You Don’t Have to Take My Word For It: Teach for America

From guest blogger, former TFA corps, and current Ph.D. candidate in education, Sarah Cannon.

Sarah not only has an insider’s voice, but an alternative one that gets little press these days: unlike the stereotypical TFA member, she was assigned to a rural school on an Indian reservation, many of which TFA also supports.


It was Thursday of induction and I needed to get through the morning and get on the road. My college graduates late, so I had already missed senior week in order to begin my TFA training. Graduation was Saturday and I needed to drive 500 miles to get there.

But first I needed to interview at my school.

Before I arrived, I didn’t know much about it. The biggest news on the school website was that we were getting new trailers for teacher housing. Only one of the FEMA trailers leftover from Katrina had arrived so far, but the pictures of the school board members showing off the kitchen and bedrooms were amazing.1

Exploring the website further, I learned that the school was hiring a math teacher. TFA had assigned me to teach social studies, but I had clearance from my supervisor to ask to interview for the math position instead.

When I asked, the old principal looked at me like Christmas had come early. I started explaining my qualifications. Even though I was Sociology/Anthropology major, I had a quantitative focus. I listed the math courses I’d taken, concluding with a “Methods of Teaching Math” course. But honestly, expressing interest was probably enough of a qualification.

What I didn’t know then, what I still can’t wrap my mind around, is that my school had not had a math teacher for the two years prior to my arrival.

Two years.

Worksheets in the gym. A (barely) warm body in the class. Copy the questions and answers from the board, turn it in. You don’t need to learn anything to pass this class. No matter my doubts about my teaching ability, I can confidently say I was better than that.

That is what Teach for America means to me. Bringing people who are asking to teach to schools that have critical needs.

It’s a band-aid solution to a gaping wound. I get that. But, dang, it’s a really good band-aid.

And that’s where the band-aid solution is a problem. Because it covers up so well, popular culture starts talking about how to improve the color and cut of the band-aid instead of the wound underneath.

Sure, teacher turn-over is a problem. I left. I get that. But a two year stint is longer than what my school was getting from many people before they brought in TFA. And for TFA’s college recruits and new teachers two years is a manageable amount of time, not an overwhelming one.

Yes, TFA training is different than traditional teacher training. I spent a lot of my first year feeling overwhelmed and depressed. TFA support existed, but was limited.2 The best support from the school was the informal relationships I formed with experienced teachers. But isn’t that the usual pattern?

I get that there’s a huge paternalism in recruiting from top colleges to teach at the mostly minority schools. Is my blonde self that different from the nuns who used to teach at my school? Who told students that their culture wasn’t good enough but white man’s education will make you better?

I’d love it if my school had enough local teachers to not recruit outsiders. It would be beyond great if those ideal experienced teachers we hear about were going to the high-needs school TFA places in. Improving the pay, the support, and everything else to get them there would be fan-ta-bu-lous.

The goal oriented, get down to business, hold the teacher accountable model of teaching that TFA promotes doesn’t jive with everyone. But if forced me to know where I wanted my classes to go and what our progress was in getting there.

And when we got there, we had a reason to celebrate.

I’m waiting for the whole system to have a reason to celebrate.

1 Sadly the webpage changed before I saved those pictures to my computer.
2 To be fair, my region was understaffed during my first year teaching. The staff size doubled the next year.

One thought on “You Don’t Have to Take My Word For It: Teach for America

  1. In my experience with the National Writing Project, one of the protocols we use (and I know it’s not unique) is “Wows and Wonders.” Your article left me with a lot of both. “Wonders” are not meant in judgment, but intended to be those hanging questions. What is the “down to business” model TFA promotes? How is it different from every other teaching position? I know in my district teachers are held to very high standards. When I was first applying, I put my application in for many Native American schools, and didn’t get one nibble. When you left after two years, where did your journey take you? What do you see doing with your valuable experiences from teaching? The WOWs are your recognition of the band-aid issue. Many educational voices have been saying this for years–I hope your experiences and insights helps all voices help students. Thank you for your insightful article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *