Kareli woke up at 4:30 a.m. every morning during her second year in Teach For America. It was the only way she had time to go to the gym before she went to school.
Kareli Lizarraga studied political science at Penn and graduated from the College in 2013. For most of her time as an undergraduate, she didn’t consider becoming a teacher or even working in the field of education.
“I came to Penn, and I felt like I had to be pre–something to be successful,” she said. For a while, she identified as pre–law. It's not that shocking that she ended up in TFA, though—Teach for America employs more College of Arts and Sciences graduates than any other company. The organization is tied with Morgan Stanley as the third–largest employer of Penn grads, according to 2014 data from Career Services. The program is notable for combining service work with pragmatic pre–professionalism. TFA corps members are salaried employees of their school districts and many TFA chapters offer master's programs in education.
Kareli arrived at her middle school in Denver, CO, at around 7:10 each morning to prepare to teach her language arts classes. Early wake–up times are typical in TFA, as more public schools are adopting extended days to bridge opportunity gaps. Emily Vance’s (C ’10) first class in her St. Louis middle school began at 7:00 a.m., and she had to arrive even earlier to supervise breakfast.
Teach For America recruits graduates from elite universities around the country to teach in underserved public schools. Among the Ivy League schools, Penn sends the most members to TFA. Many members of TFA were raised in different circumstances from their students, but they stem from a range of backgrounds. Kareli, who was born in Mexico and moved to the US when she was very young, grew up as an undocumented student. When she was younger, she wasn’t sure how her immigration status would hinder her ability to go to college, but she matriculated to Penn after high school.
One of the current Penn students swelling the ranks of TFA next year is Andrew Parambath (C ’17), a pre–med Biology major who will teach science to middle and high schoolers in Dallas Fort–Worth. He joined TFA to try to increase opportunities for students in lower–income areas.
“A lot of it is because of our background and the education we received at a young age,” he said. “A lot of these kids, they might be as talented, but they just don’t have the resources to reach their potential.”
Applying to Teach For America is competitive—the acceptance rate is around 10%. Potential members fill out an application and are subsequently contacted by a regional office. The interview has two parts: a group portion that requires prospective members to teach a classroom lesson and work through problem–solving case studies, followed by a more traditional one–on–one evaluation of qualifications and résumé accomplishments.
During his interview, Joe Sageman (C ’17) demonstrated a twelfth–grade economics lesson to the group. Next year, he will teach high school math in Arkansas.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me to be good,” Joe said. “From year one. And I’m pretty ready—I don’t have any other obligations out there, so I’m going to put in the time necessary to make that happen, however it needs to happen.”
Both Andrew and Joe did service work at Penn, and cited their experiences—whether with the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project or tutoring inmates in Philadelphia prisons—as pivotal to their decision to apply to TFA.
After Joe committed to TFA, his supervisors flew him to Arkansas to observe difficulties facing the schools there and how the other TFA corps members were handling them. He appreciated that they didn’t sugarcoat the experience before he began.
“The reason you do TFA is because you see that there’s this need in the community,” Joe said. “So if you see that need heightened, it doesn’t make you wary, it makes you feel more needed.”
From 7:45 to 8:15, Kareli and her students would eat a breakfast of cafeteria food in the classroom. 90 percent of the middle schoolers she taught were Latinx or African–American and 84 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch benefits. The communal breakfast was a school program to ensure that all students were able to eat a hot meal before going to class.
Many of Kareli’s students came from undocumented families— a student's father was even deported in the middle of the school year. Because she had also been an undocumented student, Kareli encouraged her students not to let their immigration status hold them back from college or other opportunities.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you think you were successful because you are Latina and a lot of your students look like you?’” Kareli said, “but I don’t think that was the case. The overwhelming majority of my teachers growing up were white, but they were fantastic teachers that really believed in me and really pushed me to be a better student. So I try to do that with my students as well.”
While Kareli was in TFA, she integrated writers of color—Junot Díaz, Zora Neale Hurston, Sharon Draper—into her school’s Language Arts curriculum, which was dominated by white writers. When the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, was dominating the news cycle, Kareli brought in articles about Black Lives Matter to class for her students to read and discuss.
Many teachers in TFA must balance a lack of resources and a need to increase test scores. Mary Kelly (C ’14) is currently in her third year of TFA at a Houston middle school teaching English. Her school has been flagged by the Texas Board of Ed. as an “Improvement Required” school, a designation that mandates state officials to monitor her lessons.
“There’s students coming in and out of the classroom. Some students read at a third–grade reading level, and they’re in eighth grade,” Mary said. “Other students just came here from another country. So you have all these different variables you’re supposed to take into consideration, and it gets challenging.”
Part of this balancing act, she explained, involves focusing on other aspects—like personal growth—in addition to test scores.
Kareli was finished teaching by 3:00 p.m., but she would stay in school until 4:30 to grade papers, construct lesson plans and call parents. Teachers in TFA recalled frequently staying after school to conference with students, mentor extracurricular activities and prepare for the following school days.
“Depending on the day and the time of year, after my students were dismissed, I would either tutor math, coach volleyball or coach track,” Emily recalled.
Schoolwork was not confined to the boundaries of the school day, or even to the school building. Corps members would usually get home anywhere between 5:30 and 9:00 p.m. Some teachers, like Emily, also tutored students on the weekend or offered after–school enrichment lessons for students who had surpassed the class material.
After school ends
TFA has been criticized by some in the academic world for “not aiding the problem of teacher retention,” according to the DP. Because the contract for TFA is just two years long (and 12 percent of corps members do not progress to the second year), there is a high turnover rate among TFA teachers. The members are often fresh out of college and inexperienced, although they receive a certificate in the program. As the program recruits heavily from top schools, it has been criticized for being white and elite—in fact, TFA began as a Princeton senior’s undergraduate thesis.
However, many members stay longer beyond the two requisite years, and others remain in the realm of education or connected to their TFA community after leaving the classroom. Mary is currently in her third year of the program—technically an alumna, but still teaching in her Houston school—despite a difficult first year.
Additionally, corps members remain close after the end of their contracts. For example, Kendall O’Connor (C ’11) is engaged to someone she met in her TFA program.
Joe had heard these criticisms of the program, but he was reassured when he visited the Arkansas chapter of TFA last October.
“There are a lot of people who have fulfilled their two year commitment and they’re still in Arkansas doing stuff,” Joe recounted. “Some people are still in the same classroom jobs—like they’re still teaching seventh grade history or whatever. Some people have started nonprofits. Some people work for TFA as teacher coaches or something. But a lot of people are really invested in the community and the state there and that’s really encouraging to see.”
Header Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons