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Students Consider Future in Teach for America

Lachlan Johnson

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Illustration by Eddy Vazquez

Many Whitman College students looking to work with children and interested in social justice often consider Teach for America. This fall, 14 Whitman graduates joined the 2013 Teaching Corps and began a two-year commitment to teaching in public schools across the nation. According to a recent Teach for America press release, Whitman is the fifth largest contributor to Teach for America among small schools in the country this year, and 14 percent of the class of 2013 applied to the program.

There are many reasons to apply for Teach for America. Along with the chance to jump immediately into teaching without a teacher’s license, TFA offers applicants the security of a full-time job after graduation while their peers search stagnating job markets. The program also heavily subsidizes a master’s in education for participants, and having Teach for America on one’s resume can open doors to graduate school or other opportunities.

“With the popularity of Teach for America, there are some people who are applying just because it looks good on a resume, and that’s the wrong reason,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry Nathan Boland, who spent three years with TFA in Southern Louisiana. “Anybody who does Teach for America really needs to do it because they believe in their students, and the potential for them to succeed.”

Whitman students’ commitment to serving others is one of the factors contributing to the college’s large number of applicants and acceptances. Despite not having programs specializing in education that larger research universities might, Whitman students are very aware of social justice issues and want to make a difference.

“Whitman’s increased participation in the program is, I think, because Teach for America has discovered Whitman and found the sort of people we have here. Almost everyone’s well-rounded, [has] lots of leadership [and is] well-educated,” said senior Isabel Zarate, who recruits students as Teach for America’s Campus Campaign Coordinator. “You need people that believe in everyone equally, and I think Whitman really fosters that environment.” 

Many of this year’s senior class have already applied to Teach for America, and several have already been offered positions in the program. Teach for America’s application process is lengthy; after submitting a paper application, applicants have an interview over the phone. Those who make it through these initial stages of recruitment then go through a lengthy interview process which includes a mock teaching session and a staged meeting with school executives to test how potential teachers respond to challenges they may encounter in the classroom.

“Teach for America makes you jump through a lot of hoops [while applying]. They need to know that you are willing to put in the hours it takes to get through the application if you are going to be able to put in the thousands of hours of hard work it takes to be a good teacher,” said alumna Clare Sobetski, ’13, who is currently working for Teach for America, in an email. “It’s an effective process; the people I have met through TFA have been truly dedicated and invested in the mission of offering every student equal access to a high quality education.”

Senior Andy Riggs was recently offered a position teaching math in Hilo, Hawaii, after going through the interview process this summer. Despite the competitiveness of the program, Riggs has not yet decided whether he will accept TFA’s offer, or pursue a career in business or finance which are more suited to his economics major.

“Teaching math is something that’s really important, and [my math teachers] got me really far ahead. It was something that was a differentiator for me; going through school, I was ahead in math, and it gave me a lot of confidence when I was younger,” said Riggs.

Along with two years of full-time employment, many Teach for America participants pursue a master of education, which is heavily subsidized by the program. In most states, this is one of the few ways graduates can move directly into teaching without a teaching degree. While this presents an opportunity for passionate young people to immediately impact society, Riggs argues it also undercuts the employment of more experienced teachers who have gone through graduate school and have previous experience in the field from finding employment.

“There are two sides to the story. Although it could provide a very tangible benefit to society, you have to think about the fact that because you’re getting a job, it means you’re taking a job away from someone who could be more experienced,” said Riggs. “I know a lot of people in this program are amazing and are going to put their heart and soul into everything, but at the end of the day, it’s really hard to think that I’m going to be a better teacher than someone who’s been doing it for ten years.”

Riggs’ nuanced view of Teach for America is shared by Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Pahlke, who joined Teach for America in 2000 and spent two years teaching fourth grade in Washington, D.C. While Pahlke feels unemployment is less of an issue in the program, as many teachers wouldn’t want to work in some of the difficult classrooms TFA sends graduates, she is frustrated by the way TFA sends graduates into some of the most difficult classrooms in the country after only five months of training.

“I could have made a bigger difference in kids’ lives if I’d figured out a way to get my teaching legs under me in a school where I was more supported, and then to move into a TFA school,” said Pahlke.

However, according to Zarate, Teach for America is constantly looking to improve, examining the characteristics of its most successful teachers and applying lessons learned in the next year’s recruiting process. While some criticism of the program remains in the Whitman community, many students judge its benefits to outweigh its faults, and apply to join the program.

“My advice for other Whitties considering applying is simple: Make sure this is something you really want to do. The work is hard, and if it is not something you are 100 percent invested in, you are going to burn out fast. But if teaching is calling to you, by all means, do apply.” said Sobetski in an email. “It’s incredibly rewarding work, and it’s one of the best opportunities I have ever had to see immediate results for my efforts.”
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One Response to “Students Consider Future in Teach for America”

  1. StudentsFirst Sues Teachers Unions Over Dues - CAPITAL & MAIN on April 15th, 2015 1:40 pm

    […] Educators 4 Excellence (a Gates Foundation-funded anti-teachers union group), and Clare Sobetski, a Teach for America high school teacher with the West Contra Costa Unified School […]

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Students Consider Future in Teach for America