Teach For America: A Voice of Dissent

By Mariah Dickinson

“He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, ‘Thank you, sir.'” The tall, blue-eyed young man stood on stage, looking earnestly at his audience. He was recounting touching moments he had experienced with the 8th graders he taught that summer. This corps member, along with those of us in the audience, had just completed the 2009 Teach For America Institute, a five-week experience during which hundreds of new corps members are “transformed” into teachers through training sessions and a month-long summer school teaching practicum. There was a pervasive sense of accomplishment and pride in the auditorium. But I felt disconnected from the celebratory atmosphere. I felt disappointed and disillusioned.

Teach For America (TFA) co-opts the stories of oppressed communities living in poverty and repackages them to recruit young, idealistic college graduates eager to “help” people less privileged than themselves. For young idealists who want to make a difference, it’s an attractive story line: We are the heroes, changing the world and “closing the achievement gap,” one student at a time. Unfortunately, the real story is more complex and troubling.

The TFA Institute – Setting the Tone

It was like a moment from a horror movie. Walking toward a large building, I heard a low, rhythmic hum. As I drew closer, I began to recognize the cadence of a chant. I began to pick out distinct rhythms and tempos, a sound stew of competing vocalizations. With a thudding heart, I opened the doors of a large, dim auditorium to see hundreds of people clustered into groups. Those at the front of the auditorium were bowing down repeatedly, their hands raised above their heads to form a triangle – a delta, chanting over and over, “Dellll-taaaaaa.” Other groups performed similarly awkward movements and chants. I hesitantly asked a woman by the door, “Is this the TFA Institute assembly?”

“You’re in the right place!” She smiled widely and pointed me to an open seat.

This was my second day at the TFA Institute. While my fellow corps members bonded over the regions where they would be teaching by participating in cultish rituals, I experienced my first visceral negative reaction to the organization. Already, I felt that there was too much indoctrination and forced “team spirit” in our training, and too few critical conversations about how to change an inequitable education systemÑthe ostensible reason we all were involved in the program. Rather than critically engaging corps members in an exploration of educational inequities, the institute was a physically and emotionally exhausting experience meant to train us to believe that our hard work alone could close the achievement gap.

I thought back to when I first was introduced to the TFA story. I sat across from the TFA recruiter in the common area of a prominent building on campus. It was the beginning of my senior year. The young woman with blonde hair smiled at me enthusiastically and, as the conversation progressed, I tingled with excitement and energy. According to my friendly recruiter, in TFA I would be taking on an incredible challenge, more difficult and more urgent than anything I had done before. I would be joining a movement to tackle our nation’s “greatest injustice,” to “close the achievement gap.” I would be helping to ensure that TFA would accomplish its mission: “One day, all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” As a student of international development, I saw TFA as an incredible opportunity in domestic development.

Naturally, the conversation ended with my excited inquiry, “How do I apply?” Two months later, I had accepted a placement with TFA in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) of South Texas, where I would be teaching 7th-grade special education. I was joining a movement, I thought, that was taking radical steps to create a different education system in the United States.

The Questions Pile Up

As the end of my senior year approached and my departure for the valley drew closer, I connected with another woman in the D.C. metro area who was slated to teach in the RGV region in August. Neha and I met on a warm and sunny day in late April. We sipped cool drinks, talked about what drew us to TFA, and discussed our shared desire to see critical curriculum taught in schools. We saw teaching in TFA as a mechanism for advancing social justice in schools, and we hoped that the organization would provide us with the tools to do this. I remember leaving that conversation with a warm confidence in having found a kindred spirit. I must have made the right decision to join the organization if I would be meeting people like Neha and having these kinds of conversations with my fellow corps members.

But less than two months later, I experienced TFA training as a sort of indoctrination boot camp for privileged idealists, with heavy daily workloads, a strict training schedule, sharp reprimands for a few minutes of tardiness, the shame of a teacher improvement plan if you fell behind in your performance or assignments, and ruthless competition among corps members trying to print out lesson plans in the wee hours of the morning, all on an average of four hours of sleep.

One night, the dorms flooded. Although many of us could not return to our rooms to sleep that night, we were reminded via email that we should make sure to finish our lesson plans and turn them in on time. There seemed to be a “break ’em down and build ’em back up in our image” method at work.

I was not opposed to the hard work. I recognized that I had a lot to learn before entering the classroom in less than a month, an impossible time frame for becoming an effective teacher. But under what assumptions were we all working so frantically? I began to question the nature of TFA’s approach. My fundamental concerns about TFA did not form overnight. They grew out of a lot of conversations with other critically thinking corps members and friends, especially Neha and our friend Rita, as well as ongoing encounters with TFA staff, trainings, and materials. I continue, a few years after my TFA experience, to deconstruct the TFA story. But my time at the institute was formative in my growing awareness of the trouble with TFA and my dissatisfaction as a corps member.

For example, I was disturbed by the language that TFA used, starting with “closing the achievement gap.” Achievement is an individual act of effort and skill. Opportunity, on the other hand, is a condition of circumstance. To say that there is a gap in achievement is to say that the students on the wrong end of this gap are failing to perform, rather than that they are being set up to fail by an inequitable system. How can an organization mobilize its members to shift a failing education system when it blames the very groups it claims to be helping?

One day we watched a video of a “successful” corps member in his classroom. It was a lesson on classroom management. He had enlisted his 3rd-grade students into a rallying cry, “work hard, get smart,” to the point that they begged him for extra assignments. I watched this story unfold and wondered, what is the message here? This corps member was saying that, if only his students worked hard enough, they would be smart and achieve in school and life. Does that mean that students’ families struggle financially because they do not work hard enough to achieve a “middle-class” life? How classist, oversimplified, and misinformed. The mantra smacks of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that underlies the educational inequities we were charged with dismantling. Teaching students to work hard toward an end goal is important. But to teach this in a vacuum, without acknowledging the systemic barriers they face or the strengths of their families and communities, is doing them a disservice. It’s deceit.

TFA has diversity sessions during the institute, but we stayed comfortably away from introspection and inequity and focused, instead, on how to work with colleagues, parents, or students who had different ideas or beliefs from our own. The diversity sessions alluded to race in simplistic ways; class was completely ignored. One staff member deflected critical questions by apologetically stating that she was not a trained diversity facilitator. Another admitted that diversity trainings used to be more substantial, but they received feedback that the trainings made corps members uncomfortable. And, although we talked about humility, there was a pervasive sense of superiority in the ability of corps members to be more effective educators than other teachers.

As I thought about my life as a white, economically privileged woman, I wondered about my place in the classroom with my students. I do not speak Spanish and I had no intimate knowledge of the region in which I would be teaching. Furthermore, was it not an injustice that TFA assigned me to be a special education teacher without robust training and education in child psychology? I improved as a teacher in my two years in the classroom and helped many students make academic progress, but then I was gone. What did I offer in those two years that a career teacher from the valley couldn’t?

Although individual corps members have done some wonderful things in the classroom, many of us also set an example of an unsustainable model of teaching, working incredibly long hours. I knew many corps members who were on the verge of breakdown, and some who had serious mental health episodes. It is an example of privilege to be able to work yourself to the point of burnout, knowing that you don’t have a family to support, and you only have to hold on for two years. This is not a model that is beneficial for teachers or for students.

Creating a Different Story

In the two years that Neha, Rita, and I taught in the valley (Rita grew up there, making her the rare TFA corps member who teaches close to home), we spent many hours in deep conversation, and we found ways of telling a different story. Neha quit TFA in August of our first year and worked for a local immigrant rights organization founded by Cesar Chavez. Rita and I joined her at marches and rallies to support immigration reform and social justice in the community. I found ways to bring social justice figures into the curriculum when I could, even when that meant putting the day’s lesson plan on hold. Rita and I searched the internet for slam poetry and spoken word written by youth to share with our students, helping them identify ways to express themselves in English class.

I also tried to influence TFA as an organization by starting a dialogue with the RGV leadership. For example, Neha and I participated in the ARISE Border Witness Program one weekend in September to learn, as ARISE says, about “the reality of the border (the struggles, achievements, and challengesÑeconomic, social, cultural, spiritual) through direct experience and personal contact.” In meetings with my TFA program director, I indicated my dissatisfaction with the organization and shared ideas I had to improve it. My program director suggested that I meet with the executive director, and a few months later, I did. I explained to him that TFA could make a more meaningful impact if it worked to address other causes of inequity in education. One way to do this was through partnerships with local organizations. I shared information about the border witness program as a tangible example. The director nodded solemnly and took notes, but the partnership was not pursued.

The Inevitable Conclusion

In the quest for educational equity, TFA is a barrier. The problems in the education system require an approach that supports communities in exerting their power to demand better education and opportunities for themselves and their students. TFA continues to expand; an organization focused on closing the opportunity gap should be reducing its numbers and transferring its power to the communities for which it claims to advocate. I don’t know what the answer is to the enduring question of educational inequity, but I do know that it is not TFA. Through telling parts of my story and experience, I hope to challenge TFA’s assertions and increase voices of dissent.

Mariah Dickinson currently lives in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from “The Teach For America Story from a Voice of Dissent” in Poverty and Education Reader: A Call for Equity in Many Voices, edited by Paul C. Gorski and Julie Landsman (Stylus Publishing) 2014.