One of the best parts of working in higher education is seeing your students graduate and pursue a meaningful path in something they are passionate about. As educators and student affairs professionals we are often looked to as mentors by our students navigating their way through post-grad options. One option that has been rising in popularity is Teach for America (TFA), an organization claiming to solve educational inequity by placing recent college grads in underserved areas to teach for two years. While this is their public tagline, I prefer to identify TFA with the following description: a front group implementing neoliberal, free market reforms focused on privatizing public education. Having encountered many students considering applying to this post-grad opportunity, I find it urgent that we join the movement to resist the notion that TFA is a legitimate social justice organization. One way to participate is by challenging the typical campus atmosphere of unquestioned praise for TFA and engaging our students in critical dialogue before applying.
I’ve spoken in-depth about my analysis and personal experience of joining and quitting TFA as a guest host on this two part radio show. Ironically, I was looking for a way out of the corporate track in college and into the education world after realizing my passion for teaching and supporting youth in their journey for self-empowerment. When I joined TFA at the U.S.-Mexico border I was eager to have discussions on immigration justice, institutionalized racism, and structural abuse of undocumented peoples that make youth and their families feel unsafe and criminalized. Instead of these crucial conversations that would help us interrogate our privilege and become better educators, we were told that the border had nothing to do with our classrooms. In addition to this problematic perception of the situation facing our future students, I also quickly realized that I had been duped regarding my main reason for joining TFA: there was absolutely no teacher shortage in the Texas region where I was placed. I was about to become a pawn in a system replacing local, career teachers with temporary, detached workers that benefit corporate interests to diminish union and community organizing power. These are just a few of the many examples that throw into question the sincerity of TFA’s mission. While I don’t have room in this post to detail TFA’s neoliberal political agenda, the issue has been extensively discussed here and here.
Like Student Affairs, Teaching is a Professional Career
TFA spends millions on their aggressive recruitment campaign to specifically target college student leaders, giving off the impression that all that’s needed to be a great teacher is having any bit of leadership experience. In reality, holistic and extensive preparation is integral in creating effective practitioners in any field. For example, would 5 weeks of training be enough to prepare someone to be a successful higher education professional? Hopefully you’re vigorously shaking your head in disagreement, thinking back to the amount of time you spent in grad school grappling with student development theory and social justice concepts as you refined your counseling skills, advising strategies, and the like. Teaching, like student affairs, is a professional career that requires comprehensive education and supervised field work over a period of time that involves self-reflective practice.
By reducing a whole field of study into a 5 week boot camp, TFA is on its way to de-professionalizing teaching from a legitimate career that needs specialized education, job autonomy, and collective bargaining rights into a temporary gig where none of the above are guaranteed. I can’t emphasize enough that teaching is not charity nor is it an act of community service. We should be very alarmed that teaching youth of color is being sold to college students as some kind of “exciting experience” similar to study abroad or alternative spring break, both of which often serve to benefit privileged participants at the expense of local communities.
Asking Your Students the Tough Questions about TFA
One of our jobs as social justice educators is to help our students think critically about the information being presented to them. We must do the same with TFA. Toward that end, I’d like to share a few of the questions I have encouraged students to think about when applying to TFA:
- First ask the student why they are applying. If they don’t have an education background and are looking for something to do as a stepping stone for grad school or the corporate world, suggest City Year or AmeriCorps as alternative groups that are not part of a hidden agenda to privatize public schools. If they’re applying because they are interested in teaching as a career, encourage them to look into an actual teacher education program.
- Dig deeper into their intentions. Ask them to research the root causes of educational inequity and have them critically think if becoming a teacher in an underserved area with little training will really help the situation. The issue of critical allyship could be a great discussion starter here since TFA is the textbook example of a colonial project with the white savior mentality. A reading suggestion: To Hell with Good Intentions by Ivan Illich.
- Have students deconstruct TFA’s claims about public education by asking them to research the region where they hope to teach and find out if there is actually a teacher shortage taking place. If none found, ask them if they are comfortable accepting a job that has most likely been taken away from a qualified local teacher? Again ask, how will that help address the situation of educational inequity?
- Given that TFA prides itself on operating in “low-income communities of color,” have students examine if the diversity of TFA teachers reflects their future students (with regards to race, ethnicity, class, language, immigration status, etc). Follow up question: why might identity be an important factor in creating inclusive school communities?
- Ask students to investigate the funding sources of this seemingly apolitical organization. Do the corporations donating to TFA have a history of supporting or opposing social justice movements domestically and globally? How do these monetary interests contradict claims that TFA is a “neutral” non-profit?
In addition to one-on-one conversations, you and/or your students could join Students Resisting Teach for America’s campaign to raise awareness at a broader level and learn more by reading testimonials from students and TFA alum. (On that note, if anyone in the DC-metro area is interested in linking up to discuss local actions and organizing, please contact me!)
Now it’s up to you – will you join the struggle to defend public education as a human right and ask your students to rethink applying to Teach for America?
Neha Singhal is currently an adjunct instructor in the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Feel free to contact her at neha5126[@]gmail[.]com.