Teach For America is the Bane of My Existence

No, I do not support TFA.

Because I work at a private liberal arts college, I must say this sentence at least once every 2 weeks. Especially during the fall semester, I find myself explaining my opposition to what many of my students see as a progressively apropos program. I, in turn, view it as another example of what I call pimping the system. In the ‘pimping’ of any system, there is a pimp and a pimpee. The pimpee is almost always at the losing end of the bargain. The pimp, on the other hand, reaps all the rewards.

When it comes to Teach for America, our children are being pimped.

The summation of my beef with TFA is that it systematically exacerbates the same problems it claims to help. Allow me to offer some examples:

1)      Increases teacher turnover rates. Everyone knows (and data demonstrates) that low income, low achieving schools have extremely high teacher turnover rates. That is to say, teachers do not stay long at these schools because frankly, they are very difficult environments in which to succeed and feel rewarded. TFA requires corps members to sign a 2 year contract, and most corps members leave the classroom (not the field of education) after their 2 year contract expires. Such low teacher retention quickens the already present revolving door in these schools. TFA is not putting teachers in the classroom; it is putting substitutes in the classrooms.

2)      Increases the number of uncommitted teachers. Teaching is a thankless profession. You work 50-60 hours a week for 32k and are held accountable for the overall performance of 175 students, though you may only see them for a total of 4 hours a week for 15 weeks. TFA has become a stopgap for college graduates who haven’t decided what they want to do or who need to improve their resume before they apply to graduate school. Others join due to the appeal of getting $10,000 toward your considerable loan debt after attending a pricy private undergraduate institution. These are not reasons to walk into the classroom and be responsible for educating our youth. These are reasons to volunteer at a summer camp. If you aren’t committed to the long-term well-being of our children, you don’t belong in the classroom.

3)      Increases the number of undertrained and unqualified teachers. Another common data point is that low income schools get the most inexperienced and undertrained teachers. This means first year teachers and teachers with alternative teaching licenses. This means teachers who may have a lot of content knowledge, but little pedagogical training. TFA requires its corps members to have Bachelor’s degrees, and to attend a five week institute( TFA Summer Institute ). They have ‘coaches’ during the academic year meant to provide support and constant feedback. Having dated one of these coaches, I know personally that they are not experienced teachers. In fact, many of them are prior corps members who have just 2 years of teaching experience. In what world do 5 weeks and a peer coach make you qualified? A Bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college means you know how to think; it does not mean you can teach others to think.

4)      Increases the number of overwhelmed teachers. If you know anyone who has done TFA, you know that one of the most common critiques about their experience is that they were not prepared for the social and emotional issues students bring to class. TFA takes (primarily) middle and upper middle class White young adults (because this is who attends private colleges) and places them in urban or rural schools in impoverished areas with majority African American and Latino students. This is culture shock for corps members. Never before have they been confronted with the reality of drug addiction, prostitution, gang violence, homelessness, and mental illness. It is unfair to the teachers and the students to expect people with little life experience in this realm and 5 weeks of lesson-planning with a ‘multiculturalism’ seminar thrown in to be equipped to manage not only their students’ problems, but their own reactions when a students’ older brother pulls a knife on you as you get out of your car because you sent his brother to detention (true story).

5)      Deprofressionalizes the career. For some reason, people think teaching is easy and anyone can do it; therefore, it doesn’t require extensive study or training like a true profession (a la medicine). Let me disillusion you. Great teachers have content expertise and pedagogical expertise garnered from coursework and hundreds of hours observing and training in classrooms. They know the difference between learning and memorizing because they know theory behind how people learn. They know the developmental abilities and needs of all ages of students, and they adjust their teaching methods and classroom climate accordingly. These teachers design, implement, and evaluate formative and summative assessments wherein they assess to learn instead of merely learning to assess. Great teachers divulge from a scripted lesson plan and curriculum when they recognize a comprehension gap or new student interest. They use technology as a means to enhance learning, not to entertain. They build relationships with students’ families, other teachers, and community members to get the big picture of students’ life contexts. They occupy the role of teacher, mentor, friend, parent, counselor, and coach. They recognize the value of continuing education and attend conferences and workshops, and take courses as the federal and state standards evolve. They are professionals, committed to the constant revision of their craft.  They are not 2 year stand-ins hoping to get by.

6)      Increases the presence of private corporations in schools. I’ve discussed my issues with the privatization of education at length so I won’t do so here. I will ask this though: In what world does the pimp have the best interests of the pimpee in mind?


Teach For America was borne of a Master’s thesis. Like many such manuscripts, it should’ve stayed bound in print in the archives of the library.



2 comments on “Teach For America is the Bane of My Existence

  1. Here is an interview with Wendy Kopp. I am not the only person suspicious of her claims. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/c-m-rubin/wendy-kopp-teach-for-america_b_2268518.html

  2. […] Teach for America is the Bane of my Existence This post makes my favorites because there were such strong reactions to it (as I expected). The responses revealed just how critical it is for the general public to understand the big picture of education in order to understand the (in)effectiveness of reform programs. […]

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