Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 19 2011

It’s Called a Corps For A Reason

(Short post since I’m quite behind on work, but this post has been rattling around in my head for a while.)

Some background for those of you unfamiliar with the placement process, before I move onto my weekend and a Big Thought: Here’s how TFA regional placement works: You apply. In the final application stage (after you’ve already passed two rounds of gatekeepers), you fill out a “preference form”. On it, you rank what TFA regions you would like to go to and subjects you would like to teach. They recommend you rank as “highly preferred” at least 5 regions (you rank within the general categories of “highly preferred”, “preferred” and “please-don’t-send-me-here!” – everything has to go in one column). You can also put in any “special circumstances” you have (i.e., spouses) that might have some importance to where you get placed. TFA locks the preference form away without looking at it.

Later, TFA decides whether or not it wants to admit you to the corps. It sends out the “YAY YOU’RE IN” email (or the other one). Then, an algorithm decides where you’ll be placed and what you’ll be teaching based on your qualifications (i.e., classes), what regions need what you’re qualified to teach (keeping in mind “qualified” differs from region to region), how many people wanted that region more than you, what the odds are someone else will come along later and want that spot more than  you, ten thousand other logistical factors of placing a few thousand people… and your preferences. It spits out a placement. It’s generally understood in TFA that you need to be open to going many places when you apply. Detroit, for instance, was my 7th choice. I ranked two of the largest corps ahead of it. Including one ‘high need’ corps. The TFA mantra is basically “we send you where you are needed most, your preferences are tiebreakers”. TFA does NOT consider where you went to school, where you are from, where you have lived, or other ties to places other than spouses and children.

Now, my weekend: I had an amazing weekend. On Sunday, I went out to Central Park to picnic with a group of amazing friends of mine from college. (You can read one of their thoughts, see some pictures, and get a great kugel recipe here: http://catflightoffancy.blogspot.com/2011/07/kugel.html?spref=fb.) I miss most of the people from my life pretty dreadfully a lot of the time. TFA is hard. It’s lots of long nights and fruitless work and being pepper sprayed by children. Now, it has a ton of benefits. I love my kids (even when I want to kill them sometimes). My coworkers are great. But there is something to be said for the fact that, especially at Institute, your “fellow CMs” are also your coworkers. So while I can complain about my kids to my roommates sometimes, venting about our school site or TFA is dicier. Plus, sometimes I just want a non-TFA perspective (or to relay information TFA people already know!).

It was so amazing to be back with these people who know and love me, and be able to just talk. We talked a bit about my classroom, of course, but no one asked me how my lesson planning steps were going or if I had BMC coaching tomorrow. It was great to get to be a person instead of a teacher. Lots of corps members are finding ways to do this – some of us have college friends at our Institute cities or significant others who can visit. But it’s work to find “our people” in our Institute and placement cities. Some people don’t have anyone here. Institute (and TFA) is a lot like falling: it’s fast and exhausting and disorienting and exhilarating and nauseating. On our way down, it can be a huge life saver to have something stable to grab onto – something that isn’t falling with you.

The people in our lives give us those handholds, and I can’t help but feel pity for the corps members who can’t access those in a meaningful way (1 am phone calls aren’t for everyone!). I’m deeply apprehensive about my time in my region, where I won’t have the ability to call a friend and arrange a meetup that’s an hour away. Now, I’ll have my car, and I fully intend to spend lots of time in the car driving to Chicago and my hometown. But what if I was in Hawaii or New Orleans? I understand that the needs of our students have to come first, but TFA makes shockingly little attempt to place us in regions where we have existing support networks and I can’t help but think that it’s harming the mental and physical health of corps members. The Army makes a point of taking care of spouses and children because it knows that its members need those support networks. Some people join TFA to have a new adventure in a new place, and future corps members should have a way to indicate that. But most of us join to make differences in our communities so that our loved ones have a better world to inhabit with us. A placement process that doesn’t take into account the motivating and stabilizing power of those ties seems to me painfully flawed.

8 Responses

  1. Remy

    I… love you lots

    • Colleen

      I am going to agree with this more than a little bit.

      Once I have an income, maybe I will brave the wastelands and come visit you in Detroit…as much as I hate traveling, I hate the idea of you never seeing anyone except people you work with even more.

      (ps I am really into that falling metaphor, it’s very rubber)

  2. Thanks for the shoutout! And we’re always here for you :). Come visit us in Chicago!

    I hope you can also build yourself a third awesome support network in Detroit.

  3. Venki Narayanan

    I haven’t met you yet Hannah Cook, but let me first briefly introduce myself. My name is Venki Narayanan and am going to be a 2nd year corps member who you’ll be seeing around in the Motor City (we’ll have more time later to become acquainted of course). I was just visiting your blog because it appeared on my newsfeed and I’ll tell you something—you are pretty spot on about many points, particularly needing those ‘non CMs/personal friendship network.” I’m from Florida originally and I actually find it difficult to meet people non-TFA related that I can actually hang out with and spend some time with. In many ways, I wish I’d been placed closer to home to have that personal net fall on if the job happens to knock me over (which it has several times). We’ll talk some time about the things you can try to do to deal with the emotional roller coaster ride that is yet to come.

  4. Jay

    We miss you too, particularly those of us who are not currently geographically close enough to spend time with you in person. I hope you will have enough time to not only get to spend time with us, but also take time by yourself while in Detroit.

  5. Sharon

    Hanners, I don’t know how I’ll get through the year without you! If you ever want to talk, don’t hesitate to call or Facebook me. It’s really sad that TFA can’t put you closer to home; it is indeed like an army (though of course, Detroit is hardly Afghanistan). Perhaps you should find a synagogue in the city where you can go to Friday night dinners; that would be a nice way to meet people.

  6. CC

    This was a “short” post? Oh, Cookie. I miss you and I’m feeling ya about the support network. Since graduation, I’ve really been noticing how different I am from non-UChicago people and am so glad that one of my roommates for this year is a UChicago person.

  7. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been featured on the Teach For Us homepage slider. Check it out at http://teachforus.org/.

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