lukeandmanda

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Letting go of a dream: My decision to resign from Teach for America

tfa

Part I- The Big Decision

***Note: This blog was written in May of 2013, summarizing my thoughts as I decided about whether or not to go through with Teach for America/Institute. I did not publish it until 2016 because I did not feel at peace with sharing these thoughts, but three years later, I do, in hopes that it may help someone else.

As I finalized the seemingly endless checklist that Teach for America created for me to complete before the start of summer institute (a six-week boot camp designed to train soon-to-be new teachers), I was nervous, puzzled, unsure. None of these feelings existed for me just 6 months ago when I got that email saying that I was accepted into the 2013 Corps. At that time, I was elated. Over the moon with excitement. My heart sped up as I opened the email that I had waited for on pins and needles throughout the two month-long interview process. I pressed “open,” and my mouth went dry. I still remember searching, dreading those words, “We regret to inform you..” but instead found the exact opposite, right in front of my face, in black and white. “Welcome to the 2013 Teach For America Corps!” I had done it! I had gotten into a program with a 12 percent acceptance rate nationally.

I then learned that my regional placement was ideal- my first choice. Since my soon-to-be spouse has an inflexible job assignment, I really wanted to Metro Atlanta, and that’s exactly what I got! The region meant an end to our long distance relationship and a fresh start for us both. I had been assigned an interdisciplinary assignment: Elementary Education and Secondary Political Science. But, elementary school (my first choice!) was my primary placement. I was told to prepare to teach elementary school; the political science was a Plan B. I already knew I was not comfortable teaching any other subjects, aside from English or writing, so this was perfect!

After a few giddy phone calls and text messages, my friend came over to take me out for a hard-earned margarita. She told me I deserved it after a grueling interview process. But, I had done it! I had received the best news in the world. This was November of 2012. I was in on the first deadline! Which meant I did not have to worry about getting a job after college graduation like most of my other classmates. I was in, and all I had to do was wait to discover my exact placement in a school, which is typically determined during summer institute.

Sure, I had to take a certification test and cross my “t’s” and dot my “i’s,” but I had a job! A real life, big girl job. Since elementary school was my primary placement, I studied for those tests over Christmas Break and passed with flying colors in January. Unfortunately, the GACE (Georgia certification) tests are only offered via paper and pencil on certain Saturdays in Georgia. I realized that day in November that I would be unable to take any tests on subsequent dates, as I would be in Spain in March, attending my college graduation in May and acting as a bridesmaid in a good friend’s wedding in June. Thus, I wanted to take both the political science and elementary tests in one session in January and get them over with. However, this was not possible. They were only offered in the morning, overlapping each other. I worked for weeks, which turned into months, incessantly contacting my in-processing team to try to find a solution: some way around taking the other (political science) test, some other date to take it, some other arrangement that could be made, some other subject I could take a test in. Perhaps English, which was closer to my major, after all? I received very few responses from my “onboarding” staff, who seemed to be extremely unorganized, apathetic and preoccupied.

I was told there was nothing anyone could do on the few times that I actually got responses. Instead, they “strongly suggested” I move one of my conflicts, all of which had been determined well before I was accepted to the program. (All three of these conflicts are major milestones that should not have to be missed for any reason.) Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is that no one seemed willing to work with me throughout the whole process.

Months went by. No solution was found. No one replied to my dozens of emails proposing solutions, asking for help. I finally received one phone call around mid-April that was not helpful. I was told to “prioritize,” to miss my college graduation if that’s what it came down to. “Just take that test.” Some insinuated I lie about my religious beliefs so as to be allowed to test on a Sunday instead of a Saturday, which is the only reason the GACE can be taken on a day that is not Saturday. I ultimately refused. I was then told to take a computer-based secondary science test instead. I told them I was uncomfortable teaching that subject, as I have only had TWO college science classes. I have never even had physics! They suggested I study and take it. (Again, this was ONE WEEK before the testing window ended.) I was in the process of publishing an international magazine and did not even have study materials. Mind you, each of these tests costs $200+, and I had already dropped that money on the elementary tests. I did not want to pay to take a science test I was unsure if I could pass and ultimately would not want to teach. That would do such a disservice to the kids in Atlanta.

Graduation came and went. I graduated summa cum laude from a large University in the Southeastern United States. I received the award for the outstanding graduating senior in my department. Still, to TFA I was just a name- a number. They didn’t know me any more than it would seem I knew them. Then, less than two weeks before I was supposed to report to institute, I was told again that elementary school jobs in Atlanta are scarce this year. (I was quoted that there are LESS THAN TEN ELEMENTARY JOBS for all Corps members placed in the region). Then why did they accept all of us and virtually guarantee us a job? Why was no one willing to work with us previously, when some of us had concerns? In fact, I was told if I did not take a secondary test (they were OK with me taking ANYTHING at this point..why didn’t they tell me that when I suggested taking English in January?), I would not be placed into a job at all. I would also essentially be forced to resign from the program through a process known as emergency release after I endured 5 weeks of Institute. Where are all the jobs? I knew they had done this in Atlanta last year..Taken on far more corps members than they had jobs. I had been virtually promised this could not and would not happen again when I chose Atlanta.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been fed a big line with no basis to back it up. That all of the recruiting was a facade, a smokescreen for the reality of the organization. But, what of my passion for teaching my hard work to get here, my desire to make a difference?

Well, there is one more test date left, which comes with a BIG conflict that affects far more than just myself. I could potentially ruin a friendship if I do what they are asking, and yet I am backed against a corner, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Am I willing to jump through this hoop? I am not finding a definite answer. I want to participate in this program, which I worked so hard to get into. I want to have a chance – however slim that might be- of making a difference for my future students (none of whom I know or can even envision at this stage.) But what if TFA is nothing like I pictured, as I am starting to doubt? What if the horror stories sprinkled around the Web have more basis than I thought? What if I am just another naive college grad, with no earthly idea of what I am up against in these next two years?  What if all of my preparation to get to this stage is for naught?

Maybe this is just the way that a major life transition feels. But I feel off-kilter, off balance. As if I should feel more of that elation, that joy and passion that inspired me to join this movement. The same joy I felt when I opened that first email.

Maybe it’s just nerves after all.

Part II- Going Left Instead of Right at the Crossroads

If you look back on my first blog post, I was at a crossroads. To Teach For America or not to Teach? In the end, I did the inevitable. The ONLY right decision for me. I came to this decision in my heart before I spoke with various mentors and trusted confidantes, but a few sincere conversations and many fervent prayers helped to reinforce what I already knew.
I said “No” to TFA a day and a half before I was to attend Institute. I turned down a guaranteed salary and a job with no other opportunities yet on the table. However, I turned down a job which I know would have been challenging, chaotic and perhaps even unbearable during my first year of marriage. With a 1.5 hour commute each way, the drive alone would have been no easy feat each day, assuming I had been placed in southern Atlanta.
I made the right decision for myself and my husband, and I feel very secure in the fact that I declined the Corps. While I have high respect for some of my peers who participate in the 2013 Corps, it is certainly not an experience for everyone. And, once you are sucked in to the TFA mindset, it can be very difficult to say “no.” If you have ever applied or considered applying even, you probably know what I mean. TFA is nothing if not a marketing mastermind. To listen to the voices around you- the very wise voices- who are begging you to be cautious is hard. To heed those who are telling you the very real cons of the organization and concerns that the achievement gap is not lessening at all- that you, an untrained novice, could do more harm than good in a classroom environment is tough. It’s difficult to want to take the time to discuss concerns with those trusted advisers who are asking you to reconsider for your safety and well-being, alone. If I had gone through with the position I was offered, I have no doubt I would be miserable today.
I feel the need to write this blog post to explain my decision to others that may be considering applying to the Corps or deliberating a hard decision to resign. Countless blogs exist on the pros and cons of the organization that discuss educational reform far more eloquently than I. Tons of personal accounts can be found that give you an honest perspective of what it’s like in a TFA classroom from those who have literally battled in the trenches. I know because I read all of them. Twice. The first time, in November when I applied (exactly one year ago,) I ignored it all. Anything negative was quickly minimized or closed. I blamed the writers (i.e. Former Corps Members.) They were sensitive. Naive. They just couldn’t handle it. I knew I could. The second time- the week before Institute- I began to take these stories more seriously. This was not just one or two people speaking out against TFA. It was hundreds. Hundreds of people recounting horror stories is not exactly a fluke. Countless accounts from the media, educational reformers and researchers drew a far different picture than TFA did. A picture that I had chosen to ignore thus far. As a journalist, I was trained to look at both sides. In May of 2013, I FINALLY did. I listened to those who did- and still do- toot the TFA horn. They had a great experience and were blessed. But, the alternative- those who had horrendous experiences- was too descriptive, too brutally honest and too heart wrenching to ignore.
I am a marketing professional now, and I truly believe that Teach for America relies on some serious account planning to attract top tier college students to a field with little pay and even less “prestige” in the traditional sense of the word. In a study that I worked on during my senior year of college, I learned that only 9 percent of the students I surveyed on campus saw teaching as “prestigious.” Convincing college students from top programs to apply to a two-year teaching commitment in an undesirable area of the country takes communications skill.
 
How does TFA hook its recruits, you may ask?
The average college senior is majorly stressed out about finding a job and a steady salary, especially in this economy. Many of us also still possess ambitions to “make a difference,” “to give back to our community” and to “help those who are less fortunate.” After all, we just had the opportunity to complete a very valuable college education. TFA capitalizes on these feelings of desperation and a sense of philanthropy very successfully. With recruitment teams at most colleges across the nation, TFA receives more than 50,000 applications a year for 5,000 openings, according to their website. The selectivity of the organization and the idea that “it looks great on a resume,” keeps the applications pouring in.
 With the promise of a guaranteed job for two years along with a secure starting teacher’s salary, the program reaches those kids who simply don’t want to move back home with mom and dad. The prestige associated with TFA because of its exclusive nature attracts many others, who need another bullet point to add to their resumes for law school or medical school, or simply want to prove that they can make the cut. The philanthropic aspects of the organization also seal the deal by making recruits feel as if they can make a real difference for children in need. Looking back, I know that I applied for all of the reasons above and more, feeling great about my decision at the time.
The truth is that TFA recruits HEAVILY, and their promises are not always backed up in action. The Recruitment Coordinators maintain databases of the top students on any respective campus and invite these students to exclusive parties where they meet current and former TFA members who will tell them about their life-transforming experience in the Corps. Some call this mentality “drinking the Kool Aid.” I was enamored with this organization during my application process and eagerly soaked up every positive article and story from alumni about the difference that they created in their classrooms.
However, in the end, it became a cost-benefit analysis. The potential change that I could make did not outweigh the risks.
Many, such as Gary Rubenstein, a former TFA-er turned critic of the program, questions the information that is disseminated to the public and the effectiveness of the Corps itself.
“On their website, it says 41 percent of the first-years achieve a year and a half worth of progress in one year…When I hear this, as a veteran educator, it’s like hearing that there’s a group of rookie baseball pitchers that all throw the ball 200 miles per hour. It just – it’s not the way it works. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years. I don’t know that I get a year and a half of growth every year” (Martin, 2012).
According to Wendy Heller Chovnick, a former TFA manager, the organization runs an incredibly strong PR campaign that works hard to stifle any negative publicity. Rather than respond to complaints, Chovnick states that TFA ignores it or counters it with positives instead.
 “Instead of engaging in real conversations with critics, and even supporters, about the weaknesses of Teach For America and where it falls short, Teach For America seemed to put a positive spin on everything.  During my tenure on staff, we even got a national team, the communications team, whose job it was to get positive press out about Teach For America in our region and to help us quickly and swiftly address any negative stories, press or media.  This inability and unwillingness to honestly address valid criticism made me start to see that Teach For America had turned into more of a public relations campaign than an organization truly committed to closing the achievement gap,” (Strauss, 2013).   

Tons of literature on TFA exists on the Worldwide Web. I encourage you to take a look at it — at ALL of it– both good and bad before you decide for yourself. Me? Well, I feel like I dodged a bullet at the very last second. I didn’t want to let anyone down- especially myself. I was scared and afraid to quit. But I did it, and it was the best professional decision I have ever made.

P.S. If you take the same route I did, just know this: Other jobs do exist. I found one that is even MORE perfect for me in this stage in my career, although it did take several weeks. Will I ever teach? Perhaps. I still have a passion to make a difference in the classroom. But there are plenty of classrooms out there that have nothing to do with TFA.

Sources:
Martin, M. (2012, June 11). Is Teach for America failing?. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/06/11/154761299/is-teach-for-america-failing
Strauss, V. (2013, July 13). A former Teach for America manager speaks out. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/07/17/a-former-teach-for-america-manager-speaks-out/

Here is some advice I sent to a friend when she wrote to me about TFA in January of this year:

  • Yes, I did apply to and was accepted to Teach for America in Metro Atlanta in 2013. I ultimately declined the position because it wasn’t the right fit for my family at the time. My husband is an officer in the Army, and we are stationed at Fort Benning, GA. Atlanta is an hour and a half away and while we were going to live in the middle, we decided it was ultimately too far and the long commutes both ways would be too much for us. Aside from our personal lives though, I had a few issues with TFA that perhaps would have made me decline even if I was not in the commute position. I applied for this organization because of a great passion for helping children and for bridging the income/resource gap. This cause seemed to perfectly align with that. But in my education minor in college, many teachers and professors seemed to highly look down upon TFA. They felt the training program – a mere 6 weeks during the summer- was extremely inadequate to throw fresh college grads who didn’t major in education into some of the toughest schools in America. The more I researched, the more I saw this perspective from countless personal blogs of TFA teachers and even from the TFA teachers I stayed with in ATL the weekend I went to took my certification tests to be able to teach in a classroom. They were in the middle of a nightmare semester- imagine little formal training, no resources, no principal support extreme behavior issues in the classrooms no parental involvement etc. one teacher had had her car windows shot at the previous week- no exaggeration. Again this is metro Atlanta and I know teachers in other environments have had different experiences. I have a friend who is a TFA teacher in Texas and was one of my biggest advocates in joining the Corps and she loves it! I would just recommend selecting your area carefully and evaluating what you like/dislike and what will work for your family. You will have to be enrolled in grad school while teaching full time so you should be prepared for that. I was going to have to take night classes in ATL- something I wasn’t thrilled about doing alone at night in an unfamiliar high crime city. They do require this though. The good thing is they pay for it with your Ameri Corps funding! You have to get a master’s in education though. I ultimately decided I want to pursue education at the collegiate level and be a professor so in retrospect I am glad I have my marketing and communications master vs masters in education- but that is a personal choice for me. The other issue I faced is lack of placement options. So basically TFA (at least in Atlanta my year, and I know it also happened this way in other. Regions too) was experiencing severe problems with the local school district that was totally beyond their control. Thus, they accepted say 100 of us in ATL counting on 100 jobs in different subjects. I wanted elementary Ed, and I got it. I was pumped! Then, rumors started flying there weren’t enough jobs for us. Only about 10 elementary jobs existed! They started pressuring me to test in science as a secondary subject. Science and math are my least favorite and least skilled subjects! I am in communications for a reason! I tried to resist and hold out for elementary and was told I would likely not have a job. They continued high pressure tactics to get me into a science classroom but I adamantly refused. I knew that in no way would me teaching science be best for those kiddos. It came down to I had to accept a science job or at least be open to it or go through my summer training with just elementary Ed and “hope for the best.” My recruiter suggested I use dishonest tactics to get out of it by stating my religion was different and required me to attend church on Saturdays to get out of the paper and pencil science test that I was required to take in person in Atlanta! I know a few people who were selected that ended up either without jobs or with jobs in a totally different subject than they were promised. Others had to teach special Ed without any kind of qualifications or move regions altogether. Either way, it became very sketchy and reinforced my decision to resign before summer training. I began to see what those teachers and professors meant when they said TFA is doing a disservice to kids by sending under qualified people into their schools. None of this is meant to be a discouragement but I did want to share my heart honestly with you so you can make an informed decision. I have shared this with others who asked me and some joined the corps and some did not. I think it’s totally a personal choice. Every experience is different – I know people who love it and people who hate it and quit 1 semester in! As far as the application went, it was rigorous. Once you get past the paper application, they may call you for a phone interview. I “skipped” this step based on the completeness of my app I guess. Then you have to do some computer activities and then you have an in person interview which includes teaching a lesson to a group of your peers. For the group I highly suggest exhibiting leadership! I collected all the Pens, helped organize the discussion etc. they want you to lead without being bossy or dominating the convo. The one on one interview was intense. They peppered me with questions one after the other for about 30-45 mins. If you proceed with applying I would be happy to review your materials/offer insight or answer any other questions you may have if I can! Sorry for the novel and good luck with your application and decision making process! Amanda

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