Currently, 29 Boston College alumni are participating in the Teach for America (TFA) program, a national teacher recruitmant program placing qualified, recent college graduates in public and charter schools across the U.S. in an effort to eliminate educational inquity. Despite TFA’s popularity among BC students, the program is still surrounded by misconceptions held by the majority of the community.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I hear, especially when talking to BC students, is about the way we place our teachers,” TFA manager and recruiter Elizabeth Hastie said. “I think a lot of people think there are these Teach for America spots open at each school, and once your two years are up you’re out and someone else is in, but you’re hired just like any other teacher.”
Hastie is a California native who came to Boston to attend Northeastern University, studying business alongside law and policy. She was the first TFA campus campaign coordinator at Northeastern as a senior. Her first two years, she taught eighth grade science in Lawrence, Mass. (Her eighth-graders are now seniors in high school, getting ready to apply for college.)
Her third and final year as a teacher, she taught sixth-grade science and was able to help open up a new school in Lawrence. She went on to receive her master’s degree through the TFA program.
“Through my law and policy classes, my eyes were opened more to the ideas of educational inequity and the ways that it’s playing out for students across the country, and through that was able to start piecing together the ways that I can see educational inequity play out in my own life,” Hastie said.
Grady Deacon, a current campus campaign coordinator and A&S ’15, explains some pushback he has heard in the past.
“Critics will look at the two-year program and often think of it as a mission trip or a service opportunity for college graduates before they go off into some other career,” he said in an email. “Part of what sets TFA apart from this idea of a service trip is that it prepares its Corps members for a lifetime commitment to service and dedication to service.”
Deacon became interested in TFA through his older brother, who was a 2011 graduate of the Baltimore program. Hearing his brother’s experiences and seeing his tangible effect on the children’s lives inspired him to pursue the same path.
“I believe that a great misconception that people have about TFA is that it is a resume builder,” Octavio Brindis, current Milwaukee-based corps member and BC ’14, said in an email. “The application process is thorough, and while it is not perfect, I do believe their recruitment strategies are purposeful.”
Brindis’ awareness of educational inequality in the U.S. also began at school when he participated in PULSE classes, Students for Educational Reform, and the Arrupe International Immersion Program. Like Hastie, and like Deacon, he was a campus campaign coordinator for TFA and decided to apply for the early deadline cycle in his junior year.
“I missed out on Macklemore’s Modstock concert in order to better prepare for my interview,” Brindis said. “I recall gluing the finishing pieces to my presentation poster in O’Neill Library while listening to the distant cheering. While Macklemore is great, I much more enjoy listening to the voices of my students today.”
The application process is rigorous and changes from year to year. TFA has five deadlines to apply online, with the third and coming up on Oct. 24, and the last cycle’s deadline is Jan. 30, 2015. Once the students’ applications have been accepted, they may be invited to complete a 30-minute phone interview. The next two steps consist of an online activity, and, if invited, the fourth step is a final interview.
“What’s really cool about the final interview is that it involves individual and group interviews throughout the course of the day,” said Deacon, who just completed his application for the Oct. 24 cycle. “You and other TFA Corps member candidates get the chance to show off your teaching skill in creating and executing your own lesson plan in front of the admissions directors and fellow applicants.”
“I think one of the great things about Teach for America is it’s a very reflective organization,” Hastie said. “We are constantly trying to grow to become better and do more for our students, and so each application process looks different—my application process four years ago is much different than it is now.”
Historically, the TFA program has low acceptance rates of around 15 percent. When reviewing applications, TFA looks for several specific qualities based on current corps members whose students make exceptional academic strides during their time in the TFA program.
Some of these qualities include belief in the potential of all kids, a commitment to do whatever it takes, perseverance, critical thinking skills, respect for individuals’ diverse experiences, organizational ability, long-term committment and remarkable interpersonal skills.
“Those are the things we can build upon in our training process to make you an excellent teacher,” Hastie said. “Yes, we are a selective organization, and we do set a high bar, but it is because our kids deserve it.”
“The first and most important quality that we look for in TFA teachers is their belief that all kids are bright and capable and their passion to ameliorate educational inequity,” Deacon said.
For the recent graduates accepted into TFA, the lifelong support system begins in the training process during the summer before they begin at their placements and continues throughout the rest of their professional careers.
“What sets us apart is the professional development and the continuous leadership growth and just the support system that is in place for your two years,” Hastie said.
She explained that all TFA teachers are assigned a coach who observes them in the classroom, providing them with feedback and pushing them to do better and grow as an educator. Hastie also said her principal provided feedback during her time in the program.
“I have the privilege of receiving support and instruction feedback from other Corps Members, TFA-Milwaukee staff, Marquette University instructors, and my school’s teachers and principal,” Brindis said. “TFA provides us with a Manager of Teacher Leader Development (MTLD) that supports Corps Members at an individual level.”
“As a TFA Corps member, you have access to a wide range of resources to support your goals in the classroom in addition to all the resources a public school teacher would have,” Deacon said.
With a projected total of 37,000 alumni after the 2014-15 school year, up 9,000 alumns from 28,000 after the 2012-13 school year, professional support is not the only encouragement TFA corps members receive during their journey through the program.
“Doing this with a network of people who are all going through this together is one of the biggest support systems provided, and it doesn’t stop at the end of your two years,” Hastie said.
Despite the constant support, corps members still must overcome personal challenges. Both Hastie and Brindis referenced the same struggle.
“My biggest challenge when I was a teacher was finding balance for myself … and realizing I also need to be healthy to give my kids what they need,” Hastie said. “The two words you will hear over and over again from TFA grads are ‘challenging’ and ‘rewarding.’”
“A challenge I am encountering is balancing my work and personal life—what most intrigues me is the seamless connection between both,” Brindis said.
Although TFA is traditionally a two-year commitment, Hastie stresses the long-term goals of the organization. Sixty-three percent of TFA graduates remain in the education system in some capacity after graduation, and 775 of those are principals.
TFA encourages its graduates to venture outside of the field of education, however, while still having an impact on children.
“We need lawyers who are going to be advocates for our kids, and we need doctors who are going to ensure our kids have access to adequate health care so that they can be in the seats to do the learning,” Hastie said.
Although BC is the fifth largest contributor to TFA among schools with 3,000 to 9,999 undergraduates, Deacon and Hastie seek to plan new recruiting initiatives this year to get even more applicants to the program.
“Some ideas we have in the making are movie screenings, a night at CitySide where we’d give a panel on TFA, and some visuals on campus to spread awareness of educational inequity in the U.S.,” Deacon said.
Those involved in TFA are not surprised at BC’s high level of involvement in the organization. Brindis and Hastie cite the constant theme of men and women for others as the reason so many undergraduates commit to TFA.
“The dedication to service at BC is so strong that students, myself included, have often found service opportunities through BC to be very competitive,” Deacon said. “But I think it’s an incredibly good thing … I think it’s really great proof that BC students don’t stop trying to help others after they graduate.”
Featured Image via TeachForAmerica.org