Widgets Magazine

Teach for America’s Recruits and Mission


An article from The Chronicle of High Education, “What Are You Going to Do With That?” by William Deresiewicz has been circling around among many of my friends on Facebook and even on a list serve. In the piece, Deresiewicz argues that Stanford students are unimaginative about our ends in life, that we have spent so much time developing sets of skills to achieve what those around us esteem that we never get our head out of the tunnel and realize we are not reflectively directing our lives.


What was especially interesting to me about Deresiewicz’s article was his account of Teach for America. He says that the “problem with TFA—or rather, the problem with the way that TFA has become incorporated into the system—is that it’s just become another thing to get into.” He says that, within the structure of elite expectations, it is no different from Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Harvard Med School or Berkeley Law: something that looks good on our resume and represents a clearly marked path. He claims it requires the same kind of aptitude and diligence that got us into Stanford, but nothing in moral imagination.


Soon after I read his piece I got an email from a Teach for America recruiter (yay for seniorhood!) encouraging me to interview with the Stanford recruiter who is on campus this week. Thinking these emails were being sent out to large groups of students, I assumed that if I wasn’t planning on applying I didn’t need to reply. A few days later the TFA recruiter sent me a follow-up email with “<please respond>” in the subject line asking me if I had gotten her first email. I replied that night saying I had a number of friends who had gone into TFA and I admired the program, but that it wasn’t something I wanted to do next year.


She emailed me the next day suggesting I reconsider. I might have viewed this determination as kind encouragement and a reflection of the passion within Teach for America for what they do. But her arguments were, if I’m honest, a shallow reflection on today’s version of TFA.


She said that not only would I be able to impact children growing up in low-income communities, but would also “position” myself for success in whatever field I choose. She informed me that leading corporations and graduate schools have partnered up with TFA and added that it “doesn’t hurt to have a few options on the table when you graduate”.


There’s nothing at all horrible about a student thinking about all the considerations she cited. But there was something horribly disappointing in seeing that these are TFA’s current selling points. I was encouraged to apply to teach low-income children for at least two years in order to have another option on the table when I graduate. If I was interested in TFA only as something to do and a good way to get ahead, I was a desired applicant.


Deresiewicz is probably right that a lot (though certainly not all) of the students who apply to Teach for America do so because it is a well-marked path. In all honesty, his suggestion did not rock my boat. But I was surprised to discover that those are precisely the types of students TFA wants to apply, that it may be creeping toward focusing more on impressive numbers of applicants than on finding every way to ensure that the teachers it ultimately hires are deeply and reflectively committed to its mission. If TFA is okay with teachers who will predictably burn out or get lost in a job they were never really hoping for, it seems like TFA may have gotten lost too.