By Arun Ramanathan
I am a Teach for America reject. I don’t blame them. I wasn’t the greatest candidate. I majored in political science and beer pong in college and my grades were better in the latter. Somehow I made it through their pre-screening process. The big problem was the model classroom lesson in front of a large panel of TFA evaluators. Back in those days, when speaking in public, my brain would just shut off and I would stop mid-word, blinking away like a dying fish. I probably would have done great with a bunch of seven year old kids, but the sweater vested and pant suited TFA reviewers scared me into complete catatonia in under five minutes.
A few weeks later, I received a very nice rejection form letter from TFA. It was the right decision for them and me. Since then, I haven’t given much thought to the program.
Lately, however, it’s been on my mind. Maybe it was the recent article about local protests against TFA or all those recent reports about the lack of college graduates interested in teaching as a career. Or maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis. Because after all these years, I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about Teach for America.
My Head Can’t Take Sides
The problem is I’m having a hard time forming an opinion that puts me on one side of the debate. The anti-TFA crowd sees it as a corporate plot to undermine public education by sticking untrained Ivy League grads in high poverty schools. The pro-TFA crowd sees it as a model program that brings the smartest college graduates into our neediest public schools.
To the chagrin of the folks who participate in our nation’s ridiculous education wars, I can see some truth in both points of view.
For example, I don’t see much real difference between the benefits of TFA and traditional teacher education programs. Both seem to leave young teachers unprepared for their first year in the classroom. Both have been roundly criticized for this. But based on my experience and the experience of the many teachers I’ve talked to, the best learning actually happens on the job, rendering this criticism largely irrelevant.
On the other hand, I am very troubled that TFA places some of its recruits in classrooms of students with disabilities and English Learners. Students with exceptional needs deserve exceptional teachers with specific training and significantly more experience. Currently, neither TFA nor our traditional teacher training, recruitment and placement models do enough to prepare young teachers to work with these students. While I may fault TFA for their placement policies, I also fault our existing system for creating structural impediments (such as standard pay scales) that prevent the development of alternative compensation models that would incentivize both current teachers and new candidates to enter specialized areas.
‘Saving’ Poor People?
TFA has also been criticized by the social justice community for what can seem like their desire to “fix” minority schools. I can understand the resentment carried by many local community advocates towards the mostly white TFA corps members. It reminds me of the way I used to feel towards folks who said they were going to India to “save” the poor brown people who couldn’t save themselves (See Rudyard Kipling). I’m not sure TFA has ever taken this resentment seriously or considered how to address it. On the other hand, the TFA model of service doesn’t really differ from that of many other post-college service programs like The Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).
For decades these government-sponsored programs have sent hundreds of thousands of bright, motivated men and women to serve high-need communities throughout America and the world. Over the years, they have all faced similar critiques. In fact, the Peace Corps was long viewed by many folks in the developing world as an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency.
While there is certain missionary zeal to all of these programs that is off-putting, it also is inspiring when our most talented college graduates step out of their comfort zones and embrace public service instead of becoming bond traders or corporate consultants. Having met many former TFAer’s, it is clear that their experience had a beneficial impact on their lives, careers and their perspectives on issues of race and class.
To a large extent, this is the most important result of service programs like TFA. It was for me. When the TFA door closed, I became a VISTA volunteer in rural western Pennsylvania. My job was to serve thousands of chronically mentally ill and disabled adults who had been released from horrible institutions and sent to live in trailer parks in the middle of nowhere. I was about as qualified to do this work as I was to coach professional football, but, like most recent college graduates, I had a lot of grandiose notions about swooping in and saving people.
Learning from the ‘Disabled’
Instead, I spent that year failing at just about everything. I was supposed to start a county-wide program to help people who couldn’t handle their finances. After my recruitment efforts failed, I ended up taking over the finances of nearly a dozen people whom no one wanted to work with. My volunteer program efforts were comically disastrous, including a chili cook-off where my Indian version damn near killed half a dozen senior citizens who had never eaten anything spicier than ketchup.
The only thing I managed to succeed at was a community garden. I got local farmers to donate the plants and taught the adults with disabilities how to plant and care for them. It was such as roaring success that the director of mental health for the county came and gave us a plaque. Of course, the next day, someone drove their 4x4 through the garden, tearing it to pieces.
Maybe it was all the pent-up frustration from a year of abject failure, but I went temporarily insane. After a few minutes of shouting and throwing ruined vegetables, I noticed something that I will never forget. Every single person who had built that garden, all these old men and women with disabilities, who had their lives taken away from them and spent decades in appalling institutions, were slowly picking up the mess and doing their very best to put the broken plants back together.
That was probably the moment when I decided on a career in public service working with people with disabilities and others in need. And this brings me back to the whole controversy around TFA and programs like them. They have their flaws. They deserve to be criticized. But in a society that is increasingly and dangerously divided by race and class, they are one of the last real ways we have for young people from different walks of life to cross these barriers and live with and learn from folks they wouldn’t have met otherwise. In my case, I learned a life-long lesson. I wasn’t there to save anyone. If anything, they were saving me and have ever since.
(Editor’s Note: I am pleased to report that rejection by the TFA did not prevent Ramanathan from earning a doctorate from Harvard, becoming a teacher, filling high ranking administrative posts in California school districts, heading Education Trust West, and becoming CEO of Pivot Learning Partners, his current position. /ctk)
The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.