In 1989, Princeton senior Wendy Kopp came up with an idea to address several pressing needs within America’s educational system. There existed a shortage of teachers and the glaring and continuing problem of academic issues for low-income students. Kopp’s pioneering plan, which she wrote about as her undergraduate thesis, was to develop a program that would recruit high-performing college graduates to teach in high-need urban and rural schools around the U.S.
Thus, Teach For America (TFA) was born and began training its first corps of student teachers in the summer of 1990. In 1993, when the federal government established AmeriCorps, TFA was included as one of its several charter programs, and by the year 2000, the number of students trained by TFA had reached 80,000.
Teach for America Goals
TFA’s main focus in helping to solve our country’s educational challenges is on leadership. Their approach follows a four-part model:
1. Finding promising leaders
TFA recruits diverse and outstanding college students who will commit to a two-year stint teaching in a public school and partnering with students and families who are most affected by educational disparity. They seek out potential corps members who have proven leadership skills, have persevered in the face of challenges, and believe deeply in the potential of every child. Today, half of the TFA corps members come from low-income backgrounds and half identify as people of color.
2. Supporting educators in classrooms
College grads who are accepted to TFA are provided with initial training, ongoing professional development, and access to incomparable resources and a support network. Many of them also earn a master’s degree in a field related to education during their two-year program, with partial funding provided by TFA. Today, TFA members teach in 2,500 schools across the country.
3. Developing systems-change leaders
Through their classroom and community experiences and because of their close relationships with students and families, corps members come to fully understand the institutional barriers that limit access to opportunity, and the unique resources and challenges in these communities. They cultivate the skills and mindsets to bring about change.
4. Fostering collective leadership
Corps members and TFA alumni are part of an extended network working together for educational equity and excellence. The program brings alumni together for events to learn from one another, debate ideas, and to help connect members with career opportunities. Today, over 66% of TFA alumni work full-time in education, and 85% work in education or in careers serving low-income communities.
TFA members graduate from hundreds of colleges, with dozens of different majors and have unique experiences that help contribute to their future success in a classroom.
Teach for America Requirements
To be eligible for acceptance, a student (or working adult) must have a bachelor’s degree, a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5, and be a either a U.S. citizen, national/legal resident, or have DACA status. Many colleges and universities have students who are TFA campus recruiters, who can help guide a student through the application, interview and placement process.
Throughout each calendar year, there are five application windows. Most students apply during their senior year of college, but early admissions are offered to juniors as well. If a student’s online application is accepted, they are invited to participate in an interview, which can be completed in-person or virtually. This experience includes teaching a five-minute sample lesson that the student has prepared, a group activity and a one-on-one interview.
Applicants then have the opportunity to research and select their location, grade and subject preferences. Within two weeks of submitting this information, applicants are notified of their acceptance and placement details, and are given about ten days to decide if their TFA assignment is right for them.
TFA corps members are usually then hired by schools, districts and charter organizations as full-time employees. Most regions that employ members require them to work towards full teaching certification during their two-year program commitment.
During summer training before the academic year begins, TFA covers housing, food, and daily transportation costs, to allow corps members to focus on their development as a teacher. There are also opportunities for scholarships, grants, loan forgiveness and housing assistance, depending on a program member’s unique eligibility requirements.
Life as a TFA teacher is both challenging and rewarding. Some describe the first few months’ experiences as a trial by fire. And while many praise its mission and reach, there are critics who believe the program does not provide enough classroom management training before new teachers are placed before students.
Christin Henderson, who doubled-majored in English and Spanish while an undergrad at Gonzaga University, recently finished her first year as a TFA corps member, teaching 8thgrade at a charter school in south central Los Angeles. He shared this:
There was definitely a steep learning curve during my first semester teaching, but I believe that the best way to hone classroom management skills is to be thrown into it, to learn by trial and error, making mistakes and learning from them as you go. Over winter break I did a lot of work with my TFA coach to come up with an improved plan for re-setting classroom expectations. I benefitted from live coaching in my classroom and learned that it just takes time to really figure out your students and what best incentivizes them.
For students or graduates who may be considering TFA, it is a very competitive program accepting only about 15% of the large pool of applicants who apply each year. Their website offers a lot of helpful advice, such as tips for writing the short answer essay and how to best prepare for the sample teaching lesson part of the interview.
Advice for Teach for America Applicants
Matthew Kaplan, a recent Duke University graduate who majored in Education and Positive Psychology, will be teaching secondary English classes in Phoenix this fall as a TFA corps member. He served as a campus recruiter during his senior year.
Here is some of his advice for those who are thinking of applying.
1. When writing the short answer essay, think specifically about why you want to serve with Teach for America. What about TFA’s values, theory of change, and mission attracts you?
2.If you are interested in education, there are many ways to enter the classroom. So why is TFA the right path for you?
3. Be articulate what TFA offers that you might not be able to find elsewhere – whether that’s the network, the leadership development training, or the post-corps opportunities.
4. Be sure to think about the essay question both in terms of your short-term and long-term goals. Successful students are able to express what motivates them to join the fight for education equity and draw a clear connection as to why TFA will help support them in their journey.
5. As for the interview’s sample teaching lesson, Kaplan shares, “Keep it simple! Five minutes goes by quickly, so you will want to focus in on a very specific, manageable topic. Many students fall into the trap of wanting to impress the interviewers by trying to teach a complex topic. But remember: the content of your sample teaching lesson does not have any bearing on your ultimate placement, so choose a subject that you’re most comfortable with.
6. Since you’ll be ‘teaching’ the lesson to other interviewees, my other piece of advice is to be sure to act how you would in a real classroom. It can feel awkward and silly, but if your lesson is designed for third graders, engage with your ‘students’ accordingly!
7. And finally, practice your lesson out loud. If you can find a few friends to watch it, even better. It’s great to have an outline but be sure you rehearse your lesson a few times so that you’re confident and comfortable.”
*The 2020 TFA application deadlines will be available online August, 2019.
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