A no from Teach for America

Leif Johnson — 24 Jun 2003, 21:06

yesterday i heard from teach for america : thanks for putting forth the effort to do the inverview, but we cannot take you at this time.

in some ways it's a bit difficult to deal with this. well, really, only in the sense that i have too much personal time to sit around and mope about whatever strikes my fancy. the most pressing point, i think, is that i now have no plan, no larger purpose that drags me wherever it will. this is the first time this has really happened to me, and i'm not sure what i'm doing now. so here are my attempts to write out what i've been thinking lately, in the hopes that i will read them ten years hence and be able to laugh at myself.

first some rationalization. the teach for america interview process did exactly what a good interview process ought to do, namely, weed out the people who don't really want to be there. for whatever reason, i don't think i ever really truly believed that i could or would do teach for america. i certainly tried to do some productive visualization, and things along those lines, but i'm still not sure i really believed. for example, i wrote my application essays characteristically at the last minute. then came the interview, with me poorly prepared, having just barely scrapped up a short lesson on trigonometry and secured my transcript and a filled–out recommendation form. as much as it's a cop–out, it's also the truth : i didn't really put the effort into these things that i might have shown a few years ago.

this is representative of a larger change in my life : i basically feel like i have dropped out of the crowd of the 100 percenters, attracted by the light of sleeping late and working on silly programming projects—and also having used up my innate ability to pull all–nighters on sheer willpower. but that's a different piece of self–examination.

but the truth is i'm not really disappointed by the rejection, or by the realization that i'm no longer a 100 percenter (or at least not a 100 percenter in all things equally). it's actually quite uplifting, feeling that i can do absolutely anything at this point, and that i have no accountability or real responsibility. many thanks indeed to my already existing personal funds and lack of personal attachments.

the first question i asked myself upon reading the news was whether i really wanted to effect social change, which, despite tfa's teaching title, is really the point of the organization. this thought actually hit me much earlier, in fact right on interview day, when i filled out the placement preferences form 30 seconds after my personal interview started. i realized after i filled out the preferences form that i marked more than half of teach for america's valuable site locations as “least preferred” (on a scale of “highly preferred,” “preferred,” and “least preferred” ; according to tfa, over 90 % of placements are in “highly preferred” or “preferred” locations, so just under 1 in 10 people get placed at “least preferred” sites). the only sites i marked as highly preferred were the bay area and chicago, and the only sites i put down as preferred were la, new york, the navajo nation, and the rio grande valley. that's a lot of negative preference.

my interviewer also asked me during the interview why i wanted to join tfa and not just go out teaching on my own. i was pretty stuck. don't get me wrong : i find the idea of helping close the achievement gap very appealing. i would truly, truly like to help underappreciated students achieve in school, to show them the same open doors that stood open for me. particularly if these doors might be closed to some kids for reasons that are simply incomprehensible to any given individual : skin color, native language, personal funds. i would really enjoy teaching calculus to high schoolers—trying of course to reach the state of being able to teach as well as my own mentors. i'd really like to have the opportunity to work with ‘difficult’ students, unleashing their capabilities for making amazing achievements in our amazingly distorted social framework. in the interview, though, i just didn't feel like i could explain that, and i didn't know exactly why that's a good enough reason to join tfa anyway. so i said, “mostly for the support network.” why did i apply to teach for america ? for now i like to think that it was the easiest of the alternatives, but who knows.

after a little further reflection it's becoming pretty clear to me that my ulterior motive is to live in san francisco, for whatever reason. there are some bonuses associated with this. the emergency teaching certification requirements in california are really lax, for instance. i can definitely still find some sort of position related to teaching (maybe even in computer stuff) and be a bit more flexible—although vulnerable—about it. second, after a year or so i will be a resident of california, very significant if i choose to pursue a phd at ucsd. which brings me to point the third : i'm starting to think about applying to begin my phd next year. but i'm a bit worried now about another rejection. after all, nobody wants a phd student who's not a 100 percenter.

but for the time being that's the plan : screw tfa, as much as i agree with their approach and goals, and go it on my own. i know i can do this, and i know my goals will be enough to fuel my own pursuit of social change for the better, in a country where social change is number one on the horror films list. i hope my idealism will carry me far enough to enact this sort of change for myself and others.