Teach for America recruits Webster students


This fall, Teach for America – St. Louis, the regional arm of the non-profit organization Teach for America (TFA), will begin recruiting undergraduate and graduate students at Webster University. This is the first time TFA has recruited students specifically enrolled at Webster.

TFA aims to reduce the educational differences between low-income students and their classmates by enlisting recent college graduates and professionals, of all majors and disciplines, to teach in urban and rural communities. These teachers would serve in the United States for two or more years.  These TFA teachers receive a beginner’s salary and benefits.

Chanel Harris-Hampton, recruitment manager for TFA – St. Louis, said the organization’s new focus on Webster University is based on both a communal standpoint and her own personal experience teaching in the St. Louis Public Schools system.  Harris-Hampton said many of the colleagues she taught with shared a connection to Webster.

“A lot of people are Webster graduates, are attending Webster, or looking to attend Webster…What stuck out to me was that we are a movement that is about teaching kids and making sure that every kid has an opportunity at an education,” said Harris-Hampton. “Why aren’t we recruiting at a school where excellent teachers are being produced?”

The non-profit has drawn complaints, however.  Critics feel TFA’s 5-6 week intensive training program is incomparable to an education degree. Others believe school districts should employ educators with long-term teaching aspirations rather than TFA teachers with two-year commitments.

Harris-Hampton argues every teacher, TFA-affiliated or not, must have a first year.  She also points to data showing first-year TFA teachers producing better test results than their non-TFA counterparts.  However, there is disagreement whether the overall increase in test scores justifies the cost. She also retorts that school districts ask for TFA teachers to come into their classrooms.

Brenda Fyfe, Dean of the School of Education (SOE), said TFA has every right to recruit on campus. She does, however, feel TFA teachers are ill-equipped to teach the classroom.

“[TFA teachers] are not – they cannot be, in terms of the model – as fully prepared as [SOE] teachers who have gone through a full certification program to go into the classrooms and, day one, really be using the best practices with children, no matter how strong they are,” Fyfe said.  Fyfe also said the turnover of TFA teachers leaving the education field after their two-year commitment can be “problematic” for children.

Before entering TFA, Michelle Oyola graduated from Webster in 2007 with a degree in journalism, and worked as the Web and youth editor at The Washington Missourian newspaper.  As the youth editor, Oyola recruited and trained local teenagers to write for the newspaper’s teen page.  Through her experience working with teenagers, Oyola said she realized how much she loved teaching.  However, she also recognized an important fact.

“Those kids didn’t need any help,” said Oyola.  “They didn’t need a good teacher like I know a lot of kids do.”

Oyola began researching ways she could bridge the education gap and stumbled upon TFA.  She applied and, after fulfilling the rigorous interview and training sessions, became a corps member for TFA in 2008.  For the next three years Oyola taught various English Language Arts courses at Construction Careers Center Charter High School in St. Louis.

Now a TFA alumna and having earned a master’s in secondary curriculum and instruction from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Oyola will be teaching sixth grade Communication Arts this fall at South City Prep, a charter school in St. Louis. Oyola advises potential Webster applicants to take their commitment to education seriously.

“Don’t do it because TFA looks good on a résumé, because you won’t make it,” Oyola said.  “Usually they are pretty good about weeding those people out, but if you still manage to squeeze in because you just want it on your résumé, the experience is the hardest and best thing you’ll ever do. If you don’t believe in kids and believe in the city, then don’t even bother.”

Admission into the organization is highly selective.  A 2010 TFA press release noted that, of the over 46,000 applications it received that year, a little over 4,500 people were selected to be corps members.

Harris-Hampton said TFA recruiters are searching for young people with high achievement academically, as well as leadership on campus.  She also said she looks for applicants with a high level of perseverance and organization.

Harris-Hampton hopes to reach Webster students by partnering with student organizations and leaders on campus.

“I’m not looking at it as recruitment,” said Harris-Hampton. “I’m looking to build partnerships with people.”

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