ATTENTION: Whatever else you do today, please read this. Here’s the summary:
One of my good friends (who will remain anonymous for reasons you’ll discover below) recently suffered unbelievable physical, mental, and emotional abuse while teaching for an organization called Teach For America (TFA). She has since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and her experience was by no means isolated—TFA cares little about the welfare of those who are trying to better the lives of others by signing up to teach. However, TFA has used every type of threat and scare tactic to prevent stories like this from getting out.
That’s why we need your help. Please read this, leave a comment, and pass it on. The purpose of this is to expose this organization and to prevent the same thing from happening to other unsuspecting victims.
“I have come to distinguish between the generally hard-working, smart, and idealistic TFA classroom teachers, and a national organization that is as sophisticated, slippery, and media savvy as any group I have ever written about.” – Barbara Miner, Rethinking Schools, 2010
This is the story in her own words:
“One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” An incredible promise and motto. I heard it and was immediately hooked – I wanted to Teach For America; I wanted to give other children the same thing I had been given – an excellent education, something every person should have access to.
Curious about exactly what to expect as a Teach For America corps member, I started asking friends what they knew about the organization. I did some Google searches, talked with some former and current corps members, and decided to apply. Everything I heard was so positive – Teach For America was known for recruiting the most promising young leaders in the nation and placing them in classrooms across the nation that would be otherwise un-staffed.
I applied in November and in January was informed that I had been accepted and would be teaching middle school science. In June I flew to my assigned region to meet the TFA staff and begin my training. It was an exciting time, but part of the training felt strange to me. I remember in particular being told that if a principal asked me where I saw myself in two years (when my contract with TFA was up), that I should not give my real plans but instead make it sound like I planned to stay in education longer.
Despite my immediate ethical questioning, I remained silent and went on to the next phase of training – a five-week teacher boot camp. During this camp I was assigned to teach Algebra, despite my mathematical deficiencies (I got a D+ in the only math class I took in college). I was immediately thrown into a classroom teaching summer school. I hardly slept for those five weeks since every night was spent trying to learn the content and then figure out how to explain a concept I had just taught myself. The education I gave my students was far from excellent, but I was assured that I was progressing on track.
Upon returning to my assigned region, I did not find the job I had been promised. Instead, I found headlines announcing that the school district had laid off hundreds of employees just weeks before school started. Nervous about what this meant for me, I contacted TFA and was assured that I would have a job. Hundreds of fully certified, experienced teachers were out of jobs, but me, an untrained novice teacher would have a position. It didn’t make sense to me. I waited two weeks. School started. And I waited another two weeks. Then the phone call came – I was going to start teaching on Monday, but I would not find out what I would teach until I showed up.
It was a bittersweet moment. It felt good to know I finally had a concrete job. But at the same time, I was intimidated by my assignment. Every day the school would produce some headline story. “Security guard thrown down stairs.” “Gang fights break out.” “Continued police action.” The school, which last year was one of the best in the district, grew from a population of 600 students last year to over 1,600. Rival schools were combined. And budget cuts led to the closing of the alternative high school. The result was a violent explosion within the halls of one of the city’s education landmarks.
Thinking I was fully aware of the circumstance, I did my best to prepare throughout the weekend. I crafted a lesson that could be adapted to multiple grade levels and subjects since the building houses 7-12 grades. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found when I arrived. I must admit that I was naively excited about my first day of school. After all, I had been accepted into Teach For America in January and since then had been focused on preparing for my students. This was supposed to be a big moment for me. I finally was making my dream a reality.
When I arrived at the school on Monday morning and introduced myself, a man without introduction quickly walked me to a classroom and handed me a slip of paper stating which periods I would have students and that the title of the course was “Ramp Up Lit 8”. I had no clue what that meant. But before I could ask questions, the man was gone and I was alone in the room.
I surveyed the space, wondering how in the world I was going to make it look and feel like a safe learning environment. The walls and desks were boldly tagged with sexually explicit messages, catching your eye the moment you walked into the room. Most of the cabinets had their handles torn off, and the fronts from all the drawers were missing. The classroom appeared to have been used as a storage room for the school, with half the space being filled with stacks of tables, desks, and chairs. Scattered through the furniture were shards of broken glass, presumably from a fight which had broken out earlier. I quickly went about setting the desks into rows – fixing the upturned furniture and sorting out the broken pieces. Wondering how long I had until students arrived, I realized the classroom was equipped with a clock that could not keep time and was without a phone. I was completely isolated.
As students filed in, a nightmare began to unfold. Since school had started two weeks earlier, the students already had their routine down – they had disrespected substitutes and taken control of the room, turning it into the war zone I saw when I walked through the door. I had no class roster, so I had no way of knowing which students were actually supposed to be in my room or how many to expect. As though rehearsed, when asked for names, each student repeated the same false name and offered explicit commentary on me as a teacher (“I bet your boyfriend loves to f*** you up,” “How often does he f*** you?”, “I would tap that”) and what they were going to do to me (“You won’t make it a week, we’ll make sure of that,” “We will run you out one way or another”).
During fourth period, things escalated. Nearly 35 students marched into my room (only 24 were registered for the class), each daring me to try to take control. As I started trying to teach, a student slipped out of his desk and turned off the lights in the room. Having no windows, the room became pitch black. Screams and horrific noises immediately filled the air. I ran to the light switch to turn the lights on and discovered a large student standing in front of it that I had to physically fight to turn the lights back on. When I did, I found a scene of chaos. Students had been throwing desks, punching each other, and had taken everything from my desk and thrown it on the floor. I was outraged and made that clear to my students. However, they were unaffected. Ten minutes later, the exact same scene played out. Unsure what to do, I announced that the rest of the class time would be spent in silence and that students would be dismissed to lunch five minutes late. The class erupted in laughter. There was no silent time. And though I stood in front of the door at the dismissal bell, the students charged out, shoving me out of the way and partially trampling me.
I was determined to make the next day better. I explained what had happened to the principal, and he advised me to keep my cell phone on me at all times so if a problem arose I could quickly call for security. Sure enough, a fight broke out the next day. I pulled out my phone, dialed security, and stepped away to break it up. Three large security officers reported to my room. Yet that did nothing but escalate the problem – my students rose to their feet and began yelling at the officers who soon left my room without resolving the conflict. As the door closed behind them, I realized my cell phone had been stolen. Once again I was without protection as the class erupted into chaos. Fortunately, the principal, walking by and hearing the riot within my room, walked in and immediately expelled a student who was throwing a desk.
My ears were burning from the unthinkable profanities my students were yelling at me, from the sexual harassment I was receiving from my students, and from the literal threats that had been made against me and my life. But I was not a quitter and was determined to make things work.
Day three. My alarm went off at 4:30 and my body ached from the abuses of the previous two days. I snoozed for another half an hour before getting out of bed and beginning the preparations for the day. I got cleaned up. Ran to the store to grab some supplies I needed for the day and got to school early to once again, clean up my classroom and get set up for the day. Today was going to be a good day. We had finally gotten the curriculum for the course and I felt confident that things were going to turn around. They had to.
Once again, the day erupted into chaos the second my students arrived. A fight broke out in the hall outside my door and was moved into my room. It was a bad start to the day yet I persisted. My students fought me each step of the way though – they were out of the seats and in my face, refusing to participate or comply. Then the door opened and in walked a security guard, the principal, and the superintendent. While those three stood in the back of my room, the class became magically manageable. It was a glimmer of hope. But my heart recoiled as they walked out after a few short minutes. And the riot resumed. No more than fifteen minutes later, a storm knocked out the power and my room was once again thrown into darkness and violence. Remembering the horror of two days earlier, I tried to regain control of the room. I pulled out my new cell phone and used it as a light at the front of the room as I yelled instructions to the class. The power was restored right as a student, no more than five feet away from me, threw a chair at me. It hit with remarkable force, nicking my knee and sending immediate pain up and down my leg.
After lunch, I once again put on a smile and attempted to make the best of the situation. My fifth period was by far my most out of control class. I knew that if I could hold on through that hour, I would be okay for the rest of the day. But as students began their usual routine of taunting and challenging, the image of the chair flying at me came back to my mind. My ears rang with the voice yelling, “Yo, you stupid. Shut up. If I had a gun I would shut you up forever.” And another warning, “You better watch you back because if I get the chance, I will rape you.” At that point, there was no fighting it. Tears welled up in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks.
I had cried several times during the preceding days, but never in front of my students. And I knew immediately it was a mistake. “Oh, the baby is crying.” “Just can’t take it.” “Stupid white girl, go back where you’re from.” “You’re gonna cry over this?” “Just wait until you see what’s coming next!” “Boo hoo, like we care!”
I was sobbing. I was exhausted. I was defiled. I was terrified. And I was done. I went to the 8th grade administrator’s office and told him that I needed to resign.
When I reported what had happened to TFA, they said they understood me taking the afternoon off but that I had to return to my classroom the next day. I refused. I told my supervisor that I could not go back in there. She said I had two days to think things through. When we met again, I was offered a different position within the same school. I once again rejected, since I would not have any protection from the students who had terrorized me. She said that my contract did not make allowance for my requests and I needed to get back to work. Our conversation concluded with me saying I wanted and needed out of Teach For America.
I flew home the next day to be with my family. I spent days staring at the wall, terrified to leave my house. I could not handle being alone or being in the dark – I slept with the lights on and woke myself up screaming in response to nightmares of my students finding me. I was destroyed.
I decided to write a blog post explaining to my family and friends in accurate detail what had happened. In an unbelievable disregard for my first amendment rights, TFA threatened to sue me if I didn’t remove the blog post immediately. Suddenly I realized why my initial research of the organization seemed so positive. TFA also informed me that since I had left the corps without a legitimate reason, I had 30 days to pay back all funds that I had received. In addition, they said that since I had left the corps, they were in no way responsible for what happened to me and I was on my own. They concluded that I was to blame for my violent classroom.
It has now been three weeks since I walked out of my classroom, but I still feel trapped in the situation. The nightmares are real. The constant fear is inhibiting. And I have found that I am not alone in my experience. As documented by Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri in her book, Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher, hundreds and hundreds of Teach For America recruits have faced the same nightmare as me.
Yet, somehow, TFA continues to have an untarnished reputation. Corps members, afraid of what will happen if they speak out, remain silent as the organization grows into a force to be reckoned with. This last year, TFA received $165 million in donations from the government and private donors who believe the organization is bringing an excellent education to students who would otherwise be without teachers. This is far from the reality. Our country is seeing an educational revolution where certified and experienced teachers are being replaced by novices who are cheaper, perpetuating the very problem TFA claims to be solving.
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