It was almost impossible to make out what Zachary Groff ’13 was trying to say on the other end of the line. All you could hear were the sounds of children: shouting and shrieking.
Eventually, Groff decided to leave his classroom in search of a quieter space. A brief silence, and then his voice reappeared. We resumed our conversation. It was just after 4 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. Groff was only halfway through his week.
Groff is currently teaching first grade at Jumoke Academy Honors at Dunbar School in Bridgeport, Conn. Every weekday, Groff is at the school from around 7:30 in the morning until 6:00 p.m. He doesn’t get back to New Haven, where he lives, until after 7:00 p.m.
More than one thousand miles away, Groff’s former suitemate and best friend Bradley Cho ’13 goes through a similar routine — in rural Mississippi.
“If you told me a year ago that I was going to be teaching or in Mississippi, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Cho said, chuckling on the other side of our phone call. While at Yale he majored in history and always thought he was going to go to law school.
Groff also hadn’t planned to go into education during his Yale years. And both he and Cho are unsure whether they’ll continue to teach. After two years of teaching, they will decide whether to stay at their respective schools, move to one somewhere else or pursue something else entirely. These are not unusual choices for corps members in Teach for America.
In 1989, Wendy Kopp was a senior at Princeton. In her senior thesis she proposed the idea that more top college students wanted to give back to society. But at the time, there were few well-organized, or well-publicized, programs that allowed them to do so. She developed Teach for America, which has since sent tens of thousands of high-achieving college graduates to participate in two-year teaching programs in some of the poorest pockets of America, many of which suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers.
Last year, over 57,000 college graduates, many hailing from some of America’s most revered universities, applied for TFA’s 4,000 teaching positions. The program has an acceptance rate that rivals Yale’s own in terms of selectivity.
Yet successful applicants from Yale to the program are not always greeted with the praise and even envy that they might receive if they had instead gotten a job offer from Google or a place at Harvard Med School in their senior year. If they accept TFA’s offer, these seniors will find themselves in the midst of a heated national debate instead.
From education experts to opinion columnists on-campus, the prestigious program has received a myriad of criticism recently, ranging from its alleged failure to prepare teachers adequately for the classroom to the claim that TFA actively seeks to dismantle America’s public school system.
Despite these critiques, Yale students are still drawn to TFA. From the Class of 2013, 30 Yalies joined the corps, making the non-profit the second-largest employer of Yale graduates, behind only the University itself, and ahead of prestigious consulting and finance firms such as J.P. Morgan, McKinsey & Company and Goldman Sachs.
Yale students who have enrolled in TFA readily admit to the existence of flaws in the program, but most believe that they profit from their experience. At times the program fails to live up to its lofty ideals, but Yalies in the program continue to find meaning in this work.
Boarding the School Bus
Students interested in Teach for America must first submit an application by one of five deadlines that fall between August and February.
In the next round, applicants are given a phone interview and are asked to fill out yet another set of short answer questions. In the final interview process, candidates spend a day answering face-to-face questions and mimicking classroom duties, such as designing and teaching a five-minute lesson.
“I’ve heard that sometimes the interviewers will ask very antagonistic questions and pretend to be short of understanding,” said Meredith Redick ’14, who has recently been accepted to TFA and has committed to teaching at a school in Chicago. Though she didn’t receive any of these hardball questions, she said the final interview process was nerve wracking nonetheless.
Redick also called this grueling two-cmonth process a “major time commitment,” and it’s one that doesn’t always pay off. Only 14 percent of all applicants are accepted.
Despite the many hoops one must jump through to apply, many Yalies persist, citing their affinity for TFA’s mission.
Cho, whose family immigrated to Los Angeles when he was very young, said that the opportunity to give back to underprivileged communities like the one he grew up in was his number one reason for taking on the job.
“I believe that service to your community and country is one of the best things you can do,” he said, asserting that you need a certain idealism to do this job.
Many other former Yalies cited this desire to give back among their primary reasons for joining TFA, and some said the pressure weighs harder on those from more privileged backgrounds.
Chris Clarke ’13, a first year TFA core member who teaches 11th grade history in Chicago, pointed out that time in the program can be seen as a way to atone in advance more cutthroat career choices later.
“A lot of people [at Yale] see TFA as an ethical alternative or obligation to repay your privilege before getting your ‘real’ career started,” he lamented. Clarke hasn’t decided whether he wants to pursue teaching full-time but said he plans to spend at least another two years in the field after he completes his obligations to TFA.
Coming from an immigrant household with a special-needs sibling, Cathy Huang ’14 came to college with a desire to become a teacher. However, working for TFA wasn’t in her initial plan.
Huang cited the elimination of Yale’s Teacher Preparation program during her sophomore year as a prominent reason why she turned to TFA. Even in her first years of college, Huang knew she wanted to be a teacher, but, once that program was cut, she had no way to obtain a teaching certification without going outside the University.
Huang laid out her options: she could take night courses at a different university, pay for “emergency certification” through state-specific certification programs or become a corps member of the TFA with a guarantee of a stable, salaried job for at least two years. With TFA, she could be financially independent and work in a high-need community. For Huang, there really was no better alternative.
Elizabeth Carroll, director of Yale’s new Education Studies program, said that without the prospect of obtaining teacher certification at Yale, Yalies aspiring to be teachers have three options: TFA and similar programs (Carroll herself was certified through the New York City Teaching Fellows), three-to-five-year residency programs that train teachers over one year before allowing them to teach in their classrooms independently, or a traditional yearlong Master’s degree program that provides certification without a job guarantee.
Therefore, Yalies like Huang who want to pursue a career in teaching find themselves with limited set of options.
“Yale unexpectedly forced my hand in some ways,” she said.
But as students are funneled into TFA, they also find themselves entering a national debate about whom the program actually benefits, and if it really lives up to its high-minded ideals.
The most recent, most discussed criticism comes from Olivia Blanchard, who wrote an immensely popular cover story for The Atlantic Magazine this September. In it, she explained why she quit TFA after just one year.
She took her complaints to the press in September of this year when she wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “I Quit Teach for America.” In the article she decried the contrast between the promise of the program and what she actually experienced.
Blanchard’s critique of TFA began with how the program markets itself: as a morally good alternative to other post-college options. Blanchard entered TFA after graduating from the University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill. She chose the program because she believed that as a TFA Corps Member, she would be an important leader in a community that would lack such role models.
“Although I was thinking of working in Washington or going to law school, I decided to do TFA in part because I wanted to contribute something to society and I was really interested in social justice,” Blanchard said.
But Blanchard didn’t believe that she got the training that she needed to be the role model she imagined.
Assigned to teach 5th grade math and science in Atlanta, Ga., she found herself at a loss. Like all TFA Corps Members, Blanchard underwent an intensive five-week training program in the June and July before her first year at TFA, but she said that she found this training insufficient.
“The training program is ineffective in part because it’s just not specialized,” she said, adding that it was “disconcerting” that she, as a fifth-grade math teacher, was going through the exact same training schedule as someone who may have to teach twelfth-grade American history.
All seven other current or former TFA Corps members interviewed agreed with Blanchard in saying that the training program was insufficient.
“Are you ready to be thrown into a classroom of loud and bored kids after five weeks of training? No, not at all,” said Clarke of his experience in Chicago.
But proponents of TFA push back on the notion that it doesn’t prepare teachers well enough.
Aisha Turner ’02, the managing director of Corporate and Foundation Relations for Teach for America in New York argued that, while traditionally teachers come into their first jobs after years of graduate school in education, that training isn’t much better than practical experience.
“You learn how to be a good teacher by teaching and studies show that a first year TFA teacher performs as well or better than other first year teachers,” she said.
But Blanchard pointed out that the program’s members generally don’t stay in teaching long enough to learn these skills.
She said that in addition to those, like her, who quit before their two-year term ended, many corps members teach for an additional year or two before heading to graduate school or other more high-paying jobs. They don’t have time to ever get comfortable in a classroom.
Others on the job disagreed with Blanchard, arguing that most members remain involved in education in some capacity.
Clarke admitted that he knows colleagues and fellow corps members who have told him that they see TFA as a stepping stone or a line in their resume, a way to get into medical or law school, especially if they don’t have the background of coming from an elite university. He maintained, however, that most TFA members are interested in pursuing education as a full-time commitment.
“Whether a TFA corps member is a good teacher is more important than whether the member is doing it for the right reasons,” Clarke said.
And Rikki Crouse, a TFA member from the University of Oregon teaching middle school math at Domus Academy in New Haven, pointed out that those who come to TFA for the wrong reasons are often the ones who quit during institute training, not those who drop out on the job.
Still, dedicated TFA members face challenges beyond their control. Blanchard arrived in an Atlanta school in the midst of a cheating scandal. And, when she needed help with a special education student who wasn’t supposed to be in her class, for instance, neither the school nor TFA was responsive.
In situations like these, Blanchard was meant to rely on her advisor in the program, an MTLD (Master of Teacher-Leader Development). While she said that she found her MTLD supportive, and invested in her success, she said that the program’s advisors are spread too thin.
“My MTLD really cared a lot and was absolutely terrific and invested in my success, but she had thirty other teachers to take care of,” said Blanchard.
TFA also faces criticism, not on specific policies, but on how the program runs as a whole.
Clarke said that as a TFA member in Chicago, he has often been personally attacked or vilified by public school teachers who see the program as a threat to the system.
“The Union leader of the Chicago public schools called TFA the Devil recently,” he said. He added, however, that he taught at a charter school where teachers and administrators are generally more supportive of the TFA mission.
For some, including Diane Ravitch, a historian of education at New York University and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education during the presidency of George W. Bush ’68, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
She argued that TFA offers a low-cost and low-quality alternative to unionized public school teachers. While funding for TFA is expanding, teachers are being laid off in many cities — and these two trends are no coincidence, Ravitch argues in her writings.
“[TFA] has become the handmaiden of the privatization movement,” she wrote on her website, The Diane Ravitch Blog, in a September post.
Off the Syllabus
Yalies admitted to TFA find that their experience isn’t always the life they imagined.
As soon as future corps members are admitted, they are taught TFA’s five core values — diversity, transformational change, leadership, teamwork and respect/humility — through activities like putting pictures of each value on Pinterest. In addition, TFA recruits are given readings on race, economic justice, urban issues and more.
In June, a training institute begins. For most TFA trainees, this is a five-week boot camp of sorts, during which future corps members are made to teach for most of the day, attend lectures on teaching in the evenings and create lesson plans at night.
Clarke said that during “Institute” — which he described as being “like finals on steroids” — TFA recruits read books such as “The New Jim Crow” to heighten their cultural sensitivity and awareness of issues salient to low-income communities. They also openly discuss whether it is morally acceptable for privileged graduates from elite colleges such as Yale to be teaching in predominantly African-American or Hispanic schools. When this process ends, the trained teachers attend an orientation and take a quick break before moving into their assigned classrooms at the beginning of the school year.
The teachers interviewed agreed that the first days, weeks, even months of school are hectic as can be.
“Nothing prepares you for when you’re in charge of classrooms,” Mariel Novas ’10 said. “You’re expected to [teach] like a twenty-year veteran.”
During this make-or-break period, the new teachers struggled with the obstacles of effective classroom management. Once, in Cho’s classroom, a student burst out crying. He had no idea what to do. Groff’s students acted similarly. They would often be playing, talking or even fighting with one another when he was trying to teach.
Thankfully for Groff, the situation improved once he figured out how to take control of his students. Still, he called the job “physically, emotionally and mentally draining” because of the need to be thinking about so many things simultaneously.
In addition to maintaining a healthy classroom climate, the new teachers have to deal with the new responsibilities thrust upon them.
Novas initially felt weighed down by the pressure to change her students’ lives and provide them with the opportunities that she had had. She learned, however, to embrace this pressure and use it as a driving force toward positive change and better classroom practices.
“I understood the system that had to be in place to manage a classroom and ensure that the students are learning,” she said. She added that she felt she has learned the importance of being honest and genuine in response to her students’ needs.
Shanaz Chowdhery ’13 teaches fifth grade math in Washington, D.C. She spoke about all of the unexpected obstacles encountered while teaching, including managing student behavior, working with parents as partners and navigating relationships with coworkers.
She also emphasized the long hours of the job — during our early evening phone conversation, Chowdhery was simultaneously creating an answer key for a quiz that she planned to administer in the next couple of days.
“I’ve been working harder than I’ve ever worked in my entire life,” Chowdhery admitted.
And complaints, in the end become a common theme.
Clarke enjoys his time in working in Chicago, but says that many corps members bond through mutual pessimism.
“TFA members complain a lot. That’s what we do to socialize,” he said.
Ultimately, some TFA teachers can’t take the heat.
Teacher retention and attrition rates — already one of the biggest problems facing schools in high-poverty communities — are particularly high for TFA members, said Clarke. And more than 50 percent of TFA members do not remain in the classroom after their two-year tenure is up.
Crouse said that, as a second-year TFA student, she knows of only a handful of colleagues from her five-week training period that quit during the two-year program.
“Do a lot of TFA members think of quitting? Yes, absolutely, but most people get through it,” she said.
The number one reason for staying? The kids, of course.
In a phone interview, Cho shouted over the line that he loved his kids. Unlike Gross’s call, however, Cho’s took place after school hours. His kids couldn’t be heard in the background.
But, like his former suitemate, Cho knows how taxing a daily routine with them can be. He wakes up early — at 5:30 a.m. in Hollandale, Miss., population: 2,500. After a twenty mile drive, he arrives at Simmons High School in Leland, Miss., population: 4,400. There he teaches for seven out of eight class periods, finally leaving the school at 3:40 p.m. When he gets home, he’ll spend hours making lesson plans and grading papers.
Cho also said that you often “hope that you’re making a difference,” and that’s what matters. There is a teacher shortage in his region of Mississippi, and he believes that, even if he’s only there for a short amount of time, he can be a positive influence.
When asked about teachers who struggle with quitting, he admitted that some of his co-workers have left the program. But he also said that he has witnessed many discover that they have the “grit” to preserve.
“I’ve seen teachers cry after school, and still come back to their desks in the morning.”