The Design of Everyday Things: Teach for America
By: Victoria Palacios / December 13, 2016
I recently sat down with one of my oldest friends Jane (not her real name) to get a sense of her experience participating in the Teach For America (TFA) program. She is currently halfway through her first year teaching 7th grade math in an impoverished school district in a larger city.
Victoria – Can you talk a little bit about your journey and how you ended up education?
Jane – I knew I wanted to do TFA after I did a different Americorp program called National Health Core where I was teaching health classes. I really enjoyed the curriculum and working with kids, but I kind of wished I had a bit more teaching experience and, after a lot of deliberation, I decided to apply for TFA.
From a high level, can you talk about the problem TFA is trying to solve?
The mission of the program is that they are trying to fight inequality within education. They believe every child should have an opportunity to an equal and fair education regardless of demographics, where you live, ethnicity, or economic stability or success.
What was the application process like?
The application process for TFA is apparently the 14th hardest in the country. Not because they ask super hard questions, but because it’s long. I applied in October, and I knew by January, so it was a pretty long and stressful process.
At that point, the work started almost immediately. There was pre-work, conference calls, readings… and then I moved pretty quickly to the city I was placed in for Summer Institute, an onboarding program where they train you on how to work in the classroom, which ended up being a 6 week long weed out process. It was the most brutal “are you cut out for this thing” kind of moment.
That’s a pretty intense process. So I guess one of the reasons I’m even interested in talking more about the structure of TFA is because of where you were placed. You’re an impeccable writer, you’re great at english, you’re a really big reader, you studied health and biology… and for whatever reason, TFA placed you in math. Why did they put you in essentially the one area you didn’t have experience, and how do you feel about your situation?
I wish I had an answer for you. I have a couple of theories but I don’t really know. I really didn’t want to teach middle school but that’s where they put me. Also, I was surprised they put me in the city they did since I already had experience in a different public school system.
Anyways, my theory for why I was placed in math is because during the application process, there is a teaching component where you teach for five minutes in front of the interviewers. It’s actually not a ton of time, so I decided to teach a third grade math concept where you add fractions together. So, perhaps that’s why they placed me in the subject that they did. Also what I’ve heard is they plug a formula into a computer and try and place you using some sort of algorithm.
Can you talk about your responsibilities as a 7th grade math teacher?
Lesson planning is pretty closely associated with the state standards across the board. You teach them the material for 15 minutes or so, you work through some problems together and then they practice the material on their own. Sort of like an ‘I do, we do, you do’ scenario. We have 90 minute classes but I would say like 30 minutes of that is me disciplining the students and getting them to stay in line. I don’t even plan 90 minute lessons because it realistically isn’t going to happen.
Tell us about the onboarding process. How they train you do you think it adequately prepared you to teach in areas of such disparity?
They trained us through a program called Summer Institute. It’s a really tough process and people drop like flies. The first week was just training on the TFA mission I just told you about, rather than how to teach. Then just like that we got on busses at 5:30 a.m. and they dropped us off at the schools we were assigned to to teach summer school. A lot of these kids we are working with at this point have flunked out during the year, but also some of them just want to go to summer school. Some of the kids were great at math actually, but there were mostly behavioral problems. With me at the beginning was my partner teacher, a certified teacher who sits there and watches you.
Then the rest of the day we had sessions of some kind, lesson planning, content building, engagement strategies… and that went all the way until the end of the day. We got back on the bus, had our dinner, and went back to working on our lesson plans to try and make everything better. We basically had 12 hour days at the school, but then we would go home and it wouldn’t end there.
It was really stressful. Summer school was 4 weeks long, and it was where people found out if you could tolerate it or not. Then the last week before the school year was more lesson planning.
Can you talk about the school you work at? Do you feel you are getting through to the students?
Sure, let me just say that the support I receive from the staff my actual school is awesome. I feel like all the teaches there, the administration, the principle have my back 150%. You don’t really hear that all the time, some of my other friends in this program have principles that don’t believe in them just because they don’t believe in TFA. I’m pretty fortunate. Whenever I have a problem, they respond right away.
The student culture at my school is pretty rough. There are a lot of fights. I spend a lot of time getting kids to sit down and stop yelling at eachother when I should be teaching.
Why are some principals, teachers and administration not a fan of TFA?
TFA represents the thought that anyone can go and be a teacher. The notion of not having a four year degree to study this field and instead just taking a month to learn teaching and assuming that’s enough prep doesn’t really fly. It really just isn’t enough time. Sure, there is a lot of learning on the spot, but there is a ton of theory behind teaching, and it’s definitely the hardest job I’ve ever done. In a lot of ways teaching is not thought of as a valued profession, and TFA sort of perpetuates that thought.
TFA people have committed to 2 years in a field where they just want to get a taste of what teaching is like, and then they intend to go off and use the experience somewhere else. So it feels like a waste of time to invest your time and resources in someone who you thing isn’t going to stay in the field. The retention rate of teachers post TFA is pretty low.
Because it’s such a grueling environment?
Yeah, it’s so hard. All first year teachers are struggling to keep their head above water. Not only do we not have the experience, but these schools are a challenge in particular.
Because it’s such an impoverished area.
Yeah, and there is just so much more going on in these kids lives that don’t have anything to do with education. There are exterior issues that come into play at the school. That’s why there are so many fights, why test scores are so low, and why reading and math comprehension is way below average. And then we have to teach them at the state standards that all the other kids are learning at which isn’t fair since they are behind. So, you have all these cards stacked against you as a teacher and it’s really hard.
So do you feel like you’re making a difference in these kids lives, or is the issue way more systemic?
Oh it’s definitely systemic. Some days are good and I feel like I’ve taught them something, and some days I feel like the kids haven’t learned anything from me. I think this is also a first year teacher thing, hopefully next year I’ll be much more impactful and be able to make a difference when I have more skillsets down. But then after two years, I’ll leave.
Yeah, I feel like it takes two years to really start to become good at anything, so do you feel like you will stick with teaching?
I think if I stay in the education field it would be more at an administration level. The classroom is something you have to have a gift for. You can be smart as all hell, but if you can’t figure out how to teach something to someone that doesn’t think like you, you’re not a good teacher.
My TFA coach was the first to point that out to me, because a lot of my lessons were just lectures since I’m an auditory learner. So I was like shoot, all these kids that are not auditory learners have absorbed nothing from me.
Are there things about the TFA program you think are designed really well, or maybe not so well?
I really like a work environment where you can work up the ladder. Right now I’m at the bottom, but if I’m successful I can move up. All my bosses have been in my position before, they aren’t just random. A lot of the coaching they give is coming from their experiences. It’s a really great, strong, big alumni network. So that’s really cool and I think that’s designed really well.
That same thing applies in a negative way as well though, there is a lot of turnover. Our executive director got a huge promotion and so there is a gap to fill there, people quit and get shuffled around… but I do think that’s typical of a non profit.
What is your legacy you want to leave behind?
I was once told by a mentor of mine that everyone has their thing that they think would solve all the problems. So whether you believe that solving the homelessness crisis would fix everything, or whether you think it’s about food justice… I walked into this program thinking maybe it’s education. If everyone has a shot at the same education, maybe that would fix everything. People would understand more, they can get better jobs, whatever. But the more time I spend teaching, I’m learning it’s a much bigger problem.
I would like my legacy to be that we attack education and the inequities that exist, but from a civil rights perspective. I don’t yet have the education to figure that out, but maybe someday. I want to work on a team collaboratively that works to solve this problem. Right now there is an oppression going on that needs to be fixed.
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