Committed to excellence: KAPPA IV sixth-graders with teacher Baranpuria. Frank Fournier
Committed to excellence: KAPPA IV sixth-graders with teacher Baranpuria. Frank Fournier

Teaching for America, Training for Life

Appealing to the desire to make a difference and enjoying an enviable cachet, Teach For America has become the employer of choice for more and more Duke students.
January 31, 2008

It's still dark, just after six in the morning, when Alex Baranpuria, dressed sharply in a red shirt, matching red tie, and black slacks, packs up a bagel with tofu, grabs the A train from Fulton Street in New York's downtown Financial District, and heads up to 125th Street. From there it's a quick subway transfer to 135th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. Just across the street from the subway stop is St. Nicholas Park; St. Nicholas, the patron saint of Dutch New Amsterdam, is also the patron saint of children. Facing the park is a middle school, which inhabits a building of generic-schoolhouse red brick relieved by some imposing entrance columns, called KAPPA IV.

Baranpuria '06 is in his second year with Teach For America, now the largest employer of recent Duke graduates. Formerly on a firm pre-med path, he teaches sixth-grade science at KAPPA IV, the fourth iteration of a model school begun by a Teach For America alumnus. The school's principal, Briony Carr, is a product of the New York City Teacher Fellows program, which is roughly equivalent to TFA. She says nothing discourages Baranpuria, adding that she often leaves late in the evening and finds him still working on student assignments and lesson plans. "You can feel his passion when you walk into his room"—a passion for his subject matter and his students alike.

The school places unusual expectations on students and their parents, including an extended school day, from 7:30 in the morning until four o'clock, two days a week. And it offers unusual opportunities, among them, field trips to colleges that are meant to excite interest in higher education. A "Commitment to Excellence" contract is signed by the parent, teacher, and student during orientation for incoming sixth-graders; it commits students to exemplifying scholarly behavior. KAPPA is an inner-city school, but it's far from a typical inner-city school.

Between-class counseling: Baranpuria checks in with a student. Frank Fournier

Teach For America teachers like Baranpuria build on the legacy of Wendy Kopp; as a senior at Princeton University, she wrote a thesis that was the starting idea for TFA. From its origins in 1990, it now has a nationwide scope, with Kopp as chief executive. Corps members work in urban and rural areas identified by the organization as showing an appreciable gap in educational achievement. They are paid directly by their school districts and receive the same salaries and benefits as other beginning teachers. In its publicity, the organization says the salary ranges from $25,000 in rural areas to $44,000 in cities. That's hardly in the same universe as salaries for novices in investment banking. But TFA is a member of AmeriCorps, the national service network funded by the government, and corps members enjoy student-loan forbearance and receive stipends toward education expenses.

New recruits go through a five-week summer institute, which includes practice teaching, coaching, and discussion of classroom practices. They're hired by school districts through state-approved alternative-certification programs. Most of those programs require new teachers to take courses toward official certification.

Given the fervor of their commitment and the challenge of the work, TFA corps members might find solace in the slogans that fill the hallways of Baranpuria's school. Signs promote success through effort—"Give the world the best you have and the best will come back to you"; "Success is measured by the willingness to keep trying." There is also a nutrition chart, explaining the benefits of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Alongside it is a drug-information chart, summarizing the effects of stimulants, steroids, and hallucinogens. A more engaging visual display is a photo gallery of the students. The majority of the students are Hispanic; most of the rest are African American.

After he greets the security guard at the building's entrance, Baranpuria, an avid runner, finds a serious hike, five flights up to his science classroom (there's no elevator). Room 505 has the familiar features of science instruction: a small library of biology, chemistry, and earth-science textbooks; posters describing forms of energy; a model of the solar system; a model of the anatomy of a frog.

The students walk silently to their seats and remain standing; they place green binders on the table in front of them and slip their backpacks underneath. Then Baranpuria leads them in a science chant. Shouting six-graders don't exactly perform in harmonious unison, and the chant is hard to make out, but it begins: "Science explains how things are/Like food in digestion and gas in your car." It goes on to name some scientists, notably including women, and ends, in a collective assertion of self-worth, "Through knowledge and wit, I will be able to rise."

Self-worth is clearly a guiding theme in Baranpuria's classroom. Even as the students are filing in, he's calling out supportively: "Vanessa's doing her job—beautiful." "Thank you for being so quick and efficient." "A minute and forty-five, and Rayshawn is ready to go." "Excellent job, scholars."

Friction is the day's lesson for Baranpuria's three classes. He makes each table a demonstration station. Students rotate from station to station. They roll a toy car along a rug fragment, for example, or drop balls down inclined planes that are smooth and polished and, alternatively, coated with sticky vegetable shortening. One student solemnly expresses concern to a class visitor over New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's idea to impose a Halloween curfew. Still, he and his peers are uniformly upbeat about a class with a hands-on approach to studying science—including, earlier in the school year, growing mold on bread.

For the lesson on friction, two classroom stations are set aside for special purposes. One is covered with cookies and donut holes provided by Baranpuria. It's meant to celebrate students who have earned a "VIP Card" for solid performance in meeting academic expectations. The other has the students learning about consensus-making, as they decide who at the school to reward with a public "shout-out." Recording their recommendations on Post-it notes, many of them single out Baranpuria: "Thanks 4 giving us cool experiments. U Rock." "Thanks for making science fun. Professor B., you are the best." "Prefess. B.: Thank's for running the place well." And, "Prof B., you are the best and the coolest."

During a brief pause between classes, Baranpuria talks about teaching. Teaching has been "the challenge of a lifetime," he says. But it's not just the satisfaction of performing a social service that's appealing to him; it's also the promise of instant results. TFA is very measurement-minded. The organization boasts of providing "a toolkit to help corps members create a data-driven, student-achievement-focused classroom from day one," with instructional plans tailored to state standards and the district's curriculum, diagnostic tests, and other assessment and tracking tools. Baranpuria's students know they'll be expected to master the properties of matter, the kingdoms of life, and much more. And Baranpuria knows he'll be judged on their mastery.

"I'm making such a big impact now, and I couldn't say that if I were starting med school or grad school, or working as an I-banker," he says. "I know I'm making a change in the lives of every one of these students." Those words perhaps capture a generational outlook: In a Harris Interactive poll last year, a striking 97 percent of young people declared an interest in seeking work that "allows me to have an impact on the world."

Davis: recruiting a leadership force for education. Jon Gardiner

Influencing life paths is the theme of an early-evening meeting on Duke's campus, held around the time Baranpuria is starting his semester in New York: a Teach For America recruitment event. The room in Rubenstein Hall, part of the public-policy complex, is so packed that more folding chairs have to be dragged in. The start of the program is delayed while seventy or so students stand in line to add their names to a roster of attendees. While they wait, they nibble on mini egg rolls and vegetables with dip, courtesy of the organization. Posters provided for the occasion urge them to "Join the movement to eliminate education inequality." Directly across the hall is a recruitment meeting for Goldman Sachs; by comparison, it's only modestly attended.

Goldman Sachs, though, may be a less aggressive campus recruiter than Teach For America: TFA hires students as campus campaign coordinators to spread the word, an endeavor that includes fliers, Facebook announcements, online calendar listings, Chronicle ads, table tents in dining spots, cardboard coffee-cup holders, and class presentations. Those coordinators (three in Duke's case) aren't just publicists for the organization. They're also its eyes and ears on campus, and they work to identify student leaders—perhaps too relentlessly, in the view of some targeted with the organization's onslaught of e-mail messages—who might be good corps candidates.

Caroline Davis, a TFA recruiter, begins the program with a video of corps members who celebrate "making a difference" and observe that "all college graduates are looking for a role" that makes them feel "real and alive." Davis, a 2005 graduate of Northwestern University, then outlines the challenge behind the earnest cheerleading on the video: Just one in ten students from low-income communities will graduate from college, even as some 13 million children are growing up in poverty. The idea behind Teach For America, she says, is that a "measurable impact" on those students will come from inspiring "incredible young leaders to go into the classroom." The program has grown from a few hundred members in 1990 to some 5,000 teachers in their first or second year of a two-year commitment. Its long-term strategy, she tells her audience, is to "build a leadership force with the insight and conviction to effect change" in education.

Seasoned teacher: Lakis, now in his fourth year, tells new instructors "it's completely natural to struggle." Danuta Oftinowski

She also points to pragmatic arrangements that support principled commitment to service: corporate partnerships with consulting and financial giants like McKinsey & Company, JPMorgan, and Lehman Brothers. Students who commit to Teach For America can get a deferred job offer to one of those partner organizations—with a signing bonus. Nationally, some 150 degree programs at various campuses, in areas ranging from business to social work, give special treatment to TFA veterans. Among them is Duke's Sanford Institute of Public Policy, where officials who oversee the master's program say corps members enjoy "a significant advantage in the competition for admission" and which guarantees corps alumni a minimum annual scholarship of $12,000. The institute has similar relationships with AmeriCorps/VISTA and the Peace Corps.

Teach For America says two-thirds of its former corps members are working or studying in the education field; among those in education, half are teachers. One is Andrew Lakis '04, a fourth-year teacher at Friendship Public Charter School's Woodridge Campus in Washington. (The Washington school system's superintendent is also a product of TFA.) It's a stormy fall day in Washington, and it's been a long day for Lakis: When it rains, his students get rambunctious.

Woodridge was his original placement school when he joined the corps as a fifth-grade teacher; he is now a mentor-teacher for first- and second-year teachers. He's also teaching sixth-grade social studies. When he started at Duke, Lakis was determined to go to law school, but courses in areas like social history drew him to issues of social justice. Through an education course, he tutored at a Durham elementary school; he continued as a volunteer after the course ended. He has stayed in touch with the student he tutored, now a ninth-grader.

The day after he graduated, he recalls, his grandmother said to him, "You're going to teach? I always thought you were going to amount to more than that." But at the end of his first year of teaching, in June 2005, he received a much different message when he traveled to New York to renew ties with some investment-banker friends. Lakis was fresh from the graduation ceremony of his fifth-graders; the I-bankers were fresh from receiving word of their $30,000 performance bonuses. One of them admitted that he would gladly trade jobs with Lakis. Like Lakis, he worked hard. Unlike Lakis, he earned little satisfaction from that work. "That was a turning point" in his thinking, Lakis says.

Lakis characterizes that first year of teaching—some seventy hours a week, plus graduate classes in the evening at American University—as filled with "growing pains." He adds, "Maybe you graduated from one of the top schools of education, but for that first year, you're still starting from scratch. If you can't relate to the class, you're going to have a hard time teaching." Lakis says he felt well prepared as a corps member—to a point. "They tell you it's going to be tough. But I'm not sure that people always understand what they're getting themselves into. There were days when I questioned whether I was good enough to do it. I'd have the lesson plan in hand, and maybe I just didn't do a good job teaching it, or maybe the students would talk over me, or maybe I didn't understand where the students were coming from." He now tells starting teachers that "it's completely natural to struggle."

Part of the struggle for Lakis when he landed at Woodridge was to overcome his youthful appearance and his racial identity. As one of only three whites in the school, he recalls being introduced at a parents meeting with the school principal; after the meeting, several of the parents expressed their concern to the principal that Lakis wouldn't be able to handle the cultural differences in the classroom. But he was accustomed to a multiracial school environment, having gone to high school in High Point, North Carolina, with a predominantly African-American student body, and then having taught in the Durham school system. In his Duke studies, he focused on African-American history and social movements.

In a letter to the school principal, one parent wrote about Lakis, "The first day of school I took a look at him and said that he looked like the kids were going to run all over him. I was very concerned about my child being in his class and was ready to pull him out." But she quickly revised her early impression, and, she added, "By mentoring and tutoring my child almost daily, he took [a student] with very low self-esteem and coached him to the point where he was on the principal's honor roll all year."

Without Teach For America, many young people would never be drawn to teaching, Lakis says. But the organization has changed, he adds—perhaps inevitably, as it's grown more complex, more influential, and more marketing-savvy. "It's a machine. The idealist in me wishes it were more of a grassroots organization. But it's a machine."

Duke's aspiring corps members, as they confront the Teach For America machine, find themselves again in a version of the college-admissions competition. In 2006-07, there were 149 applicants from Duke; 38 percent were accepted into the program, compared with 21 percent nationwide. The hike in interest is impressive over just a short period: In 2004-05, Duke produced ninety-five applicants.

Sheila Curran, Duke's director of career services, says TFA's program outshines that of not only other nonprofits but of heavyweight corporate recruiters as well. "They've built the brand," as she puts it. "They're competitive, and they're now going after the same people the investment banks and consulting firms are going for. Teach For America has become a prestigious alternative."

Over two consecutive days this fall, New York Times columnists attached themselves to the program: David Brooks ruminated on a new post-adolescent, self-discovery or "odyssey" phase that feeds into some social institutions, including Teach For America. And Thomas L. Friedman wrote about "Generation Q," the "Quiet Americans," quietly pursuing their ideals at home and abroad and channeling their national-service impulses into Teach For America, "which has become to this generation what the Peace Corps was to mine." According to Curran, even those who don't accord it prestige or root it in idealism recognize Teach For America as "mainstream," meaning that parents, who might otherwise discourage their Duke-educated children from entering a presumably low-status field, find it acceptable.

Summers in South Dakota: balancing the demands of the profession. Matt Miller / Omaha World-Herald

An effective element of TFA's smart recruiting strategy, Curran says, is a rolling-admission approach: Students are accepted into the program at different points in the academic year, meaning that they can encourage their peers to check out the organization for which they've developed such enthusiasm. And Caroline Davis' frequent presence on campus as a recruiter (one of sixty-four TFA recruitment directors, she says she spends half her time recruiting at Duke) makes it possible for the organization to build relationships with students.

Many college seniors look to their futures with concern and confusion. TFA addresses that issue, says Curran. "These students have a huge fear of the unknown. They have gone through life always knowing what the next step is." As they step into the TFA corps, students are rewarded with something they have come to value, Curran says—a support network. (They also plug into a website that's filled with information about the region to which they're assigned, even cost-of-living details.) Their friends are a huge part of their lives. And with their strong ties to the social network of fellow corps members—not the least of them the corps veterans who serve as regional "program directors," assigned the ongoing role of providing support, guidance, and feedback—recent graduates can feel that, in a sense, they've never left college.

In Curran's view, those students are very competitive. The fact that TFA puts applicants through so many hoops, and that it thrusts its corps members into a challenging environment, is attractive in itself. Students realize, too, that TFA can make them marketable. Employers will always look for qualities that define a teacher's role in the classroom: flexibility, innovation, cross-cultural skills, an ability to move out of a personal comfort zone, a knack for presenting effectively and clearly. Lakis, the Washington teacher, mentions getting a barrage of e-mail messages from talent-hunting consulting firms as he was completing his second, and final, year with the program.

This fall, Business Week named Teach For America one of the ten best places to begin a career. According to the magazine, "young workers view Teach For America as a valuable launching pad to an assortment of careers and paths."

Not every observer of education is quite so ready to label Teach For America a valuable launching pad. A handful of studies suggest that training and certification give novice teachers an edge in the classroom. When TFA teachers obtain certification, their students do as well as traditionally prepared teachers. But TFA teachers leave after two or three years, freshly certified and still approaching pedagogic proficiency.

One critic is Rosemary Thorne, who recently stepped down after eighteen years as head of Duke's Master of Arts in Teaching program. She says what the one-year M.A.T. can give young people—and what Teach For America can't—is a year's worth of guided training in the public schools. M.A.T. students work closely with mentor-teachers trained by Duke. Supplementing that experience is classroom exposure to basic pedagogy—how young learners acquire knowledge, how learning disabilities should be dealt with in the classroom, how schools show awareness of legal issues.

Thorne says she can understand why school districts want to hire Teach For America corps members. She has "nothing but admiration" for the graduates who enter the program and want to make a difference in the schools. They are "responding to their better angels." But, she adds, "TFA and programs like it are bad public policy."

For one thing, she's uncomfortable with TFA's aura as a kind of domestic Peace Corps, "treating our schools and our children like Third World countries. Is that how we should be thinking about them? Teach For America perpetuates the idea that teaching is not really a profession, that it is something you can drop in and do for a short time, but it is not a reasonable thing for a bright, talented, well-educated person to do over the long haul." In addition, she says, it takes five years for teachers to "really hit their stride."

What teaching needs, according to Thorne, is the sort of cultural shift that values teachers as professionals—a shift that draws the best and brightest into teaching and that encourages longevity in the classroom. By the time they reach that five-year mark, half of all teachers have gone, she says. (Some 85 percent of Duke M.A.T. graduates are still in the classroom after five years.) "I don't think Teach For America is any kind of long-term solution for the problems facing public schools." By sending the message that a corps of idealistic young people can turn public schools around, "it delays the search for a solution," she says.

Some of Thorne's concerns are echoed in the experiences of Andrew Nurkin '03, who joined Teach For America and then dropped out. Initially, Nurkin followed a typical Duke student pattern: "What got me involved was the idea that you're approaching graduation and it's not clear what you want to do. And there are posters all around campus appealing to a particular set of liberal ideas about changing the world and becoming involved in what they call the new civil-rights movement. They are advertising, in a very well-targeted way, to young people who are social-minded but haven't yet found the niche or social issue that they want to attach themselves to."

His first teaching immersion came in Houston, as part of the TFA orientation, when he began teaching English as a second language to eighth-graders. There he was hit with an instant, and unsettling, realization. "I saw that I had not acquired in my life experience what it was going to take for me to deal with what I'd have to be dealing with. And I didn't anticipate acquiring it in my five weeks of the crash course."

Corps members who have stuck with the program acknowledge the difficulties of their first year of teaching. Some who avidly blog on TFA-related websites refer to an inevitable "disillusionment phase" affecting new teachers. Classroom management is a major source of distress, they say, and new teachers come to question both their commitment and their competence. Barnapuria, in New York, revels in his ability to connect with his students. But other corps members, in their blogging, express frustration with the limited scope of their impact. One declared that "there is only so much a motivated teacher can do," adding that vouchers or an expansion of charter schools would be a better, more systemic way out of the education crisis.

The crisis was more personal for a New Jersey-based teacher, in postings to fellow corps members in late October. The blogger's lament was that "in an average day, a teacher is pulled in so many different directions that you struggle to think that you're doing anything meaningful. I feel so sorry for my students who are there to learn." An entry from another reported, "I still feel like I start every day completely unprepared for the chaos ahead. And there is really no other way to describe my classroom (and the junior high in general)…. The worst part is that life no longer really surprises me. Yesterday, we had a student arrested because he stole the principal's wallet. No big deal."

Juliet Summers '06 has moved beyond any crisis-of-confidence phase. She teaches second-grade students on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in south-central South Dakota, far removed from the urban scene but a tough area nonetheless. A few years ago, Rosebud's unemployment rate was estimated to be 85 percent; the per-capita income for the county ranked sixty-sixth out of the state's sixty-six counties. A tribal report last summer on teen suicides pointed to "poverty, depression, a lack of jobs, drugs, alcohol, and other social problems." Almost nothing grows on the land, Summers says. "There are no trees, just rolling plains for as far as you can see." She adds, "We can tell what time of year is coming by what bug we're being invaded by. Right now, it's wasp season, and later it's tick season, which is our least favorite."

Summers says her first encounters in the classroom were overwhelming. "This time last year, I was just trying to figure things out. I remember asking myself day by day, 'What can I do tomorrow in class that is slightly better than today? What lesson can I plan for next week that will be better than this week?' And I remember feeling, a lot of days, like I wasn't doing a great job. But then there come those days when you do feel like you are doing a good job. And that makes it worth it."

There's no quibbling over Teach For America's worth from a panel of corps veterans. Their job this midsemester evening is to help replenish the ranks of TFA with a new crop of student leaders. In a gray-toned, nondescript Bryan Center conference room, students have assembled to take in the uplifting message and the familiar mini egg rolls.

Led by the ubiquitous and unfailingly upbeat Caroline Davis, this particular presentation focuses on "Life After Teach For America." She introduces the panel, all Duke alumni: a medical student, a public policy graduate student, the chief executive of a nonprofit organization that teaches managements skills to leaders of other nonprofits, and a consultant specializing in the construction industry. They talk about how Teach For America appealed to their interest in bringing about social change, how they were drawn to the opportunity to make an impact, and how they found their corps experiences transferable to their later work.

Just a few miles away, a recent alumna recruited by Davis as a student, Susan Patrick '07, is just finishing up her school day. As an undergraduate, Patrick tutored at elementary schools. She also worked at an alternative school, with middle-school students suspended from their home school.

Through Teach For America, Patrick is teaching eighth-grade language arts at Githens Middle School in Durham. Githens is unusually diverse. Patrick is dealing with the children of professors and doctors as well as children from low-income, single-parent households. Some of her students live with their grandparents, and some are homeless. She has readers at the sixth-, fifth-, or even fourth-grade level. Others are far above grade level. With such gaps in background and preparation, it's tough to keep them on task, together.

"I came in knowing I was going to have a lot of challenges," she says. "Thirteen-year-olds do things that most normal people wouldn't dream of."

No longer a teaching novice, Summers, in South Dakota, has mastered some of those challenges. With a year's experience behind her, "the ball game is totally different," she says, and she feels prepared for the issues she'll face in the classroom. "For a lot of the kids here, there's just so much they have to deal with, so much death and family struggles. And they're so little, they don't how to articulate that. They don't know how to say, 'I'm unhappy today because my brother tried to kill himself.' All they can do is punch a wall.

"Teach For America really stresses in our training that in our classroom, we're going to see so many kids who have so many needs. You want to take care of them for the seven hours. But it's so important to keep your focus on the thing that you can actually give them, and that's an education. So many of my kids will be writing a story that says something like, 'On Friday night, my mom was drunk, and I went to my auntie's house.' What can you say to that? Definitely these societal problems affect their lives. You have to do the best you can to teach through all of that, and to be respectful of all the good things they get from their community and their loved ones."