USF students are drawn to Teach For America, the prestigious program that places recent college graduates as teachers in under performing schools around the country in an attempt to tackle the achievement gap in education.
Three USF students have been admitted to Teach For America so far this year, and the university enjoys an above average acceptance rate into the program. TFA admits about one in three USF applicants while the national average is closer to 20 percent, according to Emily Lewis-LaMonica, a recruitment director for the program.
USF students seem to be well qualified to undertake the tough, street-level social justice activism preached by the organization. USF’s mission and values, the idea of using education received here to better the world, are closely aligned with the goals of TFA, said LaMonica, who recruits at USF and a few other West Coast colleges.
Yet, while working with students at failing schools, many of whom are poor minorities sounds like an ideal way to help create positive change in the world, TFA teachers learn quickly that their work can be incredibly difficult.
Overcoming unruly students, fighting and other forms of violence in the classroom, as well as apathetic parents and the under-funded public school system is incredibly challenging said Casey Farmer, a USF alumna and second year TFA teacher who works with students with learning disabilities and behavior problems at an East Oakland high school.
Farmer said she applied to TFA because she wanted to get out of the white suburban bubble in which she was raised and experience the things she had studied as a sociology major in college. “TFA exposes you to serious social problems, problems we don’t see as middle income people,” she said.
Farmer said her students are subjected to the violence that happens in their East Oakland neighborhood. Some of her students have not been to a doctor in years and others are practically starving, she said.
Galen Wilson, another USF alumnus who teaches for TFA in Oakland said the majority of his students receive free breakfast and lunch from the school, and that one day earlier this semester food was never delivered so students went hungry all day. On other days the school lunch has consisted of only yogurt and cold cuts, he said.
TFA teachers face these difficult challenges with minimal training. After completing a five week teaching boot camp over the summer, teachers are shipped off to their respective schools in depressed communities around the U.S. to take the helm of their own classroom.
Yet despite the immense challenges faced by TFA teachers, the program is popular with new graduates, and skills developed during the two year teaching stint are highly regarded by employers.
Last year, TFA received 25,000 applicants for roughly 3,700 positions, and applications are up 50% so far this year. LaMonica said trouble in the financial system and fewer entry level positions for new grads as well as President-Elect Barack Obama’s message of service have spurred interest in the program.
TFA has established itself as a recruiting powerhouse, standing rank and file with Goldman Sachs, The US State Department and the Peace Corps in Business Week’s Best Places to Launch a Career list. TFA alumni are sought after by top flight investment banks and consulting firms and enjoy waived admissions fees at some of the country’s best business schools.
Wilson, a USF alumnus from the class of 2007 who majored in finance, interned with Lehmann Brothers before deciding to pursue a position with TFA. He is currently teaching sixth grade in West Oakland and joked that if he had taken a career in finance he would most likely be out of a job right now; Lehmann Brothers filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
While some TFA teachers view the program as a mark of pedigree and a means to a big time Wall Street job, the company stands by its assertion that its teachers make a significant and lasting impact on the students they teach, pointing to the fact that one third of TFA alumni stay in teaching and two thirds stay in some kind of education related role.
While neither Farmer nor Wilson plan to stay in teaching when they complete their two year commitment with the program, they are both glad to have done the program and are optimistic about the doors it might open for them in the future.
Farmer, who wants to pursue graduate studies in public policy, said, “I feel that when I put TFA on my resume it means something. I’m confident about my future because of it.”
And as for post-grad life, she said, “It’s good, I’m grading papers all the time, but it’s good.”
Teach For America is still accepting applications. Their next deadline is January 7 and the application is available on their website.