After being forwarded the article What Makes a Great Teacher ,I was expecting a read about teacher quality and education reform techniques. That was there too, but what was most surprising was the fact that this article perfectly laid out how Teach For America comes to decide who gets in and who is rejected. The process, according to this article, is quite simple and based on Teach For America's on research on "good teachers. I have delved into it below.
Here is a list of the most common misconceptions of what people believe would make a great TFA applicant:
Experience in low-income areas
Ability to self reflect
Charisma and passion
Straight A’s or a B-A student.
Education classes, early childhood experience, and desire for a life in education.
These qualities are not bad. Having them is an asset but having them exclusively and trumpeting them up in the application process will not serve the aspiring corps member well. Why is this the case based on Ripley's analysis of Teach For America? Teach For America’s hard data on effective teaching shows that these factors don’t make a teacher “good.” The best teachers may posses some of these factors, but they all have in common most of or all of the below list of what TFA sees as an extremely desirable.
An extremely desirable candidate will have/and or demonstrate the following:
They are able to achieve goals despite horrid conditions that are conducive to failure
Achieved success in extracurricular activities during situations of challenge
They have an ability to motivate others in the face of insurmountable challenges
An exhaustive planner and list-maker
Always setting high goals and relentlessly pursues them by all means necessary
Able to present tangible gains in success
-Such as increasing club membership tenfold
-Mediocre grades transformed to excellent achievement later in college
Good attitude in life/ optimist
Unlikely that this person is interested in a career teaching position- rather is interested in solving huge goals like the socioeconomic challenges facing our nations public school system, specifically overcoming the achievement gap. Typically in the long run such candidates are pursuing politics/law, Grad School, etc within the context of this social movement/understanding.
These values were determined by extensive internal Teach For America research according to Ripley. Successful teachers for the most part shared ALL had the points which TFA now sees as extremely desirable. These items in each of these categories are not mutually exclusive but more often than not having more of the demonstrated will help in making a positive acceptance outcome.
To test personally the validity of Ripley’s claims I took a close view of my own candidacy.
I did have a low-income background, and have worked in low-income communities. In applying last go-round, this experience was brought into the discussion in a way that it was not in my letter of intent on my first application. I can only hypothesize that the amount of attention I gave my most recent summer experience working with low income populations was the result of my receiving a phone interview rather than the direct advancement to the final interview (which I received the year prior where such points were not stressed).
The ability to self-reflect was not stressed in either application, while a lot of attention was given to charisma and passion last year. Ambition is a loaded term, but my work with the governor and the emphasis on that experience in Spring 2009 showed I had ambition to work in places of power- but that is not as important to TFA as resilience and perseverance in the face of challenges especially when you are not working in a "glamours" position like a classroom- a much different atmosphere than the Governors Mansion.
Grade point average was always the trickiest point of my candidacy in both years. I graduated in May with barely a 3.0. Again in both interviews, experience with early childhood/education field desire was not highly emphasized.
This go around, my candidacy seemed to jive nearly flawlessly with the points Ripley laid out on what TFA looks for based on their studies. My interviews were in a much more personal tone focusing on my resilience the past year. Specifically, dealing with the recession through my work-study position during my last semester, job-hunting, maintaining a household, the hardships of this environment while having a dependent, and continued leadership despite being dealt a bad hand.
The nuanced approach I took in demonstrating areas of growth and success from January 2009 up to my final interview in October 2009 was painstaking, but well worth it because it told a story of rising to the occasion. Not only did I achieve the goals set forth of providing an income- I was reaching out to my community, I was bettering myself, and I was taking steps to improve the situation. Most notably, I was re-applying for TFA after being waitlisted by the recession that landed me flat on my ass just months earlier.
These are the stories that show one’s ability to excel no matter what the situation. Stories of personal and/or professional success in horrid conditions are important to tell and are critical components. Teachers are typically placed in underperforming schools that are under-resourced and are facing massive amounts ineptitude. If you have already overcome nasty circumstances and surpassed all expectations previously than you may possess the vigor to set high goals for your classroom despite the abominable environment you find yourself surrounded.
To conclude, there is no magic formula for getting into Teach For America. The right candidates have the right mindset, I believe before they even get to their final interviews. I do believe that a lack of understanding about what TFA is looking for means that some great corps members are being overlooked. I also think that a smart enough person could “lie” their way in- look at all the traits and make themselves look like the ideal candidate. I also believe they would only end up unhappy and overwhelmed down the road, thus deserving the organization, their students, and the community in which they work. The future good teachers who fall through the cracks in TFA's screening process are people to have the tangible experiences that demonstrate effectiveness but fail to showcase them through the interview process. Understanding these misconceptions I hope will allow more qualified people to be led into the program.