B is for Blast Off

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 27 2010

B is for Before You Apply

These TFA blogs demonstrate an important aspect of the organization that is rarely publicized, but very important.  Every corps member has a completely different experience than the others.  Even corps members who live together, teach in the same schools, and share students encounter totally different challenges and enjoy totally different successes.  For that matter, every corps member has great weeks and terrible weeks, great days and terrible days, great hours and terrible hours.  My attitude during any given school day requires adjustment multiple times, and I must continually remind myself that I made a choice, a commitment, a decision to do what I do and to be where I am.  It is that sense of choice that makes all the difference to me- with many post-college options, this was the most worthwhile, the most compelling, and the most appropriate.

Oddly, the holidays can be a tough time for corps members.  Emerging from an intensely stressful fall semester, corps members return home to their families and friends and remember the lives they left.  They read books for pleasure.  They travel, sleep, eat, breathe, exercise, or just sit around.  Some who considered leaving the corps early before the break relax, rejuvenate, and find the energy to return.  Others leave the corps entirely.

This post is not to attack corps members who leave earlier than the end of the two-year commitment.  There is no way I could presume to know the pressure of their individual placements and personal lives, and I also am not naive enough to think that my time in the corps will continue as smoothly as it began.  My corps experience is not the norm (because there is no norm) and may be better than most.  In particular, I cannot say enough for the Institute staff, region staff, and veteran teachers who have invested time and care in me to be sure that I succeed so that my kids succeed.  I simply want to refute some of the negative press about TFA on this site and others, especially during a season in which potential corps members are weighing their options.  At the risk of further publicizing this article, which truly needs no more attention paid it, I want to comment on nine of its points from my own (first-year) perspective.

1. “At any point in the process you can be rejected by a form letter, and you will never know why.”

The author rightfully points out that this is a reality in the university application process, and I think it stands for most companies, so this is a pretty weak criticism.  There are too many applicants, and an offer for the corps is highly competitive.  She writes that “applicants are stunned to be rejected from a job that they view as closer to volunteering or community service work than a ‘real job.’”  If that is the case, then these applicants should never have applied in the first place.  While TFA is certainly service, it is no standard volunteer opportunity.  Corps members are paid, and they certainly work long enough hours to earn it.  It is truly amazing how many people are shocked by how rigorous this job is.  Both when I was making the decision about accepting my offer and during Institute, current corps members and alumni were totally transparent about the stress and anxiety inherent in the job.  Point being, there are literally infinite resources to consult (including TeachforUs) for an honest assessment of the corps experience.  (See #9 below.)

2. “The summer institute program is specifically designed to break a person’s spirit.”

I could not agree less with this assessment, but I want to reiterate that I am writing only from my own experience.  Certainly, I had friends at the Los Angeles institute who hated it for numerous reasons.  I was determined to love it from the beginning, and at times, only the belief that tomorrow could be better helped me survive.  Institute was my first introduction to 90 hour work weeks, real defeat in the classroom, and major debate (often facilitated and encouraged by TFA) about the role of corps members and our impact.

The only line in this section of the article that I can relate to is “the line for the copy machine can last a full hour.”  Yes, I waited in multi-hour lines to make copies, but it was my fault.  The lines to copy were non-existent for those corps members who planned ahead, finished their work at or right after school, or out-sourced to TFA interns.

From my point of view, the opportunities to maintain sanity at Institute are numerous.  Weekends are free, though most corps members use Sunday afternoons or evenings to prepare for the coming week.  It is possible to exercise daily and sleep (adequately) every night- I am proof!  There are community groups for common interests (volleyball, film, praise and worship, break dancing), and corps member advisory groups often leave campus to eat together or grab drinks.  As compared with friends who graduated and started working in companies where they felt isolated as the youngest employees, I was so fortunate to spend my training weeks living with 500 intelligent, fun, capable people my own age on a college campus working hard and playing hard.

The author writes that Institute is designed “to see if you really will last in the classroom.”  Thank goodness this is true, because Institute is nothing compared to teaching at one’s placement site.  In retrospect, I taught as many minutes in the entirety of Institute (45 minutes per day over 19 teaching days) as I did in my first 2 (!) days at Rocketship in August.  I look back at Institute so fondly now that I am applying to work there this summer.

3. “You don’t get paid for a l000000000000ng time.”

I cannot refute this.  Since school districts pay corps members, rather than TFA, salaries do not begin until the fall.  However, very few jobs pay their employees before they begin working.  Some friends in investment banking or consulting received signing or travel bonuses, but most did not.  TFA does its best to supply corps members with transitional loans and grants, and I encourage new corps members to apply for that money even if they believe they are unqualified.  You will likely receive funds, and you do not have to start loan payments until January of your first year.  However, money is definitely tight during Institute, although meals and housing are covered for the duration.

4. “You have to buy your own school supplies.”

Again, this was not my experience.  I took advantage of a sale at Staples over the summer and bought a trillion pencils and folders for a penny each, but that was the extent of my school supply purchases.  My school staff provided whiteboard markers, chart paper, butcher paper, and a few other necessities during our first week of teaching, and my co-teachers and I budgeted our supplies as necessary.  I never felt judged on the beauty of my classroom, and I have to believe that the author’s school staff could not have been petty enough to put corps members on improvement plans based on classroom appearances.  My co-teachers and I hung classroom rules, a tracking chart, and a few math formulas on the walls, which was adequate.

The real point, of course, is that teaching is a money pit.  Few school districts can afford to provide a classroom budget for teachers, and all teachers (TFA or not) spend their own money to provide for their students.

5. “You are not an employee of Teach for America.”

So true, but again, not legitimate criticism.  Teach for America recruits, places, trains, and supports corps members.  It does not pay or employ them.  I just spoke with one of the Bay Area managers of professional development about this very point, because it can be difficult to balance TFA requirements with school requirements once the school year begins.  Corps members can find themselves asking who they should prioritize, report to, and consult.  The perfect answer I received was “purpose over process.”  In my experience, TFA definitely wants its corps members to put students first, so the best decision is the decision that improves student achievement.  For me, this means missing TFA professional development opportunities to participate in required Rocketship professional development opportunities.  The Rocketship sessions pertain to my students specifically and teach me how to effectively teach them.  However, my goal as the new semester begins is to attend more TFA-sponsored sessions, because I think it is important to get perspective outside of my school’s faculty and to maintain connections with the larger corps.  There are few, if any, tangible consequences for me for missing TFA-sponsored sessions, but I think it is obvious that there are real consequences for my students.

6. “You are not guaranteed to get a job.”

But you probably will.  The Bay Area staff achieved their goal of placing all corps members by the first day of school this year.  Generally speaking, the percentage of corps members without a job on the first day of school is minimal.  This is not to downplay the plight of those who are not placed, of course.  As mentioned above, TFA does not employ its corps members and cannot guarantee placement, but the rigorous application process exists to make sure that TFA is sending the very best people to job interviews.  I would have been extremely frustrated if I had not been placed by the first day of school, and if I were a corps member who was involuntarily furloughed after the school year began, I would be furious.

Applying in the first or second deadline is a great way to access more job interviews earlier.  It stands to reason that if TFA is setting you up with interviews in January, rather than July, you will likely be placed earlier.  In addition, each region maintains relationships with the public school systems and charters where corps members are sent to interview, so the better corps members perform each year, the more likely those districts are to hire in greater numbers the next year.

7. “You are supposed to be going to be attending graduate school in addition to your full-time job.”

It would be unfair for me to write about this, because Rocketship is ingeniously partnered with the Reach Institute for School Leadership for teacher credentialing, rather than a university.  I have no idea how other TFA teachers, or teachers in general, work toward a masters while spending12 hours per day at school.  (And, as a side note, I have infinite respect for TFA teachers who have families and marriages to maintain.  I can hardly handle my individual existence.)

TFA offers a non-traditional entrance into education, which places an increased strain on corps members.  Most school districts require that teachers have a credential or be actively working toward a credential, so teachers who entered education by way of degrees in education or graduate school can avoid the classes corps members take while teaching.  Education theory feels inapplicable when you have 300 tests to grade and students who spend the majority of class underneath their desk, but I think it simply comes with the territory.

8.”You will not be mean enough.”

The worst advice I continually received (from non-TFA teachers) before teaching was not to smile until Christmas break.  I still cannot conceive of the logic behind this advice, and I feel the same way about this point.  How could I possibly build meaningful relationships with my students if they hated me?  Fighting for student respect means demonstrating consistency, fairness, and concern in behavioral management and investment.  A wise veteran teacher once told me that my students will not care how much I know until they know how much I care.

I am definitely strict.  There are no excuses in my classroom.  There are rewards, and there are negative consequences, and they are applied as the situation requires.  I love my kids, but I will discipline them as necessary.

Balance is key, and there are so many improvements I need to make to move kids from fear-based behavior to morals-based behavior. Still, I hug my kids constantly.  I spend time with their families, and I dance to silly songs in front of them.  I did the same with my seventh grade students last summer.  But when the time comes to be serious about learning, the atmosphere in class changes immediately.  Those students who threaten learning time with misbehavior hurt their own and their classmates’ opportunities for success, which I will not tolerate.

9. “It will be harder than you think.”

Yes, yes, a million times yes.

For the kids,

Bailey

14 Responses

  1. MissM

    Thank you for a really great post. I knew I wanted to do TFA, applied early, got accepted in November, and then started hearing horror stories and questioning whether or not I’d made the right choice. Hearing this makes me believe that I have.

    • bailey

      This is such a huge compliment! Thanks for reading and all the best during your corps time! As a great friend once told me, talent doesn’t need luck. You’ll be a tremendous teacher! And feel free to e-mail (bthomson@rsed.org) if you need anything at all!

  2. Danielle

    Thank you Bailey!! I had the same sentiment as Miss M! I accepted in November and then the onslaught of horror stories came on!! I know I have made the right choice, but it is hard to hear all the negativity. I appreciate the honesty in your in post thanks!!

    • bailey

      Keep your head up! You define your experience- reach out if you need help. Your Institute and region staff are amazing resources, and I hope that you will be able to say the same about your school’s faculty and administrators. It will be tough, tough, tough, but you were chosen for a reason. And of course, get in touch if you need anything (bthomson@rsed.org). Happy New Year!

  3. Zara

    bailey, you are amazing.

    • bailey

      Just taking my cues from you, Ms. Stasi! Miss you dearly!

  4. Thank you for refuting that awfully misdirected article! I definitely think your attitude, clearly an optimistic one, trumps the attitude that the author of that article had! No one said it was going to be easy. I just knew that in the end, it would be worth it.

    • bailey

      Super encouraging to hear that from an alum! Saw that you’re training for school leadership on your Twitter. Psyched to “follow” your journey. Happy New Year!

  5. Sunny

    Thank you for sharing. I’m happy to learn that there are indeed corps members out there who are having a much better experience than I did.

  6. Cameron

    Thank you for this post! As yet another incoming CM (San Antonio-woot woot!), I find your message to be realistic yet positive. I fully anticipate my TFA experience to be one of a struggle; nonetheless, it is not about me rather the students! Ahhh, I cannot wait!

    • Welcome, Cameron! Be in touch if you need anything (bthomson@rsed.org) and ENJOY your experience!

  7. tia

    Wow, this was truly awesome!!! I also was accepted this past Nov, I will be apart of the 2011 Atlanta corps. I’m glad that your article was realistic but also optimistic! After I read that article, I also questioned my decision, so I am choosing to seek advice from CM’s who are having positive experiences.
    thank you!!!!

  8. Adrienne

    Thank you Bailey. Thank you for reminding me that my mindset and my determination is ultimately what will determine my success. After all no CM signs up for an easy task, it’s all about refusing to lose and working for a more equal, more just America. You hit the nail on the head and I think because of this post (and my commitment to closing the achievement gap of course) I’ll be joining you as a Bay Area CM. Thanks again :).

  9. Kaitlyn

    I too have been having the same experience as the first couple comments here… I just accepted my position to teach elementary school in Phoenix this year (2011 corps member!) And am finding all the horror stories online as well! Eeek! I’m glad to hear that it seems you’ve maintained sanity for the most part. And I appreciate your honesty and that you’ve shared your opinion and experience with us here. There is hope! :) Thanks again.

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About this Blog

Bailey Thomson, Bay Area Corps Member 2010

Region
Bay Area
Grade
Elementary School
Subject
Math

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