Quickly before I get going: Justin Meli, in the video above (which has been put on The Atlantic and other places), was actually my roommate during Teach for America’s Summer Institute in Houston, TX back in summer 2003. (Moody Towers, y’all. I think we were 9th floor.) He’s a good kid and a good teacher, if you were wondering.
I did Teach for America for two years — 2003 to 2005, in Houston. I taught second and third grade. I also just worked a part-time job for Teach for America across the last eight to ten weeks, helping with logistics for the Delta Summer Institute in Cleveland, MS. These are a couple of observations I have from my time in different roles; all of it should be taken with a grain of salt since I’m one person and these correlate with my experiences, not necessarily the broader experiences of everyone. My sister-in-law, for example, has been doing it for about five-six years in DC. Her experience is even going to be different than the below; it impacts everyone in a different way, much like any type of work. Plus, I was a corps member about 10 years ago. The organization has evolved (revolved?) since then in terms of how it approaches new teachers and manages them.
Pro: It will change how you think about the world. Teach for America recruits from elite universities, predominantly. While they have a strong focus on diversity — possibly stronger than any other organization I’ve ever been involved with — it’s still true that elite universities tend to attract a certain kind of student. To take that type of student — possibly from an affluent background and an “upper middle class” existence, provided you believe that still exists — and expose them to how a public school works, how their students experience and respond to challenge, and what context and knowledge they enter your classroom with? That’s important. It’s important as hell, because if nothing else it develops empathy towards what could probably be called “the real America.” (Duke and Harvard are great places, but they are not “the real America.”) Maybe I shouldn’t have said “think about the world” — maybe I should have said “think about the U.S.” — but regardless, it’s an important step in one’s life if they have the opportunity to do it.
Con: The training is probably too short. You hear this criticism a lot about TFA, and there are two sides to this issue. (1) is that many have succeeded doing TFA and even stayed in the classroom, so clearly those five-six weeks of training work in some contexts. (2) is that, well, it’s ludicrous to think anyone can become a master of anything in five weeks. They don’t necessarily expect you to become “a master,” but it is a tough period with a lot going on that many are experiencing right after another emotional wrecking ball — that being the end of college. When I was working with Delta Institute recently on how they structure the training that leads to the summer (i.e. training the summer staff), I found that there were a lot of interesting conversations around race, identity, diversity, and leadership. Those were all awesome (and things I would love to do on a daily basis), but there sometimes wasn’t enough actual deep diving into “What am I going to do when someone is floundering majorly?” Believe me: everyone flounders majorly in the summer training. I certainly did, and even Justin Meli, immortalized on YouTube above, did as well. When they work with summer staff, sometimes it’s too much of an umbrella view and not enough of a specific, problem-by-problem view.
Pro: It does help solve a problem. America’s public schools are not great. Putting quality, success-oriented people in them can only help, no?
Con: It’s a Band-Aid. This is maybe where I started to lose it on TFA in this latest go-round. At one of the Delta Institute conferences, we were in Memphis, and on Saturday, we did our staff trainings at a middle school in a poorer area. I spent a while talking to the head janitor of the school, who had come to open the place on a Saturday at 7am for us. His name was Mr. Rodgers, but he went by “Hard Hat,” on account of the hard hat he wore around while doing his daily responsibilities. He was a cool-as-all-hell dude and was explaining how many challenges the school had in connecting with the community, how many challenges the kids had with the state testing, and some of the ways he thought it could be better (more community events, more chances to connect the learning back to the real life of that community). Then he basically summarized people’s problems with TFA in a nutshell: “… and then these teachers in here, then they’re off to bigger and better things…” Yep. The ironic thing was (a) he was talking to someone, i.e. me, who left after two years and (b) his school actually had two teachers that had been there longer than five years, which is better than a lot of TFA placement sites. The idea of “One day, all children” (TFA’s main slogan/motto/idea) can work with good teachers impacting classes for 1-3 years at a time, but for it to fully work, it requires systemic change, and TFA can’t provide that. The corps members, by and large, won’t stay long enough (something like 10-20 percent do, but that’s broadly not a lot).
Pro: Commitment to diversity. Probably the strongest I’ve ever seen. They have it in their mission statement and they live it out. It’s impressive — and I don’t just mean “hiring minorities or protected classes.” I mean actually thinking about what your specific context and journey means to the work you’re doing. You almost never see that in other organizations.
Con: It became too big as an organization. This is a huge one. It became like a Fortune 500 company, which makes sense from an organizational structure perspective, but can lose sight of the work. The place is awash in acronyms (I was a “PTIE,” which I think means “part-time Institute Employee,” but no one really knew, so I called myself a little scamp). You can read some of the criticisms of a former manager (much higher than I ever was/will be) here, but understand this if nothing else: there are a ton of people who go straight from 2-3 years of teaching in the corps to working on the full-time staff. If you do that, you have no context around how another organization might work/function, or best practices therein. Now … there are many people who end up as lifers at a place (less so than in previous generations), but being a TFA lifer — or even a TFA 10-year-er — is a different ballgame in terms of the culture around it. They are hiring, and that’s great, but keeping the same people within the system isn’t necessarily benefiting the systemic change they ultimately want to accomplish. Also, having something like 6,500 employees (I could be off on that number) isn’t lean, and at that point it becomes harder to accomplish things. There are too many flagpoles to run stuff up. I heard that from probably 10-12 people on summer staff or full-time staff with Delta. The other problem here is that as orgs become too big, and training for specific roles becomes less (or the role’s context isn’t 100 percent defined), you start to get into that bad manager space. You also start to get into that “poor communications” space. I felt both of those on part-time staff. (I also saw excellent managers and pretty strong communications.)
Pro: It’s a great resume builder. People broadly respect it in other walks of life, so it can help you move into something where you can benefit education from the outside. There are a few TFA alum politicians now, for example, and several in a TFA alum business school group on LinkedIn.
Con: It’s a great resume builder. Remember Hard Hat from above? When we were talking, I was thinking about a girl I had worked with in a TFA context before. She did the corps for two years — just like I did — and then used it to get into a top graduate school. As she was nearing the date of her thesis/final project and wasn’t done, she told her professors at graduate school that she needed to go back and work with TFA because of the important nature of the work, so she got an extension on the thesis stuff. That’s playing the system at both ends, in some respects; having an attachment to TFA allows you to do that among professors / other communities, and that’s not necessarily good. To clarify, one of the problems I have with the girl in the story vs. Hard Hat’s re-telling of his community is that the girl in the story will consistently tell people how committed to education she is (that’s not her graduate degree). If you’re truly committed to education, you’ll go teach, do it for several years, get a certification, become a principal, and run a school. Tons of my TFA friends have done just that — heck, one of my roommates from the corps is a principal right now in Houston. That’s real commitment, and I’ll be the first to say I didn’t have it in terms of the educational equality side of TFA. To use TFA when you need it sets back the mission, though.
Pro: Smart people coming together to tackle problems. Hell, that’s the dream for any organization, right?
Con: In-group/out-group bias. I came across a ton of people while working with Delta Institute who told me they viewed certain position clusters almost akin to high school cliques, and you do see that in day-to-day work there — “Do you know Laura, (insert acronym here), (insert region of America here)? Give her a call. She’ll help” — which isn’t necessarily different than any other organization anywhere, but can feel like TFA got too big, and the silos started rising up. The place is supposed to be based on a concept for all, but the day-to-day execution of many teams can feel very cliquey and “Oh, you’re not part of this”-driven. I felt that way often, and I’ll be the first to admit — I was good, but by no means amazing, at the job I was doing. When I was a corps member, it felt like they would talk about the value of people and deliver on that; as a part-time staff member, it felt like the talk of the value of people was just that: talk. I would assume that shift (or at least that shift being perceptible to at least one person) happened as the organization grew in size and stature, but again, I may be wrong there.
Overall, do I think it’s a positive thing? Sure. I do. But do I think it’s having the same growing pains and mission drift as any larger and growing organization? Of course. It’s trying to tackle a major, society-shifting issue — that’s different than making set-top boxes, for example — and that’s going to be hard.