Teach For America, Teach for Change

“Life-changing experience” is not included in most entry-level job descriptions, but Teach For America (TFA) corps members would beg to differ. This extraordinary program offers graduating seniors opportunities to teach for two years in low-income neighborhoods and to impact their students’ academic and personal lives. TFA aims to provide better educations and richer learning experiences for less fortunate students in cities across the country.

According to the 2006 TFA information booklet, “We believe that the gap in educational outcomes that persists along socioeconomic and racial lines is our nation’s greatest domestic challenge, and that it must be our generation’s civil rights issue.” The brochure states that the United States ranks among the top of all industrialized countries in terms of educational disparities. In order to build a strong movement against such inequity, TFA hires only the best and brightest students to carry out its ideals. The application process is rigorous, and the February 17 deadline for this year’s applicant pool is quickly approaching. However, past and present participants attest that every minute of their time with TFA has been priceless.

“It was one of the most challenging experiences in my entire life, but definitely the most rewarding,” said TFA Recruitment Director Edna Novak, who taught in New Orleans. “It moves me to see what it’s like to have an impact on people and it makes me want to do something meaningful every day for the rest of my life. I want to be part of the solution.”

Fellow TFA alumni and current recruitment team member Elisa Hoffman ’96 also had a life-changing experience during her two-year commitment in a Mississippi Delta second-grade classroom.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much my experience in Teach For America impacted my outlook on life,” Hoffman said. “There aren’t many experiences that you’ll have in life where you can actually say, ‘That changed my life.’ This is one of those experiences. I think I always knew I was lucky to have had the opportunities for success that I had growing up. But, saying my eyes were opened is an understatement.”

Novak and Hoffman both recruit students, teaching them about the program’s goals and logistics, and encouraging them to apply for placement. Novak makes several trips a year to Colgate and meets with interested applicants in low-key coffee sessions. To keep the corps’ presence strong throughout the year, seniors Kara Bachman and Courtney Olsen act as campus campaign managers (CCM).

“As CCM I am in charge of recruiting on campus, inputting data about students into our interface, contacting professors and student organizations to advertise TFA, hanging posters, and working with Career Services to advertise information sessions,” said Olsen.

TFA’s current focus at Colgate is getting more students to apply.

“Colgate, as one of the top colleges in the nation, has students capable to carry out the demanding role of a TFA corps member,” said Bachman. “We need the self-motivated, top students at schools like Colgate to help TFA fulfill its mission.”

For students who have witnessed educational disparity first-hand, TFA is not only a job, but more importantly a way to give back. “I myself am a product of a similar program (Prep for Prep) and was given an opportunity to excel in school,” said senior Kyle Bolt, who is currently applying for a TFA position. “If it were not for that, I might not be at Colgate right now,” “I would like to help develop the minds of America’s youth, specifically those who don’t have the same opportunities and resources as others.”

For students worried about leading classrooms without having taking education classes, TFA summer programs calm those fears. The way the application process works is that interested students apply online at www.teachforamerica.org and input their personal information, resume, letter of intent, and required essay. Selected students then attend an interview day, where they partake in a teaching session, discussion group, and a written problem-solving activity.

“The interview process was intense,” said Adam Leeman ’05, who is currently teaching in Houston, Texas. “You start the day giving a lesson, move on to group discussions and activities and finish with your one-on-one interview. The interviewers are extremely attentive and are constantly scribbling down notes.”

Once applicants are accepted, they are given tentative teaching assignments and are informed of their geographic locations. Applicants are asked to rank their preferred locales, and TFA works hard to match such requests. According to Novak, 96% of applicants are placed in their “highly preferred” locations. Although New Orleans was not her first preference, she quickly became acclimated and considered it her home.

“Wherever you end up, [TFA] is going to have a huge impact on your life,” Novak said.

After matriculation, corps members attend a summer training institute to better understand different approaches to teaching in low-income areas. During the institute, students work in summer school programs under the supervision of experienced faculty members and learn effective classroom skills and practices. Following the five-week institute, members meet in their respective locations for orientation, which includes a comprehensive overview of the area’s historical, social and political perspectives. Teachers are required to pass standardized state certification tests, and TFA provides assistancewith prep materials and support to help their members succeed.

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Such groundwork may sound daunting, but students of Colgate caliber already possess numerous qualities necessary for teaching.

“My Colgate education definitely prepared me to be a successful corps member,” Hoffman said. “One of the most important skills I learned at Colgate was to think critically…In my classroom I had to prepare smart lessons that would address the needs of my students but I also had to be able to think quickly and make changes all day as I implemented these lessons. I had to do good work- all the time. That definitely helped me as a corps member because there was definitely no option to slack but I had been used to working at a really high level already.”

Students are asked to teach certain subjects based on a number of variables, and often their college majors are important factors.

“My majors [at Colgate] were mathematics and film and media studies,” said Leeman. “I am teaching eighth grade math, so the math classes I took while at Colgate definitely helped in my understanding of the subject. As far as the teaching part goes, TFA prepared me for entering the classroom as a teacher.”

TFA’s impressive support system has recruiters and officers waiting to help applicants every step of the way.

“The application process so far has been great,” said Bolt. “I met with several representatives from TFA and they have been extremely supportive and instrumental in my decision to apply.”

Along with very helpful on-campus resources, TFA also has an impressive alumni network consisting of 10,000 professionals in fields such as law, medicine, media and government. Each person has a different story to tell, with different experiences and impacts, yet the thread of making a difference seems to be consistent.

“It’s hard to summarize what my experience was like…It was an incredibly difficult job, but so worth all of the effort,” Hoffman said. “It was at times frustrating or maddening, but the thing is: it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about me being frustrated or upset or anything else. It was about how I was going to get my 24 students to make the academic gains in second grade that they needed to make to get up to grade level… Watching my kids succeed was what made all the work worth it.”

There is still time to apply, and resources are readily available for anyone interested.

“Just apply! What do you have to lose?” asked Bachman. “It’s a commitment not to be taken lightly and at the same time a wonderful opportunity if you choose to make that commitment. It’s not something you would regret!”

For those seniors who want to make a difference and are anxious to get their job search rolling, TFA looks like the perfect fit.

“I remember reading a quote once that said, ‘Some people dream about doing great things while other people wake up and do them,'” said Hoffman. “I know there are people at Colgate who are ready to wake up and do great things. I know that when I was graduating, I didn’t want to be anyone’s assistant or be bored because I didn’t have responsibility. I was ready to jump in and do something that was going to make a real impact. TFA was exactly the right opportunity. I’d love to see more Colgate alumni join this movement.”