Confessions from the Best Teacher Ever in the Whole World

I have a lot of criticisms of Teach for America, but a big one is the extreme degree to which its members are unprepared for the role they enter.

When filling out the TFA application, there’s a part where you check boxes for everything you’d be willing to do. Would you teach high school? Elementary? Special ed? Literature? Math? Willing to work in a bilingual classroom? I checked almost all the boxes. I considered my skills, but I also placed a huge amount of faith in TFA. I assumed that even though I didn’t know how to be an Elementary school teacher, they’d teach me how to be one before I entered the classroom.

Cue the wah-wah sound effect.

About a year and a half in I still have no idea what I’m doing. Sure, I’ve figured some things out. I’m no longer having miniature panic attacks every morning before school because I have absolutely no idea what the kids are going to do during the day, but I’m still basically making things up as I go along, aided at times by frantic Google searches and, every once in awhile, legitimate preparation (which usually happens on Saturdays and those “vacation” days so many people resent teachers for).

Teach for America loved preaching about using resources for support. “Don’t reinvent the wheel!” they advised. But then they handed us a kit for Instant Wheel, Some Assembly Required. No, that’s not right — then they handed us a plastic bag with a few toothpicks and some chewing gum. We had one day of curriculum training, and basically no grade-specific preparation. Imagine a heart surgeon that had a long, impractical summer training on the theory of surgery, then got a huge technical manual a week before her first operation. Do you wanna be her patient?

But here’s my real complaint. The kids don’t even understand that they’re being shortchanged. “I love Ms. S” they write on their spelling tests. One day, after I yell at them (itself a sign of how unprepared I am for my role here), several make me crayon pictures with adorable captions. “Ms. S is my favorite teacher.” “We love shool [sic].” “Ms. S is the best teacher ever!”

Teach for America sets naive idealists up for failure, but that’s not the worst part. The worst part is failing kids that don’t even know you’re failing them. Kids that rely on you, that love you for no reason. Kids that haven’t learned yet to be cynical about the blind trust adults expect of them. And worse, the kids TFA serves are usually those that are already shortchanged…underserved, underrepresented (or overrepresented, as the case may be).

It’s frustrating to be a part of a system that perpetuates that oppression, but it’s especially frustrating that the perpetuation is stemming from an organization that markets itself as one of disruption and equity.

Dropping unprepared, short-term idealists into a classroom of underserved students is not equity. It’s not a solution to anything. The students do not benefit, the teachers do not benefit…the only possible benefactor here is TFA itself, which receives a “finders fee” of $2,000-$5,000 per corps. member placement (regardless of whether that member finishes their 2-year commitment, or even their first year).

I don’t really have a good resolution here. I just know the kids deserve better. And it sucks knowing that. Especially when they draw hearts on their math sheets and write to me that I’m the best. It doesn’t just feel like failure, it feels like deception.

They deserve better.

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