Teach For America: Appealing to the Savior Complex


Image from thehiggsweldon.com

This post originally appeared in the Catalyst Newspaper on February 20, 2015

“One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain a great education.” Teach For America’s Mission Statement.

By now, a majority of seniors at Colorado College have received an email from Teach For America, asking them to interview with a recruiter on campus. Colorado College remains one of the top contributors to TFA, as it is listed in the top 20 small colleges from 2011-2013. Proportionately speaking, small liberal arts colleges contribute the greatest amount of TFA Corps Members, and much of this has to do with the appeal that TFA has on this demographic. I beg the question to every CC student who is thinking about joining the Teach For America organization: What is your motivation for joining TFA and, by nature, the teaching profession? A quick review of the negative effects of TFA is necessary before addressing its unique appeal to CC students.

Perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject, carried out by Stanford University’s Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2005), found that TFA Corps Members perform worse than certified teachers and perform similarly to uncertified teachers in the classroom. Heilig and Jez (2014) find that 80 percent of TFA teachers leave the classroom permanently after three years, adding to the already high levels of turnover in low-income schools. Not only does TFA negatively impact student achievement, but in 2014, Newark Public Schools laid off 700 experienced, certified teachers to replace with new hires, a majority of which came from Teach For America.

Essentially over the last decade, TFA Corps Members have shown to be less effective than their certified counterparts, controlling for variables such as socioeconomic status, and leave the profession before noticeable improvement. The result is that the urban, low-income schools for which TFA provides teachers see higher turnover and lower achievement than if they had invested in more qualified, certified teachers.

TFA recruits well-educated, privileged college graduates (many of whom did not major in education) to commit to two years of teaching in these high-risk schools. With little to no educational background, Corps Members endure a five-week teaching boot camp, where TFA prepares them to have an “immediate positive impact on their students.” Darling-Hammond points out that statistically teachers do not have a positive impact on students until their third year in the classroom, by which point most Corps members have left the profession.

Returning to the question regarding the motivation to join the TFA organization, current research (Straubhaar & Gottfried, 2014) suggests that a majority of recruits join TFA to do something meaningful with their lives following graduation, particularly “social justice…with a guaranteed income.” Most participants knew before entering the teaching profession that they were destined for more “prestigious” careers such as lawyers, doctors, or engineers, but wanted to do something to “give back” before pursuing these endeavors.

By nature of being at Colorado College, most students want to lead meaningful lives that include being responsible citizens and helping to address social problems. Thus, at first glance, the Teach For America organization looks like a fantastic initiative. However, there is a fine line between addressing educational inequity and exacerbating current power structures within educational institutions.

A vast majority of Colorado College students who join TFA have not been exposed to the same disadvantages as urban, low-income students. This creates an awkward dynamic in the classroom, where Corps Members have no way to relate to their students. Moreover, these Corps Members also have little to no educational experience, yet believe that their graduation from an elite college places them on the same level as certified classroom teachers. Many of them see TFA as either a time to think about what they want to do long-term or as a way to contribute to social justice (Straubhaar & Gottfried, 2014). By default, Corps Members rationalize their place in the classroom with a savior complex. They act as some sort of missionary from the privileged class, here to save the poor kids…well, save the poor kids for two years before going on to a more prestigious career.

I have many friends who have chosen the TFA pathway, one of whom contested my last article by claiming, “I love my kids. I don’t care that I’m not qualified. I love my kids more than any other teacher could.”

The problem with this mentality is that one assumes that love is enough to solve educational inequity. TFA relies on this notion that students, like those at Colorado College, will wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to teaching for two years. This makes them feel good. This wins more recruits for TFA. However, this has led to higher turnover rates and lower achievement for the schools that are already struggling. In the two decades of TFA’s existence, the data shows that the organization is ineffective in increasing student achievement. This doesn’t even include the sociological impacts of how these privileged Corps Members view the teaching profession as a stopgap option or how the underprivileged students see their Saviors in the classroom as having no idea who they are or where they come from.

There is an inherent contradiction in Teach For America’s mission that goes unrecognized by the CC students who blindly endorse it. Great education comes from experienced teachers who dedicate themselves to the classroom. To believe that somehow a liberal arts education at Colorado College prepares one to lead a classroom of underprivileged, underperforming youth is not only arrogant but is an injustice to the United States education system.

If one’s motivations to join TFA are to pursue teaching as a long-term career, I recommend looking into other programs that place more emphasis on best practices from the educational literature. These programs include a Masters of Arts in Teaching, a professional licensure program from an accredited institution, or simply an experience as an educational assistant with your Bachelor’s, a position that allows you to assist professionally licensed teachers in the classroom.

TFA has great intentions, as do Colorado College students. Before taking the easy interview and pathway into teaching, consider your motivation for becoming a teacher. Teaching is a respectable career and should not be used to give life temporary meaning.