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Teach for America alums recall ‘trial by fire’ of first days in class

By Zahrea Smith 

Dudley, NC

For the first few weeks that Luke Goodwin was teaching for Teach for America, he felt unprepared. 

Goodwin, 32, a Princeton alumnus, said the only teaching experience he had was a “bootcamp” given by the national program. 

 “The first weeks were trial by fire,” he said of teaching history at Felisa Rincon De Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy in Bronx, New York. “The students were skeptical. I had just graduated and was teaching a couple of 21-year-olds.”

Despite recent controversies surrounding the Teach for America program, such as claims that it’s a resume builder and allegations that TFA teachers are replacing current staff at the schools they serve, two recent participants, including Goodwin, said the program was a positive experience. 

Teach for America is a national teaching organization founded in 1989 by Princeton University graduate Wendy Kopp. Frequently dubbed TFA, it’s a program in which students of select colleges or universities can be deployed to underserved and underemployed schools to teach for two years. As a result of the program, Goodwin said he was even inspired to get a Master’s degree in education. 

Another participant, Dylan Ackerman, 26, worked at a high school called Mariana Bracetti Academy in Philadelphia, Pa. teaching environmental sciences. Ackerman also coached a sports team at the academy. 

Ackerman applied for the program early in his junior year at Princeton and was able to prepare for teaching the next summer. Like most TFA teachers, he completed a five-week training course to prepare for the school year. 

“People in TFA being underprepared is neither right or wrong,” he said. “You’re not prepared until you’re in the classroom. We’re as good if not better than other teachers. No teacher is completely ready.” 

TFA has more resources, and they make sure their teachers understand the community they’re going to be teaching in beforehand, Ackerman said. “You can’t serve your students adequately if you have no knowledge about underserved kids,” Dylan added. 

Another controversial issue surrounding TFA is that there’s sometimes friction between teachers with four-year degrees and TFA teachers. Ackerman said that there are misconceptions surrounding the program, namely that TFA makes it so teachers with four-year degrees get replaced. 

“Those who were laid off weren’t replaced by TFA teachers,” Ackerman said. “Once people actually learn something about the program that’s truthful, they think it’s a good program.” 

Goodwin, a history major, learned about the program through a TFA recruiter his senior year of college. He said his first semester teaching was “rocky.” 

“I feel bad for my first semester students, I was so inexperienced,” he said. 

After the first few months, he said he gained a significant amount of confidence which helped his teaching. 

Goodwin said that TFA is an organization with the goal of promoting social justice. He said his colleagues at school weren’t dismissive of him, but rather “warm.” 

“I wish I could’ve partnered with some of them,” he said. 

When asked about the controversies surrounding the program, Goodwin said he felt too disconnected to give accurate feedback. 

Instead, Goodwin complimented the program and said that TFA makes sure that grades say something meaningful.