Last year, 68 Claremont students were accepted into into Teach for America (TFA), a national corps of college students who commit to teach for two years after graduation and work to eliminate inequities in education. However, the fiscal crisis that many American schools find themselves in has complicated TFA’s role in education. TFA’s original mission—to bring bright young minds to overburdened schools—has faltered in an economic recession that has hit public education particularly hard.
For many seniors forging post-graduate plans and juniors balking at their own impending futures, TFA is an appealing option. The two-year program combines career development with social justice. Participants earn their teacher accreditation while dealing firsthand with issues plaguing education in the U.S.
Julia Hughes SC ’13 and Gabbi Kelenyi PO ’13 are TFA campus campaign coordinators, working alongside a campus representative to promote TFA and recruit Claremont students. Hughes credits TFA’s popularity to the philanthropic aspects of the program.
“One reason I think that Teach for America is such an intriguing and popular option for Claremont students is because it’s a way to do something right out of college that truly matters,” said Hughes. “To go every day to your nine-to-five and feel very deliberate, purposeful, and intentional about what you’re doing I think is a really rare opportunity given to students our age.”
“TFA’s mission aligns with a lot of people’s goals, particularly on the 5C’s,” Kelenyi said. “5C students are civic minded, they really want to engage with their communities.”
However, the actual role that the TFA corps plays in the American education community is somewhat ambiguous.
David Menfee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College, said that TFA was founded at a time when the education system was desperately in need of highly skilled, ambitious minds.
“The original motivation for creating it was a perception that the elementary and secondary education system in the United States was stagnant,” Menfee-Libey said.
When TFA was formed in 1990, this talent shortfall, combined with a booming economy, resulted in a deficit of teachers particularly in the most challenged schools.
“The people who invented Teach for America wanted to get people who no longer thought of teaching as a promising avenue for their future careers to think about going into teaching for a little while,” Menfee-Libey said. “To some degree, Teach for America has been successful in that dimension.”
However, the times—and the economy—have changed.
“The human capital arguments that Teach for America made during the boom seem less applicable now,” Menfee-Libey said. “Teachers are having a really hard time finding jobs coming out of the conventional accreditation system. TFA teachers may be viewed as dilettantes looking for a brief interesting experience coming out of college when these other people are looking for careers to support themselves and their families.”
Kelenyi, however, said that TFA teachers are facing the same economic difficulties as more traditionally educated teachers.
“TFA works with them to get a job and to find a teaching position, but they’re out there searching and applying and interviewing for those jobs just like all of the others,” she said.
Kelenyi said that TFA is not directly placing corps members in schools, but it instead assists them in their job search.
For TFA corps members on the ground, educational politics in the United States can seem very distant from the daily concerns of working in America’s struggling schools. Amanda Esten PO ’07 entered the corps a year before the start of the recession.
“When I started teaching, we were just on the edge of the change in the economy. There were still a lot of vacancies in teaching, in California specifically,” Esten said. “When you look at the schools where Teach for America places teachers, they’re schools that other teachers don’t necessarily want to teach in, especially people who have a lot of experience.”
Esten was placed at Locke High School, which was then one of the lowest-testing schools in the nation. Esten said that rather than feeling unwelcome as a TFA teacher, she filled a definite need.
“At my school, a veteran teacher was anyone that had taught for 5 years or more, just because so many people leave schools like the one I taught at after a year or after two years,” Esten said. “There weren’t that many people who had stuck around much longer.”
Esten ended up extending her stay at Locke to three years. She continues to work for TFA as an administrator.
Even corps members entering schools in the middle of recession have seen a demonstrable need for new teachers. Justine Selsing PO ’11 is currently teaching kindergarten in San Jose. She is in the second year of her contract and originally was placed in a first grade classroom.
“I did not feel that I was replacing a veteran teacher, but rather filling a space that my school couldn’t find anyone else to fill,” Selsing wrote in an e-mail to TSL. “Personally, I don’t feel like I am boxing out veteran teachers, but I do feel that this is a valid criticism and general problem with Teach for America.”
Hughes, who is herself in the process of applying for TFA, agrees with Selsing—she sees the scarcity of jobs in education as a problem, but she doesn’t want to see young educators like herself excluded from the profession.
“I so passionately feel that I want to be a teacher that I think that I deserve a shot in the classroom,” Selsing said. “Teach for America is going to help me to do that.”