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Teach For America Gives College Graduates the Opportunity to Make a Difference

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Teach For America is a non-profit organization that strives to eliminate educational inequity in the United States. It was started by Wendy Kopp in 1990 after she planned out the idea for her senior thesis at Princeton University in 1989.

Teach For America, or TFA, recruits new college graduates for two-year teaching positions around the country. Teach for America applicants are not required to be education majors: they do not even need to be certified teachers. In fact, the group, or corps, as they are called, is comprised of graduates from all academic fields.

The catch? These new teachers must all work in underachieving, low-income urban and rural public schools in order to become respected classroom leaders while expanding the educational opportunities of their students, most of who are working below grade level.

The corps members all attend a rigorous 5-week summer training program in order to prepare for their two-year commitment, and they are typically placed in urban and rural schools with other TFA corps members.

TFA teachers are expected to make a greater impact on students than “normal” first year teachers would, and most do follow through even though it’s a tough job. I found blogs of many former TFA teachers that claim they were placed in classrooms with students who could not read at all, or students who were reading two to three years below their current grade level. The frustration can get to you, and many TFA teachers wind up becoming dropouts of the program, but most TFA alumni complete their 2-year positions. Some wind up continuing careers in teaching or the education field.

Teach for America is becoming more and more popular every year. Since its inception in 1990, more than 14,000 corps members have completed their commitments to Teach For America and competition is getting fierce as the number of applicants increases each year. In 2009, a record 35,000 applicants competed for approximately 4,100 positions across the country, and in 2010 Teach For America received more than 46,000 applications.

Another surprising statistic is the number of “upscale” students that want to participate in Teach For America. It was started by a Princeton graduate, don’t forget, but 2007’s applicants supposedly included 11 percent of the senior classes at Amherst and Spelman; 10 percent of those at University of Chicago and Duke; and more than eight percent of the graduating seniors at Notre Dame, Princeton and Wellesley.

Why the sudden surge in popularity? The fact that Teach For America only chooses a small selection of its thousands of applicants means that it’s an elite group. Being selected to participate in TFA stands for something, and students from top-notch schools are already competitive to begin with. They enjoy standing out among their peers, and being selected for TFA is a great way to do that. Soaring unemployment rates of and difficulty of landing other jobs straight out of college also make TFA seem like a great idea, as does the resume boost that TFA will provide once their time in the program is complete.

Teach For America participants may want to make a difference in the lives of students, but they’re certainly not getting paid very much to do so. TFA teachers are considered faculty members at their schools, which means that they receive the normal school district salary and benefits, and they also get a small AmeriCorps “education voucher” which can be used to pay for credentialing courses, cover previous student loans or fund further education after the two-year commitment.

Critics of the program (and even some of the former TFA corps members themselves) feel that throwing anybody, well-prepared or not, into a “bad” school full of underachieving students with low test scores few resources is frustrating enough to drive anyone away from the teaching field. Statistics show that approximately 66% of TFA teachers leave teaching after 2 to 3 years on the job.

I don’t know anyone personally that has participated in Teach For America, but I applaud anyone who is able to fulfill an agreement with TFA or any other similar program. I went through extensive training and a full-time internship before earning my degree in education, but my teaching career wound up being very short-lived after I accepted a position in the middle of the school year.

For further reference, please visit TeachForAmerica.org

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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