Teach For America – Teaching Irresponsibility

I am the first to admit that since leaving the education industry I haven’t given education nearly enough thought. I try to fit it in to my schedule but it doesn’t always work out so well. But I was recently directed to this fabulous article on feministe. And reading that really hit home with me.

I was only a teacher for a year and in terms of teaching careers that’s nothing. I had planned to go in for 2 years but it was never really in my long-term plans to be a teacher. Little did I know how much I would fall in love with my students. Had my administration not made me cry every day for about 2 months I may have even become a career teacher. But this post isn’t about my path in the public schools, it’s about Teach For America.

I remember being a senior in college whose after graduation plans were suddenly up in the air because I had recently made the decision that I did not want to go to grad school right after graduation. School had just overwhelmed me and I needed a break – this is probably far more common than I thought it was at the time, at the time I thought the world was ending.

But then I discovered Teach For America. Isn’t that the perfect alternative to bide your time before you go to grad school? You get to teach in the public schools where communities really need new teachers. It looks fabulous on your resume, grad school or otherwise and I loved TA-ing in college, it can’t be that far away from it, right? Wrong, teaching is nothing like being a TA. At least not a TA at a women’s college where you’re TA-ing help sessions that are not required. I mean all of your students show up because they’re over-achievers and they want to be there, not because they have to be and this is the last thing they’d like to be doing.

Anyway I spent much of my time goofing around and I applied late for the spring TFA application process and was rejected. I was actually really surprised that I was rejected considering I was a physics major but alas, physics is not a required subject in the schools and I wasn’t all that keen on teaching math or younger kids, limits your choices quite a bit. After that rejection, I was still quite set on being a teacher so I decided to broaden my scope to a couple of agencies and look into the private schools as well as send out my resume to some nearby public schools. I remember after reading all of the TFA literature I thought it was just a brilliant idea to make teaching a stop gap in figuring out what your real career path would be. Now by the end of the summer I had secured a position as a math teacher in an inner city (I’ll put the disclaimer that it was a small city) high school.

Now being hired directly into the school system you don’t have quite the same support as TFA or any teaching fellows program that I’ve heard of. But I’ve also heard their support system isn’t exactly stellar. In fact, a few friends of mine in TFA were a little upset because the teachers in the school and some of the students actually resented them for making this their 2 year stop gap. So I was lucky, in a way, that I somehow managed to sneak myself into the public school system without an education degree nor any training. And while I had an incredible learning curve that year I also found that to be a successful teacher you have to want to teach for the long term.

It is so difficult for kids to have their teachers keep changing every year. I remember when I told my students I was leaving they were so sad and upset and I felt like a horrible person. But I am glad I left when I did because I know now that I cannot work with that kind of public school administration and until we can effect some sort of reform in public school systems. The thing that you learn is that you really cannot be an effective teacher in the first year and I would even say that second year teachers are just barely starting to get the hang of it. Teaching is a field that is unlike any other and any time you make a mistake you are leaving an impression on multiple young minds that will forever remember your mistakes. It’s not like screwing up a line of code in a software program (I relate this to things I know, I know code), you can fix that in an instant (or at least some reasonable amount of time) and no one will care or remember that it was wrong in the first place. Trying to re-teach students an incorrect understanding of algebra, well, that could take years.

In essence, I take issue with the fundamental practice in TFA to only stay in the school systems for 2 years. I take issue with the fact that so many people think it is acceptable to treat teaching as if it is something that can be a transition phase in one’s life. It is reaching out and touching the lives of young people everywhere. It is not something that should be taken lightly and in fact you should really truly want to be an educator to go into education. I know we have a shortage of teachers but a bunch of young kids (the 20 somethings) that think that teaching is a great stop gap isn’t going to fix the problem we have with education. Creating an educational system where these young people want to stay, that’s the ideal. That’s what we should be focusing on. Creating an environment where kids will enjoy learning and teachers are respected is what will really make a difference.