Grad school for academics, Goldman for bankers, McKinsey for consultants—all of these post-grad paths are well trod by Harvard alums looking to jump-start high-powered careers right out of college. Another default option is often Teach For America, a selective organization that places 11,000 corps members in teaching positions across the country, promising a chance to explore education, leadership, and public service. But TFA’s methods and results have long generated controversy: Is TFA the panacea for socioeconomic inequality as some say, or are the corps members’ stress and sleep deprivation all for naught?
The Atlantic furthered the debate over TFA’s effectiveness two weeks ago with an op-ed titled “I Quit Teach for America.” In the article, writer Olivia Blanchard explains her reasons for withdrawing from TFA after one year instead of the expected two. Blanchard paints TFA as naïve, unrealistic, and wasteful at best, irresponsible, negligent, and harmful at worst—and despite feeling initially guilty, she is later relieved after resigning from the program.
With so many Harvard students and affiliates pursuing Teach for America, FM wondered how our own TFA crowd would respond to Blanchard’s allegations.
Prepared to Teach?
To begin with, Blanchard reports feeling completely unprepared after participating in TFA’s five-week training program. Rather than being offered concrete skills for future use in the classroom, she was disillusioned upon discovering that the program instead inculcated its corps members with what she describes as “a sea of jargon, buzzwords, and touchy-feely exercises.”
Michael, a recent Harvard College grad and current second-year TFA participant who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he was violating his local TFA office’s press policy, has considered dropping out but plans to honor his two-year commitment. Like Blanchard, he felt unprepared for real teaching after TFA’s training program, which he said included too few hours of training, during which he was teaching too few students.
Conversely, Kevin A. Lee, a student at the Graduate School of Education who completed his TFA tenure this past spring, found the training program brief but effective in preparing him for the challenges ahead. He feels that the tools that served him best as a teacher were not the hard skills of classroom strategy but rather lifelong personal and character-based qualities such as perseverance, empathy, and communication.
Brian ‘13, a former Kirkland House resident and current first-year TFA corps member who was granted anonymity because he feared that his standing within the organization would be negatively affected, absorbed valuable lessons from his trial-by-fire TFA training class of 34 South Phoenix eighth graders this summer.
“Did I learn everything I would have liked to in those five weeks about teaching? No, but like most everyone I talked to, I had no illusions that I would,” he explained by email.
Another current corps member, H. Louise Hindal ’12, says that after her summer training, she “definitely felt prepared.” While acknowledging that five weeks is short, she says that “there is no way to learn to be a teacher without being in the classroom... Your first year is overwhelming as a teacher no matter what.”
Finding a Community?
Feeling undertrained and thrown into an Atlanta public school, Blanchard struggled with needy and unruly students, resentment between corps members and other teachers, and a lack of support from TFA itself.
However, the Harvard graduates and students interviewed almost unanimously report that within their placement schools, corps members and non-TFA teachers enjoyed mutually-supportive relationships.
TFA alumnus Lee feels that potential problems finding community would be “personally-driven, not TFA-driven.”
Brian wrote, “In fact, as the school year started, one of the comments me and a fellow TFA corps member frequently made was that we had too much support.”
Michael, who has considered dropping out, acknowledged that TFA provides some support for its corps members. However, echoing Blanchard’s concerns, he has found these resources limited by bureacracy within the organization.
Is TFA Worth It?
Blanchard questions whether or not TFA benefits students, corps members, or the educational system at large.
While many TFA teachers feel that they performed poorly their first year, and some like Michael even think they let down their students, most cite huge gains in the second year of the program—which Blanchard and other early dropouts miss out on. Although TFA does not release its corps member retention rates, early withdrawal seems anecdotally common.
Having transitioned to her second year, Hindal is working as much as ever, putting in 70-80 hour workweeks, but reports that year two is “amazingly different.”
Lee echoed Hindal’s sentiments, adding, “The worst day of your second year is still better than the best day of your first year.”
Lee, who majored in business, heard about TFA’s compelling mission during his senior year in college. TFA’s goals of improving access to education resonated with his own experience in Chicago’s South Side public school system, and after teaching math in Atlanta, he has swapped his business aspirations for a career in education.
Lee believes that TFA plays a vital role in drawing bright and motivated young people into education, where their talents and hard work are desperately needed. He has stories of many other corps members who, like him, are surprised to find themselves still passionately invested in teaching after TFA ends, which Lee feels is “hugely beneficial” to the educational system as a whole.
Brian wrote that, “regardless of where TFA corps members move onto after their time teaching, they do walk away with a better sense of the problems in the education system in the US.”
He added, “Whether they turn that into a congressional campaign or merely a career on a future child’s PTA board, I think that the knowledge is invaluable.”
Should You Do TFA?
While aware of TFA’s drawbacks, many Harvard students continue to look forward to joining the corps.
L. Fay Alexander ’14 has weighed criticisms like Blanchard’s but plans to begin a TFA teaching position next year in Oklahoma, where she hopes to focus especially on the lack of educational opportunities faced by Native American students.
She also won’t be relying solely on TFA training: Alexander has already gotten her feet wet as a student teacher with Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Program.
Alexander says she wouldn’t have signed up for TFA if she hadn’t first done UTEP. But what’s different and enticing about TFA for her and other young people, she says, is the opportunity to work closely and bond with a community of teachers aspiring to shape the future of American education.
“We haven’t found the perfect way to educate or teach someone to be a teacher,” Alexander said. But TFA at least “prepares someone to put in the necessary hard work,” she added.
Prior to Blanchard’s Atlantic article, TFA dropout Noam Hassenfeld ’12 published a piece on PolicyMic about why he believes potential TFA recruits ought to consider the less glamorous City Year instead.
Hassenfeld writes that TFA replaces current teachers with young college graduates unsure if they even want to end up teaching. By contrast, City Year offers teaching assistant positions throughout the country—firsthand experience in a lower-stress and lower-consequence environment.
In an online message, Hassenfeld explained that his big-picture concerns go beyond those of TFA participants’ personal experience. He believes that TFA harms our educational system by promoting school privatization, disrupting teachers’ unions, and driving down their salaries. He also considers the education of the students that TFA is trying to serve to be paramount.
“Most significantly, [TFA is] providing at-risk students with unqualified teachers that largely leave the classroom before they become quality teachers,” he wrote.
In light of Blanchard’s article and the reactions of Harvard’s TFA cohort, it’s clear that there are no guarantees in a TFA experience. An evaluation of TFA’s efficacy depends on the measure used—be it closing the achievement gap, attracting talent to the teaching profession, focusing national attention on educational disparities, or giving corps members the best chance to succeed. What still remains to be seen is whether dissatisfaction on the ground indicates a failure of TFA or unrealistic expectations for what the organization can ultimately achieve.
Alhough Blanchard’s cautionary tale may not deter those most intent on a teaching career, it may certainly cause the less-committed to think twice.