This past year, Goucher was among the top colleges and universities to contribute new members to the Teach For America 2017 corps. With six alumni joining, Goucher contributed significantly to a nationwide network. This past year was also the first year that students were able to apply early to the program–during their junior year of college. Two Goucher students did so and were accepted.
Teach for America (TFA) is a national organization that certifies recent graduates and others without teaching certification to work as teachers in low-income communities. Applicants fill out an online application and complete a group interview online or in-person. Once accepted, applicants fill out a form with their location preferences from a list of 53 different regions across the nation. TFA teachers commit to teaching for at least two years as full-time salaried employees of the school in which they are placed.
As an organization, TFA focuses on understanding and combating educational inequity, an angle that tends to appeal to Goucher graduates. For Rae Walker (‘17) this was one of the reasons he decided to apply. “[As a public school student], the quality of your education literally depends on your zipcode,” Walker said in an interview. “In Parkville they have iPads while in Cherry Hill, we’re struggling for paper. And that’s needed for the curriculum, because they [the school] don’t buy textbooks.”
Walker graduated from Goucher as an English major with a concentration in creative writing. He knew he wanted to be a teacher, but he dropped his major in education because he believed that focusing on his content area (English) was more important than learning theory.
Walker is currently teaching special education at Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary Middle School (PK-8th) in Cherry Hill, Baltimore. He is also working on his Masters in Education at Johns Hopkins and is on track to receive a doctorate in five years.
Walker was drawn to the field of special education because of its relationship to inequity, and the situation that results from the over-diagnosing of students, particularly poor black students. “For gen-ed teachers, [labelling students with an IEP or Individualized Educational Program] is like code for ‘I don’t want to teach you, so I’m going to put you in another class,’ and this can happen as early as 1st grade,” said Walker. Once students are labeled as in need of special education, the effects of that label are difficult to reverse. For Walker, one of the important aspects of teaching special education is advocating for his students.
Teaching in low-income communities requires teachers to be very committed and invested in their students. Lila Stenson (‘17) appreciates the connections she’s been able to make with her students, “learning about their lives and telling them about mine.” Stenson graduated with a degree in Sociology and Spanish and is currently teaching 7th and 8th grade Spanish in Memphis, Tennessee. “It’s really fun to see [my students] grow and get excited when they can say new things in Spanish,” said Stenson.
Walker has also certainly become invested in his students. The Saturday after this interview, he was planning on taking one of his students to the movies because it was their birthday. “I’m a black male figure [in this student’s life], so we’re going to the movies,” Walker said. “On Friday, we’re going to celebrate with a cake.”
Because his special education classes are self-contained, Walker spends all day with the same nine students, who range from 5th grade to 8th grade. According to Walker, it is actually illegal to have over three grade levels together in the same class, but it often happens in Baltimore public schools because of understaffing. TFA works to combat understaffing in schools, but it is not enough. As Stenson states, TFA “really isn’t a long term solution to ending the problems in education.”
Stenson became interested in education in part because of her experience working at a summer camp called Breakthrough Collaborative that works with students from under-resourced urban schools. Stenson’s experiences working in local schools through the Office of Community-Based Learning (CBL) added to this interest.
Walker also mentioned one of CBL’s programs, Middle School Mentoring, when talking about what influenced his decision to stay in Baltimore and teach. Both Stenson and Walker highlighted the way in which Goucher encourages students to engage with equity and social justice.
One thing that TFA corps members seem to have in common is their passion for what they do. “I think it is really cool to have a lot of new energy in the teaching field, as a lot of teachers who have been teaching for a while are burnt out,” Stenson wrote in an email interview.
However, because many of the applicants for TFA are young and inexperienced, they also face extra challenges. Stenson has twenty-seven students, which she said is actually a pretty small number compared to some of her coworkers’ classes. She is fortunate to teach a subject (Spanish) that is not tested at the state level, because it comes with more freedom. On the flip side, however, there is also no pre-prepared curriculum for her to use. “I did not major in education and while TFA does pack a lot into their summer training institute, you are still pretty unprepared for teaching everyday on your own. Classroom management and behavior issues are something that I struggle a lot with,” Stenson wrote.
Eliezer (EC) Cartagena (‘18), who did study education and was one of the juniors who applied early to TFA last year, critiqued this aspect of TFA. “TFA tries to train teachers in the summer, which is literally impossible. A lot of people will be woefully unprepared,” said Cartagena.
Cartagena also critiqued the fact that many people use TFA as “a stepping stone,” and move on to other careers. Cartagena emphasizes that students need consistency. “Two years seems like an injustice,” he said.
While many TFA alums move on to other careers, there are also TFA alums who stay in the world of education. As Walker points out, some of the biggest changemakers in Baltimore public schools, the principals of “turnaround schools,” are TFA alums. Cartagena hopes to stay in the school system for at least four years, while Walker sees himself continuing to teach ten years from now.
One of the incentives for applying to TFA are the benefits that come with the program. In addition to offering the opportunity to become certified to teach, TFA offers a summer training institute, an extensive alumni network, affinity group networks with other TFA members, mentor partnerships, and online location guides. TFA also has partnerships with graduate schools. Regional programs either require or encourage TFA corps members to work towards a Masters in Education. Fellowships and awards are also available to help teachers get a financial boost. For Stenson, who was moving to an entirely new city, she appreciated having the support network that came with TFA. “Memphis is a new home, so it is nice to have other people who are new and trying to explore the city as well,” she said.
TFA tries to draw a diverse group of members, and they advertised that their 2017 corps was more diverse than ever. Cartagena highlighted that TFA considers diversity factors besides race, like gender identity and sexual orientation. Walker also mentioned the diversity of educational backgrounds of corps members: “you’ll meet people from across the gamut, from Harvard, Stanford, from your local community college.”
However, despite their diversity of backgrounds, many teachers will face the same challenges. “Teachers are overworked and undervalued, and you need to be really dedicated, because financially you won’t get much from it,” said Cartagena. “Only apply if you’re really passionate about making change happen in school systems.”
Stenson emphasized the importance of flexibility and adaptability. “Things will not run smoothly, materials will not be available, school schedules and student behavior are always unpredictable,” she said. “A lot of this experience is just trying to roll with things.” Walker seconded this. “If administration emails me tonight and says, ‘we’re teaching in the dark tomorrow,’ then I’ll say, ‘okay, I’ll bring a flashlight,’” he said. Walker suggested that teachers should have a “growth mindset”–not just believing that their students can grow, but that, as teachers, they can, too. “You can’t enter the classroom thinking about what happened yesterday,” he said.
Overall, Goucher’s recent graduates who are members of the TFA corps seem proud of the work they’re doing. “It’s a noble profession,” said Walker.
For the 2018-2019 school year, there are a number of TFA application deadlines approaching, through March 2018. If you are interested in applying, Cartagena, who asked several people to look over his application, advises other students not to be afraid to ask for help. “People think that they have to do things on their own, but that’s not true,” he said.
For assistance with the application, students can also take advantage of on-campus resources like the Career Development Office.