A Mission to Teach

Teach for America alumnae emerge from tough classroom experiences as passionate advocates for equality in education.

by Jenny Hall AC ’04

Jennifer Carter ’04 remembers with startling clarity the first day of her stint with Teach for America. At 22, with a fresh new anthropology degree in hand, she had arrived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota a few weeks before the start of classes. The fluorescent-green paint she had picked out brightened her classroom’s concrete walls, but she quickly realized that cosmetic changes would do little to address the challenges her eighth-grade students brought with them.

Jennifer Carter

Jennifer Carter ’04

One boy threatened to smash her head with a dumbbell if she didn’t get out of the way. “Would I buy it or would I call his bluff? I stared him down and refused to move, telling him calmly to go back to his seat,” she recalls. “He eventually followed my instructions and the rest of the class followed suit.” Another student rarely came to school, and when he did he’d scream at Carter. “I figured he wanted me to believe he was a thug kid, but I wasn’t buying it. It was a test. Somehow, I passed,” she says. Both boys committed suicide in the two years after Carter left, she says.

Not every Teach for America corps member has such a dramatic story, but many do. Since TFA began in 1990, with a goal of enlisting a small army of idealistic young college graduates to eliminate educational inequality, Smith alumnae have eagerly accepted the challenge. Starting with five members of the class of 1990, the number of Smith grads joining TFA has grown steadily, according to Kaitlin Gastrock, director of communications at TFA’s Boston office. All told, some 130 Smith women have put in their two years as novice teachers in some of the nation’s most underperforming schools. Of those, about half have remained in the field of education, working in schools, districts, education nonprofits, and higher education, while others have gone on to pursue careers as varied as finance, law, and management. Despite the stress that can come with leading a classroom of students in some of the toughest schools in the nation, the alumnae interviewed for this story, including those who are critical of the program, have become passionate advocates for education equality.

“TFA has a theory of change and a mission that is compelling to Smith students,” says Sam Intrator, professor of education and child study at Smith. “Educational disparity is, in a sense, the new civil-rights issue of our day, and Smithies understand both systematically and on the ground how important it is to contribute to the solution, to be a part of restructuring underserved institutions.”

Smith students typically learn about Teach for America from campus recruiters. For some, the pitch is effective enough to prompt a change in career plans. Rachel Willis ’04, for example, was a government major who had every intention of moving to Washington, DC, to work on Capitol Hill. An information session on TFA, led by a Smith alumna, changed all that. “At the end of the presentation they showed a video, and when the lights went up, I realized I was crying. Right then and there, I felt like I had found what I was supposed to be doing with my life.” Willis signed up for a two-year TFA stint in her native Atlanta, and has been there ever since. In 2009, she won a Teacher of the Year award for her work as a third-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Atlanta, and in 2010, she won the prestigious Milken Educator Award, the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program.

Christi Smith ’99, a sociology major at Smith, taught at two schools in North Carolina as a TFA corps member and later volunteered as a recruiter, including at Smith. TFA recruiters look for qualities like leadership and a high GPA, she says, but they’re also gauging less tangible traits like creativity, resourcefulness, and independence. “TFA needs people who can walk into schools with a unique combination of confidence and humility,” Smith says. “Your demeanor should inspire respect in other teachers, parents, and students, but you also need to come into the community with a deep sense of humility and a willingness to learn.”

Like Jennifer Carter, Smith discovered the aching need that TFA teachers can fill. “One of my biggest concerns going into TFA was that I would take away a position from a better qualified candidate. But what I found was that I was there to fill an empty classroom,” Smith says. “In one case, the students had—for as long as anyone could remember—a substitute teacher come in once a week. The other four days they spent watching movies while the teacher in the next room peeked in on them periodically.”

Smith, currently in China on a fellowship and working on her dissertation for a PhD in sociology at Indiana University, says her TFA experience definitely influenced her career choice. “Before TFA, I was thinking more about law school than graduate school. Teaching gave me a better understanding of the systemic problems that need to be addressed,” she says. “I really felt that teaching in the schools wouldn’t really bring about long-term change. By the end of my time with TFA, I was thinking about all the gaps in research that need attention.”

Karli Swift ’04, in her final year of law school at the University of Georgia, says her TFA experience as a high school social studies teacher at a predominantly African American inner-city school in Baltimore from 2005 to 2007, has profoundly influenced her life. “The beauty of TFA is that it takes talented people who aren’t necessarily planning to become teachers and channels their talent and enthusiasm into a passion for public education,” she says. “I definitely expect to stay involved in education long term, whether that’s by using my law degree to affect policy, or by tutoring or mentoring.”

For all of its successes, though, TFA draws criticism for some of its practices. Smith education professor Sam Intrator, for instance, questions its hiring of noneducation majors, who are given minimal training before they’re thrown into a difficult classroom situation, often with very little supervision. He also wonders if it focuses too heavily on short-term solutions. “My quandary is that organizations like TFA are pipelines that move talented, idealistic people into underserved schools, and that’s great, but shouldn’t our real resources be focused not on how many people we can get into the classroom, but on how we keep them there?” he asks. “All the research says that the single greatest factor of success in underachieving schools is the quality of the teaching. Teaching is an art, a science, a craft that must be honed, and getting good at anything demands practice, time on task.” Plus, he notes, the two-year commitment means that talented TFA recruits leave teaching before they develop the expertise needed in schools that serve poor children.

Katya Levitan-Reiner

Katya Levitan-Reiner ’04

Katya Levitan-Reiner ’02 recalls her first TFA position in a hastily assembled school for students who had been expelled by other

schools in Oakland, California. “We literally had to climb a chain-link fence to get in before school started, and dust off the chairs,” she says. “Many students hadn’t attended school in a year, so we didn’t even know which class to place them in.”

She taught pre-algebra to a group of middle-school students who ranged in age from 11 to 17. Although she had taken some education courses at Smith and rates the training she received at TFA’s summer institute as very good, she was, she says, completely overwhelmed and unprepared for the specific challenges of her classroom. TFA offered her another placement, but she ended up leaving the organization to teach at another public school in Oakland, an established school founded and staffed by veteran teachers.

Today, as senior coordinator in the Office of Data and Assessment for the New Haven, Connecticut, public schools, Levitan-Reiner is a little more forgiving of her TFA experience. “Of course I wasn’t adequately prepared, but how could I have been?” she says. “I think it’s important to remember that TFA didn’t create the problems with the public school system in this country, and TFA doesn’t claim to be the solution. What it says is, there’s a problem, and we need solutions. TFA is one piece of a much-needed solution.”

One TFA alumna also questions the organization’s “relentless pursuit of results,” to use the TFA Website’s language. Teachers are expected to raise their students’ achievement scores by one and a half or two grade levels over the course of a school year. As in all public schools, this is measured through testing, which raises the controversial subject of “teaching to the test,” a concept that generates passionate debate and divides the educational community.

“When you measure kids’ progress using a five-step lesson plan with a test at the end of it, you lose out on so much,” says Megan Ambrus ’07, who taught fifth graders whose families were predominantly recent immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in New Haven, Connecticut. “What about art, music, culture?” Ambrus is currently working for a nonprofit and applying to grad programs in the sociology of education. She’s writing a novel based on her TFA experiences.

Other TFA alums take a more pragmatic approach. “If I want my students to be college-bound, then there has to be both a qualitative and a quantitative way to measure their progress,” says Sarah R. S. Martin ’06, a former corps member in Hawaii and now a TFA director in New York City and Indianapolis. “I believe it can’t be an either/or situation. Test scores are important and must be considered as one indicator to measure progress, but it is also about building students’ confidence and love for learning.”

Despite the challenges and shortcomings of the program, former corps members say TFA gave them a greater appreciation for the hard work of teachers and an unwavering commitment to improving schools. Elizabeth Marcell ’99 acknowledges that not everyone who goes through the program will become a teacher. “The goal,” she says, “is to build a group of alums in all walks of life who are going to fight educational inequality, whether that’s by influencing policy decisions, being a more informed voter or city council member, mentoring in an after-school program, or crafting legislation to address education reform.”

Marcell herself applied to TFA in her senior year, fully intending to pursue an advanced degree in Italian literature when her two-year stint was up. But her plans changed after she was assigned a special-education class of thirteen students, whose disabilities ranged from Down syndrome to autism to blindness, in a small border town in Texas. The student body was largely Spanish-speaking, with 98 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Marcell cobbled together her high school Spanish and college Italian to become fluent enough to converse with parents at teacher-parent conferences. After her TFA experience, Marcell did spend a year in the Italian program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but returned to TFA, this time on the program staff of the organization in New Orleans. “I just knew that whatever I could do professionally as an Italian professor—regardless of how much I loved the field—would never have the kind of direct impact on people’s lives that I would have in the public education reform movement,” she says.

Today, after earning a doctorate in education from Harvard, she heads the special-education department at two newly designated charter schools in New Orleans as part of ReNEW Schools, an ambitious charter organization that is part of the Louisiana Recovery School District that works to turn around failing and underperforming schools.

For Nahid Sorooshyari ’05, teaching for two years in a fifth-grade classroom in the Bronx for TFA was a way to give back to the community before going on to law school. The experience gave direction to her legal education at Washington University­–St. Louis, where she’s a third-year student. “Teach for America opened my eyes to the failures of our education system and the ways we can work to make it better,” she says. “Before TFA, I never thought about working in education or even working with kids. Now, I plan on using my law degree to either work in educational policy or somehow work to represent low-income children facing legal difficulties.”

Twenty years into its idealistic mission, Teach for America remains an attractive option for new graduates. Thirteen members of the Smith class of 2010 are midway through their first TFA teaching assignments. Judging from the experiences of their predecessors, they will learn, as Jennifer Carter did in South Dakota, hard lessons about the lasting effects of poverty and discrimination. “I know that my students became better writers because I was their teacher. But I also know that I did not change their circumstances,” says Carter, who recently began graduate studies in education at Lesley University. “I had students who were beaten up by gangs, who joined gangs, whose parents overdosed, who had to raise their siblings, who slept in cars, who became teen moms, who didn’t have a place to sleep.”

But they may also learn about the value of pitching in and holding tight to high expectations. “My students would tell me, ‘You can’t expect us to do that, Ms. Carter. We’re Indians.’ Now, they write to me on Facebook and say, ‘I remember everything you taught us.’ A few of my students have gone on to college. That makes me really proud.”

Jenny Hall AC ’04, a former teacher, is a freelance writer in western Massachusetts. She has written numerous articles for the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.

Spring 2011 SAQ