Each year, over 10 percent of Yale’s graduating senior class, more than a hundred students, apply for jobs with Teach for America. They are inspired by the program’s goal in fighting “our nation’s greatest injustice” — that education inequity persists along socioeconomic and racial lines.
But though many undergraduate students show an interest in pursuing urban teaching for two years with TFA, fewer students are committed to Yale’s Teacher Preparation and Education Studies program, which has a curriculum that allows for official teacher certification and only enrolls a total of 20 to 30 undergraduates.
While the students interested in TFA and Teacher Prep share the same goal of closing the education disparities in America, students involved said the two programs have fundamentally different approaches and attitudes towards enacting such social change.
Director of Teacher Preparation and Education Studies Jack Gillette said he does not see Teacher Prep and Teach for America as competing for the same pool of students. While he thinks Teach for America is a tremendous national service, he said planning a career in teaching is very different from wanting to be a teacher for a few years.
“I find that when I talk to people who are going to do TFA, they feel like they are headed to do something important, challenging, meaningful, and that is great vehicle for that,” Gillette said. “If you are good for TFA, you could be great if you spent a year with us. But I recognize that is not necessarily what people’s goals are.”
TFA Recruitment Director David Stanley ’05, who spent two years teaching in Harlem after graduating from Yale, said TFA is able to put teachers in classrooms who may never have taught before but who possess the qualities that would make them effective. TFA has found that great teaching is fundamentally great leadership, he said.
“I think that what distinguishes TFA is that these are folks who are really so committed to the idea that this is a fundamental social injustice,” Stanley said. “As a consequence, they really come out to the table not just doing the normal routine of teaching, but going above and beyond the constraints of class, putting in investment banking hours in the classroom, taking trips to colleges and universities as a part of wanting to raise awareness and building relationship with students inside out.”
Stanley also emphasized that 66 percent of TFA’s corps stay in education after their 2-year commitment, working as teachers, administrators and advocates for educational change. Of the 34 percent who don’t stay in education, Stanley said, 40 percent still work with low-income communities.
But Gillette said he is concerned that TFA diminishes the importance of teacher preparation, reflecting a greater social problem: that teaching is considered a lower-class profession. He said that when people found out he went to Harvard and ended up teaching at Hillhouse High School, they often asked why he would waste his time as a teacher.
“No one would go to be a lawyer without 3 years of law school, or be a doctor without six or seven years of medical school, but people are deeply skeptical about spending a year to prepare to teach,” Gillette said. “I just worry about the assumption that any smart kid can teach effectively.”
In order to properly equip recent graduates to lead classrooms, TFA holds five-week summer preparation institutes. Corps members-in-training teach in a district summer school education program for an hour or two, and spend the rest of the day participating in classes that build their teaching skills. In Teacher Prep, students take typical undergraduate courses in the subject in which they plan to teach, in addition to eight or nine teacher preparation courses. One of the required teacher prep courses is a 10-week student teaching program during which students gradually ease into teaching three class periods.
Brian Earp ’09, a student in the Teacher Prep program, said he appreciates that Teacher Prep allows him to experiment with educational theories in a “non-threatening environment” before heading into the classroom.
“Some people say nothing can train you like experience, but … why not be reflective and then go with the flow?” Earp said.
Still, some students prefer to jump right into the action. Laura Greer ’07, who has always wanted to be a teacher, said she joined TFA because it is one of few opportunities where recent graduates are given significant responsibility and can make a meaningful impact on other people’s lives. Having taught at Summer Bridge New Haven during the summer after her junior year, Greer said, it was difficult for her to decide whether to enter a graduate program in education or to start teaching immediately with TFA. Greer said she chose TFA because she felt like she was ready to get into the classroom and hit the ground running.
Ameer Kim El-Mallawany ’05 was enrolled in Teacher Prep and later joined TFA. He said Teacher Prep helped him to discover where he stood on educational theory issues, which he said come up on a daily basis in his urban school district.
“I teach in a school where I fundamentally disagree with the staff on a lot of things,” Kim El-Mallawany said. “We are purporting to be college prep, purporting to be the best of public schools in the city, yet I have teachers who dumb down the curriculum because they feel sorry for the kids … [like] calling coordinating conjunctions joining words. If you are going to go through all that trouble you might as well call it coordinating conjunctions.”
Kim El-Mallawany taught with TFA for a year at a Native American reservation in New Mexico before quitting and moving to teach in the South Bronx.
While some students enroll in both the Teacher Prep and TFA, many students who join the TFA corps may have never previously thought about teaching. Stanley said 95 percent of TFA corps members have never taught before. Although he entered his senior year with a job offer from a consulting firm, he said, he decided to do TFA so he could make an impact on an issue he was passionate about and build a skill set that he felt would be transferable to future endeavors. Stanley said a big motivation for him was that he wanted to be a father figure for students whose fathers had been absent growing up, as his own had been.
“Where you are born in this country, your ZIP code, those five numbers determine more about your education and your opportunities in life than anything else,” Stanley said. “Yalies don’t want to accept that people are effectively condemned to poverty not because of their skills, but because of where they are born. Our willingness to push or failure to address this commitment will define our generation’s commitment to … fundamental civil rights.”
But Kim El-Mallaway said that while he generally praises TFA’s training program and still uses some of the training books he received, he is skeptical of the organization’s overall mission.
“People are inspired in way that stokes their own ego,” Kim El-Mallawany said. “I can be part of the movement — the movement of people in between college and the corporate world where they are going to … pay off the loans. It is a movement in a very factious, underhanded, colonial white way.”
But Kristine DiColandrea ’07, who is a corps member teaching in Harlem, said that TFA members enter teaching with realistic notions, not lofty ones. They know that they will not be able to save all the children or the school, she said.
“What TFA sets out to accomplish is a mission, but that doesn’t make them missionaries,” DiColandrea said. “It’s a mission that our generation needs to become aware of and needs to do something about. We go into this, yes, as maybe some of the brightest and most accomplished young people of our generation, but we go into this very humbly because we know we are about to tackle a huge problem.”
Kim El-Mallawany said he felt uncomfortable during a TFA diversity training session that focused on white privilege. The irony was not lost on him, he said, that the first time many of the teachers would be the minority in the room was when they were in the position of power as a teacher.
According to the TFA website, 28.3 percent of its corps members are people of color. Stanley said TFA remains committed to recruiting a diverse corps.
“If we are not reflective of the diversity of communities we are serving, we are not having an impact we could be having,” Stanley said. “Everybody has the capacity to be a great teacher, but people who are of color have a unique ability to connect … to their students.”
Kim-El Mallaway said TFA should recruit from colleges close by teaching sites so that corps members have a stake in the community in which they will teach. This way, he said, corps members will not have to struggle to understand why kids are constantly saying the n-word. Nevertheless, Kim El-Mallaway said, given that TFA is one of the only programs that allows students to teach without going through a teacher licensing program, it is worth it for any prospective teachers to join — if they can “get past being offended by the mission” — because ultimately the communities need people who care and have the energy to change it.
DiColandrea said she believes students are inspired when they hear that their teacher is from a far-away state and went to Harvard or Yale.
“There is definitely a spin that non-native teachers can have in their classroom, which conveys an extra dimension of care of these kids’ education,” DiColandrea said. “It’s inspiring to hear that someone from the great outside world cares about how they do. The kids understand and sense that.”