Teach for America draws eager Elis

Eliza Kennedy ’02 conducts hundreds of interviews with qualified applicants who desperately want to work for her company. But Kennedy does not represent a Wall Street firm with lucrative first-year jobs, nor does she offer applicants the chance to see the world. All Kennedy has to offer is a two-year-minimum stint of difficult work, with somewhere between $25,000 and $41,000 a year as compensation.

This year, a record 12 percent of Yale’s senior class wants this seemingly undesirable job.

Kennedy is a recruiter for Teach for America, an organization committed to eliminating educational inequality in the United States. By sending recent college graduates to schools in 22 rural and urban sites across the country, Teach For America hopes to improve educational opportunities available for children from low-income backgrounds. While many Ivy League graduates jump at the opportunity to teach for a two-year stint, Teach For America corps members (as the teachers are called) often experience challenging classroom situations, and some educational experts question the organization’s ambitious methods.

Kennedy, who spent time teaching in the Rio Grande Valley from 2002-2004, now tries to attract students from top-tier schools to follow in her footsteps.

“My role is to inspire as many outstanding students to apply to Teach For America as possible,” she said.

The rising number of applications over the past few years reveals an enormous interest in Teach For America at schools around the country. Last year, Teach For America received 17,000 applications and had a 16-percent acceptance rate.

Yale students who applied to the program this year were attracted both to the mission of the organization as a whole and to the idea that they could make a difference.

Zoe Palitz ’05, who will be teaching elementary school next year in New York City, said she has always been attracted to the idea of teaching. She said rather than going through graduate school or taking a full load of teacher-preparation courses, Teach For America seemed like a smart choice.

“It looked like a good way to get into the classroom quickly,” Palitz said. “And I found their goals compatible with what I want to do.”

Palitz, like many of her fellow Teach For America participants, was also attracted to the immediate impact her work may have.

“As hard as it is, you have tangible results,” Palitz said.

But these quick results are exactly what some experts on education believe could be detrimental both to corps members and to their students. Melinda Anderson, senior press officer for the National Education Association said eagerness and energy are not necessarily enough to make a great, inspiring teacher.

“Studies confirm that an experienced team of teaching professionals directly correlates with improved student achievement,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail. “Yet the majority of TFA recruits use the program merely as a transition between college and another career.”

But some new recruits said that they were attracted to Teach For America in part because of the opportunity to teach briefly and then move on to other careers, taking what they learned as a corps member with them.

Molly Diaz ’05, who will teach elementary school in Los Angeles next year, said the overall philosophy of Teach For America attracted her to the program. Diaz already has experience teaching in New Haven public schools.

“I really believe in the short-term and the long-term mission of Teach For America,” Diaz said. “The short-term mission is the impact you can have in the classroom … The long-term mission is that after people leave, they understand the state of affairs of education, and whatever field they decide to go into, they keep that in mind.”

But Anderson said the lack of preparation of corps members becomes a problem in the classroom.

Teach For America holds a summer session for all newly recruited corps members, which involves teaching summer school. But a brief summer stint is not enough training, some corps members said.

Jane Hong ’02, who taught sixth and seventh grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Newark, N.J., for two years, said she did not feel adequately prepared when she entered the classroom.

“I think [corps members] need to know what they are getting into,” Hong said. “Teach For America does the best job they can do to train you going into it … It’s not the training — it’s the experience that makes you a good teacher.”

Despite difficulties endured in the classroom, however, many corps members said the experience proved satisfying.

Jamila Thomas ’04, who is teaching first grade in Atlanta, has found her time rewarding but trying.

“Teaching has been unbelievably difficult. It’s been so hard,” Thomas said. “I have a lot more respect for teachers now than I ever could have had before.”

Thomas said that although the immediate results of hard work can be blurred by the day-to-day trials of the classroom, they do exist.

“When you pull away from it and ask the kids what they’ve learned this year, it becomes much more apparent that you have made progress,” she said. “But in the middle of teaching … it seems like they’re not learning anything.”

Despite the challenges, Thomas said she does not regret her choice to work with Teach For America, and thinks it is a “great program.”

Dan Arellano ’04, who is teaching fourth grade at Laura Dearing Elementary in Las Vegas, said the overall experience is a good one.

“It has been extremely rewarding,” Arellano said. “With the teaching aspect, I feel well supported by the Teach For America staff. If you’re willing to go out and find [help], you can never be under-prepared.”

But Anderson said she does not believe the amount of preparation corps members receive can fully prepare them for the task of teaching in challenging situations.

“The notion that college graduates are ready to lead a classroom after a summer crash course is flimsy at best,” she wrote. “You cannot be a successful teacher after an eight-week boot camp — it is a disservice to the TFA recruits and the students in their classrooms.”

Hong said the idealism of Teach For America left her feeling as though she could have done more by the end of her two teaching years.

“Teach For America is a very idealist organization, but the reality is you do what you can but you have a lot of limits,” she said. “You can’t change where [your students] grow up … You can’t revolutionize their lives.”

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