Yesterday, I was sitting in the bleachers at my team’s last regular swim meet when I overheard two teachers from another school talking about Teach For America. Ears perked, I listened to one criticize a corps member at her school and say that anyone could get good results as a teacher if he or she were only going to teach for two years. She also expressed that she believed corps members use the corps experience as a stepping stone to other things. What she said and the way she said it suggested that she was very displeased with Teach For America and its corps members.
I kept my mouth shut.
No question I have been a cheerleader for Teach For America for years, and as a campus advocate, I was always happy to answer questions and describe the two-fold mission of short- and long-term impact. As a corps member, I find myself much more sensitive to critiques of Teach For America, and I sometimes find myself feeling uncomfortable, not knowing how to defend my position. Should I have said something to this woman to set her straight about Teach For America? What could I have said to change her opinions? If she asked what I was planning on doing after the corps, I would have been forced to admit that I will not be staying in the classroom. The fact that I got into law school without Teach For America as any kind of boost – and the fact that I applied knowing I would choose teaching first - probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
I say I am proud to be a part of Teach For America, and my silence yesterday made me question the truth of that statement. How proud am I, exactly? Because it’s hard to be on the defensive, and it’s hard to respond with generalizations about Teach For America when every classroom is different because every corps member is different. I can only defend myself and my work accurately. It’s hard for me to rank on surveys that I would highly recommend Teach For America to friends and family members because I know that not everyone I know supports the organization. It’s hard to stomach negativity about corps culture, especially negativity specific to my region. Am I proud of the work I have done as a corps member? For the most part, yes. I am proud of my students; I am proud of fellow corps members’ successes. But as we reflect all the time as corps members, we must also admit that Teach For America certainly has a lot to improve upon as an organization, not least of which is public and other educators’ perception.
We’d all like to think that our colleagues and districts will embrace us with open arms and try to justify that expectation with the fact that we’re all teachers working towards common goals of success for our students. Everyone at my school has been completely supportive, and I doubt that anyone I work with closely would talk smack about corps members anywhere, but it’s obvious that Teach For America does not enjoy that luxury at every school. No one fawns over us, either, and we’re criticized for the same reasons any other teacher would be. At the end of the day, I am a teacher first, corps member second, and I think that as a teacher, I realized that the pool wasn’t the place to pick a fight when I was potentially outnumbered and unprepared. Sorry, Teach For America, maybe next time.