What Is Teach for America Really Like?

A new book looks at the lives of four recruits.


Teach for America's Jen Pohl teaches English at West Mecklenburg High School, in Charlotte, N.C.

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TFA has a two-pronged theory of change. In the short term, it will send smart, energetic, committed young people into these terrible schools. But the longer-term vision, and the one that is most likely to bear fruit, is the idea that, because TFA has culled so carefully for leaders and because these young teachers will be so informed by this unbelievable experience of teaching in underperforming schools, they will go out and make big changes.

Now that the early corps members are approaching their early 40s, we're starting to see signs that these leaders that have been embedded in society are starting to rise up. If you troll the education reform movements, the big nonprofits, and philanthropies, you'll see TFA alum[s] in their ranks. I think a real marker was laid down last spring when TFA alum Michelle Rhee was named chancellor of the D.C. schools.

Do you feel that there's any tension between teachers who have been trained traditionally and TFA teachers?

Well, certainly at Locke there was a very palpable tension between the old-timers and the new-timers over the notion that these young, smart things would just come in and know it all. I think on a one-to-one basis, a lot of that goes away, and some of the TFA recruits I knew were able to overcome some of those natural resentments. But I would imagine that there is quite a bit of resentment throughout the profession from people who have gone to schools of education for two years and trained traditionally, who then see these young kids come in after five weeks as teachers of record. What are the four TFA corps members you followed up to now?

Hrag is in the middle of his fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, which he describes as "TFA on steroids," but he'll be opening his own charter school in Los Angeles hopefully in September 2009. So Hrag is a perfect example of a guy who had no intention whatsoever of staying in education and is now in it for the foreseeable future. Taylor is working at a charter school as an English teacher, and Phillip has moved to a brand-new LA Unified campus where he's teaching math and being mentored by the school principal. He has now decided that he wants to one day run his own school. Rachelle still teaches at Locke, where she's the junior varsity girls' soccer coach and is saying that she wants to remain in education, but she is going to leave Locke because it has become too dangerous and too chaotic. What is the single most important thing you will take away from your experience?

I think it would be not to dismiss these children or relegate them to the ghetto. If you teach them, they will learn. They have something to offer, and we have an obligation to give it to them. This is a national disgrace—we should be ashamed that 20 minutes from my comfortable home, there are children that have no future.