Friday, January 30, 2004

TFA FAQ

My mention that I started teaching through Teach For America led to an email from a student considering applying to TFA herself. I am happy to answer questions about TFA, but I really only want to do it once, so I'm posting about it. My comments assume that you already know a bit about what Teach For America is and how it works.

Overall, I'd say that TFA is a well-run organization. In my experience, they ask for feedback regularly (at least from Corps Members) and act on it. They seem to have a true commitment to recruiting a diverse corps of teachers as far as gender and race are concerned; while not perfect, I do believe they strive to get better and better. I would recommend TFA if you are
  • interested in teaching but not absolutely sure of it as a career choice
  • strongly committed to teaching in under-resourced schools (urban or rural) and looking for a way to get started


Summer institute is a miserable experience for nearly everyone. You live in a god-awful dorm, wake at the crack of dawn to teach in a very hot summer school, spend part of the day struggling with the baby steps of teaching and the rest of the day in classes and workshops, and spend your evenings planning, grading, meeting with various people, and fighting for the copier. Oh, and by the way - all that planning and teaching is done with a randomly assigned team of three new teachers. And the food isn't very good. If you have lots of experience talking about race, class and other "diversity issues," you will find yourself frustrated and annoyed by the most basic things other corps members don't seem to understand. If you're brand new to these topics, or skeptical of their value, you'll find yourself overwhelmed and occasionally attacked. Welcome to Institute.

Teaching - In the fall, you will be placed in a teaching position somewhat similar to what you hoped you'd be teaching. The first few weeks will be a whirlwind from which you'll wake up to find chaos in your classroom. Some corps members will rapidly restore order and never miss a beat afterwards, but most will continue to struggle with the many demands of teaching the most needy (and often the most difficult) students in overcrowded schools with few resources and few real sources of support. You'll have a program director at your regional office who will observe you occasionally, answer your questions, constantly challenge you to do better, suggest ideas for increasing student learning in your classroom. You will find teachers in your school who will understand what you're going through and offer support and advice. You might have a mentor (if you're in NY, that mentor could be me! Hi C. & B.!). At the end of the first year, you'll reflect on what worked and did not work and come back in the fall ready for round 2... and many will find year 2 soooo much easier than year 1, but many will still struggle. I was still struggling - a LOT - after two years. Those who stay after finishing their 2 year commitment often become truly great teachers.

During these two years, you will have moments - maybe even a lot of them - when you love your students, love your job, wouldn't want to do anything else. You will learn and understand things about poverty and race in the United States that you could never understand from a college course. You will help a kid get free violin lessons or pass his first reading test or learn to use a microscope or [insert inspirational story here]. A few kids will start coming to help you in your classroom during lunch because they like spending time with you and talking with you about their lives.

TFA, like every organization, has internal politics that can be annoying or worse. I don't think the internal politics at TFA are that bad, given what I've come across in schools and other organizations! But you might notice that some corps members seem to be "stars" while others, well... aren't. There's also a "Corps Member Improvement Program during Institute which was very controversial while I was there. The program directors and other staff members do their best to help you while maintaining very high expectations of your work and commitment to your students' learning - the P.D.'s will listen and offer advice, but they will not encourage whining or hold your hand. How well you get along with your P.D. can make a huge difference in your TFA experience; it can be helpful to get to know other regional office staff if you aren't clicking with your P.D. TFA is going through an expansion right now at the same time that many cities are setting up their own alternative certification pathways that compete with TFA. I've heard about problems finding placements for corps members in the last two years. There were also some Americorps funding issues last spring, but I don't know what the final result was.

I would say that if you are interested in teaching in the kinds of schools where TFA places corps members, you would be wise to apply to TFA. You will get more support and advice through TFA as you would through any other program to my knowledge. I highly recommend pursuing a master's in education during your TFA years, especially if you are planning to stay in teaching, because you'll need it for certification, you'll probably get a discount, and you'll want to know more about teaching than Summer Institute alone can provide.

I hope this doesn't come across as too negative; I think it's crucial to understand that teaching - especially in the TFA program - is really, really hard. Know what you're getting into! Do it because you're committed to educational equity, not to pad your resume (there are easier ways!). Spend as much time as possible observing schools before you apply, so you can think realistically about what teaching entails.

Feel free to email me any more questions about TFA!

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