Teach for America Symposium To Offer Opposing Perspectives

This weekend, the Public Policy Analysis Department and the Pomona College Alumni Association will sponsor “Alumni Perspectives: Teach for America,” a symposium in which 5C alumni will discuss their experiences with Teach for America (TFA). The event will be held on Saturday, May 4 in Rose Hills Theatre, with a panel from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. followed by a networking session from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

The symposium was developed by Pomona politics professor David Menefee-Libey as part of his Education Politics and Policy seminar, which deals with elementary and secondary education in the United States.

“It’s been almost entirely student-run,” Menefee-Libey said.

Every few weeks, students in the seminar split into groups to determine who the panelists of the symposium would be and what questions would be asked.

“We thought about [the symposium] as a way to give focus to the Education Politics and Policy course, to sort of think about Teach for America as the embodiment of current education reform ideas and education engagement by Pomona College students,” Menefee-Libey said.

“It’s centered on Teach For America, but it’s really about how these various reform efforts are changing school policy at large for public elementary and secondary education in the United States,” Ben Shand PO ’14 said.

“TFA as a program is right smack in the middle of a whole range of issues that we’re talking about in this class,” Menefee-Libey said. “In the 1980s, there began this campaign to convince Americans that the elementary and secondary education system is in crisis and needs radical change. Part of the nature of the ‘crisis’—with scare quotes around the word crisis—is that the people who think it’s in crisis believe that those who are currently in control of it can’t fix it, so you have to get somebody from the outside to save it. [TFA] would be a means by which elite college students would go and try and save the American education system.”

“A lot of the reading we do in our class is from education policymakers and researchers and other professors, but this is a really great experience to learn from actual teachers. There’s often a lot of disconnect between those perspectives, so it’ll be good to see what those are,” Brendan Gillett PO ’14 said.

“We will hear teachers and educators talking about what it’s like to work in the field of education,” Eliza Longnecker PO ’14 added.

“Almost every student at the Colleges has heard of Teach for America and has given it at least passing thought as something they might consider doing after graduation but may not have been able to contextualize in a broader sense of what it is, where it came from, who runs it, what its worldview is, how it thinks about American education, and what the experience is of the people who are in the program,” Menefee-Libey said.

Kelsey Atkinson PO ’14 noted the prevalence of TFA information sessions on campus but expects Saturday’s symposium to offer “a little more insight than an information session,” including opposing opinions on TFA so interested students can be better informed. 

“[The panel] includes a range of alumni from recent to twenty years ago and a range of experiences from people who think that TFA is the best thing ever to people who think that TFA was the worst thing that ever happened to them,” Menefee-Libey said. “[The purpose of the symposium is] to bring together panelists who are both from the TFA world and from outside the TFA world to talk more broadly about what this is and how to make sense of it in the context of what’s going on in American education right now.”

Five panelists are scheduled to attend. Jennifer Francis SC ’03, a member of the 2003 Chicago Corps, currently works as a high school principal of a charter school in Gary, Ind. She has also worked for TFA at their training institutes and is on their regional Collective Board, which is specific to TFA Alumni and leaders of color. Gretchen Peterson-Fisher PO ’03, another TFA alum, spent three years teaching science, social studies, and language arts to sixth and seventh graders in Newark, N.J., with TFA. She is currently an education attorney with Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles. Ben Coppersmith PO ’10 taught seventh-grade math at a charter school in Los Angeles as a member of the 2010 Los Angeles TFA Corps, but he left teaching after one semester to pursue a career as a data engineer for Factual, a firm in Los Angeles. Alpha Anders PO ’11 is a second-year LA Corps member with TFA. Juliette “Cricket” Heinze PO ’93 is not involved with TFA but has worked in education for almost 20 years and is currently the Director of Knowledge Sharing at the New York City Department of Education.

After the panel, students will have the opportunity to chat with the panelists as well as with other alumni who attend. It’s billed as a networking session, though it’s not a hand-out-your-business-card event.

“Listening to teachers talk about teaching and education is just really inspiring,” Shand said. “They’re really passionate about it, but they’re also super real about it. They don’t try and sugarcoat things. So, I think it’ll be a very accurate perspective of what teaching in a classroom is like through TFA or without TFA.”

“I think that this is an important event for anyone who wants to go into education, or really just anyone, because education is happening all around us, and it is our future. So if you want a future, come to this event!” Gillett said.

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