Face-to-Face With Teach for America: Claremont Alumni in the Classroom

Last year, Teach for America (TFA) sent a record 10,000 first- and second-year corps members into classrooms. The organization, which combines social activism with career experience, is a popular choice for many recent graduates, especially at many of the nation’s top schools, including the Claremont Colleges, which do not have a pre-education major.

“You are in a classroom every day with students who are underserved and disadvantaged in a lot of ways, but that’s what makes it so inspiring,” said Julia Hughes SC ’13, a TFA campus coordinator for the 5Cs. “It’s so vital that people like us, 5C students who are driven, who are accomplished and who are successful, get into classrooms.”

However, critics of the program point out that the main goal of the program is to help students in the public education system, not high-achieving undergraduates, and many question whether the program actually serves students in the way that it claims to.

TFA allows corps members to bypass many of the typical requirements for a career in education, which can take several years. Instead, corps members participate in a five-week intensive program called “Institute” the summer after they graduate from college.

“To the extent that we have research about it, it appears that those teachers do no worse than conventional novice teachers,” said Pomona College Professor of Politics David Menefee-Libey. “It does not appear that TFA corps members are doing any educational harm relative to teachers who are conventionally prepared, but it also doesn’t appear that they’re doing anything transformative in the classroom. The benefit to the children in those classes is not exactly clear.”

Some TFA teachers say that the training they receive is inadequate to prepare them for the difficult situations in which they are placed.

“I was exposed to a lot of theory, which was helpful, but we got very little practical advice and had little time to practice,” Justine Selsing PO ’11 said. 

Selsing was trained as a preschool teacher but at the last minute was switched to the first grade. 

“I felt very unprepared on my first day of school,” she said.

TFA continues to help its teachers with professional development throughout their time in the corps, but a great deal of training occurs on the job. For many TFA teachers, the challenges of the classroom are too high. At least 50 percent of corps members leave teaching after their two-year commitment is over, according to a report by Julian Heilig, an education expert at the University of Texas.

However, this should not necessarily come as a surprise, the report shows. The report cites studies that show that the attrition rate of conventionally trained teachers in the nation’s most challenged schools is just as high, if not higher. 

TFA alumna Amanda Esten PO ’07 spent three years at Locke High School in Los Angeles, at the time one of the lowest-testing schools in the nation. Like many TFA teachers, Esten faced a particular set of difficulties that come from placement in low-income areas with struggling students.

“A lot of TFA teachers are faced with gross injustices for the first time,” Esten said. “I knew these things happened, but I didn’t know what they were like until they happened in my school and in my classroom.” 

As a student from a low-income background, Esten said she joined TFA to learn about how to rectify the opportunity gap in public education.

“I realized at a very young age that, even though I came from a background without the same opportunities as everyone else, that I deserved a good education,” Esten said. “Fortunately for me, I found a way to make it happen, but I also knew a lot of people who I grew up with who didn’t get the same opportunities.” 

Antoinette Meyers SC ’12 was also motivated to join the corps by her own experiences in the public school system.

“I chose to participate in Teach for America because I really wanted an opportunity to impact the students that are like me, who had the same lack of access and opportunities that I had growing in underfunded urban schools,” Meyers wrote in an e-mail to TSL.

Meyers teaches Special Education in the rural town of Naalehu, HI.

“I really wanted to be placed in the same schools that I went to in L.A. and D.C. Interestingly enough, I was placed in Hawaii,” Meyers wrote. “I have constantly been learning new things about Hawaii and its residents, and I’ve found that Native Hawaiians have so many challenges that they face on these islands. It’s really been eye-opening, to say the least.”

Both Meyers and Selsing are interested in remaining in education. Meyers is currently working on her master’s degree in Special Education and hopes to earn a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership.

Hughes said that while TFA does strive to bring highly skilled workers into permanent careers in education, that is not the only goal.

“Teach for America’s plan has a greater macroscopic vision. We’re building this new generation of education advocates,” Hughes said. 

“The half of our teachers who remain in education do this every day in their classrooms and in their schools,” she said. “The other half go on to do things like politics, business, finance and medicine, but they’re going to be education advocates because they’ve seen firsthand how inequity has affected their students.”

Esten, now on her way to veterinary school, agreed.

“It’s completely worthwhile because you are finding a way to get involved and make changes that are necessary,” she said. “Even if you feel like you are fighting an uphill battle, you’re making a difference by just being in the students’ lives.”

She also said TFA provides an opportunity for personal growth.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” she said. “I can identify my strengths and weaknesses, I know what I want out of my life, what is meaningful to me and what my priorities are.”

She added, “Our system is set up in a way that rewards people who already come from privilege and limits the opportunities of those who are born without privilege. I wanted to do something to straighten that out, to figure out what could be done. I know, now that I’ve actually been a part of it, that Teach for America really aims to get at the heart of that.”

Students who would like more information about TFA can contact Gabbi Kelenyi PO ’13 at gabrielle.kelenyi@pomona.edu and Julia Hughes SC ’13 at jhughes3583@scrippscollege.edu.

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