Do I Really Teach for America? Reflections of a Teach for America Teacher

By Alex Diamond

Illustrator: J.D. King

Illustration: J.D. King

If you know what to look for, it’s not hard to spot a Teach for America (TFA) classroom. Typically, on one wall, a “Big Goal” poster proclaims the class objective: “Students will, on average, achieve 80 percent of their learning goals based on state standards.” On another, tracking charts show the progress of individual students toward meeting those standards. At the front of the class—or, just as likely, crouched over a student’s desk offering help—is the teacher: probably young, probably white, and probably from an upbringing worlds different from the low-income communities of color that TFA targets.

Though my own classroom in Memphis, Tenn., is characterized more by quotes from acclaimed rabble-rousers and stacks of unorganized student handouts, I am one of about 7,300 current TFA teachers—and, if you believe the organization’s rhetoric, offered to us in workshops and featured at TFA’s website, a member of “the new civil rights movement.” I am in my second year teaching high school world history and world geography. For a variety of reasons, at the end of this year I will join the majority of TFA teachers who move on after their two-year commitment.

Most TFA teachers enter the program fresh from the completion of their undergraduate education—I was on a plane to Memphis for the beginning of summer training one week after I graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut with a degree in sociology. Very few of us, including me, had formal education training prior to joining TFA. Our ideas of how to teach come mostly from a five-week summer training institute that promises to give new recruits the tools they will need to be successful teachers. The summer institute combines sessions on classroom management, lesson planning, and other aspects of teaching with a daily opportunity to plan and deliver a lesson to a summer-school class under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

TFA Training: Strengths and Weaknesses

Through it all, TFA focuses on specific “best practices,” strategies they find are consistent among the most effective teachers. As a new teacher, I found most of these to be helpful. Some, however, can be limiting. Because of the way we’re trained, TFA teachers tend to be very test-, data-, and standards-driven. TFA teachers are taught to begin with state standards, break them down into specific skills, then write test questions for each skill. It is only at this point that we are to plan specific activities. TFA judges our effectiveness by our students’ performance on our tests, which we are supposed to “track” with a large spreadsheet provided by TFA that keeps track of the extent to which each student has mastered each standard (as measured by a percentage based on the student’s performance on the tests).

This focus on testing is hardly unique to TFA—it fits squarely within the kinds of accountability enforced by No Child Left Behind legislation and promoted by most school districts and schools of education. But in an educational system where the learning time of lower-income and lower-performing students is increasingly hijacked by testing (especially in comparison to their more privileged counterparts), it’s a major problem.

My over-arching goals as a social studies teacher may not be so easily tested. For example: Students will be able to analyze the various ways groups and individuals seek to dominate others to gain wealth and power. Or: Students will be able to compare the strategies of different social movements. Of course, these objectives are not one-day lessons; I hope to build towards them throughout the course of the year. These objectives are not easily reduced to bite-sized testable items. But in the TFA model, specific testable objectives are of primary importance.

As I write, I am in the middle of a unit on the world wars with my history classes. Tennessee state standards for world history generally offer little guidance on what you should teach (this is not true of subjects like U.S. history, which have specific standards and final assessments). The standard my World War I lesson addressed requires students to “understand the impact of various global conflicts throughout history.” In order to find more standards-based clarity, TFA has counseled us to use more specific standards from different states, or to write our own.

An example of a daily objective I might teach is: Students will explain the causes of World War I. There are a number of things I could test them on based on the TFA approach. I might expect them to remember the alliance system in Europe before the war, reasons different countries had for joining alliances, and some of the major events leading up to the war, including the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. From the perspective of TFA, my lesson would be successful if students were able, on average, to recall 80 percent of that information on my test. With so much information to remember, the TFA approach might involve creative guided notes in which students take down the information and then draw a little sketch for each point to help them remember. They might also read in groups, with a graphic organizer to help them take notes.

In teaching World War I, I did want students to understand what actually happened, but having them memorize lots of bits of information was not what I was after. It was more important that students see that these types of conflicts usually arise from a competition for resources. While some countries may have been more responsible for instigating the war, I wanted them to understand that the ruling classes of all the major European countries involved were trying to protect their own interests (often in the context of exploiting their own people as well as militarily weaker peoples around the world). After giving them a quick background on the start of the war and the alliance system, I broke them into small groups to prepare for a role-played trial in which we interrogated who was to blame for WWI.

I determined the success of the activity in part from the words of Deandre in the midst of a discussion of France’s competition with Italy for territory in Africa. Remembering earlier units on colonialism and the more modern trade in blood diamonds, he blurted out, “Man, why these white people always trying to take our stuff?” (My students, who are nearly all black, tend to identify strongly with Africa.) This is an oversimplification of the historical legacy of the exploitation of Africa by Europeans, but when I pressed him, Deandre was able to give well reasoned specifics. I also determine student learning with a post-trial reflective writing assignment in which they use evidence to parse out blame for the war. The desire to take other peoples’ resources was and continues to be one of the driving forces of history, and I am confident at least some of my students will remember this and apply it as they evaluate U.S. foreign policy later in life.

TFA leadership has given me a lot of freedom, and likely wouldn’t have a problem with how I taught that lesson. For a year and a half, I have run a social-justice-oriented classroom of the kind that might raise eyebrows, especially in a relatively conservative place like Memphis. Through it all, Teach for America staff has been supportive, not criticizing or attempting to influence my teaching choices, but instead trying to help me improve my classroom. But TFA training has not included many of the strategies that I find most effective. TFA’s test-based and standards-driven orientation stifles creativity, and nowhere in TFA training did anyone present the type of lesson that I taught on World War I.

In fact, our summer training on social studies teaching techniques was quite limited. As I’ve progressed as a teacher, my greatest growth has resulted from trial and error—the opportunity to try new things, crash and burn, and then return to the drawing board.

TFA’s summer institute is set up to allow new teachers to get their feet wet, teaching one lesson a day with the supervision and support of an experienced teacher. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend my summer teaching history or geography. Instead I taught a remedial math class to 8th graders preparing to retake a test they needed to pass to move on to high school. Though most corps members seem to train in a relevant subject, I worked closely throughout the summer with more than a few future members of social studies or Spanish departments on how to become better math teachers.

Training specific to social studies was offered during only three or four sessions throughout the summer. Like all TFA sessions, these were led by current or former corps members. They were competent, engaging, and, no doubt, effective teachers. They were also well versed in the TFA approach, and as far as I could tell had little exposure to anything outside of it. The kinds of teaching strategies they offered us were helpful: reading comprehension guides, gallery walks, and various writing assignments. But they did not include role plays, simulations, or many of the kinds of activities that I experienced in my own schooling and that I’ve come to use extensively in my classroom. Luckily, I had lots of good teaching models throughout my own education and access to imaginative social-justice-oriented curriculum materials.

With any class it makes sense to ground curriculum in our students’ lives; social studies offer a particularly good opportunity. For instance, as part of my class, students make connections across the different topics we study to common themes: exploitation, inequality, governance, prejudice, and resistance. I have chosen themes that they can relate to their own lives. For example, inequality is easy to spot in Memphis by a simple comparison of neighborhoods like Orange Mound (where my school is located) with wealthier areas. This is the kind of teaching you might expect an organization that bills itself as the new civil rights movement to embrace. But my TFA training never raised questions about the kinds of curricular choices a teacher coming into an impoverished community should make.

Teach for America taught us to believe that our students’ achievements are of vital importance, that regardless of their backgrounds our students have the capacity to be successful, and that with hard work we can get them there. But the TFA way is often presented as the only one. To invest students in the class, they suggest pushing the big goal and using tracking posters, for example, but not rooting curriculum in concerns and problems that may be central to our students’ lives.

Is “Diversity Training” Enough?

The summer institute did include “Diversity, Community, and Achievement” sessions that asked corps members to examine our own conceptions of race and covered many of the theories for why there is such a strong correlation between race, class, and academic achievement. These sessions seemed designed to prepare a mostly privileged and 70 percent white group of teachers for communities that are starkly different from their own experience. (According to the TFA website, 90 percent of the students of TFA teachers are low-income African Americans and Latinos.) We role-played how to respond if a student calls you racist in response to a simple instruction. We also read articles designed to disabuse us of what could be damaging assumptions about the communities we enter. In particular, we were given training designed to encourage respect for the parents and experienced teachers at the schools we were set to enter. For example, we read that low-income parents may miss conferences not because they’re less engaged in their children’s lives but because of various pressures on their time. But these sessions avoided any discussion of the ways the racial and class differences between teacher and community may pose a serious challenge to TFA’s mission.

Inherent to TFA’s project is the belief that a group of high-achieving recent college graduates (who happen to be mostly privileged white people) can end educational inequality and “fix” lower-income communities of color. At its best, it is a strategy grounded in an honorable vision of how the world should be better and carried out by hard-working, passionate individuals who have a positive impact on their students’ lives. At its worst, this strategy may represent a subtle continuation of the forms of domination and social control that have perpetuated this same inequality for years. In many ways it smacks of paternalism, and implies a deep lack of respect for the communities it purports to save and their ability to help themselves.

This may be a problem inherent to TFA’s teacher base (and, it should be noted, TFA is aware of it and tries to recruit from low-income communities of color). But at the same time, it could be OK (even productive) to initiate discussions that might make TFA recruits feel uncomfortable at times. When I raised these kinds of concerns with staff, they did not have a response—they were willing to listen, but these were issues they did not want to discuss. And while honest discussions about paternalism may not be the best thing for corps morale, they have the potential to push people to change their attitudes in ways that might make them more successful teachers.

I did not leave summer training ready to be a successful teacher. I suspect this is true of nearly all my TFA peers. This was unfair to my first-year students, who spent a large part of the year watching me learn to teach instead of learning world history. But TFA offers ongoing training and support; we take graduate courses throughout our two-year stints, and TFA takes care to select applicants who can succeed in difficult situations. By the end of their two years, it seems inevitable that its teachers will improve.

But now, just as my fellow 2008 corps members and I come into our own as teachers, we near the end of our two-year commitment. The students of low-performing schools tend to already be victimized by relatively inexperienced teachers who don’t last that long. TFA perpetuates that problem.

Disclaiming Politics Is a Political Act

The best thing TFA has going for it is that it places a number of very bright, very motivated teachers who work extremely hard to get their students to learn. Throughout their two years they are mentored and assisted by equally bright and motivated former teachers who have been trained to help them. However, as currently constituted, TFA is not capable of fulfilling its rhetoric—the particular slogan I have in mind, printed across my favorite water bottle, is “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” The realization of this vision will require much more serious reform efforts, in education as well as society as a whole. Instead, TFA claims it is apolitical. Of course, the disclaiming of politics is itself a political act. In offering itself as a solution to educational inequality TFA suggests that other reforms are unnecessary.

TFA’s allegedly apolitical orientation also begs the question: Since when can a civil rights movement be apolitical?

As a member of TFA, and because of its significant influence in public education, I have been disappointed by its avoidance of more progressive reforms, pedagogy, and curricular training. This is not, however, particularly surprising if you consider that TFA has grown by leaps and bounds in large part due to its considerable funding base. Closing the achievement gap by providing youth in struggling communities with an excellent education is an easy sell to mainstream corporate donors. Doing so with teaching and open discussions that challenge social power structures and fundamental inequalities might put off TFA donors like Visa and Goldman Sachs, who are deeply entrenched within these power structures. Perhaps TFA is close to all it can be, at least so long as it wishes to maintain its size and influence.

Even after a year and a half in the program, a final conclusion about TFA escapes me. It does not merit the purely positive and unproblematized treatment it often receives in mainstream media. At the same time, I have too much respect for its teachers and staff members to simply write it off.