A friend of mine wrote a fabulous blog post about TFA’s attrition rate during Institute (currently 11%) and its root cause: recruitment (read it at: http://yoteach23.teachforus.org/2012/06/22/attrition-still-at-11-blame-recruitment-not-institute/). I couldn’t agree more with his sentiments, and I think TFA’s recruitment style has impacts far beyond Institute.
For those not familiar, the recruitment process is something like the following: Teach for America has several types of recruiters. The paid staff recruiters work in regions and help select a couple college students to be recruiters on their college campuses. At my alma mater, a junior and a senior who had expressed interest in education were recruited to become the campus staff. They arranged events, were at every job fair, and emailed everyone they knew supporting TFA and generally creating a buzz on campus. There’s something to be said for the fact that perhaps TFA would be better served by having only alumni of the corps (or better yet, dropouts or current CMs) advertise on campuses but I understand that would be an unreasonable burden for many regions.
So in come staff recruiters. Even before a future CM hits Institute, they are “required” to provide a list of 20+ people at their college who are rising seniors and might be interested in TFA. These people, along with names provided by the college student campus recruiters, are mercilessly hounded from the minute they start senior year. They are urged to apply, sit down with a recruiter, come to an event, and on and on and on until they apply or senior year ends.
However, there is a much more influential part of the recruiting process that is often ignored. After an applicant is admitted, they are given a very short window (about two-three weeks) wherein they must respond to their offer, or it will supposedly be withdrawn. This in itself is a form of recruiting pressure that leads many a person I know to feel they have to accept the offer and then they have to stop looking for other jobs because they already “committed” (this is what it is called in TFA). Meanwhile, recruiter emails you immediately to congratulate you and ask if you have any questions, which seems pretty standard to me.
However, if you don’t respond to the offer or express any hesitation, the recruitment begins again only much more heavily. They begin emailing you endlessly, calling you, giving other people your number to call you. I was called by a member of my regional staff or a recruiter approximately every three days from the time I was admitted until the time I accepted three weeks later. One could view this as courtship, but it was clearly pressure. As I told my recruiter the first time I spoke with her after being admitted, I was not hesitant about joining TFA. However, I had deep reservations about my ability to be effective in a subject that I had no background in and teaching in an area where I didn’t know a soul. I asked a variety of questions about my ability to be reassigned (it was November! Most of the would-be corps members hadn’t even been assigned yet, so it was not that there were no spots available in other regions), and I was continually refused an options beyond accepting or declining. Furthermore, I was pressured to believe my concerns were immaterial. The final straw came several days before my deadline, in which a recruiter emailed me a letter peppered with quotes of my admissions essay. The implications of the letter were clear – either I meant all the things I had said about wanting to impact students and would join or I had lied about who I was. Faced with that choice and the apparent confidence of a slew of TFA staff that my weaknesses would be no hindrance, I accepted my offer.
As you all know from http://hcook.teachforus.org/2012/05/19/why-i-left-teach-for-america/, that didn’t end well. My concerns were valid, I was miserable and terrible at my subject area in Institute and after. I remember now a book by Gavin de Becker that argues that our gut instincts are generally right, even when we don’t recognize why. Perhaps TFA ought to do a better job of listening to the reactions of its admitted CMs… It might substantially cut its dropout rate and help its effectiveness.