t migrate when the administrative leadership at the school changed, not once, but four times, as administrators are wont to do in the kind of low-income, high-need districts where TFA places their young teachers.
I haven’t flown the coop as all four other corps members from my year placed at my school finally did – or the 10 other corps members from later years who have come and gone during my time here. Many have stayed four or five years, itself a small miracle in terms of TFA’s teacher lifespan at placement schools. Some were forced out by weird district forces that are symptomatic of the need for change.
But why, I frequently ask myself when thinking rationally about career trajectories and multi-hour commutes, can’t I bring myself to leave?
I think the answer lies in the one issue that almost kept me from accepting TFA’s offer in the first place: my uneasiness with only committing two years to a community.
It seemed presumptuous to assume that I could come in, transform kids’ lives, and leave again two years later. I was skeptical then — and at this point I don’t think it can be done. I don’t believe two years is enough, which is why seven years later, I think my school community still needs me and other teacher leaders committed to staying and making change where change is needed most.
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