Saturday, September 1, 2012

What Teach for America Gave Me

I meant to write this all summer. In fact, I meant to write this before I left San Antonio, Texas--my Teach for America home for 2 years after college. But for some reason, I just never did until I happened to see this article on the NYTimes setting up the debate about the effectiveness of TFA.

When I joined Teach for America in 2010 in the San Antonio Charter Corps, I knew I would be leaving for medical school in 2 years. I knew that TFA was notoriously difficult because of the high expectations placed on its corps members and the situation they were placed in.

Coming right out of college, wide-eyed and idealistic, it's a bit of a shock to go into a classroom prepared to pull a "Stand and Deliver" moment, only to be completely unsure of what to do when a student starts yelling racial slurs across the room, and another picks up a chair looking to throw it.

But how could I enter the world of medicine, saying I wanted to effect a change in health policy and work with the underserved population, when my experiences were primarily in volunteering? I did Teach for America because I knew it would give me perspective on the social, economic, cultural, and academic impacts of American poverty. In return, I could provide 2 years of my dedicated, unrelenting effort to my students as a science teacher.

I was provided about 6 weeks of in-class training, and then training throughout the school year about being at teacher. Most people, especially those who did semester or year long in-class training, gawk at that. How can you possible learn to drive an effective classroom in that amount of time? The answer is simple: you can't. I didn't, and I doubt anyone does. But what it gave me was a template of how to prepare lesson plans, focus on academic achievement, and set high standards for my students. More importantly, it slapped the wide-eyed innocence right out of me. It showed me what I would have to do, gave me the tools on how to handle it, and sent me off--trembling from excitement and a healthy dose of fear of failure.

But that's why Teach For America has a rigorous selection process. It's not all a numbers game: it's about leadership. After all -- what are you if not the leader, commander, and director of your classroom? Though it is not fool proof, it does effectively recruit people who are goal-driven, hard workers and will not give up at the first, second, third, or fourteenth failure.

I gave everything I could to my students over the 2 years that I worked for San Antonio Independent School District. I promised them I would teach them Biology, and I did. I promised them I would get them above and beyond passing the state Biology exam, and for most, I did. I promised them I would never give up on them, and I didn't. People often ask me if I feel that I made an actual impact on my students' lives--and I'm honestly not sure. I can tell you that there are students that will never remember, and students that will always remember me. I can tell that I had the opportunity to work with children to take them from knowing very little about Biology, to being conversational in basic Biology by the end of the year. I can tell them that I made students feel, and therefore be, smart. But a lasting impact? Only time will tell.

But my time with them gave me more. From an educational standpoint, TFA has made an education advocate out of me for life. I have internalized the impact that schools can have on students even when communities and families are struggling. I understand what it is like to be a teacher in an over-crowded underfunded classroom. And I know now what it's like to want to help your students so badly, but face a seemingly insurmountable sociocultural and political barriers. Education is no longer the great equalizer in our country, I see that clearer than ever, and I will work to ensure that changes.

From a medical standpoint, starting my future-physician career, I am more aware of how the world works. I can not only identify the socioeconomic determinants of health and health care delivery, but I have seen and internalized them. Two years gave me the time and experience to look at my school community broadly and learn why my students and their families make some of the choices they do, both helpful and harmful. I believe it has given me the beginnings of insight into what could be implementable and effective in these communities to better health outcomes. Or I could be wrong, but at the very least it has fueled my desire to learn more and push my career in medicine towards community health care and closing our health outcomes gap.

Do I think Teach for America is the answer to our educational woes? No, it's a very big band-aid on the wound that is our bleeding education system. I never took TFA for the answer--but rather a program that will push people who normally wouldn't be interested in education (either because of the extraordinarily low pay or the lack of respect the profession can engenders, or both) and change that,  making them more aware of the problem. TFA alums, no matter where we go, either staying in education or moving on to a different career, will always have our students and our experience in the back of our minds, consciously or subconsciously influencing our actions.

So back to my main point--what TFA has given me. It's given me a direction. A direction I was tentatively leaning towards after college, but now am barreling towards in medical school. A direction I can only hope will be worth the high monetary investment in my teacher training and classroom, and will help to shape the communities I was privileged enough to work in for 2 years. 


Anonymous said...

You don't think it's offensive that your post is entirely about what TFA gave YOU and not how TFA serves students? Wouldn't your students have been better served by someone who intended to stay in the classroom, and did stay in the classroom? I'm glad TFA given you a broadened perspective, but I'm not happy it was at the expense of students, who TFA treats like guinea pigs through whom the future "education leaders" might learn a think or two about privilege.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that's fair. The author spoke at length about the support she gave to her students; any teacher would have faced the same challenges. Yes, TFA is a flawed program, but I find it gratifying how many students there are who are ready to roll up their sleeves and try to help.

Adele said...

It sounds to me that Mita gave her students her all. Her school was lucky to have her and I believe her students will benefit tremendously from their relationship to her. She brought a perspective of possibility to her students. What she didn't do was claim to solve the problem of a poor educational system. That is our job. I commend her and all of the TFA teachers that give service to our country in such a generous way. Time will tell, but I am willing to bet that her students will go farther, and see more opportunity because of Mita and TFA.

Linda said...

Anonymous number one, you are so far off track I can hardly respond! Believe me, Mita gave two years of her life to the betterment of this country, making many personal sacrifices for her students. Her students met and exceeded state mandated testing. She was brave and gutsy. We're all better off for her two years of work. I say, Hats off to Mita and all the TFA pioneers taking time to make the world a better place.

Anonymous said...

I'm also TFA and have "served" more than my two years! I still think it's morally reprehensible that TFA plugs inexperienced teachers in high need areas and creates massive turn-over as most people leave after two years of "service." Teaching is about about acknowledging the fundamental human condition, not about what it gives you. It is not poverty tourism, it is not about some sort of vague missionary zeal for two years, it is not about YOU. It is about students, and the realities they face everyday. Every time a TFA corps member justifies the existence of the organization along the lines of "this is what TFA gave me", I find it upsetting and offensive because it completely misses the point.

Surprising, but yes, corps members have differing opinions about the efficacy of the organization.

Mita said...

@Anonymous, I respect your perspective, and I disagree.

You are absolutely correct. My experience with Teach for America never was nor ever will be solely about me. It was about my students and what I could give them in the 2 years I served them. I call it "serve" because that's what I did. My life for 2 years was dedicated to them, the community, and our school. The idea that TFA teaches you a "thing or two about privilege" is silly. By joining TFA you have already inherently made the distinction that for some reason or another, you are privileged while others are not, simply by virtue of receiving a 4 year education. The experience however, does open your eyes as to just how privileged you are, and how little you did to earn that privilege.

I agree that the turn-over rate is high, but that's true for the profession of teaching in general that is in sore need of a revamp. The burn out rate for teachers is outrageous! But discounting the 2 years people put in for TFA is foolish and short sighted. I may not be there for my students any more, but they have the impact that I made on them in my 2 years, even if it may only have been getting them to pass their state test. I commend you for your continued service, because I believe that's what it is, and I am sure that you will have a significantly greater impact on your students because you stayed.

I think we differ fundamentally on what we believe to be the purpose of TFA. I believe that it is meant to expose people to the field of education and the problems facing rural/urban underserved education settings to create education advocates. In doing so if they bring in people who want to stay in the classroom, fantastic! We need more enthusiastic teachers. But I don't believe that's the main purpose. TFA was never meant to be a solution, simply a band-aid that will need a great number of educators and education advocates working together to fix.

However I do not apologize for being offensive in the way that you suggest, because TFA, like any experience, creates a lasting impression on the people that serve in the program, as it should. Because of those experiences, I am now certain I want to come back and work in communities like where I worked, and advocate for my students and their families that are marginalized and essentially disenfranchised. So yep, I gave TFA something, and TFA gave me a whole lot more.

Tyler Hoppenfeld said...

First of all, TFA teachers are good teachers. If TFA teachers weren't better than whatever the alternative is, their principals would never have hired them.

Second, main beneficiary of Mita's TFA experience isn't her, its the hundreds or thousands of people that she will meet as a doctor and be able to empathize with in a way that those without experience with poverty never could.

If your case is that the world would be better off if she had stayed on for a few more years, I understand.

But if your position is that the world would have been better off had stayed out of the classroom entirely, you are sorely mistaken, and would short-change a few hundred students as well as thousands of people she has not yet even met.

Vik said...

What Mita did is very similar to what Mormon faith people do. They volunteer for 2 years of service wherever their church places them. Besides explaining religion, they perform valuable community service where needed and that is very commendable. That experience stays with them besides benefiting the community.

Jadi Shaw said...

As I read this, I realize that people usually share what they do for others, but she is talking about what she received. What a refreshing gesture. I thank Mita for sharing part of what she experienced and what she has internalized with us. She should be commended for it, not scrutinized. It is now woven into the fabric of her life as she moves forward.

Let me say as I know for fact---and yes I know for fact, she gave her all.(That does not mean other teachers do not, this is her story ,every one gets gratification in their own way). Teachers educate students, help them learn, and they master and hopefully pass the subject, we know that, but Mita asked more from her students, showing them they were capable of achieving higher than what they thought, and she inspired confidence in them when more than one student comes and tells you "when i go to college, yes i will go to college, yes i want to be a doctor" from "no I do not think college stuff is for me Miss Shah"

I know Mita has made the difference, that possibility of being able to achieve further education, and make dreams come true, is in that students mind ,that's the beginning and only the time will tell. But yes just in 2 years she has made a difference. I know she has touched many student’s lives in a positive and productive way. I have no doubt that what she is doing now and will do in future will undoubtedly benefit from who she is as a person and experiences like TFA that have enriched her life.

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