This post is written by my friend, Danielle, who was gracious enough to share her experience and advice regarding the Teach for America (TFA) program.
Five years ago I was faced with a choice: continue to practice law or find a way to do work that would be meaningful to me. I ultimately chose the latter, but such a choice would not have been possible without Teach for America. At the time, I did not know anything about TFA or similar organizations. I simply needed a way to transition from law to education without losing my salary and adding the costs of a Master’s program. Teach for America turned out to be the answer. I will always be grateful for the gift of teaching that they granted me during a very difficult time in my life. However, like most things in life, there are pros and cons to this type of program. Here are some of the highlights from my experience.
- There is a stringent application process to get selected to be a part of the program. I was asked to write a series of essays related to my interest in teaching and how I would handle different situations in the classroom. I then had to complete a mock lesson in front of my peers. After the mock interview I was interviewed and asked a variety of questions related to my character, judgment, and potential to be an effective teacher. In the end, I believe Teach for America ends up with a group of highly qualified and motivated individuals who ultimately work together to better the lives of children.
- Offers the opportunity to teach to those who did not study education during their undergraduate studies. For those of you like me who did not study education, you will likely have to take certification tests to be allowed into the classroom. New York, for example, required that I pass two tests to qualify for a Transitional B certification. From there, I could teach as long as I was enrolled in a Master’s degree program. Teach for American placed me at Fordham University in Manhattan and I graduated with a duel degree in general and special education for grades 1-6. These requirements will vary depending on the laws of the state you are placed in. The huge bonus is that Teach for America pays for the bulk of the Master’s degree. I had a few thousand dollars in expenses over the course of the two years but it was significantly less than what I would have paid had I pursued the degree on my own.
- Offers comprehensive training during their summer Institute. All corps. members are required to attend a summer program. We attended workshops and were sent to actually teach a summer school program. This hands on approach was a great start to learning how to lesson plan, execute lessons, and manage behavior in a classroom.
- Sets up interviews for you and ensures you earn a competitive salary for new teachers without a Master’s degree. The organization cannot guarantee that you will get hired, but I only know of one person who could not secure a job and ended up having to leave the program. This particular person struggled through Institute and ultimately did not show that she had enough skills to begin her teaching career. I will touch on this point again when discussing some of the cons of the program.
- Can place you anywhere in the country, which is exciting for someone looking for a change of scenery.
- Provides inspiration to those who are frustrated with our current educational system. The goal of the program is to close the achievement gap. The achievement gap refers to the difference in performance of those who come from lower socioeconomic situations versus that of their wealthier counterparts. While I do not think we are actually closer to closing this gap, I appreciate the sentiment.
- Provides a mentor to offer guidance and support during your two year commitment. I had one contact person who was available at all times. She was there to coach me, cheer me on, and teach me practical skills. She also worked with the administration of my placement school to discuss my progress and help me work on my areas of growth as they assessed them.
- Offers resources, workshops, and coaches that can support you in any area for your work during your two year commitment. I, for example, had the opportunity to work with a behavior management coach. I had been struggling with behavior management. This too I will discuss in my cons section because I realized that the definition of behavior management varies depending on a school’s educational philosophy. I was having trouble adapting to my placement school’s management system so I agreed to work with this coach. I wore a headset while she sat in the back of the room with a microphone and told me what to say. While I did not necessarily agree with the advice, it was an enlightening experience.
- Sticks with you even after your two year commitment is over. They provide guidance on where to go after your commitment and how to stay in education if you no longer want to teach. They also send monthly newsletters and continue to offer workshops.
- The training program is only five weeks. This is not enough time for many people to feel confident in front of children. Unfortunately for some people, they are cut from the program if they do not show enough progress in the five week period. While I understand that the program cannot send someone into a classroom that they deem unfit, no one is arguably ready to teach at the end of a five week period.
- Since the program allows people to teach who have not yet studied education, you are thrown into a classroom without a lot of experience. You do not have the benefit of student teaching that people get when taking the traditional route. Even though the school administrations know that you are brand new, the expectations are as if you had years of study in the field. This can create a stressful situation.
- Inexperienced and young people are thrown into very difficult circumstances surrounding cultural conflict and systematic failures. While Teach for America tries to prepare you for the challenges you will face, it is very difficult to give diversity training in the midst of teacher training in a five week period. It is also difficult to train the mostly young staff about ways to handle a failing educational system. Luckily, most people learn as they go.
- Often partners with charter schools, which some people may enjoy. I did not agree with the educational philosophy of the school I was placed in. They believe in strict discipline and high stakes testing. I did not agree so I was constantly put down for not being stern enough. I also worked 10-12 hour days in an environment that felt more like a cult than a school. Despite my experience, it is important to note that not all charter schools are alike and not all placements are in charter schools.
For me, TFA was a career starter. If you decide that you believe you can change the lives of children through your work in the classroom, then Teach for America is worth looking into. I especially recommend the program if you are hoping to work full time while pursuing your Master’s degree. This program is also a great option if you are looking to move across the country or enjoy the adrenaline rush of a rapid fire way of learning. Like anything else, I recommend you do your research and pay special attention to the educational philosophy of your potential placement schools. Teach for America can offer two years of wonderful experiences if you find a place where you believe you can thrive and do your best work for the sake of your students.