This summer, The New York Times’ “Room For Debate” blog, where non-journalists write brief pieces arguing their opinion on a topic, discussed the pros and cons of Teach For America, the renowned nonprofit that sends students fresh out of college into low-income schools to teach. Post titles ranged from “A Glorified Temp Agency,” to “Teach For America Changed My Life,” to “The Problem With Quick Fixes to Education.”
All of these are legitimate descriptions of Teach For America. There are many stereotypes about the organization, but none of them matter. Sending accomplished, smart and motivated young leaders into struggling schools is what matters.
Up until about a month ago, I would have added my own idea to the “Room For Debate” blog: “A Cop Out for Graduates With No Other Option.” I knew next to nothing about the organization, but had only heard of students who couldn’t get into law school or medical school or couldn’t find a job in their desired field, so they turned to Teach For America as a fallback. And as options go, it’s a pretty good one. Teach For America is a two-year program that promises a salary ranging from $25,500 to $51,000, health insurance, retirement benefits, up to $6,000 of no-interest loans or grants to help pay for relocation costs, plus scholarships and benefits from grad schools and employers. Why wouldn’t a college student with no other prospects apply?
But when a USC TFA recruiter emailed me at the beginning of the semester, asking to meet and talk about the program, I scoffed. I had no interest in being one of the college graduate cop-outs, but I figured I could meet with the recruiter to find out if there was more to the program.
I am now amid a rigorous, yet very interesting application process that proves what TFA is all about: finding motivated leaders who are unwaveringly committed to its cause. The process begins with a traditional application — statement of interest, explaining past professional and extracurricular activities and submitting your resume. One week later, you are either granted a phone interview or out of the running. In the meantime, you complete “online activity” that entails a timed multiple-choice test where you analyze data and complete a short answer portion. After that, you either move forward to a final, all-day interview or you’re out.
Even if a student chooses TFA as a fallback, if he or she gets through such a thorough application process and are selected, he or she deserves to be there. And even if it seems like a “glorified temp agency” that swoops up talented young people for two years then loses them to another career path, they were there for two whole years. More likely than not, they made a difference in many children’s lives and in turn, those children probably changed their life forever as well.
But this is yet another stereotype promoted by TFA — inspiring stories about college graduates helping disadvantaged students achieve the level of education they deserve. This stereotype has plenty of truth to it, but it ignores the darker side of the organization.
Though less-interested or less-qualified applicants are weeded out through the intensive application process, and those who are selected go through a five-week training program the summer before they begin teaching, nothing can fully prepare an applicant for standing up in a classroom in front of children who face some of the most challenging issues today. Horror stories about TFA teachers dealing with gangs in their neighborhood or struggling to teach students who refuse to respect them are left out of the TFA feel-good narrative. The organization’s website is full of education, poverty and admission statistics — but nowhere does it mention their retention rate.
For students interested in applying to TFA — for whatever reason — it is definitely important to be aware of what truth there is to all the stereotypes about the organization. The nation’s public schools and students, however, need help however they can get it. The myths and stereotypes don’t matter half as much as the fact that, at the end of the day, TFA offers that help.
Elena Kadvany is a senior majoring in Spanish and is the Daily Trojan’s editorial director. Her column “Beyond the Classroom” runs Thursdays.