“He looked at me with a tear in his eye and said, ‘Thank you, sir.’” The tall, blue-eyed young man stood on stage, looking earnestly at his audience. He was recounting touching moments he had experienced with the 8th graders he taught that summer. This corps member, along with those of us in the audience, had just completed the 2009 Teach For America Institute, a five-week experience during which hundreds of new corps members are “transformed” into teachers through training sessions and a month-long summer school teaching practicum. There was a pervasive sense of accomplishment and pride in the auditorium. But I felt disconnected from the celebratory atmosphere. I felt disappointed and disillusioned.
Teach For America (TFA) co-opts the stories of oppressed communities living in poverty and repackages them to recruit young, idealistic college graduates eager to “help” people less privileged than themselves. For young idealists who want to make a difference, it’s an attractive story line: We are the heroes, changing the world and “closing the achievement gap,” one student at a time. Unfortunately, the real story is more complex and troubling.
The TFA Institute—Setting the Tone
It was like a moment from a horror movie. Walking toward a large building, I heard a low, rhythmic hum. As I drew closer, I began to recognize the cadence of a chant. I began to pick out distinct rhythms and tempos, a sound stew of competing vocalizations. With a thudding heart, I opened the doors of a large, dim auditorium to see hundreds of people clustered into groups. Those at the front of the auditorium were bowing down repeatedly, their hands raised above their heads to form a triangle—a delta, chanting over and over, “Dellll-taaaaaa.” Other groups performed similarly awkward movements and chants. I hesitantly asked a woman by the door, “Is this the TFA Institute assembly?”
“You’re in the right place!” She smiled widely and pointed me to an open seat.
This was my second day at the TFA Institute. While my fellow corps members bonded over the regions where they would be teaching by participating in cultish rituals, I experienced my first visceral negative reaction to the organization. Already, I felt that there was too much indoctrination and forced “team spirit” in our training, and too few critical conversations about how to change an inequitable education system—the ostensible reason we all were involved in the program. Rather than critically engaging corps members in an exploration of educational inequities, the institute was a physically and emotionally exhausting experience meant to train us to believe that our hard work alone could close the achievement gap.
I thought back to when I first was introduced to the TFA story. I sat across from the TFA recruiter in the common area of a prominent building on campus. It was the beginning of my senior year. The young woman with blonde hair smiled at me enthusiastically and, as the conversation progressed, I tingled with excitement and energy. According to my friendly recruiter, in TFA I would be taking on an incredible challenge, more difficult and more urgent than anything I had done before. I would be joining a movement to tackle our nation’s “greatest injustice,” to “close the achievement gap.” I would be helping to ensure that TFA would accomplish its mission: “One day, all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” As a student of international development, I saw TFA as an incredible opportunity in domestic development.
Naturally, the conversation ended with my excited inquiry, “How do I apply?” Two months later, I had accepted a placement with TFA in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) of South Texas, where I would be teaching 7th-grade special education. I was joining a movement, I thought, that was taking radical steps to create a different education system in the United States.