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Commentary: A lesson Teach for America didn't intend

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2010 - I was recently handed an extremely prestigious piece of paper. Now I will move back home, unemployed, and without any immediate promise of higher education.

“It’s a very hard time,” people tell me.  “I don’t envy your position,” they say hesitantly.  “Things were very different when I graduated.”

To be honest, I applied only to very selective post-graduate programs: Teach for America, an internship at National Public Radio, a tutoring position with a top Boston charter school. And why not? I had high marks, a strong dedication to public service. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, and if I was accepted into a program for the best of the best, there was no cost to pursuing the opportunity.

This is the problem with my amazing liberal arts education: I don’t know what I want. Neither did Kathleen, a second-year Teach for America corps member whose service I have been following for the past semester.

The two-year Teach for America program trains recent college graduates and sends them into underperforming K-12 classrooms as full-time teachers. The organization says it works to build a force of future leaders dedicated to addressing the challenges facing children in low-income communities. Their hope is that one day these individuals will have a long-term impact on the achievement gap.

It took only minutes in Kathleen’s classroom before I realized the life I could have led. She may possess youth, a strong work ethic and all the advice of previous corps members, but her students are still being failed.  In Kathleen’s first class, one girl fell asleep, six others seemed on the verge, and “look awake, be awake” was a necessary constant refrain.

In the same hour, one student received a written warning for not spitting out her gum when asked multiple times and another student told Kathleen to “take a chill pill” because she was reading the lesson’s answers too quickly. This same student repeatedly threw his pencil up and down in the air, called out during the period, and passed several minutes lying across his chair on his back.

What Kathleen and I had both envisioned in this program is not true in practice. Based on what I saw, Teach for America is not providing long-term solutions for education in its individual teacher placements, even if those teachers are handpicked, trained through a five-week intensive institute, and enrolled in Masters of Education courses.

To me, Teach for America isn't really focused on Kathleen’s current classroom. Rather, the organization seems to want Kathleen’s stomach to churn until she deeply understands that something needs to be done to improve education for needy students in this country. Then, one day, people like top-educated Kathleen, who sign up for Teach for America — perhaps on a whim — will provide real change, policy change.

When Kathleen finishes her corps service this June, she will be in much the same position that I find myself: uncertain. She thinks she may want to continue with teaching or perhaps move back to her childhood hometown for work.

Kathleen has had a whirlwind two years of service, and they will certainly be impressive to future employers and graduate schools. She is prepared to work under high-pressure situations where a successful outcome is contingent upon focus and dedication. She is ready to work hard for causes that are important to her, regardless of respect issues, fatigue and slow progress. Teach for America is a gauntlet and those who emerge are equipped to make an impact in education or in service of whatever may be their passion.

I deeply admire Kathleen’s perseverance, but I have come to realize that what is right for me is not the ordinary path of the unsure college graduate. I won’t be taking a position just to have a job; I won’t be doing service just to place it on my resume; and I won’t move on to higher education just because a school could accept me.

This next year is about exploring my passions. It will be hard to be on my own, to not have a stable status, and to not be able to answer that question: “What will you be doing next year?”

But I’d rather spend time mentoring young writers, taking high schoolers on an outdoor trip, volunteering with a professional soccer team, and working as a dog sledding guide. Through my independence, my exploration and my curiosity, I’ll begin to find my way.

Then maybe I’ll have some idea of what I want. For now.

Rebecca Heymann just graduated from Washington University. 

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