TFA’s Diversity Dilemma

EduShyster’s D-list reformer gives TFA props for diversifying—but says the organization still treats corps members like they come from privilege  

By *The 49er*
tfa diverseI have a confession to make: I was a Teach for America (TFA) teacher (or corps member as TFA calls its teachers, since just plain teacher is considerably less sexy). While that gives me major points among the reform crowd, it taints my image among many non-TFA educators. While there are many criticisms of TFA that I happen to agree with, I give TFA credit for working to improve as an organization. This week TFA announced that it has made significant strides in increasing the diversity of its corps. I salute them for addressing the lack of teachers who come from communities of color—but the fat lady hasn’t quite sung on this play yet.

Diversity counts
First a little background. Since most corps members teach students of color, TFA has made a big push in recent years to recruit more candidates from diverse backgrounds to join the corps. Dr. Andre Perry details the results of TFA’s efforts here, noting that TFA is beginning to reflect the population it serves. One third of the new corps members are the first in their families to attend college. This year’s corps is also older; one third of the new corps members identify as post-college professionals. But changing the makeup of the corps may have been the easy part.  TFA also has to change to meet the needs and demands of its new recruits—and based on what my sources tell me—and on the number of corps members and Institute staff who quit this summer—TFA still has a long way to go.

Back to school
I know that many readers of this blog lampoon the fact that a teacher can be ready to teach after only four weeks in front of students (the first week of Institute is focused on learning how to lesson plan along with other survival skills), but TFA’s fast-track training approach means that the pace of Institute is grueling. If it’s barely survivable by 20-somethings, imagine how it feels for older recruits, some of whom have families in tow. Getting used to being back in a dorm room, surrounded by the fresh-out-of-college set is the least of it. Institute also puts a significant financial burden on corps members, especially those with family members.

futureMoney matters
While TFA will provide housing for corps members traveling with a family, they only cover some of the costs. This reality means that corps member must work 12 to 15 hour days without pay while still having to support their kids. (Most corps members don’t get a salary until their first paycheck from their placement school comes in August or September.) Loans are available but often are not enough. To add to the complications, most corps members attend Institute in a different city than their placement school. Therefore, corps members typically have to move a number of times over the summer. For corps members with families, it’s chaotic.

Adjustments needed
TFA has not adjusted its cultural pedagogy to teach new teachers who are not white. From my conversations with people in charge of diversity programming at institutes from across the country, TFA did nothing to change its style of Institute to reflect that they were recruiting different people. Providing classroom management examples that are overly stereotypical and treat diverse corps members as though their personal experiences are worthless isn’t helpful. Informing a privileged white teacher about the differences in urban students is one thing; informing a teacher that came from that background is simply offensive especially when most of the trainers themselves did not come from that background. Just as students from different backgrounds learn in different ways, new teachers are going to learn in different ways as well and it matters who trains the new teachers.

usbTech shortage
Getting through Institute without a laptop is virtually impossible. But new corps members who showed up without their own computer had to rely on a single overcrowded computer lab that didn’t meet their demands. By failing to address a basic problem (or assuming that all corps members can take care of their own tech needs regardless of their backgrounds), TFA failed to set up its newest members for success.

Real steps needed
TFA has indeed taken some steps in the right direction here, but the task isn’t over. Properly supporting this different corps is going to be essential to their success in the classroom. Hopefully, TFA will be reflective on the challenges they face this year and work to improve their training to reflect that they are recruiting a different type of teacher for our urban students.

*The 49er* is the moniker of a D-List education reformer and a regular contributor to Send comments to


  1. Sorry, The 49er, I don’t hope for any of the things you do. TFA just needs to fold its tent and go away. Being “reflective on the challenges they face this year and work to improve their training” isn’t enough.

    Our most needy students deserve real teachers with real course work in pedagogy, child and adolescent development and psychology, and in subject matter. All newbie teachers need a mentoring situation with an experienced teacher as mentor, extended over a long time frame – at least a fulltime placement for a complete semester.

    As for folks with families who sign up for TFA, not a good choice. TFA may be “all about the kids”, but those are other people’s kids.

    These are amateurs at teacher training. We have capable professionals who have done the work for a long, long time. Don’t try this at home.

  2. Hey, Christine. Which are teacher training’s capable professionals? I’d love to see some evidence for who does a good job at it.

  3. I can definitely relate to the career changers you mentioned. I already had a bachelor’s degree in another field. So when I decided to leave a corporate job to become a teacher, I went back to school for two additional years and had to survive. At that time teaching credentials mattered, so I had to get the coursework that I had not had. Being able to TFA one’s way into the classroom wasn’t an option. At the time, I remember thinking it was “silly,” and I was sure I already knew what to do; I mean, how hard could it be? But all these years later, I know much better than that now. There is much to the field of education and always something to learn.

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