Letters to the Editor: Teach For America

To the editor:

In her editorial “Rethink TFA”, Emma M. Lind urges seniors who might be considering applying to Teach For America to consider other pathways into teaching. There are a number of excellent options; however, TFA remains one of the most impactful career choices you can make if you are passionate about education. Being a TFA corps member has had a greater impact on my career than any other decision I have made, including choosing to attend Harvard.

I joined the Baltimore TFA corps in 2000 and went on to teach in my placement school for three years. The training and coaching I received helped me improve significantly throughout my first year; it also inspired me to stay teaching beyond my two-year commitment and to help coach other beginning teachers. A significant body of research shows that this support works. Studies by independent institutions such as Mathematic Policy Research and the Urban Institute have found that students taught by TFA members performed as well as, or better than, students taught by non-TFA teachers.

More compelling than any study to me, however, are the ninth grade students I taught. I will never forget one  student, Cornell. When I first met Cornell, he skipped school, failed to complete homework, and was multiple grade levels behind. But with the help of his grandparents, counselor, me, and the other teachers on the ninth grade team, he turned it around and even asked for a front row seat as well as tutoring and extra work. Like so many of my other students, Cornell taught me that all students want to succeed, and that it is up to us as educators to ensure they have the opportunity to do so.

If you enter teaching through TFA, you will also become a part of network of committed educators, advocates, and entrepreneurs. Almost two-thirds of TFA alumni continue full-time in education, like me, and more than half of those in education are still teaching. As the leaders and founders of exciting entrepreneurial organizations for education reform, TFA alumni are having a tremendous impact across the country.

TFA is certainly not the solution to all the problems that plague our education system. But TFA and its almuni are—without a doubt—making a positive impact on the lives of thousands of students. If you believe, as I do, that closing the achievement gap is the most important civil rights issue of our time, then I hope you will consider applying to Teach For America today.

Nicole B. Dorn ’98

Boston, Mass.

To the editor:

Originally a 2008 Teach for America Mississippi Delta Corps Member, I currently work as an instructional coach and writing teacher at a public charter school in Harlem. In a recent editorial, Emma M. Lind, one of my fellow Delta alums, encouraged Harvard seniors to “Rethink TFA.” With the final application due today, I feel compelled to say: think again.

Lind doubts TFA’s effectiveness. She argues that prospective teachers should opt for traditional certification programs instead. Like Lind, I grapple with many tough questions about the TFA. I wonder about the issues raised by its brief summer training, aggressive expansion, and arrogant undertones of its marketing campaign.

But at the end of the day, I can’t agree that traditional certification programs necessarily build better teachers. I have worked with many educators from traditional schools of education and from TFA. In my experience, both crops produce bad, good, and great apples. This has been true in every setting I’ve worked: charter, public, rural, and urban.

Granted, my experience is my own. Dozens of studies, similar to those cited by Lind, attempt to offer a broader, more objective perspective. But these studies reach conclusions that are contradictory and thus unpersuasive. Supporters and detractors can both find support in papers that raise more questions than answers. Most frustrating are their inconsistent metrics of what constitutes "effective" teaching, which is an art and science most difficult to measure.

It saddens me when conversations in education reform equivocate over trees and miss the forest. At the end of the day, we need fantastic people in our nation’s classrooms. Some will come from certification programs. Others will come through Teach for America. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Teaching is a surprising and unbelievably challenging job. The first years will throw you, no matter your training. The people who survive—and thrive—do so not based on what they have done, but what they are willing to do.

So, when it comes to you and teaching, that is all I want to know. What are you willing to do for your future students? If your answer is “anything”—and if you mean it—get yourself in a classroom. Get there however you want. Apply to TFA. Apply to a fellowship. Apply to ed school. There is no single path to becoming a great teacher. Do what makes sense, what feels right, for you. After all, people learn and grow in very different ways—a secret that any great teacher can tell you.

Andy Malone ’08

New York, NY

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