A lot of Teach For America (TFA) alumni have been telling their stories lately. Here’s mine:
In 1993, the year after I finished college, I joined TFA, which was still a new organization. At the time, there was a teacher shortage, and the whole point was that we were going to work in schools that couldn’t get qualified teachers.
I was supposed to be placed in an ordinary elementary classroom, but at the last minute a school in Louisiana needed a French teacher, and since I had a few French classes on my transcript (although I did not, by anyone’s definition, speak French) I was sent to fill that position.
There had been a fully qualified and dearly beloved French teacher at that school, but her husband got a new job in another town and so they moved. I was a far inferior replacement, but I was a replacement. As Teacher/Blogger/TFA Critic Gary Rubinstein has said, at that time TFA’s motto could have been, “Hey, we’re better than nothing.”
I struggled, a lot, but I was prepared to keep trying. Then, not even halfway through my first year, the French teacher’s husband lost his new job, and they returned. I don’t remember anyone’s explicitly telling me she wanted her job back, but it was a small town, and it was pretty clear. I met her. She was a lovely person, fluent in French, known and respected in the community, adored by the students. It was obvious to me that what was best for everyone was for me to quit so she could have her job back, so that’s what I did.
I asked TFA if I could be placed somewhere else, because I still wanted to help, but they said no, that they had a rule against changing placements and they couldn’t make exceptions because they didn’t want to be seen as a job placement service. It seems kind of ironic now, but that’s what they said.
I accepted that, and I was a dedicated alumna for about ten years. Then one day I got an email saying that TFA had decided that people who hadn’t finished their full two year commitment could no longer be counted as alumni. It was a bit insulting, that my ten years of talking them up and supporting them suddenly didn’t count, but now I’m glad, because I don’t want to be affiliated with them anymore.
TFA is no longer about filling a desperate need, where no qualified teachers can be found. Now the organization does what I refused to do. They take jobs away from people who are better qualified, more committed to teaching, and much more knowledgeable about the communities in which they teach.
I believe that most of the people involved in TFA have good intentions. I also believe that some TFA teachers may be better than some of the teachers they replace. On the whole, though, the organization is now doing more harm than good, and the people who run it seem to be wearing goggles, made from confidence in their own intelligence and virtue, that blind them to the detrimental effects of their work.
Maybe they don’t have to quit. Maybe they just need to find a way to restructure, so they can go back to filling an actual need. What I know is, when my attempts to help became a hindrance, I stepped out of the way. TFA needs to take off the we-are-saving-the-world goggles and do the same thing.