Putting passion into practice: Teach for America remains successful despite criticism

Eli Grossman (right) helps student Ti'ani Thomas with her schoolwork as he leads a sixth-grade reading class through Teach for America in Paterson, N.J. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

In the United States alone, 16 million children are living in poverty. Those 16 million children do not have access to high-quality education, and they are half as likely to graduate as those who grow up in economically sound areas.

It is a disheartening statistic at best, but the problem of educational inequity in the United States hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. And, with the aid of thousands of corps members, alumni and executive staff members, Teach for America is aiming to be part of the solution. Teach for America aims to bridge the gaps in U.S. school systems by recruiting and training college graduates of all backgrounds, who ultimately spend two years teaching in low-income, under-resourced communities.

Audrey Pribnow, with Teach for America, leads her class of first-graders at University Academy in Kansas City, Mo. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

Audrey Pribnow, with Teach for America, leads her class of first-graders at University Academy in Kansas City, Mo. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

The national interest in Teach for America is currently at its height: Although the program hired just 500 teachers in its first year, the current 2013-14 school year boasts a staggering 11,000 corps members who are placed at one of 48 regions in 35 states, including North Carolina.

But take one look at the overall picture of North Carolina’s education system, and Teach for America’s glowing numbers in the state become dimmer. Substantial budget cuts, removal of tenure and the elimination of higher pay for teachers with master’s degrees have had many North Carolina educators protesting in recent months, and many have left their jobs altogether.

Teach for America’s website states the organization’s mission is to provide quality education to all students. But according to some, quality education must first begin with quality teachers and a quality training program designed to help corps members succeed.

Joining the corps

For college graduates participating in Teach for America, the two years they spend at their placement school is actually the last step in a long, detail-oriented application process. The journey really starts in August of an applicant’s senior year. It includes an online application and three separate interviews, which get increasingly difficult as the applicant moves through the process. If a student is accepted into the Teach for America corps, he or she could be made aware of that decision as early as Oct. 31. As long as they accept or decline the offer by Nov. 13, their post-graduate life could be set in stone before the table is set for Thanksgiving.

But even though the application process is a months-long ordeal, Teach for America corps members aren’t given nearly that much time to actually prepare for a classroom environment. In fact, the soon-to-be full-time teachers are only given five weeks of intensive training — called “Institute” — during the summer before their two-year commitment begins.

And therein lies a major point of contention between Teach for America ambassadors and critics of the organization: If education majors spend four years studying to be teachers, how can five weeks of training possibly be enough to prepare the newcomers?

The people who ‘swim’ are the ones who see all those challenges as realities and, instead of using them as excuses, work through them. — Mary Kate Hinshaw, Elon University ’12 and Teach for America corps member

Mary Kate Hinshaw, a Class of 2012 alumna of Elon University, is currently completing her second year with Teach for America at Kirkpatrick Elementary School in Clarksdale, Miss. The Mississippi-Delta region, where Hinshaw is located, is considered a “high priority region” — a region with an urgent need for TFA corps members.

Hinshaw said she did not feel prepared to tackle the needs of Mississippi after five weeks of Institute training.

“It definitely felt like a ‘sink or swim’ situation,” Hinshaw said. “It was probably the period of time during which I felt most like a failure. Ultimately, I felt that it was a good introduction to the many challenges that I faced during the year, but it did not entirely prepare me for what an entire school year would be like. I definitely needed more time to fully get a handle on the teaching thing.”

Although Institute training is fairly intensive, it is also very different from an average classroom experience. For example, during Institute training, Teach for America corps members teach summer school for just two hours a day, while being observed by experienced teachers. The class sizes are smaller, and corps members are given an opportunity to reflect with each other in small groups and discuss how the training is going.

But when a corps member begins teaching at his or her placement school a few weeks later, the atmosphere is very different. The number of students in the classroom doubles, and sometimes triples. School days last eight hours instead of two. Teachers are faced with obstacles they did not encounter during their Institute training.

Hinshaw said the disparity between Institute training and the real classroom experience made her feel like she was failing at times.

“I faced many challenges with my students — behavior management issues, classroom culture issues, failing grades,” she said. “It was really easy to spread the blame around, to feel like I wasn’t prepared to be in the classroom, to feel that my students didn’t care about learning, to feel like I wasn’t receiving enough support from Teach for America or my school.”

But instead of letting her classroom’s obstacles defeat her, Hinshaw chose to see them as learning opportunities.

“The people who ‘swim’ are the ones who see all those challenges as realities and, instead of using them as excuses, work through them,” she said. “A lot of a corps member’s success is determined by their decisions to seek out resources, professional development and relationships on their own.”

Elon University alumna Mary Kate Hinshaw ‘12 professes her dedication to her students on a T-shirt. “Why do I teach for America? I teach for them,” she wrote. Photo courtesy of Mary Kate Hinshaw/Facebook.

Elon University alumna Mary Kate Hinshaw ‘12 professes her dedication to her students on a T-shirt. “Why do I teach for America? I teach for them,” she wrote. Photo courtesy of Mary Kate Hinshaw/Facebook.

Teach for America looks for a number of specific qualities in its corps members, but one quality takes precedence above all: leadership.

Maggie Wittman is a Teach for America recruitment associate working exclusively on Elon’s campus, and she stressed the importance of leadership. If a college graduate is going to spend two years teaching in an underprivileged community, it’s imperative that he or she demonstrates strong leadership, she said.

“It takes a special kind of leader to work in low-income schools,” she said. “We know this is hard work, which is why the organization has specific qualities and characteristics that we look for in our applicants.”

Of course, there are other prerequisites that a Teach for America applicant must fulfill — namely a minimum 2.5 GPA, a bachelor’s degree by June of the year they intend to graduate and U.S. citizenship.

But Elon senior Jordan Only agreed that academics can only play so large a role in the hiring process. Only is a student representative for Teach for America on Elon’s campus, and she is currently going through the application process herself, with hopes to teach in North Carolina. As a student representative, Only is responsible for informing her peers about the educational gaps in the United States and persuading them to apply. Leadership skills are absolutely a key characteristic, she said.

“Someone that hasn’t been very involved on campus probably wouldn’t be the best candidate,” Only said. “It’s great to have smart people, but they’re looking for smart people to teach classrooms that truly care about the students. Because that’s ultimately what’s going to make or break [a student’s] learning experience.”

The road less traveled

Teach for America is unique in its tendency to hire non-education majors. In the last four years, of the 57 Elon graduates who pursued opportunities with Teach for America, only four of them majored in education during their undergraduate years. The other participants had a wide variety of majors, from economics to biochemistry, from journalism to international studies.

According to Wittman, hiring college graduates from a range of backgrounds brings some much-needed diversity to the program.

“Yes, we need good teachers and principals now, but we also need individuals across various professional sectors if we are going to fix an entire system that is failing millions of America’s children,” Wittman said.

But critics of Teach for America’s hiring philosophy beg to differ. According to a July article from the Washington Post, a number of people with anti-Teach for America sentiments organized a national assembly to draw attention to Teach for America’s hiring process.

“Critics say that high-needs students, who are the ones who get TFA teachers, are the children who most need veteran teachers,” the article said. “In fact, some veterans are now losing their jobs to TFA corps members, because TFAers are less expensive to hire.”

In North Carolina specifically, 30 percent of TFA corps members remain teaching in public schools for three years after the program ends, and 9 percent remain for five years, according to a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although application numbers for Teach for America are at an all-time high, the increasing turnover rate for teachers is a cause of concern for critics.

What makes Teach for America so appealing to college graduates with no classroom experience? At least for Hinshaw, an English major with concentrations in literature and professional writing and rhetoric, it was an opportunity to help students who desperately needed a teacher that cares.

“I don’t want to paint too pretty a picture. It was hard and not always painless,” Hinshaw said. “But coming out on the other side, the side where my children are learning and working hard and succeeding every day in my classroom this year, is so beyond worth it.”

Only, who is a broadcast journalism major, agreed with Hinshaw’s sentiment that Teach for America is an opportunity to do something good, regardless of one’s prior classroom experience.

“I am personally applying for the program because I’m really passionate about it,” she said. “I believe it’s trying to do great things.”

Facing harsh realities

Hinshaw’s aforementioned “pretty picture” is not one that every Teach for America corps member experiences. For alumna Ashley Jobe, ‘12, it was quite the opposite.

Jobe majored in print and online journalism during her time at Elon, and she was placed in a seventh grade classroom in Eastern North Carolina. She said she pursued Teach for America because of how inspiring the recruitment process was.

“I came to believe that one of the most selective organizations in the country saw enough potential in me that they selected me to enrich the lives of impressionable students who were neglected by America’s failing education system,” Jobe said. “I was chosen to save those children.”

But as early as her five-week Institute training, Jobe felt she was in over her head.

“They sent me into the ring with no gloves, no mouth guard and a foe 10 times my size,” she said.

Hinshaw often uses social media to display her students’ achievements and successful moments each day. Photo courtesy of Mary Kate Hinshaw/Facebook.

Hinshaw often uses social media to display her students’ achievements and successful moments each day. Photo courtesy of Mary Kate Hinshaw/Facebook.

When her two-year commitment in a rural North Carolina county began, she felt wholly unprepared. She no longer had the experienced Teach for America alumni to lean on. Her class had doubled in size from what she experienced in Institute training. She did not feel Teach for America provided her with enough resources to handle the daily frustrations of a classroom — physical altercations between students, self-destructive children who needed psychological help and parents who were verbally and emotionally abusive toward Jobe for not being what they considered an ideal teacher.

Just weeks into her commitment, Jobe was having panic attacks in the bathroom during her planning periods. She drove home to New Jersey at least twice a month to see her family and consult with them about her obstacles. Halfway through her commitment with Teach for America, she decided to quit, even though regional directors for the organization begged her to stay.

“None of it was enough to stave off the dread of living disconnected from the life I thought I was making for myself and my students,” she said. “[I wasn’t] a teacher at all. I was a terrified 21-year-old who graduated from Elon excited to make a difference, and wound up absolutely suffocated by the fact that a teacher is not only that in name, but also parent, friend, counselor, adviser, punching bag, comforter, coach, motivator, nurse and protector.”

Hinshaw, Wittman and Only feel strongly that Teach for America is making slow but significant progress toward bridging a wide educational gap that affects children nationwide.

But Jobe disagrees.

“The underlying message that we recent college grads with no education experience are expected to close the gaps in our American education system reveals a staggering assertion. Those gaps were placed there by those we are ‘replacing’: traditionally trained teachers themselves,” Jobe said. “They haven’t done it right, so we have to. We, with the huge hearts of the cause — without the tools for the job.”

When it comes to replacing old teachers, Jobe isn’t wrong. According to Teach for America’s website, college graduates who participate in the program are receiving “an accelerated pathway into a field that is desperately in need of new talent and innovative thinking.”

According to NCSchools.org, the turnover rate of North Carolina teachers between 2011 and 2012 was 11 percent, a number that is projected to increase as more public school teachers in the state leave their jobs due to budget cuts and eliminated tenure.

But despite North Carolina’s education system’s current state of crisis, Only asserts that Teach for America does not take away jobs from education majors who will be on the job hunt in May. In fact, Teach for America is doing those aspiring educators a favor, she said.

“A lot of those education majors are not interested in teaching in the same areas that Teach for America is sending their teachers,” Only said. “Our teachers are going to areas that are very, very under-resourced. They don’t have the budgets for crayons or markers. It’s a very trying situation, and I think that a lot of people don’t realize that that’s where TFA teachers are going. People assume that Teach for America is taking away jobs, but a lot of the time, there aren’t even teachers that are willing to fill those jobs.”

Even amid controversy, Teach for America has impressive data to back up its success. According to Teach for America’s research center, nearly 90 percent of principals in Teach for America’s partnership regions reported high levels of satisfaction with corps members in 2011. Additionally, 87 percent of school leaders said Teach for America’s corp members’ training is as effective as the training of other beginning teachers who do not participate in the program, and 53 percent of school leaders found corp members’ training to be more effective than the training of other beginning teachers.

Only said she recognizes the criticism geared toward Teach for America. But although she admits it has its flaws, she believes it is making a difference in this country.

“There are 16 million children living in poverty, and that’s a really, really big problem,” she said. “No program is perfect, but Teach for America is attempting to solve a problem.”

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