June 3, 2012 By HDS in Immigration, Teach for America Tags: 14th amendment, achievement gap, alabama democrats, alabama politics, alabama republicans, alabama state, alabama state legislature, barack obama, border, discrimination, divided we educate, draining the economy, DREAM Act, education, education reform, educational inequity, hernandez d. stroud, hernandez stroud, illegal aliens, illegal immigration, illegals, immigration, interview, jim crow, juan crow, mickey hammon, plyler v. doe, public education, robert bentley, scott beason, stealing services, supreme court education, supreme court illegal immigration, teach for america, teach for america application, teach for america application process, teach for america lesson, teach for america process, teach for american interview, tfa institute, undocumented, undocumented students, undocumented students access to college
“What we need are teachers who don’t make excuses,” said Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “I don’t want to hear about bureaucracy. We have always had bureaucracies…We are looking for people who say ‘I can teach a rock to read.’…If it is not the right place for you, then you should find another place to go.”
Attending a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania on how to improve the educational outcomes of men of color, I was stunned in what I saw and heard from our nation’s top education leader.
Ackerman’s churlish response to a fellow Teach for America teacher who inquired about how to provide meaningful education while juggling the pressures of the School District to increase test scores made one thing clear to me: the state of education in America is in peril.
As a Philadelphia teacher, few of my colleagues can seek to empower students to think critically or to be fierce, independent social scholars. Instead, most of us are relegated to teaching strategies, tips, and tricks on selecting the best answer on a multiple-choice exam. In short, we treat students like stagecrafts, training them to do precisely what we say, not to think incisively and critically for themselves. When did education become this way?
Watching President Obama’s State of the Union, I was inspired in his rightful elevation of teachers. I thought, “Finally, teachers will be valued more than low-skilled workers and technicians!” Yet, reflecting on his policies and goals, I began to question the purpose of education under an Obama administration.
Schools and their districts are held accountable through standardized testing performance. Schools must “meet” certain scores to be rewarded or simply remain in the clear, and if they fail to provide evidence of progress, then heads fly.
Now, I’m confident that no one disagrees with the concept of accountability. After all, it gives us peace at night to know without a doubt that our students and children are learning and making progress. But, are our students learning and making progress meaningfully?
While I am an avid supporter of President Obama, his policies are not conducive to meaningful education for students.
Education must stimulate students to think provocatively on their own. It must enable young minds to engage in complex and sometimes controversial discourse on any given topic. Education must immerse students in the deepest of problems, and we must provide them with the tools to adequately evaluate and ameliorate those challenges. This is the only road to true freedom, growth, and self-discovery in our ever-increasingly competitive country and world. This is, and should be, the principle purpose of education.
Instead, we have teachers acting and reading from scripts like robots. We have students mindlessly completing copious amounts of worksheets only to prepare for exams and receive letter grades that do not reflect a true education. And, how dare we wonder why the education field fails to attract high-achieving minds…
For a president so fixated on the ideals of democracy at its core, and a president that is my greatest role model, I fear that Obama’s education policies are unfortunately off-the-mark and not in the best interest of our children’s futures. Make no mistake: Obama’s education reforms will do little to improve the education of our country.
I want my students to think critically and rise above the confines of their own selves to promote the general welfare. I want them to lead a nation that is able to ask what they can do for their country without seeking to advance their own self-interests. I want them to be more than simply intelligent, but to also possess character, integrity, and leadership. And, like our president, I want for them, most of all, to fulfill their lifelong ambitions and God-given potential to reach the highest positions that our country and world has to offer.
If our students and children are only able to postulate answers to mindless multiple-choice testing drills, then I’m afraid my dreams will only be in the potential and promise of our democracy and never in the realities of our time. Worse, my students’ dreams will never be reachable.
This is not the purpose of education. We are better than this, America. It is imperative that we restore an education system that truly operates in the best interest of our posterity and nation.
And, by the way, how do you teach a rock how to read?
So, hopefully, you’re interested in applying for the highly competitive Teach for America program, right?
Well, before you apply, truly consider to yourself how committed you are to teaching, and teaching in a challenging environment. Do you want truly want to stand in the front a classroom? Do you even like children? Do you mind working in extremely challenging situations?
Or, explain concepts to students who may be grade levels behind their appropriate levels? Well, this is what it may mean to be a part of this huge honor. I think you should throw notions of patriotism, service, meeting new people, using TFA as a stepping stone to graduate schools or future employment, politics, or any other trivial reason away. My belief is anyone that’s considering applying for this program needs to legitimately and thoroughly question their devotion and mental/emotion fitness and capacity to teach in our country’s most challenging schools.
Don’t apply to this program solely because you’re not sure what to do after college, because it’d look great on your resume (because it does), because you’ve never failed at anything (because you just might), or because it’d be the perfect buffer zone (or stepping stone) between graduate school, or the real world, and college.
Now that that’s squared away, and if I haven’t deterred you from applying to TFA, I’ll explain my personal journey to being accepted.
MY TEACH FOR AMERICA APPLICATION PROCESS
- ONLINE APPLICATION. Initially, the TFA application process seems fairly standard and typical. You’re required to submit an essay (letter of intent), a resume, two (2) recommendations, provide a reference, and answer a few questions online. This initial application is very straightforward; however, I encourage you to have your letter of intent proofread, and then proofread again.
- LETTER OF INTENT. In your letter of intent, discuss quantifiable AND attainable goals of what YOU want to and can actually accomplish as a teacher in YOUR personal classroom or school setting. Far too often, I believe, many applicants become so concerned with portraying this grandiose, sublime image of ending educational inequity in our country. Is that the goal? Absolutely. But, you can’t single-handedly do it. Imagine yourself on the other side of the table: how would you want a potential teacher to convince you if he/she is a fit for the program. In your personal letter of intent, it will seem more genuine and honest if you talk about what you can actually do if accepted into the program, which is make a difference in AT LEAST one classroom, school, or community. Look at the problems that students typical of schools and classrooms where TFA are placed and discuss what you can do to ameliorate those conditions.
- After a weeklong period of ripping your application to shreds in examining if you’re a potential TFA corps member or not, you may be invited to participate in a 30-minute telephone interview, or advanced directly to the final “in-person” interview, which is what happened to me. I’ve known people who have advanced directly to the final round that were not accepted, and I’ve known people who went through every stage of the application process that was ultimately accepted: that being said, don’t question the potency of your candidacy too much if you’re not advanced to the final round and don’t get your hopes up too much if you are advanced directly to the final round.
- 30-MINUTE TELEPHONE INTERVIEW. How exciting! You’ve made it to the next step of becoming a TFA corps member. In this stage of the interview, and I’d like to reiterate that I did not participate in the telephone interview, but I did talk folks that did, as well as researched it when I was applying, you’re required to read two readings. My two reading were about the achievement gap (between white and black, rich and poor), educational inequity, and typical problems facing the great American school system (“great” clearly denotes sarcasm). My thinking is that this telephone interview should be more of a conversation about YOUR thoughts than an interrogation and you spouting off random facts. Everyone has the same set of readings; however, do your best to promote your thoughts on the readings in an intelligent, mannered, and concise fashion. Additionally, you’ll be asked some questions about the rest of your application and yourself. Just be calm. Don’t freak out too much if you don’t think you’re as eloquent and savvy an interviewee as you believe you should be. One thing I’d encourage you to do from the beginning of your application process is to remain consistent. If you discuss things in your letter of intent, make sure that you reinforce those same ideas, same notions, and same feelings in the final stages of your application process.
- FINAL INTERVIEW. Now, if you’ve progressed to the final interview, you’ve done quite well. Congratulations. But, the time to celebrate is not now. You’ve got much to prepare for. At this point in the application process, they’ve dwindled your specific application pool down to the best of the best. Everyone is just as qualified and passionate as you, if not more.
Preparing for the final interview requires you to be FULLY conscious and aware of what Teach for America is looking for in its corps. You must know the TFA vision, too. Well, if you turn to a reliable source that you always depend on for answers, Google, and ask “What does Teach for America looks for”, or simply revert to the TFA website, you’ll see that they tell you EXACTLY what they’re looking for in a corps member. They don’t care if you’re the sharpest tool in the shed (the smartest), if you’ve ended world hunger and poverty, or if you’ve been President of the United States of America (Now, I’m sure they’d care if you are or have done any of these things); but, the point is that they evaluate applicants on a case-by-case basis, and on the strength of how badly and sincerely an applicant wants to end educational inequity in America. Review the list of what they’re looking for (http://www.teachforamerica.org)
- Demonstrated past leadership and achievement: achieving ambitious, measurable results in academic, professional, extracurricular, or volunteer settings
- Unrelenting perseverance in the face of challenges
- Strong critical thinking skills: making accurate linkages between cause and effect and generating relevant solutions to problems
- Proven ability to influence and motivate others
- Superior organizational ability: planning well, meeting deadlines, and working efficiently
- Utmost respect for students and families in low-income communities
- Thorough understanding of and desire to work relentlessly in pursuit of our vision
Now, what can you expect for the final interview? Well, first, get there at least 30 minutes early. You don’t want to scramble around or walk in late. After all, what looks worse than applying for a job, where you’re expected to be on time daily as a teacher (an example), than walking into an interview late? In fact, if you walk in late, just don’t bother going in at all because everyone in the applicant pool is highly qualified. What makes you so qualified that you’d be chosen over someone with comparable strengths who was on time?
Upon arriving at the host interview site, I was very nervous. I wanted to make sure I had everything that I had prepared. I walked into a group of people who were chattering about their lessons and the program and how difficult it was to get into: don’t let this phase you. You know how it is before you take a test and everyone begins to spout off facts just loudly enough where you can be intimidated by them even though it’s not a competition and they end up failing miserably, or at least doing poorer than you.
We walked into a small classroom and sat around an elongated, oval table. There were about 10-12 of us from all over the state of Alabama. We were about 60-65% female with males in the minority. There were 3 people of color. The first thing that we’re told is that we’re not competing against each other, which is difficult to swallow, because you see these other folks that are fighting to become a part of the corps just like you. But, I was able to rationalize it because “final interview day” takes place all across the country. And, if I’m accurate, you’re scored with numerical values, not ranked with the people you interviewed with. You’re scored on how well you do as a personal application and the corporate office makes the final decision.
Next, we gave our five-minute lessons. This was probably the most challenging aspect of the interview, or the application process itself, other than waiting to hear if you’ve made it to the next stage or not. For your lesson, it doesn’t matter WHAT you teach or if it’s what you indicated on your application that you preferred to teach: teach something that you can explain and have proof that your students can learn in five minutes. I’d encourage you to have a visual, a game, or a prop: be interactive. There is nothing more effective than hands-on, firsthand experience. Only for the purposes of keeping the application process as fair as possible, I won’t divulge my particular lesson, but I stated the objective of the lesson, taught my objective, did a hands-on activity to reinforce my objective, called on students to check for understanding, simulated the hands-on activity again, and finally, had them explain the objective all in five minutes. When you’re planning your lesson, be sure to practice, practice, practice. Don’t be intimated by everyone else, because you’re not competing with them. Be prepared for predictable questions. Smile. Be nice and make eye contact with your pupils (who are the other interviewees and the interviewers)
For the remainder of the interview, you’ll hear honest accounts of Teach for America from the interviewers, who were corps members themselves years ago. My interviewers were extremely warm and nice; although, because interviews are national on that day, they had to remain as calibrated as possible to ensure fairness and consistency so much of what they said was from a script, except for their honest accounts and experiences of TFA. You’ll also participate in a group problem-solving activity and an individual, short problem-solving test. In your group activity, make sure you JUST make a few important points that portray your leadership. Leadership isn’t about being the person with the most to say. It’s about saying a few things and getting out of the way to listen to others. I think I only made 2 or 3 points, but I nodded and acknowledged others points that I agreed with and took notes. Don’t try to take over.
After all of this, you’ll do lunch and then have your one-on-one interview. For this interview, again, your interviewer will be reading from a script and typing/writing your responses, so don’t be freaked out if he/she seems disingenuous or unimpressed. Now is the time that you exemplify everything that TFA wants. With every question, make it an effort to portray those qualities that they’re looking for. For example, relentlessness: I ran for president of my student body to a popular incumbent, a very politically savvy and charming individual, and a girl who had run for student government office more years and semesters than all candidates had been in college combined. My opponents were all upperclassmen and I was the sole underclassman. The deck was obviously stacked against me, and I lost by 20 some odd votes to make it into the run-off election. I debated quitting student government, and I was disappointed, but I persevered and the subsequent year, I was elected as president with 73 percent of the vote. And, I went on to champion a great list of things. Now, I don’t mention this to brag or score points with you or anyone, but because I didn’t give up when it was hard, when it was tough, I was able to withstand adversity and do fantastic things. This is an example of perseverance and relentlessness.
TFA knows who it wants and as long as you embody each point on that list, you’ll have a shot. After my final interview, I was relieved to find that I was placed in Philadelphia, number 3 on my list of highly preferred placement sites, and that I’d be teaching secondary social studies, which is exactly what I preferred. This is a tough program to be admitted to, with an acceptance rate comparable to Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but if you’re authentically interested in being a part of solving a national catastrophe, the new civil rights battle of our time, that what income bracket you’re born into, unfortunately and unfairly, determines if you have access to good schooling or not, then please consider joining TFA. Just because that’s not your child failing and inadequately educated, it still affects you. We need all the help we can get.
If you have any questions about applying or need any further advice or help, please don’t hesitate to contact me.