Teach For America and Smith

Laura Sheedy ’17
Contributing Writer

Smith often ranks in the top contributors of participants for the Teach for America program.  In 2015, Smith ranked in the top 20 contributors for participants from small schools.  Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that sends college graduates to work as teachers in low-income areas where schools are struggling. Teach for America has a history of being highly selective,  and it is considered an honor that a large number of Smith students have been accepted. Many educators and participants praise the program for creating change and a better education for students in under-sourced, urban schools; however, others are highly critical of the program, claiming they send unprepared college graduates to work as teachers a short time commitment.

“I think it takes a certain kind of person to both get admitted to Teach For America and successfully complete a two-year commitment. It’s not surprising that Smithies are top contributors. It’s a difficult and emotionally overwhelming line of work that I definitely never considered as such,” said Jaritza Sierra ’15, who is currently working with Teach for America.   

Although Sierra acknowledged that some people find the program controversial and that there may be some flaws, she said, “I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but, like any organization or program that is trying to make such great change in a system that is so messed up, there is much I think Teach for America could do to better serve the population we work with.”

Many share Sierra’s mixed feelings about teach for America, including Professor of Education and Child Study Kathleen Casale, a long-time employee of the Northampton Public School system.

Casale recognized the goals of the program and the benefits it offers for graduating students: “On the one hand, I feel like the program gives many young people the opportunity to jump in and try teaching to see if it’s a career they might want to pursue. I also feel like the intent of Teach for America is truly good: to infuse poverty-stricken schools with young, enthusiastic, idealistic people who want to connect with children and have a positive impact,” Casale said.

“On the other hand, I feel concerned that Teach for America assumes that they can teach young people how to be teachers in a few short weeks – when my experience says that this is one of the most challenging professions a person can choose – that requires years of practice to master,” Casale added.

Teach for America recognizes its own imperfections and indicated making strides toward working to improve each year. Some criticize Teach for America for creating a “revolving door” of teachers for students who need stability in the classroom. The organization responded to this critique by saying, “Teach for America teachers stay in the classroom during the first two years at a high rate: 88% of our first-year teachers return for a second year. Retention among all teachers has been growing in recent years, and we’re excited to see the collective progress being made. We believe still more can be done by all of us to keep effective teachers in under-resourced schools and hard-to-staff positions, no matter which path they have taken to the classroom.”

Those entering Teach for America have mixed reflections on their experience – some continue to pursue education as a career and academic path, while others do not complete the initial two years. Some critics also argue that the potential of using underprivileged children to further one’s career goes against the social justice model of Teach for America.

“I know of some people who have done Teach for America, had a great experience and made the choice to pursue graduate studies in education – and others who’ve been emotionally devastated by how underprepared they were for the job,” said Casale.   

Most critics agree that Teach for America has good intentions to assist in making effective change in a flawed education system, but some argue that this is not the correct way to go about making such change. Teach for America states that it has evidence to back up its training and support model as “hundreds of corps members and alumni have been honored as teachers of the year by their school, district, county or state, including the 2014 Arkansas Teacher of the Year; the 2013 teachers of the year in California and Washington, D.C.; and the 2005 National Teacher of the Year.”

Disagreements continue amongst participants and experts in the field on the program’s role in providing education to under-resourced areas.

Leave a Comment