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'Teach For America' a Year Later

The much heralded program recruited idealistic college grads to teach in some of the nation's toughest schools

ALMOST exactly a year ago today, I examined and criticized the ambition and assumptions of the Teach for America (TFA) program. I admitted that my professional wariness of the soundness of the program was further heightened by my personal concern for six recent graduates of Carleton College, the small, selective liberal arts college at which I teach.Teach for America has received mixed reviews of its first year. The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and Education Week, among others, have all praised the intention of the program but raised questions about the first year corps members' lack of intense training and the danger of placing "underprepared teachers in charge of classrooms full of the at-risk students who populate inner-city and rural schools" (Education Week, July 31, 1991). Of the six brave recruits who embarked from Carleton College into the "blackboard jungle" of our nation's most challenging schools, one person dropped out early in the fall, while another quit at semester time. The remaining four made it through the year, exhausted, disillusioned, yet ultimately proud of themselves and their students. They plan to return to finish their initial two-year commitment. While I am not in a position to evaluate the relative successes and failures of the program as a whole, my conversations and correspondence with Michael Lach, the 21-year-old physics major who headed down to New Orleans to teach high school science, reveal the sorts of challenges that nearly all the corps members faced and the changes that resulted from their experiences. Michael returned to Carleton's campus this summer to teach a computer class to college-bound high school juniors and seniors. He came armed with zydeco tapes, a roll of candid snapshots of his New Orleans students, harrowing anecdotes of the nightmare our public schools can become, second and third thoughts about teaching, and a cynicism and seriousness of purpose that surprises and alarms me. Michael spent his first year at Alcee Fortier Senior High School in New Orleans. The school, he reports, is in dilapidated condition - graffiti-covered walls, peeling paint, collapsed ceilings. It is also woefully ill-equipped, not just for fancy science experiments, but for everyday teaching needs. For example, Mike had to buy his own chalk and paper and pay for his own duplicating. Mike's middle-class sensibilities, typical of most of the TFA recruits, were challenged by the poverty and hopelessness of many of his students' families. For the first time in his life, he was in the minority, one of only six Caucasians in the school, all of them teachers. He became painfully cognizant of the stratification, racism, and classism of American society. Mike peeked into kids' lives and what he saw demoralized him. He was confronted with children who had adult problems and sought adult solutions from him, and he didn't know the answers. He's reluctant to include sensational details about the violence and poverty that permeates his students' lives, because that kind of objectification shortchanges them. These kids, he insists, are doing the best they can with what they have. "They're great kids, and people know the wrong things about them." Despite the overall bleakness of the school, Michael reports that he derived both support and inspiration from its veteran teachers, who were still gamely fighting a battle that seemed almost impossible to win. Judging from Michael's dramatic transformation from an easy-going idealistic college graduate to a socially conscious and seasoned educator, something profound is occurring in those Teach for America classrooms. Never have I seen anyone change so much and in so many ways in just one short year. Mike carries a deep tiredness that sleep doesn't erase. The permanent wink has gone out of his attitude, and even his good humor is permeated by an undefinable melancholy. He had a serious job in sobering conditio ns. He suddenly became the authority figure, the very one against which he had spent most of his life rebelling. He is less patient with grown-ups and bureaucracies. Michael's reservations about the effectiveness of Teach for America echoes the observations of other critics. Looking back on his initial training, he found it to be loosely organized, not sufficiently strict, and perhaps not taken seriously enough by many of the recruits. He wishes that he had been given concrete information about his placement site by someone who had actually taught there. He laments his initial lack of knowledge about classroom management and lesson planning. Mike is quick to point out, however, that these shortcomings have been recognized by TFA and that the training sessions have been restructured to provide students with more of the practical knowledge that first-year teachers need. Was this bold alternative approach to teacher recruitment and preparation worth it, then, for Micheal Lach and his students? Mike says, "TFA and my experience has not made me a happier person. I see a sad, messed up place. I'm trying as best I can to change it. It's frustrating ... but it would be even worse if no one did it." His sense of social responsibility has been heightened, but now that he knows what needs to be done, he doubts that Teach for America, or this country, for that matter, has the res ources to do it. He admits to a deep cynicism, and has lost a good deal of faith in the public school system and 'in the world. But what he has gained is a faith in himself and in the value of the effort that he spent last year in New Orleans. He still believes that he can change things, at least in terms of making a difference in the lives of his students. "I know there are some kids in that school who think that I'm the only person in the world who cares for them. And they're right." When I asked Mike if he still believed in TFA, he replied, "Well, it's too bad you have to. These schools aren't working and something needs to be done." My faith in Teach for America does not match Michael's; it's still tempered by the reservations of many professional teacher-trainers across the country. But I am prepared to admit that despite its organizational and structural shortcomings, some wonderful things happened in classrooms between teachers like Mike and his students. Idealism may not be enough, but it is a place to begin.