The national organization Teach for America (TFA), has had its share of criticism and stereotypes tossed its way.
Some believe the organization is full of rich, elite individuals who are going into communities to teach the underserved, while others view TFA teachers as inadequately trained.
However, TFA, a member of AmeriCorps, has taken a big step toward diversity and have set the standards high for teachers seeking to make positive, systematic changes in the educational field.
For example, in 2008, when the organization arrived in Indianapolis, the corps size totaled 50. This year, the corps size has more than tripled at over 170 and is one of the most diverse since the local partnership.
Over 40 percent of new teachers come from a low-income background; about 35 percent identify as people of color; 30 percent are the first in their family to attend college; and almost 20 percent have a background in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).
The two-year program allows participants who have a bachelor’s degree with at least a 2.5 GPA an opportunity to teach at low-income schools to ensure children growing up in poverty receive an excellent education.
According to TFA, just eight percent of children growing up in low-income communities, graduate from college by age 24.
“The people who join Teach for America have a commitment to serving low-income communities and realize there is a systematic problem in terms of education. We don’t have high-quality public school options for all kids, especially those growing up in low-income communities,” said Rebecca Thompson Boyle, executive director of TFA-Indianapolis.
“For a lot of people it lights a fire. It’s only a two year minimum commitment of teaching in the classroom, but two-thirds of our corps members stay in education after they’ve finished.”
Boyle adds that additionally, participants often become more passionate about social problems and become life long educational advocates.
The starting salary for corps members is $30,000-$38,000 and varies between regions based on the standards of living.
“Although corps members are making a very modest salary, people are excited to do this and it’s not just about the money,” mentioned JuDonne Hemingway, director of diversity, strategy and engagement.
“I say this with lots of respect, but any of the teachers and my staff could be doing anything else, so there has got to be a deep love and commitment,” added Boyle.
The process of recruiting teachers is done on a national and local level and all staff members participate in the process.
In 2013, there were over 50,000 applicants for just 5,300 spots. All staff across the country, alumni and volunteers assist with interviews. Applicants proceed through a phone screening, then to an in-person interview. Boyle said the TFA team wants to ensure they have selected the correct individuals. The entire process typically takes about two to three months, and selected applicants will fill open positions in high-needs pre-K through 12th grade classrooms in different areas of the country.
TFA recruits heavily at Historical Black Colleges and Universities and students of color at Indiana educational institutions.
“We actively recruit candidates of color because of the importance of having a diverse teaching force,” explained Boyle. “We believe diverse leadership not only in the classroom but in school leadership is critical at every level or we are never going to change the system.”
The TFA-Indianapolis team spends time analyzing societal factors including race, class and privilege and this is what they believe makes them different than most organizations.
New to TFA is its Culturally Responsive Teaching pilot program. This year the organization has a cohort to simply focus on culturally responsive teaching.
Hemingway, who does much of the talent hiring for the Indianapolis area believes diversity isn’t just about race, it’s also about perspective.
“One way we ensure our staff becomes diverse is by ensuring our core is diverse,” she said. “People who come to Indianapolis bring stories to share with their students but I also think seeing teaching as a option is what our teachers provide.”
“We don’t want our corps members to feel like they’re teaching their kids to be some sort of archetype that will make them successful in our country,” mentioned Boyle. “We want to respect all of the rich culture and history they bring and really empower them to lead their own lives to unlock their potential.”
Boyle said above all, TFA seeks passionate individuals who have leadership experience, familiarity with children from low-income communities, perseverance, and critical thinking skills.
“We want to make sure we are weeding out those who aren’t sure what they want to do and may be applying just until they ‘figure it out,’” noted Boyle. “Those are not the people we want because when someone leaves a classroom, they are walking out on those kids. Not only is it giving a message that leaves the kids feeling as if someone has turned their back on them, it also means they will likely get a permanent sub for the rest of the year.”
To counter the accusation that TFA teachers are inadequately trained, Boyle said the organization has found that corps members who undergo a traditional teacher’s training and those that do not are on a similar level.
“Because of the constant coaching, our training and preparation is as valuable, if not more valuable in terms of student outcome,” said Boyle. “The value corps members have, compared to other first and second year teachers, is they have a coach and required professional development.”
Corps members who aren’t certified through traditional education programs are required to earn their master’s degree from Marian University, which is paid for through their AmeriCorp funding.
“We certainly don’t have it all figured out but what I appreciate about our work is that we are always thinking of ways to innovate and advocate for educators, students and communities,” said Hemingway.
For more information on Teach For America, visit teachforamerica.org.