Alongside the many popular private firms present at Georgetown’s Sept. 16 career fair, one non-profit employer is likely to garner a wealth of interest: Teach For America.
Teach For America (TFA) is an AmeriCorps program that recruits recent college graduates to become teachers in low-income public schools. Beginning in 1989 as a Princeton student’s senior thesis, TFA has spawned a network of over 5,000 corps members—teachers—and nearly 60,000 alumni. According to the Career Center, Georgetown sent 16 students through TFA’s ranks in 2021.
While TFA’s accelerated path to a (temporary) teaching certification may appear as a noble solution to the ongoing teacher “shortage,” in reality, it is a quick-fix program that exacerbates education inequity. And with TFA recruiting on campus throughout the fall semester, it is essential that interested Georgetown students weigh the program’s ambitious expectations against its actual repercussions, stemming from inadequate training and short-term placements.
Since Georgetown does not have an undergraduate teaching program, students who pursue Teach For America usually don’t have any prior formal education training—or even a serious interest in teaching. Many TFA participants see the nationally-renowned program as a means to advance in other careers—a prestigious stamp of “social justice work.” In fact, TFA was founded to recruit non-education majors into the field, resulting in many recruits beginning the program with little-to-no teaching experience.
This lack of experience means that the majority of corps members’ preparation is limited to TFA’s summer training, the bulk of which is a five-week session that throws them into a practicum teaching summer school students.
While this baptism-by-fire approach certainly forces TFA teachers to develop rudimentary teaching skills, it disregards the needs of the students the program serves—primarily low-income students of color—who already face educational inequities such as inadequate resources and de facto segregation. These students deserve to be more than test subjects on which corps members can experiment with the basics of teaching.
Regardless of the breadth of TFA’s training, five weeks does not provide the necessary depth for knowing how to teach. Compared to standard teaching preparation programs—which can take four to five years to complete, in addition to the master’s degree many teachers go on to obtain—TFA’s preparation program is embarrassingly sparse. And as states like Arizona and Florida ease certification requirements, it’s essential that TFA strengthens its teaching preparation program to ensure that their teachers are entering the classroom with sufficient experience.
Teaching is an art form—it cannot be treated as merely a tool to deliver content. In reality, it is a highly complex practice that, among many other virtues, requires stellar facilitation skills, interpersonal intelligence, and excellent training.
One especially critical teaching method is culturally-relevant pedagogy (CRP), which incorporates students’ unique identities and experiences to inform classroom instruction and practices. For low-income students of color, substantive training on CRP can make the difference between experiencing the classroom as a safe and inclusive space and feeling isolated from educational experiences.
Furthermore, CRP demands that teachers are in touch with their students’ cultures and identities, which is critical in developing perspectives that challenge societal inequities. This kind of cultural competence isn’t something that can be effortlessly learned, especially within a short training window.
Without proper knowledge of CRP, corps members are more likely to overlook important facets of students’ identities and how those identities contribute to students’ learning. This oversight is especially concerning in the case of white corps members teaching students of color. While TFA tends to be more racially diverse than the rest of the profession, the organization has long faced claims of white saviorism, and it is a kind of harm that remains relevant as TFA sends its members to teach low-income students of color without adequate training.
Concerns of minimal preparation and white saviorism are compounded by a failure to develop cultural and geographical context. During the application process, potential recruits choose three (out of 38) regions in which they would like to teach. Many of these regions are considered to be “major urban centers and rural areas” experiencing “persistent teacher shortages.” As a result, corps members are often relocated, moving to the region just before they begin full-time training. Consequently, TFA teachers do not have enough context to understand students’ customs and experiences—and have no ability to implement CRP.
Another concerning dimension of TFA’s structure is the high turnover rate. Corps members only teach for two years before they become alumni of the program, and oftentimes move out of the educational field entirely. The inconsistency created by TFA’s two-year structures leaves students without opportunities to build long-term relationships with teachers, which can be crucial for marginalized students who already face systemic educational inequities.
It would be naive to think that these critiques will sway all Georgetown students from pursuing TFA. After all, TFA offers an early notification of post-grad job security, reduced graduate school tuition at partner universities, and a vast alumni network. These benefits can be essential for recent college graduates, and wanting a sense of post-grad certainty is more than understandable.
Yet teaching should not be treated as a stepping stone to “more valuable” opportunities. It must be treated as the greatest impact someone can have on a child. And this is something that college students—specifically Georgetown students—should remember as they consider Teach For America.
In chasing this opportunity, Georgetown students must consider their reason for choosing Teach For America. Is it a matter of wanting to help “fix the problem”? Is it a matter of an extra two years to figure out post-grad life? Or is it a genuine desire to become an educator?
Without introspection, it’s easy to embrace Teach For America as a virtuous post-grad opportunity. But while TFA’s goal of “working towards excellence and equity for all” is made to appear desirable, its practices threaten long-term equity. Before TFA can become a viable option for addressing long-standing issues in the education system, it must expand training programs and increase placement periods to ensure that its teachers are best-equipped to enter the field and have a meaningful impact.