Whenever I have the opportunity to share about myself, I always scan the room before sharing that “I am a TFA alumna” as I like to prepare myself for the naysayers ahead of time. Ironically, Teach For America, the prestigious two-year program that places high-achieving college graduates to serve as teachers in high-need schools across the country, was once referred to as the golden ticket to an array of options for the future. Thus, it was a goal for many aspiring, ambitious leaders to join TFA after college. The truth is, TFA still is the pathway for many ambitious, goal-driven people. However, given the negative media attention and the lack of voice and support from alumni who have benefitted from the program and witnessed first-hand the positive impact Teach for America has had in the lives of many students, TFA has slowly lost the reign of the ultimate “resume booster.” For some reason, I can’t say that makes me sad; on the contrary, it gives me hope for a better chapter of Teach For America.
As a recent college graduate who was eager to “save the world,” I joined City Year Los Angeles. It was through City Year that I first heard about Teach For America. According to the shared stories, TFA most often recruited from the highest ranked colleges and universities and usually focused on the top five percent of its graduating class. Given that range, I understood why I would have never been recruited by one of their staff members: I was an average college student with a decent GPA (definitely not competitive) that attended one of the less known, lower-ranked UC institutions, so technically I did not fit the “TFA mold.” Still it was knowing that I was not the “typical” TFA recruit that motivated me to apply.
Upon getting accepted into the LA cohort, I found myself facing a new reality. Since I had not been too involved with TFA before applying, I had not been as exposed to the criticism behind their recruitment tendencies or the retention issues and much less the animosity between the conservative side and the progressives. What I did notice from the start was that the majority of the critics were outsiders and while it may be easy to pinpoint every negative piece of an organization from the outside looking in, it was important for me to infiltrate and experience first-hand what TFA was all about. To this day, making that choice has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I finished my two years of service with Teach for America in 2014. While I wish that I could say I am still in the classroom today, I am not. I know my own decision to leave the classroom adds to the constant criticism that TFA develops teachers that only serve their two years and then move on, creating a revolving door for our students. However, this is the part I want to address, as I know first-hand that is not the case.
After two and a half years of being in the classroom, I grew passionate about serving our students and realized the importance of having education champions in all roles, not just that of being in front of the classroom. I didn’t leave the classroom because I no longer cared; I left because I felt a responsibility to do more and I knew I could only do this outside of that role. It was my TFA experience that led me to run for office at a young age. It was my TFA colleagues who taught me to fight for our students like they were my own and to ensure I always had a seat at the table, as I would always carry the voice of an insider with me — that of a teacher.
TFA is not perfect. But to undermine the impact many TFA teachers have had over the years on their students, on their schools, on their communities and on the overall educational system, is unfair. Perhaps I view TFA in the same manner that I see my sister: I know she is not perfect, but I know she means well, so I find myself becoming defensive when others criticize her without acknowledging her hard work and her efforts to be a better version of herself every day.
In recent years, TFA has changed its recruitment. You find the organization being more intentional about diversifying the corps and about engaging its teachers to create opportunities for them in and out of the classroom. You also see the organization being more thoughtful about teacher placements and about their partnerships. Yes, there is still much work to do, but rather than see TFA as the enemy, we should view it as a partner.
TFA’s vision is that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Wouldn’t you agree that many of us share that same vision for our students? It’s time we change the narrative many critics have created for Teach For America. The organization is busy trying to restructure and evolve into a better version of itself, so it is up to us to shed light on the great work it has accomplished, like inspiring many of us to be leaders both in and out of the classroom as a way of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
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