Recently, several people have contacted me with interesting stories they wanted to share with the people who read this blog. In the coming weeks there will be more guest posts like this one from Bryn Mawr College senior Emma Gulley.
How Interning for Teach For America Convinced me of its Injustice
Over the past several months I’ve seen more and more articles critiquing Teach for America. Former corps members brought light to the injustice of their experiences. Professors explained why TFA was problematic for students. Policy experts outlined its detriment to school districts. Links to their articles popped up again and again on my Facebook newsfeed, on my Twitter timeline, and on email listservs I was a part of.
There was a kind of underground excitement I felt that I was witnessing when I saw these articles gain popularity–at last, I felt, the problems, heartache, frustration, and anxiety I had felt with TFA were coming into the light. It is now that I want to add my voice to the arena, and to be one more person standing up against Teach for America, as I try to explain how my direct involvement with Teach for America as an intern exposed to all of the dirty, secret recruiting practices and agendas of the Philadelphia offices, that convinced me of its injustice.
I sat in on my first Teach for America information session as a wide-eyed 17-year-old college freshman. It was a hot summer day in New York City and the professional shoes I had talked myself into wearing to the TFA Head Quarters were cutting into the heels of my feet. Once I arrived at HQ I found my name tag, introduced myself to the nearby TFA executives and managers, whose average age, I remember noticing, must have been 25, and filtered into the meeting room, one of fifty other well-intentioned millenials who had been invited to come and learn about how they could, singlehandedly, Fix Educational Inequity and Solve Injustice.
Sitting in that information session, I was force-fed TFA discourse that promised me that, if I completed their program, I would “devote” two years of my life towards “solving this generation’s civil rights issue” while being a “hero” to my students. Quickly, in the next breath, they told me that it didn’t matter if I didn’t want to be a teacher my entire life, because after my two years with Teach for America, I could apply to law school, business school, or medical school, because Teach for America has relationships with many graduate schools. They told me participating in Teach for America would be my way of “making a difference” and “being a hero” to my students and that I should teach as a way of “giving back.”
And I believed them.
I wanted what they said to be true, I wanted to make a difference in the world, and I wanted to be surrounded by people who valued children. When I met the recruiter for Bryn Mawr several months later and she told me there was an internship for college students to spread TFA’s message throughout their campus, I couldn’t fill out the application fast enough. And so, in the middle of my sophomore year, I began my journey with Teach for America.
My manager was a kind woman who remembered my birthday and dotted her emails with happy faces. The tasks she asked me to complete were innocent enough—forward emails to so-and-so; hang flyers here; run a facebook page about Bryn Mawr and TFA. In my spring semester I registered for my college’s “Intro to Education” seminar, called Critical Issues in Education. After immersing myself into a new discourse about education, broadly speaking, and all of its nuances and implications, I developed misgivings about Teach for America–how could 5 weeks be enough training? What happened to the kids in summer school who were corps members’ “practice students?”–but I still believed TFA was sending bright, hard-working college graduates into classrooms whose students would otherwise have substitute teachers, and so I swallowed my hesitation and forged ahead with my internship. As my sophomore year came to a close, my manager told me she thought I would be an excellent candidate for TFA’s next level of internship. I would be a Campus Campaign Coordinator (CCC), and they told me I would essentially have the same responsibilities I had as an intern, only now I would get paid for all of my work. I signed on the dotted line and began the last leg of my journey with Teach for America, not knowing all that it would require from me.
For starters, I was not only responsible for hanging flyers, responding to emails, or inviting people to TFA’s events. I was responsible for actively seeking them out, for “identifying leaders,” and for supplying their names, email addresses, even majors and extra curricular activities, to my manager. In our CCC training we were told we were indispensable to the recruitment efforts because we knew our campuses better than anyone else but I did not realize I had signed up to be a powerless gateway between the campus culture I treasured so much and the corporate ladder of TFA. My manager wanted me to do things I wasn’t comfortable with–present on TFA to every club on campus, ask professors if I could make an announcement about TFA in their classes, partner with the career office to organize a Teach for America breakfast–and shamed me when I didn’t. She couldn’t understand why I wasn’t comfortable with them, since all of her other CCCs at other schools had done similar initiatives with great success–meaning, of course, that the events had provided the CCC with a stack of names of individual students who would then likely be added to various email list serves and spreadsheets. She could not understand why I did not want to pitch TFA to clubs with no connection to education. She could not understand why I did not want to bribe people to apply to the program with bagels. She could not understand that I respected Bryn Mawr’s faculty too much to ask them to give me ten minutes of class time to present on an organization whose name is well-known–and, generally, hated–throughout the campus community. Every time I didn’t “go above and beyond” or kill myself to hang TFA posters around campus at midnight for “shock value” the next day (yes, this was an honest suggestion my manager had for me during one of my performance reviews) my manager would remind me: A) that I’m also proving my leadership through this role for when I do decide to apply to TFA, which I shouldn’t forget, B) that I’m “ultimately doing this for the kids,” and C) that TFA is a “no excuses” organization for winners.
“The next deadline overlaps with finals.” “No excuses.”
“But he told me he doesn’t want to be a teacher.” “No excuses.”
TFA’s “no excuses” attitude is not healthy for its interns, not healthy, I would venture to guess, for its managers or corps members, and it is certainly not healthy for its students who have the misfortune of being placed in a corps member’s classroom. “No excuses” cannot coexist with “critical thinking.” “No excuses” cannot coexist with “self care” or “mental health.”
My time with TFA, even as an intern, wore on me. I never felt good about myself. I felt bad about myself–and stupid and lazy–every time I got off the phone with my manager. It was exhausting, demeaning, and upsetting to constantly fall short of her expectations, but I refused to follow through on her suggestions which I thought were offensive, elitist, and colonialist in their approach. During our CCC training TFA told me I would be working about seven hours each week “give or take,” but there were weeks where I worked 20 hours–where I emailed instead of slept.
I was unhappy every minute I worked for TFA. But I told myself I had to continue working for them because I had, somewhere, internalized the mantra TFA uses to bully so many college seniors into starting applications. You know, the job market is tough. Just start an application–it only takes an hour. It’s a competitive marketplace–just submit an application. It never hurts to have an option–we’re nonbinding. I told myself that, by doing TFA, I was giving myself an option and guaranteeing myself a future job as a corps member–I was forging a pathway to my future classroom. TFA led me to believe that, for someone like me, with a humanities/social science background, TFA is “the only option.”
It was around December of my junior year when I began to realize my future with TFA had to be short lived. My friends grew concerned for me when they realized I hardly had the time, or mental capacity, to go out for dinner or see a movie. My professors asked me if I was getting enough sleep. I was 19 years old, I was surrounded by incredible friends, I lived in a castle of a dorm, I loved all of my classes, and I was profoundly unhappy.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was around the same time that my unhappiness with TFA peaked that I realized, in my heart of hearts, I did want to be a teacher. My education seminars had inspired, fascinated, and compelled me–I grew to love questioning notions of school and education; I grew to love discussing the child within the student. I did not want to teach for a while; I did not want to teach for America. I wanted to teach for myself and for my future students. I wanted to teach to honor the profession, to learn every day, and to do what made me happy. It was when I gained the courage to admit that to myself that, with the help of some very understanding education professors and friends, I realized I could not stay a part of TFA any longer. I could not contribute to the deprofessionalization of teaching. I could not contribute to the problematic, privileged rhetoric of education reform. I could not do my past teachers, and future colleagues, the disservice of spending one more ounce of energy contributing to TFA’s aura over a future generation.
I wrote to my manager and I told her a lie. I told her a family emergency had come up and that I would no longer have the time to work for TFA. I told her I had loved my time with TFA, that I had learned from the experience, and that I looked forward to applying in the future. I received back a curt email saying she regretted my decision, but respected it, but would I mind hanging up the hundred flyers she had just put in the mail to me?
I was chewed up and spit out by the TFA machine.
Leaving TFA was like leaving a cult. Even after my manager received my resignation email I would get occasional emails asking me to do something for their initiative on campus “as a favor.” TFA does not like you to leave their inner circle. You can unsubscribe from their general newsletters, but it’s harder to unsubscribe from someone you once exchanged holiday presents with. I was shaken for weeks after resigning from TFA. I was relieved and better-rested and happier, but I was also afraid–of what, exactly, I am still not sure. I felt that I just barely escaped Teach for America’s dream cycle–indeed, TFA’s indoctrination. I was introduced to TFA as a college freshman, I interned for them for two years, and, had they had it “their way,” I would have interned for them for another year before teaching for two years and then being hired as a recruitment manager. The cycle from recruited to recruiter would be complete. I do feel that I was briefly inducted into a cult, and escaped to tell the tale, which is more than I can say for any other CCC I have ever met.
It is now my senior year of college. The woman who had been my manager has moved to another department within TFA, and on August 1st I got my first recruiting email from my Bryn Mawr’s new lead recruiter. She has sent me some of the most worrisome and disturbing emails I have ever received. TFA has responded to the valid, well-articulated articles by former corps members critiquing TFA that went viral several months ago by telling me their words aren’t valid because they weren’t in the right “corps member mindset.” TFA has tried to convince me to support their efforts by buying a shirt from J. Crew. TFA has tried to convince me to apply to the program by bribing me with a holiday gift. I have not responded to these emails.
The decision to not apply to TFA was very conscious–its effects on school policy and environment are well known: TFA teachers are by and large less successful than their traditionally certified colleagues; TFA teachers by and large do not stay in the classroom past their two year commitment; TFA’s 5 weeks of training can never match the slow, deliberate introduction to the art of teaching undergraduates and graduates pursuing traditional certification have access to.
It is in writing this article that I hope to bring voice, agency, and power to my decision to not apply to Teach for America. It is in writing this article that I hope to show other interns, affiliates, and potential corps members just how horribly TFA treats its interns, and just how dirty, upsetting, and shocking the underbelly of the beast is. It is in writing this article that I hope to expose TFA for what it is, from the intern’s perspective–a bully, a monolith, and a cult. It was my experience as intern with TFA, directly entangled with a new Goliath, that convinced me, not just of its injustice, but of its intentional evil.