Eduwonk standard 5.14.08b: The writer will be able to thank Andy profusely for this opportunity to guest post.
NYT’s Sam Dillon, among others, reports Teach for America’s “surge in popularity” this past school year. But the applicant data he cites isn’t much news: Roughly 10 percent of the Yale senior class has applied to TFA since at least 2003, and TFA is evidently following through on its “ambitious yet feasible” plan to double the reach of the New York corps specifically by 2010. Larger overall matriculation this year more likely indicates the continued success of TFA’s own re-branding, and not some sea change in undergraduate culture.
At Yale, where I was recruited to the corps, TFA markets itself as a network for future social entrepreneurs in all sectors. This approach differs markedly from the more service learning-oriented pitch TFA employed on-campus when I was a freshman–though maybe I was too busy playing Beirut and making up my American studies major to notice prior aggressive sells. Around 2002, recruitment seemed to be heaviest in the ranks of Dwight Hall, Yale’s undergraduate community service arm. By 2006, the TFA “theory of change” campaign was inescapable: stuffing your in-box, sustaining you in your “senioritis,” and ending… well, we know not where. TFA recruiters made pains to find someone in the organization, often someone with a fancy title and a long resume, who could answer any question I had about anything. I never asked their old recruitment question “What is the wind?” even though they probably could’ve directed me to Aristotle. The staff met you where you were, quite literally, and from there they told you you were born to educate. Tough to resist. Also, they had free happy hours at a trendy bar with the apt name BAR, and they had more flavors on tap than McKinsey, though I haven’t seen the de-brief graphs.
The TFA strategy was so singular, in other words, that it illustrated the commitment and professionalism corps members bring to reaching kids. (One prospective 2007 applicant parodied just that in a Yale Daily News op-ed.) Teach for America recruiting efforts are “surging” because TFA treats prospective corps members like professionals rather than missionaries. I’m not sure how attracting engaging, intelligent, and driven people to the career who might not otherwise consider it became a bad thing. Mastering the art of teaching is a career-long challenge. The first year corps member’s bigger immediate hurdle is reconciling TFA’s personal touch with the pervasive unprofessional treatment accorded most stakeholders in their school systems — their faculty colleagues, their students’ parents, and, most of all, their kids.
(Maureen Miller taught K-5 science through Teach for America New York City. She is now a postbaccalaureate premedical student at the University of Virginia.)