Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
You get emails, you see the table at career fairs: Teach For America. It’s a nonprofit organization that places college graduates as teachers in lower-income public schools in impoverished communities. After being accepted and assigned a teaching region, recruited corps members participate in an intense summer training before teaching at a school for at least two years. The organization places a heavy emphasis on leadership, diversity and lasting change.
In 2013, Teach for America was the No. 1 hirer of graduates from Columbia University (the organization is notorious for hiring privileged students). Teach For America appears to combine efficiency with altruism in a way that helps everyone involved. Unfortunately, the reality is not as ideal. Despite students’ and the organization’s seemingly selfless intentions, the program works more for itself than the students it claims to prioritize.
TFA doesn’t require participants to have a teaching degree, which leads to inexperienced people becoming teachers. Even though participants undergo rigorous training, five weeks of preparation do not make a person qualified to teach. For reference, elementary education majors at this university must spend 1,300 hours interning in schools before they graduate. They get get hands-on experience with teaching and the responsibilities it entails, including how to provide support for students with varying abilities, home situations and personalities.
The first two years of teaching would be difficult enough for someone who has had practice with working in a classroom; they’re incredibly challenging for someone without firsthand experience working in a school. While overcoming challenges is admirable, it’s not as praiseworthy for people who aren’t professionally prepared to teach to practice on marginalized children who already have the odds stacked against them.
Additionally, TFA participants are paid an entry-level salary for their two years. There are cases of schools dismissing older, more experienced teachers or passing over college graduates with degrees for cheaper, quicker versions from Teach For America.
The recruits aren’t necessarily to blame for this. Many people join Teach for America with the intention of making a difference. Recruits themselves are often taken advantage of by the organization and overworked to the point of depression.
That said, some TFA participants are also known to manipulate the program for personal gain. Some recruits become teachers, only to overgeneralize about students and associate children of color with learning difficulties. As a relevant note, Teach for America eliminated its Office of Diversity in 2016. It also doesn’t help that the demographics of recruits don’t match the students they serve: TFA’s class of 2014 was 35 percent black and Hispanic, compared with more than 80 percent of students in schools that partnered with the program.
Many people who join TFA are only looking for a way to bolster their resume and possibly even earn some social justice brownie points. Some graduate schools actively look to accept students who have taken part in the organization. But teaching students from lower-income and marginalized communities just to look good isn’t cute.
Furthermore, this elitist pity is usually tied up with that warm and fuzzy kind of racism, where the structure of the program encourages attitudes of saviorism. The combination of kids from poorer and browner schools with predominantly privileged and whiter TFA members constructs a story where recruits are praised for “saving” disadvantaged children from their communities.
Let’s be clear— these students don’t need saving. TFA reinforces the idea that education (provided by their corps members) is the only thing that will solve students’ socioeconomic problems. They need adequate funding and resources, not superficial compassion that thinly veils feelings of superiority.
In a nutshell, Teach for America would need to change its approach completely to accomplish the mission it claims to pursue. It’s time for members to teach for the students, and not Teach for America.
Jasmine Baten is a junior English major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.