Well, it’s about that time of year — when seniors start frantically applying for fellowships and internships and jobs, the socially conscious among them aching for a career that will allow them to change the world, others looking for something they can put on their application for law school. Then comes along the recruiting powerhouse of Teach for America, to assure college students that yes, you can in fact change the world AND have an in to law school (or business school, or political office).
Progressive students of America who care about social justice: I know you care deeply about education. I know you see yourself as a change agent, fighting injustice. I know you have organized for progressive causes on campus and in your community; you’ve done civic engagement, you care about the DREAM Act, you are disgusted by the achievement gap, you think we are cheating low-income students, students of color, and differently-abled students in our current education system. I agree with you. But please, please, do NOT do Teach for America.
Consider that teachers are being laid off left and right with extreme cuts to education funding, teachers who have dedicated their lives and careers to their students. When you take a job as a Teach for America corps member, the school pays much less for you (a starting teacher’s salary) than an experienced teacher with a Master’s Degree. Do you think a cash-strapped district is more likely to hire you, looking for a few gap years before law school, or your brother or sister in the struggle who has been teaching with a graduate degree for ten years? Good thing that anti-union laws have been advocated in state after state, making it easier for school districts to save money by laying off experienced teachers and hiring new recruits every two years.
Consider that Teach for America advocates for a “No Excuses” approach to the classroom – which asserts that the world outside of your classroom should have no effect on student performance. The crux of student achievement is solely the fault and responsibility of the teacher – there is no need to break down the social systems (racism, sexism, capitalism) that keep communities in poverty, there is no need to acknowledge the personal struggles a student might be going through. So – my student who is being harassed for being gay, my student has missed school because his depression is so intense he can’t get out of bed, my student whose mother is dying from cancer, my student who stays at school until 6 PM and commutes an hour and a half each way, my student who has been in three foster homes in the past year, my student who just immigrated with his family from Mexico the week before school started – they should all get zeros on missing assignments, detentions for falling asleep in class, should be told that they should work harder, should not be allowed adjustments or extensions, should be allowed to fail. And the teacher? If your students can’t succeed in that environment? You are the sole reason for that failure. For students who have been studying the impacts of social systems, you should see this line of thought as ridiculous and oppressive.
Consider that Teach for America serves as a pipeline for organizations like Leadership for Educational Equity (the sister organization of TFA that runs its legislative agenda), Students First, Stand for Children, and Students for Education Reform, as well as scores of charter schools across the country. These organizations support the privatization of public schools, the de-unionization of teachers, the emphasis of standardized tests over authentic instruction, and supporting anti-teacher policies like tenure reform and merit pay. These policies make billions of dollars for Education Management Organizations and for test and textbook publishers like Pearson — while public education funding continues to be cut. And It’s not just the policies and organizations that Teach for America supports, but where these policies have originated: from the same organization that has pushed the privatization of prisons and racist immigration bills like SB1070, none other than our favorite folks at ALEC. ALEC’s legislative agenda for education is eerily similar to the bills being supported by TFA’s partners — school vouchers, parent trigger laws, charter school privatization and expansion, teacher tenure reform, and anti-union reforms. It is hypocritical for us to advocate against racist policies like SB1070, to speak out against the privatization of prisons and healthcare, and then to support organizations that want to privatize public education. Do you trust that ALEC’s education policy is truly looking out for at risk students? Do you want to be a part of their agenda?
So. College seniors. I know you care about students, I know you care about your community. If you really want to be a teacher, know what you’re getting into. Commit to being a life-long educator. Commit to staying in the teaching field for more than the required two years – make that a part of your plan. Commit to standing against the legislative agenda of “education reform” and speaking out about their connections to the far-right wing. And if you can’t commit to that, don’t cut corners. If you answer the question of “Why do you want to do Teach for America?” with, “I want to teach for a while before grad school,” or “I want to help low-income youth,” or “I’m interested in education” – really, anything other than “I want to be a teacher,” you are doing more harm than good. There are so many ways you can affect change for students and communities without buying into Teach for America.
Robin Lane is a native of St. Louis and a recent transplant to Austin, TX. She is a proud graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, with a degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies. Currently, Robin teaches middle school English, and is passionate about bringing the wonder of reading and the joy of writing to her students. Robin has her heart in several social justice projects, including serving on the board of Empower Art, a group that conducts art workshops for young women, and volunteering with the Workers Defense Project’s youth program. She is also involved in Occupy AISD, a grassroots group of parents and educators organizing around issues of charter school expansion, public school privatization, and standardized testing. Robin believes in the good of people, in optimism, in honesty and in love and carries these words with her into the classroom: as Audrey Hepburn said, “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.” Her work has appeared in TeenINK Magazine and the Coe Review, as well as on the stage of the Red-Eye Theatre Project.