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Reframing the Conversation: Insights from the Oral Histories of Three 1990 TFA Participants

by Bethany Rogers & Megan Blumenreich - 2013

Background/Context: Researchers have examined the challenges of staffing urban, underserved classrooms primarily through large-scale data sets; policymakers have responded with strategies intended to recruit more or “better” teachers into the classroom through programs such as the popular Teach for America. Yet there is little qualitative evidence regarding the experiences of such teachers, which could enhance existing understandings of such challenges and current attempts to solve them.

Purpose: This research examines the professional choices and trajectories of Teach for America participants over a twenty-year period, attending especially to individuals’ perceptions of their urban teaching experiences, their beliefs, and their reasons for staying in or leaving the urban classroom, with the aim of better understanding the experiences of such teachers and the implications for staffing urban schools.

Participants/Subjects: Research subjects included thirty participants from the inaugural cohort of Teach for America (1990-1992); this article focuses on the life stories of three such individuals.

Research Design: This study draws on oral histories conducted with thirty individuals who participated in the first cohort (1990-1992) of Teach for America. It analyzes their stories within the context of scholarly literature on teachers and teacher policy, urban teaching, and the historical period of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Conclusions/Recommendations: This study suggests the nature of the contributions that nuanced, qualitative methodologies such as oral history can make. We found that, despite their initial differences from tradition-entry teachers, TFA participants’ reasons for staying in or leaving the urban classroom looked very similar to those of observed among the population of urban teachers at large. Our data thus raises a question of focus: is attending to the conditions under which all urban teachers work perhaps just as important as attracting new or purportedly better candidates into urban teaching?


Teach for America (TFA), a selective alternate route to teaching that began in 1990, recruits bright, idealistic recent graduates from elite colleges and universities for two-year teaching stints in underserved schools across the United States. Though TFA has provided only a tiny fraction of the nation’s teachers over the last 20 years, it has stirred outsized passions on the part of detractors and proponents alike. Teacher educators criticize the two-year commitment and limited preparation for classroom teaching associated with TFA, while corporate and private philanthropists, young people, school districts, and even the federal government (by way of AmeriCorps funding) have embraced the program. Despite criticism that it offers only a stopgap solution to the challenges of staffing schools that serve low-income and minority children, TFA has exerted a strong influence on contemporary policy discussions regarding teacher recruitment and preparation.

In the 20 years since its inception, TFA has provoked a flood of scholarship. Such scholarship has drawn primarily on quantitative data analysis, with the aim of assessing the effectiveness of TFA teachers and, in turn, the viability of TFA as a strategy for addressing the unequal and inadequate distribution of teachers in America’s schools (Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2006; Darling-Hammond, Holzman, Gatlin, & Heilig, 2005; Decker, Mayer, & Glazerman, 2006; Kane, Rockoff, & Staiger, 2008; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002; Raymond, Fletcher, & Luque, 2001). Another substantial thread of inquiry that favors quantitative data has focused on attrition rates for TFA teachers (Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2009; Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; MacIver & Vaughn, 2007; Miner, 2010; Noell & Gansle, 2009). Among all of this research, however, there are few attempts to identify significant issues or areas of nuance that lie beyond the purview of statistical studies.1 For example, we may know that participants were or were not teaching at the particular moment a study was conducted, but we have little understanding of participants’ movements over time or their perceptions of their professional trajectories. We lack knowledge about individuals’ beliefs or justifications for choosing to participate in TFA, their considerations regarding whether and why they would stay in or leave the classroom, and how such concerns might compare to those of traditional-entry teachers. Such insights would not only provide more textured information about the particular experiences of TFA participants, but also deepen our understanding of the larger context of urban teachers’ lives and work over the last 20 years.

This paper borrows from a larger oral history project on TFA participants to address some of these gaps. We draw on 3 of 30 oral histories that we gathered from individuals who participated in the inaugural 1990 corps, and focus on the experiences and professional trajectories they describe. Specifically, we look at how participants explained their choices to join TFA and teach in some of the most challenging urban schools.2 (By invoking “urban,” we mean to signify those chronically difficult-to-staff institutions serving low-income students in metropolitan areas). We take into account participants’ backgrounds, their perceptions of their post-collegiate options, their ideas about teaching, and the historical context of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We also explore the ways that participants characterized their teaching experiences and their responses to teaching – in particular, when and how they negotiated the decision to stay in or leave the classroom and for what reasons – and their rationales for subsequent career moves. Finally, we make sense of these accounts within a larger body of research about teachers’ lives and careers.

Among the many insights the narratives offer, we note a common theme, which bears on the broader issues of staffing urban schools and which we illustrate in this paper with the three stories that follow. Despite the considerable differences from more traditional-entry teachers (i.e., educational background, motives for teaching, preparation for teaching) that our narrators described, participants’ reasons for staying in or leaving the urban classroom turned out to look very much like those observed among the population of teachers at large who work in similar environments (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). In other words, analysis of our oral histories suggests that the highly touted differences that characterized TFA participants at the outset did not seem to make much difference over time when it came to negotiating a career in urban teaching. Indeed, the experience of the urban classroom itself may have mitigated other factors – such as teacher characteristics or preparation – that have long been thought to be critical in defining urban teachers’ careers. Such insights call into question popular policy efforts over the last 20 years that have privileged the recruitment of new teachers from elite backgrounds over the improvement of teaching conditions in urban schools.


Several factors suggest the significance of TFA to contemporary urban education and teacher preparation: The explosive growth of alternate route programs and the high profile of TFA among them; TFA’s remarkable success in procuring private and public monies; and the organization’s powerful influence on contemporary policy conversations. But while the program has been hotly debated, actual participants’ experiences, their understandings of those experiences, and their subsequent professional lives have gone largely undocumented. In choosing to study TFA participants, we meant to introduce what we believe are important, untapped perspectives into the conversation about urban teaching over the last 20 years. In selecting individuals from the initial 1990 cohort, we hoped both to maximize the number of years over which we could see individuals’ paths play out and to tap memories that have become well integrated into a longer life story. Beyond the importance of these stories in their own right, such perspectives can also add to and even alter what we know about TFA and the context of urban teaching over the last 20 years.

In fact, TFA participants occupy a unique place in this history. Existing studies show that TFA participants have represented a distinct subgroup within the teaching population (and even among alternate route candidates) by virtue of their elite undergraduate education as liberal arts majors, their conceptualization of teaching, their reasons for choosing to teach, and their high level of cultural and symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1986, 1996; Hammerness & Reininger, 2008). One could argue that the high status of many TFA participants has already provided them ample access to forums for voicing their perspectives, or even that some participants’ prominent activities in education reform over the last decade has served to “speak” for them. But for these very reasons, and because TFA participants tend to parlay their experiences into socially powerful positions, we believe that the ways that TFA participants have made sense of, understood, and acted on their experiences constitute rich grounds for analysis, analysis that not only reflects their particular lived experiences but also illuminates the context of urban teaching and trends that have defined urban education and teacher policy over the last two decades.3

Finally, and not incidentally, our focus on TFA also arises from our own situations. As Eick (2010) insists, the oral historical enterprise necessarily situates the oral historian, and begs for transparency regarding the oral historian’s perspectives. Accordingly, we make clear here that the authors both attended elite undergraduate institutions and belong to the generation of young people that first embraced TFA. Our friends, our classmates, and even one of us took part in TFA. As teacher educators, we came of age professionally with TFA: many of our understandings and practices in teacher preparation have emerged against the foil of TFA. In this regard, our interest in TFA participants’ lived experiences, and the ways in which participants have framed, shared, understood, and incorporated these experiences within their lives, is both personal and professional, and is as well a driving reason that we use oral history methodology in our research.


Oral history is a means of gathering information that elicits the personal perceptions of individuals who “were there.” As such, oral history testimonies provide a valuable source of knowledge about the past, and also new interpretive perspectives on it; they can reveal a great deal about the current moment as well (Dougherty, 1999; Shopes, n.d.). This makes oral history an ideal methodology for unearthing not only new details about this particular group of urban teachers’ experiences and lives, but – through the careful study of such details – new takes on existing interpretations of “the structural and material conditions surrounding teachers’ work” (Dougherty, 1999, p. 718). At the same time, we are aware that the very questions we bring to the stories of our TFA participants reveal our own location in the educational milieu – its concerns, challenges, and assumptions – of today.

In the past, social scientists and historians have treated personal narratives, including oral histories, as anecdotal and “unreliable as a basis for generalization” (Dougherty, 1999; Maynes, Pierce, & Laslett, 2008). Increasingly, however, scholars recognize the integrity of oral histories in yielding a distinct type of knowledge, in which their subjective character can be considered a strength. As Alessandro Portelli (1991, p. 50) makes clear, “[T]he first thing that makes oral history different is that it tells us less about events [or facts] than about their meaning.” Thus, rather than “discrete, value free data” about the past, oral histories are best understood as a trove of “elaborate, emotionally laden, intentional constructions,” in which analysis targets narrators’ subjective realities and aims to explore the ways that participants understood and perceived their experiences (Ben-Peretz, 1995, p. xvii; Quantz, 1985). For our purposes, the oral histories we gathered not only confirm at what point participants left classroom teaching, for example, but also reveal individuals’ perceptions of their urban teaching experiences. Such perceptions expose participants’ beliefs and reasons for staying in or leaving the urban classroom. Certainly knowing that TFA participants stay in or leave the urban classroom is important, but it is equally important to understand when and how they leave, and for what reasons – that is, to understand them as “rounded social actors with their own problems and perspective[s]” (Ball & Goodson, 1985). Part of this project of more nuanced understanding depends upon being able to examine participants’ stated reasons within the thicker narrative and “emotional atmosphere” of their lives, which helps to contextualize both the explicit and implicit reasons behind their choices (Altenbaugh, 1997, p. 314; Ng & Peter, 2010). This is the kind of data that oral history as a methodology is well positioned to elicit.

Although oral history analysis traffics in the individual and the personal, it also recognizes the narrators as “persons in context . . . whose stories reflect their lived experiences over time and in particular social and historical settings” (Dublin & Licht, 2000; Maynes et al., 2008, p. 10). In this way, narrators’ stories about their personal choices and actions also expose the broader network of social constraints and possibilities within which they acted (Dougherty, 1999). Consequently, thoughtful analysis of oral histories can identify meaningful connections between individual and social experience, between “individual life trajectories and collective forces and institutions beyond the individual” (Maynes et al., 2008, p. 3). In the personal stories of our TFA participants, then, lie not only documentation of their individual lives, but also powerful memories about the conditions of urban schools in the early 1990s, the cultural expectations for individuals who attended elite colleges or universities and the general status of teachers in America at the time, and the social gestalt that shaped notions of what was possible for this generation of relatively privileged young people. Given the provenance of oral history, such memories may not align exactly with historical “truths,” but they do indicate the perceived realities of our narrators, according to which they made the significant decisions and choices that defined their lives and life stories. As such, the stories we gathered mark an important passage between individual and social memory (Eick, 2011).


Our data consisted primarily of oral history testimonies, which we gathered from 30 individuals who took part in the 1990 inaugural cohort of Teach for America. As described, we employed oral history as a methodology distinctively suited to eliciting and synthesizing the complex strands of individual lives within the frame of a particular place and time (Altenbaugh, 1992; Dougherty, 1999; Eick, 2010). In this case, the life narratives uncover some of the formative influences that inclined these young people to choose to join TFA in its inaugural year; the oral histories also allowed us to draw out individuals’ perceptions of teaching and their interpretations of the social realities they encountered as teachers in poor urban schools in the early 1990s. Finally, they offer us a unique retrospective view. From the perspective of the participants’ present, we can see their accrued choices and experiences over 20 years as well as how each individual verbally constructed these choices and experiences into a coherent life narrative, and we could trace the thread of teaching within that life story.

We recruited our subjects in the fall of 2008 by emailing all members of the 1990 cohort for whom the TFA website listed contact information (288 of about 480 original members) and inviting them to participate in an oral history interview. Fifty-six alumni responded – an extraordinarily high response rate of nearly 20%, which we attribute in part to one of us (Megan) having participated in the 1990 TFA cohort – and agreed to be interviewed. From this group, we selected a diverse pool of 30 individuals on the basis of 4 key variables: gender, undergraduate institution attended, the region where they taught, and current career.4 We also considered program completion, choosing 24 individuals who finished their two-year commitment to TFA and, through purposeful “snowball” sampling, locating 6 alumni who left before the end of their two-year commitment.5

Because of teaching’s historically feminized nature, we wanted to understand the gender dynamics of an arguably elite pathway into teaching, and so aimed to balance our sample between men (12) and women (18). We also wanted to ensure that our sample displayed a cross-section of the elite undergraduate institutions that participants attended, to illustrate the nature of their educational backgrounds. Gathering subjects who taught across the range of TFA sites enabled us to investigate both context-specific challenges as well as more general experiences associated with first-year teaching in underserved schools. Finally, given our interest in understanding how participants’ TFA experiences figured into their lives and professional choices over time, we also incorporated information about their current careers (which were listed on the 2008 TFA website) into our selection process.

Regarding the last of these variables, though our sample is not representative, we tried to select participants who roughly reflected both the range and frequency of careers that appeared on the website. We paid special attention to whether participants’ careers were related to education or outside of the field of education altogether. More commonly, researchers have asked whether TFA participants persist as classroom teachers or not, but we found that such a static distinction failed to capture the complexity of individuals’ professional journeys over time. Indeed, some participants stayed in the classroom for the long haul; many taught for years beyond their initial TFA commitment before exploring other education-related positions (administrator, coach, curriculum developer, district-based personnel, higher education teaching) or fields (teacher education, educational philanthropy, educational reform/consulting); some returned to the classroom after exploring other pursuits; others left teaching and education entirely.6

Because we wanted to appreciate both the range and the commonalities among our narrators’ career paths, and capture some of their movement over time (particularly across education-related fields), we did not limit our understandings of the field of education to K-12 classroom teachers. Instead, we considered K-12 teachers, college and university professors, school district personnel, and educational consultants and/or reformers to be working in fields related to education. Using this definition, approximately half of the total number (170) of alumni who reported careers on the website were working in a field related to education; accordingly, just over half of our sample (16 participants) reported working in careers related to education, while the remainder (14) worked in other fields.

Ultimately, our sample for the larger project featured a range of classroom tenures: 6 individuals quit the program within the first year (though 2 continued to teach under other auspices); 8 individuals fulfilled their TFA commitment, meaning that they taught for two years; 9 others continued to teach after their two-year TFA commitment, remaining in the classroom a total of 3 to 8 years; and, finally, 7 participants taught a total of 9 to 18 years (see Appendix A).

Once we had selected our sample, we conducted 30 in-depth, 2-hour long oral history interviews using an informal interview guide (see Appendix B) that addressed participants’ backgrounds, TFA experiences, and subsequent career choices (Braungart & Braungart, 1990; Yow, 1994). Digital recordings of interviews were transcribed by a professional service – transcriptions yielded on average from 50-65 double-spaced pages – and sent to participants for their reviews. Data analysis was an ongoing process, which involved reading transcripts and coding for emergent themes as well as themes developed a priori.

Our coding proceeded manually. We created several tables based on a priori themes, in order to systematically mine the narrators’ testimonies for specific information. For instance, our tables contained factors such as participants’ parents’ levels of education, their religious backgrounds, their parents’ experiences with civic action, participants’ career choices, and their descriptions of their classroom experiences. To elicit new themes, both authors read the interview transcripts multiple times, independently noting initial codes. We then came together to share and review our initial codes to ensure that they accurately described the themes that were emerging in the data. Through this grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), we moved to “focusing” the codes as relevant themes were revealed (Charmez, 2006). Once we had completed coding for each working theme, we separated the data that supported each theme (some data supported more than one theme, necessitating copies) and placed it into separate theme files. Working together, we used the materials in each file to develop our ideas about the significance, meaning, and place of these themes within our larger body of work.

While we sought commonalities among the narratives, we did not lose sight of the individual and idiosyncratic nature of the stories that emerged. Indeed, we recognize the tension between appreciating the participants’ stories as theirs, on the one hand and, on the other hand, subjecting those stories to scholarly interpretation and analysis with the intention of drawing general insights to describe a particular historical moment (Smulyan, 2004; Wolf, 1996). We addressed this potential conflict by referring to primary source materials, including studies, newspaper and journal articles, and reports, as well as secondary literature, to establish the larger context of urban teaching and Teach for America in the 1990s. Within this larger framework, we could then analyze and compare the subjective experiences of the TFA participants, and so understand what aspects of their stories might have been idiosyncratic and what were largely shared experiences that reflected their situated (in terms of time and place) realities.

In this article, we sketch the narratives of three participants we selected from our larger sample. We chose them to vary in terms of gender, undergraduate institution, teaching site, and current career as well as teaching tenures: Jeffrey Simes spent 2 years in classroom teaching; Caroline Sabin taught for 8 years; and Andrew McKenzie for 14 years. Their stories share some commonalities, but they also suggest the range of interests, experiences, and responses we found among our narrators. Finally, we chose to focus on these three narrators because they conveyed especially vivid, interesting, and engaging stories.


An important broad commonality that grounds these stories, of course, lies in the historically complex moment of the late 1980s and early 1990s during which TFA participants came of age. The politics of the Reagan administration and the collapse of communism, which seemed to many to vindicate free market capitalism, existed side by side with the social fallout in America of isolated and criminalized urban neighborhoods, job migration out of cities, and the re-segregation of schools. Some version of these conflicts played out on elite campuses across the country by way of the fractious “culture wars” and identity politics of the period. Indeed, the credo of “greed is good” vied with a nascent idealism, especially among college students (Moore, 1988; Teltsch, 1987). Education was just one area of social need, but a popular one, given the many media accounts of school failures and poor teachers. Dissatisfaction with K-12 education, touched off by the release of the 1983 A Nation at Risk report, had provoked “unprecedented experimentation” with improving schools and teachers, a trend that helped to legitimize the advent of Teach for America (Payne, 2008). In short order, this was the perfect storm from which the TFA participants emerged.

In what follows, we present the outlines of three participants’ oral histories, incorporating evidence about how their particular life circumstances influenced their choices. We concentrate on aspects of their interviews that speak to their reasons for joining TFA, their beliefs about teaching, and their responses to the challenges of teaching in hard-to-staff classrooms, including their processes of negotiating whether to stay in or leave teaching. In our discussion, we examine their stories within the historical context of the period – probing what environmental factors help to explain their choices – as well as within the larger literature about teachers’ lives and experiences. We also look carefully at the nature of participants’ recollections focusing on how and what they have chosen to convey. Through this process, we explore how the TFA participants made sense of their choices and deliberations about their professional paths and how such knowledge adds to our understanding of urban teaching in this period.


Born in Manhattan, Jeffrey Simes did most of his growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in the nearby community of Yonkers, where he lived with his mother following his parents’ divorce. There, Simes attended public school through the sixth grade, after which he moved to a private school in the Bronx. Though Simes was in the first generation of his family to attend and graduate from college, he recalled a strong family belief in the importance of education, which he traced to his mother’s vigilance and his Jewish background. His mother insisted that he progress and be challenged according to his potential, and when the public schools seemed unable to support that, she engineered his move from public to private school. Neither Simes’ mother nor his grandparents, who emigrated from Eastern Europe, attended college, but they came from a Jewish culture known for its strong tradition of learning. As a result, he recalled, there was a “sort of pent-up desire” for education that was ultimately gratified by Simes’ generation.

At Yale, Simes majored in history. Although he didn’t remember considering any particular career, teaching was certainly not something that he expected to pursue. As he recalled, “if I really wanted to teach, I probably should’ve decided that my sophomore year and done the teacher prep classes.” Yet the advertisements and “buzz” around Teach for America changed his mind. And for someone like Simes, who had given little thought to his post-collegiate future, TFA was an answer to the daunting question of what he would do when he graduated. At a very basic level, TFA provided a transition to life after college. The fact that TFA offered a fast track into this next stage of life was part of its appeal. In Simes’ words, TFA would “supply me with what I needed” and allow him to “skip all that junk [preparation courses] and just get in there [the classroom].”   

Perhaps most enticingly, though, TFA framed the work of teaching itself as an altruistic adventure. Along with many of his peers, Simes (p. 19) bought into this idea of teaching:

I viewed it as, like, a community service type thing. … I didn’t look at it as, you know, the pedagogical profession. … In a sense we all viewed it as, really, it’s a Peace Corps but you’re not going to … Zimbabwe.

At a time when many of his Yale classmates were seeking jobs on Wall Street or in prestigious consulting firms, applying to the inaugural cohort of TFA represented something different to Simes, something comparatively “wild” or rebellious.

The reality, however, was a shock. Placed in a Bedford Stuyvesant (Brooklyn) elementary school, Simes found his job as a computer teacher far more challenging than he had anticipated. The school was disorganized and lacked a principal for half of the time that Simes taught there. For 36 children in a class, there were only eight computers. And the climate was chaotic: Simes recalled large classes in disorder, little children bringing weapons to school, and crack vials littering the school playground. His own classroom, he remembered, “had a horrible vermin problem; there were roaches everywhere all the time, and there was a sink in my classroom . . . always running [with] hot water . . . and no one would ever fix it.”  

On top of it all, Simes felt himself grievously unprepared to teach. The TFA summer institute that was intended to prepare him for teaching hardly made a dent. Though he applauded the student teaching portion, the rest of the training seemed too abstract and far from the realities of the classroom, such that “five minutes of the student teaching was equivalent [in value] to like five hours of the classroom stuff.” But as helpful as the student teaching experience was, it was also “misleading”: “[I]f you’re not running the classroom it’s a world of a difference from just being in it . . . you got a flavor for it, but I think until you actually get there and do it, it’s, you know, you just got to do it.” Nor did Simes find teacher education to be of much help once he started teaching; he enrolled but dropped out of a credentialing program before finishing.

As a consequence Simes struggled with how “very, very difficult, very demanding on a personal level and an emotional level” teaching was for him. He concluded it was not a job in which he could be successful, nor one in which he believed he could make a real difference. Instead, Simes began to see the real challenges of urban education in what he called the “inequities of the system.” As he recognized that the problems he wanted to help solve transcended the school and classroom, Simes cast about for another approach:

[M]aybe the classroom wasn’t the place for me is what I started to think. … I think I need something maybe a little bit more intellectual, a little bit maybe bigger—you know, one classroom’s great and, obviously, you know, there’s the microcosm of any individual kid, but I kept thinking, like, there’s a really big problem here, and maybe I can help focus on it on a bigger level (p. 57).

Armed with these convictions, Simes attended law school, where he concentrated on educational policy. He took a job with a large law firm where he could do what he believed was meaningful work in education, which would have a broader influence than he could effect by teaching in one classroom:

I have a very big pro bono practice on the education side, and I can take on very, very big cases, very significant cases that non-profits would find it impossible to take on. I can do class action work. I mean, the most recent case I had was I represented all of the homeless families on Long Island because the homeless kids were not being admitted to school. I’m working on a case now where we’re suing the United States Department of Education, you know, big sort of impact litigation, which is exactly what I wanted to do when I went into law school! (p. 60)

Reflecting on his career path, Simes acknowledged that, despite his criticisms of TFA, his current work grows directly out of his teaching experiences, an aftereffect that he believes may be the greatest value of TFA:

[E]veryone who leaves there is going to leave with a view about education and a feeling about it and an interest in it that they didn’t have before, and maybe some of them will go on and do more things and be really involved and be really engaged, and … add something to the public debate.  


The daughter of Irish immigrants, Caroline Sabin grew up in Milton, Massachusetts. Sabin recalled Milton as a blue-collar or lower-middle class community of “working folks,” largely Irish and Italian, with a growing African American population. Sabin’s parents, both from large families, left home when it became clear that Ireland held few opportunities for them. Her father completed a year of high school, while her mother dropped out after the eighth grade; nonetheless, Sabin was raised with a strong appreciation for the importance of education that derived particularly from her father:  

[M]y dad was a mechanic, which he hated, and his whole idea of work is you work to make money … and you can make more of it if you are well educated … So he [was] all for as much schooling as possible.

Her father also believed that “you send your kids to private high school as soon as you can, that’s the way things go in America,” so Sabin (and her sister) attended private high school and subsequently went on to Harvard.

Unlike most of the participants we interviewed, Sabin was already working toward becoming a teacher before she applied to Teach for America. Attributing her inclinations to her “Catholic side,” Sabin had considered a career in either nursing or teaching; given her distaste for hospitals, teaching won out. In this regard, Sabin fits the pattern of an earlier era: both nursing and teaching are historically feminized routes to the middle class, which, at different points in the past, have been largely populated by young Irish Catholic women like Sabin. (Though, presumably, few of those earlier teachers would have graduated from Harvard.). Fulfilling the coursework and observation hours required by Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, but feeling overwhelmed by the demands of her senior year, Sabin deferred the student teaching component of the program. However, that meant having to “hang around” for an additional semester after graduation and not being qualified to look for a job until the following January, which seemed less than ideal. TFA neatly elided that extra semester’s worth of time and got her into a classroom right away.

Sabin did not consider the missed student teaching to be an issue. Having spent all four of her undergraduate years working with an organization called Citystep, which taught dance classes to fifth graders in Cambridge public schools, Sabin had learned a lot about the culture of urban students and how to work with them. And even though Sabin herself had been through preparatory coursework, she did not necessarily see it as essential to becoming a teacher. As she recalled, the classes were “just so fun, but they were not rigorous,” especially compared to her other undergraduate courses. Indeed, the experience put her off getting an education degree. Ruefully recalling her naïveté – “I was totally excited and I really felt that this was my life’s work and I was going to be awesome … I really thought I was much better than I was” – Sabin realized her mistaken belief that she had been more prepared (by Citystep, for example) than she actually was. Nonetheless, even in retrospect, Sabin did not connect her lack of preparation to the missed student teaching portion of her preparation.

Sabin had “a horrible first year and a great second year” teaching high school English in Pasadena, California. Unfortunately, Sabin’s great second year was followed by a demoralizing third year as she realized how little control she had over the problems her students brought to the classroom. Seeing the roots of her classroom struggles in the larger social context, just as Simes had done, Sabin too began to debate her commitment to urban teaching. When she relocated to Boston to be near her future husband, she found herself weighing a teaching job in the Boston Public schools against the idea of teaching at Milton Academy, the private school she herself had attended:

I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about the whole urban teaching thing, anyway. Am I up for this? I am just not sure I can make lemonade out of these lemons anymore. Um, plus Boston wasn’t hiring. … So, all of that said, you know what, let me just try teaching at Milton and then I will know something about teaching. If I hate teaching at Milton, I hate teaching. If I like teaching at Milton, then maybe it is just an urban ed[ucation] is just not my thing. So, I took a chance and got a job at Milton … And I loved it (p. 31).

Though Sabin taught happily at Milton Academy for five years, she left when she had children and could no longer justify teaching at a salary that barely covered her childcare costs.

No longer a classroom teacher today, Sabin nevertheless managed to find her way back to the concerns of urban education. She is currently the chair of an organized grassroots effort to win local overrides to limits on state education funding in Massachusetts. Specifically, Sabin has assumed a critical unpaid and on-the-ground role in the local politics of school funding, in which she carries out the difficult work of canvassing, organizing, and advocating. As she explained,  

So, then people like me will … run the campaign and we produce lots and lots of literature to try and explain what this particular chunk of money will pay for and what you [the voters] will lose if you don’t approve it.  … And then we try and find volunteers to work every single neighborhood in town and just talk to people. And the biggest challenge is … [that] people don’t even show up for these votes … and that is why you get those neighborhood people, because they know who is in that house and that he works killer hours and you really should get, have an absentee ballot, because, otherwise, he will never show up, that kind of stuff. … I do that kind of work.

Sabin’s work to increase school funding is informed by a perspective on social inequality that she attributes to her years in TFA. Even though many of her neighbors balk at higher taxes, Sabin herself believes that it is their responsibility, as a more affluent community, to bear the burden of supporting their local schools, so that precious state aid can go to those schools and communities with greater need. Sabin credits her feelings, at least in part, to her TFA experiences: “the TFA piece of me … has informed my community work.”


Born in Nicaragua to parents who worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, Andrew McKenzie’s upbringing spanned the globe. After brief stints in Budapest and England, McKenzie spent his formative elementary school years on the embassy compound in Kuwait, where he attended the American School with students from all nationalities. Following a short period in New Zealand, the family settled in Irvine, California, where, according to his parents’ wishes, McKenzie studied at a local junior high and high school.

As was the case with Simes and Sabin, neither of McKenzie’s parents had earned a four-year college degree,7 though his father did complete an associate’s degree and his mother took several college courses. Nevertheless, as McKenzie remembered, his mother in particular emphasized education in a variety of ways. An avid reader, she modeled and encouraged the importance of reading in the household. She introduced her children to museums and helped them learn about the many places they lived; she also took his and his sister’s schooling very seriously, monitoring their homework, grades, and progress. Even through college, McKenzie remembered his mother taking great interest in his intellectual studies. He surmised that his mother would have loved to have gone to college herself, but she never got that opportunity, as she left school to help support her family when her father died.

Though McKenzie’s parents knew it was important for him to apply to and get into college, they “weren’t really savvy about … the entire picture of making sure that I applied for …  scholarships or that I applied to a lot of, you know, different places.” He applied to University of California, Irvine, because it was local and part of the UC system, which meant it was also relatively affordable, something McKenzie remembered as having been important. McKenzie parlayed his double major in philosophy and Russian literature into a Ph.D. program in Russian literature at Cornell University.

A semester into his doctoral studies, McKenzie came across the announcement for TFA in the Cornell student newspaper. At this point, he was doing well in his studies and on track to earn the Ph.D. and become a professor—the only capacity in which he had entertained the idea of teaching. But he remembered misgivings as well: “What if I put in all this time and I get a Ph.D. and then I find out, when I start teaching for real, that (a) I am either not good at it, or (b) I don’t like it?” TFA offered McKenzie a means of answering his questions before dedicating another six years to earning his degree and teaching “for real.” A valid way to explore teaching, TFA was also an experiment, to be undertaken before beginning his “real” career.

Yet McKenzie also admitted to a desire “gnawing” at him, at 22, to “do something else right now that means something.” Like Simes, McKenzie invoked the Peace Corps and the idea of a “call to service” to explain the appeal of TFA. He related to his mother’s decision to join the Foreign Service, which was inspired by President Kennedy’s famous invitation to “do for your country.” As with Simes and that earlier generation’s Peace Corps participants, McKenzie gravitated to the promise of self-directed adventure in service of making a difference:

It seemed to me like it was a climate of people taking it upon themselves to risk … to venture out and attempt to have a positive effect on the world and not wait for someone else … to direct themselves.

In parsing his interest in TFA, McKenzie also allowed that TFA’s model of “the young leading the young” – the founder, Wendy Kopp, as well as the interviewers and program staff were all the same age as McKenzie – added significant excitement to the endeavor. All of this, McKenzie reflected, took shape in a historical moment that seemed especially ripe for the kind of quest TFA represented:

[T]his is barely a year after, you know, the Berlin Wall, and Nelson Mandela is freed that year, and, I mean, it is just there was some very exciting historical things going on. … The things you thought would never come to pass were coming to pass.

As he summarized, “to get down to the real core of it … it was real work that I was very interested in doing.” For McKenzie, like Simes, TFA offered the chance to do good and prove himself, while also providing a practical “trial run” for what he believed his future career might be.

Among the three participants considered here, McKenzie was perhaps the most fortunate to receive the support of strong instructional veteran teachers during his first years of teaching. When McKenzie student taught during TFA’s Summer Institute, his cooperating teacher took copious notes – “basically a transcript of everything that had happened” – and then shared her detailed feedback with him every day. As McKenzie remembered, he then took her suggestions and acted on them immediately in his next class, which created a tight loop of feedback, revised practice, and more feedback. On the strength of his student teaching experiences, McKenzie was requested by the principal and assigned to that same school for his TFA teaching commitment. There, he fell under the tutelage of another powerful veteran teacher, someone who ultimately mentored him for over 10 years in two different school settings. In his initial year of teaching, McKenzie team-taught with this mentor and another teacher, only thereafter moving into his own classroom.

During his two-year TFA teaching stint, McKenzie was also enrolled in a credentialing program through the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Unlike Sabin, McKenzie remembered his training as having “pretty good” content, taught by master teachers from the district. But he too questioned the utility of teacher education classes. He allowed that “there’s something really useful and hands-on about having the training simultaneously to your teaching, because you’re applying it every day and you have real substantial questions to bring back … as opposed to getting all the training first without really setting foot, for real, in the classroom.” Ultimately, he stated, “I feel like I got most of my training on the job,” an important component of which was “simply going to my mentor’s room and talking with him or talking with some of the other teachers.”  

After his first years of teaching, McKenzie was hooked. Though he left the classroom after three years (his TFA commitment plus an additional year) to complete a master’s degree in Slavic languages, he chose not to pursue the Ph.D., returning instead to Los Angeles to teach. As he recalled, his master’s studies seemed “very esoteric” compared to what he described in teaching as “palpable and worthwhile.” Even so, McKenzie struggled with his decision to commit to teaching, though he eventually followed his instincts for what became a life of educating.

Since earning his National Board Certification in 2002, McKenzie has held a variety of leadership positions and begun work toward a doctorate in education. Despite plenty of opportunities to teach in wealthier communities, McKenzie continues to work with underserved populations. He recounted his aunt’s invitation to apply for a faculty position in the “very nice and successful private school” where she taught in San Diego. He considered the possibility: “I could do that and it could be an interesting challenge, and, you know, after all, teaching is teaching wherever you are, kids are kids to a certain point,” but he decided against it.

[A]t the end of the day, those kids [at the private school] are going to be all right, and I may not be the difference-maker in them, you know, making some good choices down the line and succeeding. And I think that draw has always been a motivation for me to go somewhere and to try to be that difference-maker, and I think that is one of the drives that I carry with me from Teach for America (p. 33).

As with Simes and Sabin, McKenzie credited his TFA experiences with developing a more social justice-oriented understanding of and approach to education.


Oral history evidence, we have argued, may yield new insights, not only about the experiences and perceptions of participants, but about the larger context of urban teaching. Clearly, these narratives offer rich grounds for a variety of analyses. For this paper, we mean to show how careful analysis of the narratives enables us to meaningfully situate TFA participants’ experiences into a larger body of research about urban teachers and, as a result, introduce new perspectives on the problems of staffing urban schools.

To set the groundwork, we submit that issues of teacher recruitment, training, and retention have dominated debates about education, especially the education of underserved students, for the past two decades, and that TFA is deeply implicated in such debates. Policy conversation during this time has framed the problem of how to provide qualified teachers for all classrooms as a problem of supply – that is, a teacher shortage (in particular subject areas or types of schools, for instance) or, more specifically, as a shortage of good teachers (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Accordingly, policy solutions have been directed toward increasing teacher supply and improving the quality of teachers (i.e., National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1997), and have promoted a broad spectrum of initiatives to recruit new, more desirable candidates into teaching (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004; Hirsch, Koppich, & Knapp, 2001; Ingersoll, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2001). One critical means of attracting these new, desirable teachers can be seen in the rise of alternate route programs, of which TFA is a prime example (Feistritzer, 2005; Hammerness & Reininger, 2008; McKibben & Ray, 1994).

Some scholars, however, have countered with a different interpretation of the problem. For example, Ingersoll (2001, 2002) claims that urban schools cannot adequately staff classrooms with qualified teachers because of a “revolving door,” or a high rate of teacher attrition, a problem that cannot be solved by increased teacher recruitment. In essence, Ingersoll shifted the terms of the discussion, focusing on the organizational conditions (rather than teacher characteristics) of schools and attrition as the real problems. Researchers during this period amassed an estimable body of work on teacher attrition in general. Studies examined which teachers tended to leave teaching, and why (Bobbitt, Leich, Whitener, & Lynch 1994; Boe, Cook, & Sunderland, 2007; Heyns, 1988; Ingersoll, 2001). They attempted to correlate individual characteristics – age, years of experience, teaching field, certification, possession of a master’s degree, undergraduate institution attended, or test scores – with attrition (Bobbitt et al., 1994; Boe et al., 1998; Grissmer & Kirby, 1992; Lankford, Loeb & Wyckoff, 2002). More particularly, recent studies have attempted to establish whether those who enter the classroom through TFA leave at higher rates than more traditionally trained teachers (Boyd et al., 2009; Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; Heilig & Jez, 2010; MacIver & Vaughn, 2007; Miner, 2010; Noell & Gansle, 2009). In general, such studies have employed large aggregate data sets, including the “Schools and Staffing Survey” and its supplement, “The Teacher Follow-up Survey,” both conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. These data have helped researchers draft a broad picture of teacher mobility over time, identifying how many teachers stay at their schools from year to year, how many move, which teachers move, and even where they go (i.e., to other schools, other professions, or other fields) (Whitener, Gruber, Lynch, Tingos, & Fondelier, 1997). But the authors of these studies also recognize that they lack critical information, such as detailed knowledge of teachers’ preferences and alternative opportunities (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004). They claim that there is “much to learn” about the behaviors they document, including clearer identification of the factors that influence individual choices to enter and leave teaching (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002).

Our work is poised to address some of those gaps. The narratives here are quite specific: they represent the experiences of three teachers who entered urban classrooms in the early 1990s by way of a selective, alternate route. Unlike existing research that depends on large data sets, our narrators’ textured descriptions, within a specific historical context and individual life trajectories, provide valuable evidence not only about the behavior of these teachers, but about their thinking. By illuminating the perceptions, assumptions, and considerations of our narrators, the oral histories document participants’ experiences but also reveal the rich, complicated set of factors and relationships that teachers invoke to explain their choices. Such details, we argue, may help us to think differently about staffing urban schools.

In what follows, we compare the trajectories of these TFA participants with what we know about the choices and careers of more traditionally trained teachers. First, we examine the self-described characteristics that distinguished our TFA participants from traditional-entry teachers. Such characteristics include educational background, social status, motivations for teaching, beliefs about the profession, and preparation (where traditional-entry teachers would have completed either undergraduate- or master’s-level preparation and fulfilled certification requirements to enter the classroom, 1990 TFA participants began teaching after an eight-week summer institute).8 Then, we turn to the ways in which, despite such differences, the TFA participants’ negotiations around staying in or leaving urban teaching align with what we know about the experiences of traditional-entry teachers teaching in similar environments. On the basis of these findings, we make a case that the conditions of urban teaching may have been powerful enough to outweigh the differences of teacher characteristics associated with TFA teachers, the very characteristics that purportedly made them more desirable teachers for urban schools.


Compared to traditional-entry teachers and even other alternate route candidates of the last 20 years, TFA participants have been particularly distinguished by their elite academic credentials from top colleges or universities (Humphrey & Wechsler, 2007). Compared to the mass of teachers, they share this distinction with a small subset of teachers trained in elite undergraduate colleges (Tamir, 2009) or selective graduate programs, such as UCLA’s Center X (Olsen & Anderson, 2007). Jeffrey Simes, Caroline Sabin, and Andrew McKenzie graduated from, respectively, Yale, Harvard, and the University of California, Irvine—among the most selective institutions within the nation’s highly stratified higher education system. They majored in the liberal arts disciplines of history, English literature, and philosophy/Russian language. (Of the three, only Sabin took any education coursework as an undergraduate.) Such individuals have been welcomed into teaching as standard bearers for a finer quality of academic preparation than is often associated with teacher candidates (Boyd et al., 2007; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2004).

Yet along with elite academic preparation, our subjects also brought an unusual status to teaching, by virtue of their undergraduate institutions. Attendance at highly selective colleges and universities in America confers a special status or cultural capital, which awards graduates both a high degree of social respect and unique links to power and influence (Bourdieu, 1986, 1996; Tamir, 2009). Even graduates such as our narrators, who came from arguably modest backgrounds, become part of “a select group that enjoys privileged access to lucrative occupations that bestow social, economic, and cultural capital that teaching can never match” (Tamir, 2009, p. 530).9 As their stories attest, our subjects struggled to reconcile the expectations associated with their undergraduate credentials with their choice to teach (Tamir, 2009; Snodgrass, 2010). For TFA participants, this conflict resulted in motivations and pathways into the classroom far different from those of traditional entry teachers.

As research has shown, traditional-entry teachers have been drawn to the occupation over the last several decades for (1) altruistic reasons, that is, for the opportunity to help children develop and grow (Lortie, 1975; Morales, 1994); (2) for gender-related reasons—as Tamir observes, there are “powerful social structures at play that still push primarily women with relatively low academic aptitude to teaching” (Tamir, 2009, p. 527; Condliffe-Lagemann, 2000); or (3) for the monetary rewards and working conditions, i.e., reliable salary and summers off (Clifford, 1989; Lanier & Little, 1986; Lortie, 1975; Zumwalt & Craig, 2005). Given their distinctive social statuses, however, TFA participants’ choice to teach involved a different set of considerations from those of traditional-entry teachers. For example, just as our participants’ academic achievement helped propel their upward mobility, it also made teaching seem to be an untenable long-term career choice for them. As Sabin described, her father associated the value of education with its earning potential: “Work equals money … you can make more of it if you are well educated.” Because of his beliefs, Sabin recalled, “it was really a problem for him when I decided to become a teacher. That just didn’t make any sense [to him] at all.” Likewise, the bewildered reaction of Simes’ parents to his decision to join TFA suggests that teaching was somehow an inappropriate choice: “They understood my desire to do good in the world … [but they wondered], ‘there’s so many other things you can do … does that [teaching] really need to be the thing you do?’” And McKenzie described having to explain to his mother that, because TFA was a “quasi-Peace Corps type of deal,” he didn’t necessarily have to stay beyond two years. “[W]hen she heard that, she was like, ‘all right, you’ve got my support.’”

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of TFA for many public commentators has been the program’s success in convincing “the best and brightest from elite schools like Yale, with presumably much better-paying offers” to give up (at least) “two years of their upwardly mobile lives to teach” (Graves, 2008). The question of whether teaching is a poorly or well-paid position is deeply dependent on context—from whose perspective, at what historical moment. Shrinking opportunities in the bleak economy of the early 1990s may have made teaching seem putatively attractive to our subjects, but as Liu et al. (2000, p. 1) attest, for well-educated young people, “choosing to teach has always meant foregoing higher-paying alternatives.” Indeed, some economists have theorized that the “dramatic erosion of relative teacher earnings since 1960” has served as an important disincentive to teaching, particularly among high achievers who have other options (Allegretto, Corcoran & Mishel, 2008; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2007, p. 73). Clearly, financial reward was not driving TFA participants.

Beyond (though certainly related to) remuneration is the questionable social status of teaching. As sociologist Dan Lortie (1975) wrote in his landmark study, Schoolteacher:

Teaching, from its inception in America, has occupied a special but shadowed social standing . . .  [it is] accorded high respectability of a particular kind; but those occupying it do not receive the level or types of deference reserved for those working in the learned professions, occupying high government office, or demonstrating success in business.

Less kindly, the occupation has been called “careerless,” due to its lack of advancement opportunities, or appropriate for those incapable of doing anything else (Lortie, 1975; Waller, 1932). To a great degree, the low status of teaching stems from its longtime reputation as “women’s work,” a result of the profound historical feminization of the job and the devaluation of women’s work (Biklen, 1995; Condliffe-Lagemann, 2000; Etzioni, 1969). More recently, as opportunities have opened for greater numbers of women to work in fields beyond the so-called feminized professions, teaching has suffered the loss of high-achieving women who might once have chosen to teach (Darling-Hammond, 1984).

Given the stigma around teaching, and with presumably many other options from which to choose, why did the TFA participants elect to teach? In large part, because of the way that TFA redefined teaching. Sabin joined TFA having already dedicated herself to becoming a teacher, but she benefited from the accelerated route into the classroom that represented a keystone of TFA’s conception of teaching. The interests of Simes and McKenzie, who had not considered becoming K-12 teachers, were directly related to the vision of teaching promoted by TFA. Specifically, these three subjects recalled the appeal of teaching through TFA variously as an opportunity to serve or improve society, an adventure, a quick route to the classroom, and, finally, a limited commitment that could ease them from college into the real world without having to make any binding decisions about their future. In what follows, we examine each of these purposes that TFA teaching fulfilled for participants: teaching as service, teaching as adventure, a shortcut to teaching, and teaching as a “next step.”


As Lortie’s (1975) study found, teachers in the later twentieth century chose their occupation primarily because they believe that teaching is a service of special moral worth. But he added that “teaching as service is more likely to appeal to people who approve of prevailing practice than to those who are critical of it” (p. 29), and asserted that few such individuals enter teaching either to work with “disadvantaged students” or to change education. For our three participants, as with some other alternate-route candidates and teachers from elite colleges or highly selective graduate programs, teaching as service was intimately linked to the work of improving or changing the education of underserved students (Chin & Young, 2007, p. 77; see also Rogers, 2008). Sabin identified her pursuit of teacher preparation at Harvard as a consequence of her Catholicism, which exhorted her to “help people” and led her to look for “some sort of service job.” Whether or not her sentiments sprang from the radical underpinnings of social justice present in some versions of Catholicism, she remembered that, by the time she got to her TFA student teaching in South Central L.A., she had embraced a deeply reform-minded notion of service: “Believe me, I thought I was some sort of missionary.” Simes and McKenzie also conflated teaching with a change-oriented kind of community service, comparing TFA to a “domestic Peace Corps.” As McKenzie said, TFA symbolized a “call to service” and a way to “do something … right now that means something.” He understood the possibilities of teaching in urban schools within the context of the “very exciting historical things going on,” such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the freeing of Nelson Mandela, which were changing the world.

The notion of teaching as “service” has deep roots in the history of American schooling. Teaching has long been portrayed as a special mission, guided by a sense of principle and altruistic dedication rather than learned expertise or interest in status or money. Unfortunately, the conceptualization of teaching as an altruistic service undermines the idea of teaching as a profession that requires substantial training and commitment. As Simes explained:

I didn’t look at it [teaching] as … the pedagogical profession, the imparting of knowledge to young minds. I viewed it as much more of a “let’s go into the … toughest schools in the hardest neighborhoods, let’s, you know, do volunteer work,” basically.

Notably, Sabin more readily considered teaching as a “helping” career option than did the two male counterparts here, who conceded their interests to have been more aligned with adventure or historical significance. In this regard, the motives of Simes and McKenzie differ in important ways from those of both traditional-entry teachers and those trained in elite colleges and graduate programs. Traditional-entry teachers may have pursued teaching as a “helping” vocation, while those trained in elite settings may have viewed teaching as a means of reforming education and society, but both of those groups viewed teaching as a professional commitment.


Indeed, a significant aspect of Simes and McKenzie’s motives involved their desire to rebel against perceived social expectations and “prove” themselves by teaching through TFA. As Simes remembered, he was attracted to the idea of taking “a road less traveled” by choosing “this kind of wild, funky new thing that no one’s ever heard of, and … rebelling.” The inaugural nature of the opportunity made it seem even more adventurous—as Simes joked, “It wasn’t like … the Rhodes Scholarship where they’ve been around for a hundred years and everybody wants it. It was kind of like, you know, we’re guinea pigs and we’re willing to do it.” McKenzie concurred, recalling that he joined TFA “when it was just an idea and … there was no track record.” He admired TFA as “a climate of people taking it upon themselves to risk … to venture out and attempt to have a positive effect on the world and not wait for someone else … to direct themselves.” That sense of agency on the part of his own generation appealed to McKenzie; even Sabin recounted her belief that TFA was “a great adventure to be part of.” By linking the work of teaching in low-performing schools with a significant common mission to serve America, TFA presented educationally privileged youth of the 1980s an opportunity to “make a difference” and to rebel against social expectations.10 As a result, promising young graduates such as Simes, Sabin, and McKenzie, whose elite education and social networks arguably would have equipped them to do almost anything they wanted, chose to teach in urban schools.


More practically, TFA also offered participants a shortcut to the classroom compared to the route followed by more traditionally trained teachers, who dedicated time to pre-service teacher preparation. Though not a primary motivation, the ease of entry, nonetheless, came into play for all three participants, and contributed to their beliefs about how one learns to teach. Sabin recalled her relief at being able to skip the student teaching hours associated with her undergraduate teacher preparation program and go directly to the classroom. Simes remembered thinking that TFA would be “a fairly quick and easy way to get into the classroom compared to other routes, which I had already failed to avail myself of.” And finally, because TFA required little upfront preparation, McKenzie saw it as a low-cost opportunity to test out the work of teaching, to “verify to myself … will I like teaching and am I any good?”  

On the basis of their TFA involvement, all three remained skeptical of pre-service education and concluded that one learns to teach by teaching. Simes discounted the utility of both the summer institute (with the exception of student teaching) and the credentialing program in which he participated for a time. Sabin denounced the lack of rigor she remembered from her Harvard undergraduate teacher education courses, and declared that the only way to really be prepared to teach was to “know what is going to come at you,” which for her meant being in the classroom. And while McKenzie acknowledged the usefulness of his teacher education courses (in large part because they occurred simultaneously with his teaching, so he could apply things immediately), he also believed he got most of his training “on the job, by simply going to mentor’s room and talking with him or talking with some of the other teachers.” In sum, unlike more traditional-entry teachers, these TFA participants’ experiences reaffirmed for them the validity of entering teaching without pre-service training. In this, their views represent the arguments of  “deregulation” proponents of the time, who advocated fewer requirements in order to attract new types of teacher candidates (Finn, 2003).


Lastly, participants relied on TFA to solve the problem of what to do following college. Among our subjects, Sabin pledged her interest in teaching early in her undergraduate career, but her decision to become a teacher was not unrelated to the conundrum of what followed college: “[I]n high school I always knew what the next step was. [But then] I … didn’t know what the next step was when I got to college and I got very antsy. … So I started thinking, right away, about where I would go next.” She quickly settled on teaching as a practical destination. Simes, on the other hand, spoke explicitly of having his “head in the clouds” about his future, and how TFA saved him:

[Y]ou haven’t paid attention, but guess what? No harm done. Come to TFA. We’ll take care of it all for you, we’ll fly you out to L.A., you’ll spend the summer teaching there and, boom, in the fall you’ll be a teacher.

Despite his disavowal of teacher education, the tone of Simes’ recollection suggests that he believed it would have been appropriate for him to prepare himself to enter classroom teaching. McKenzie, more like Sabin, had a plan, entering a doctoral program the fall after he received his BA. But a semester into graduate school, he entertained doubts. He wondered whether, after putting in so much time and effort, he would like university teaching, and he pined for an opportunity to “do something” while he was still young. For McKenzie, TFA provided a hiatus in which he could test out teaching and do something meaningful without having to close off any options or commit himself further to his Ph.D. studies.

Many contemporary college graduates, especially those who pursue a liberal arts course of study, have grappled with deep uncertainties about their post-graduate plans and careers, right up through and beyond graduation. That participants gratefully embraced TFA as a means not only of filling this void but also of putting off firmer commitments suggests several conclusions. Specifically, it may have been a sign of the sluggish economy and “white collar woes” faced by 1990 college graduates, which made it hard to enter a number of desirable fields (Alpert, 1990; Bernstein, 2003). More generally, it could indicate the uncertainty of liberal arts graduates in this period about how to connect their studies to the practical world of employment, since the liberal arts tradition emphasizes intellectual development through exploration, not occupational training (Toombs & Thomas, 1976). Or it may suggest a common developmental stage through which young people pass, in which they struggle to define their adult identities, establish their independence, affiliate with like-minded peers, and find meaning in life (Erikson, 1968). For all of these reasons, TFA may have served participants’ purposes.

Such reasoning aside, many critics have objected to the seemingly haphazard way in which bright college graduates who may never have considered or prepared for a teaching career can, at the last minute, enter the classroom through TFA (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002; Jelmberg, 1996; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002; Steffy & Wolfe, 2001). They argue that such “shortcuts” to the classroom undermine the professional nature of teaching by discounting the value of training and creating a two-tiered pathway. They argue, broadly speaking, that if teacher candidates were to choose their vocation early and prepare well, they would become committed professional teachers who would stay in the classroom. Yet this scenario isn’t necessarily borne out by research.

As it turns out, a good number of those who choose a traditional entry to teaching from a very early point are making what is essentially an expedient choice—just as expedient as that of the corps members we interviewed: “Many teens … enter college to be teachers and complete the degree, even when they know it was the wrong choice; thus one reason why only about half of all college of education undergraduates ever teach,” (Gray, 2009, p. 115). In the early 1990s, for example, over 50% of 1992-93 bachelor’s degree recipients who had prepared to teach did not apply for teaching jobs within the year following their graduation (Henke et al., 1997). Even if they do teach, many new teachers of the last several decades approached teaching as “one of several in a series of careers they expected to have,” suggesting a malleable commitment to the classroom (Johnson and The Project on the Next Generation of American Teachers, 2004, p. 28). The problem is particularly pernicious for schools in large urban centers, such as those in which our TFA subjects taught, where attrition rates far outpace those in suburban schools (See Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). And the phenomenon may occur even among teachers prepared in a highly selective program focused on urban teaching: as Hunter Quartz et al. (2008) report, in the first seven years of teaching, nearly a quarter of their sample of well-prepared urban educators moved “from teaching into roles [that were in the field of education, but] distanced from the core work of schools.”   

Despite differences in background characteristics, in when and how they decided to go into teaching, and in how they were prepared, TFA participants and traditional-entry teachers (including those prepared by elite colleges and highly selective graduate programs) nevertheless seem to share a common instability in their commitment to urban teaching. In what follows, we draw on the nuanced accounts of our subjects to illustrate how their experiences – particularly their choices around staying in or leaving the classroom – fit into normative career phases of teaching and echo recent findings about teacher attrition from urban schools. Ultimately, we argue, this matters because such synchronicities imply that the socializing influences of urban classrooms are quite powerful, and that they are even magnified both by a system that fails to support the induction and development of teachers over time and by a broader social context that devalues the profession. These similarities, then, help to raise larger questions about the nature of a career in urban teaching and the challenges of staffing urban schools.


Like most teachers of the last several decades, our subjects described the “reality shock,” survival, and discovery that defined their first classroom experiences (Huberman, 1989; see also Veenman, 1984). Simes recalled the “difficulty of doing anything remotely like teaching” in his overcrowded, poorly run school, using terms such as “chaos” and “anarchy” to describe his experience. Sabin used similarly colorful language, commenting that the students “ate you alive.” As she remembered, “I was lucky I didn’t drop out at Christmas. … I almost didn’t go back.” Perhaps because of the support he enjoyed, McKenzie talked about the first year’s challenges as learning opportunities, especially in his efforts “to gain control over it [his teaching] … to figure out when I’d had a bad day, what was it that I did that I need to stop doing or I need to start doing in order to not have those experiences and string the good days together.”  

Though some scholars believe that novice teachers generally reassess their choice to teach at the three- to five-year mark, recent research suggests that nearly a third of teachers actually leave during their first three years (Huberman, 1989; Ingersoll, 2002). In line with this trend, Simes opted out of classroom teaching after his two-year TFA commitment. But his particular insistence on finding something “a little bit more intellectual, a little bit … bigger” may well relate to what Olsen and Anderson (2007) describe as being an “atypical” teacher. These researchers distinguished the teachers in their study sample as “atypical” on the basis of their reasons for entering the profession, which were largely social justice-oriented, and their successful completion of a highly selective, rigorous, master’s level teacher preparation program at a top-ranked university. As they argue (p. 20) in reference to these “atypical” teachers, “[s]everal of them seemed to believe there was a ‘logic’ requiring them to ‘move on to bigger things.’” For these teachers, “bigger things” ran the gamut from higher status positions within education (principal, district level administrator, consultant, et cetera) to work in other professions altogether. The logic of “bigger things,” the authors note, grew out of a tension between the common perception of teaching as low status, poorly remunerated, gendered, short-term work and “atypical” teachers’ personal and social identification as “successful,” “academically talented” graduates of prestigious educational institutions. The latter implied membership in a political, economic, and cultural elite that did not square with “just” teaching (Olsen and Anderson, 2007; Tamir, 2009). By way of their motives for and beliefs about teaching, as well as their educational backgrounds, our narrators qualify as similarly “atypical” among the general population of teachers. In this regard, Simes’ choice of lawyering, with a large pro bono education practice, may well have been his way of resolving this tension, i.e., fulfilling his perceived status potential while remaining connected to the issues he cared about in education.

For Sabin, teaching at Milton marked her entry into a “stabilization” phase of teaching (Huberman, 1989). She developed a sense of mastery during these years, accompanied by the feeling that she was becoming “better and better” at her work. Like traditionally trained teachers who teach beyond the first four years, Sabin’s greater facility in the classroom led her to refine her curriculum, create new and relevant assessments, and experiment with more interesting and less traditional materials. Yet this stabilization seems to have been achieved in part as a result of Sabin’s move from an urban school, with all of its attendant challenges, to a more supportive private school serving less needy students.

Sabin is not unusual: the path from urban teaching to other, often more affluent schools is well worn (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2004; Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). Researchers have argued that this attrition is less about the opportunity to work with better prepared, wealthier students than it is about a desire to work in schools that offer more supportive teaching environments, including helpful administrators, collaborative faculties, and well-managed buildings (Johnson et al., 2004). Such elements are in short supply in troubled urban schools. Indeed, for many young teachers, the wearing conditions of urban teaching lead to burnout and attrition. Particularly for those who may have entered the field motivated by ideals of service or social justice, teaching underserved students in urban schools is “an all-or-nothing proposition,” requiring nothing less than full dedication (Olsen and Anderson, 2007, p. 14). Sabin’s narrative bears this out. Even after successfully teaching at Milton, she remained dubious about her ability to “handle” urban teaching because of its consuming nature:  

I am pretty sure I can’t hack it. I couldn’t hack it the first time … I am older but I am not sure that I am better able to handle—I think I am worse able, because I have a family now that I am protective of. Then, I was willing to just put myself out there. ‘Who cares if I get chewed up in the process? There is no one else who needs me.’ But [now] I can’t give myself to that (p. 38).

Sabin’s narrative also invokes another familiar pattern that has long been associated with teaching. For many women teachers, far more than for their male colleagues, their families have “determined or influenced entry to, persistence in, and departure from a teaching career” (Clifford, 1989, p. 320). Such circumstances have served to marginalize both women and teaching. For Sabin, urban teaching was out of the question given her family obligations, but even teaching at Milton ultimately became unsustainable. Her primary reason for leaving Milton was financial: she could no longer cover the costs of childcare with her teaching salary. But it is only by consulting the details of her life narrative that it becomes apparent how the idiosyncratic forces of family, social expectations, and personal needs influenced her career path.

In moving from teaching to grassroots educational politics, Sabin left the classroom but, like Simes, pursued activities related to educational equity. In their choice of educational advocacy work, both subjects suggest the phenomenon of “role changing,” which researchers have associated with teachers trained by highly selective graduate programs (Hunter Quartz, 2008; Olsen and Anderson, 2007, p. 23). Referring to a sample of over 1,000 teachers prepared through the specialized graduate program, “Center X,” at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hunter Quartz et al. (2008, p. 239) assert that, “as these well prepared teachers gain experience, they do leave teaching;” yet rather than leaving the field, such teachers often seek out other roles and opportunities in or related to education. Among role changers’ reasons for leaving classroom teaching were the poor working conditions of urban schools, the wish to have a bigger impact on urban education, and social pressure to achieve a higher status than teaching could afford (Olsen & Anderson, 2007).

The researchers suggest that their results are generalizable to “well prepared teachers,” but given the stories of our subjects, it seems that these conclusions may also apply to those teachers who enter teaching without strong preparation, but who possess a high level of cultural and social capital. Scholarship has long shown that teachers with more elite educational backgrounds, measured by attendance at elite undergraduate institutions, majors in subjects other than education, and test scores are those most likely to leave education (Darling-Hammond & Sclan, 1996; Guarino, Santibanez, & Daley, 2006; Murnane, Singer, Willett, Kemple, & Olsen, 1991; Stinebrickner, 1999). More specifically, Thomas (2005) found that teachers with greater social capital indicated a greater propensity for role changing. The value of role changing aside – is it beneficial to keep these individuals within the larger field of education or does it hurt students when they leave the classroom, or both? – our stories suggest that both well-prepared teachers and TFA participants with high levels of social capital are likely candidates for role changing. This, in turn, implies that social capital, when it collides with the constraints of urban teaching, may in fact exert significant influence on such teachers’ decisions to leave teaching.

Education researcher Karen Hammerness (2006) points out that even teachers who are fully committed to teaching will face many possible “branches” in their career, at which point new opportunities, family and social obligations, or other challenges will require them to evaluate whether or not to continue teaching.

McKenzie, unlike Simes and Sabin, stayed in the urban classroom for an unusually long time. Across McKenzie’s career trajectory, at critical points where he might have left the classroom, he opted to continue teaching. Why? These answers also fit into what we know about the career paths of traditionally trained teachers. McKenzie clearly took to teaching – he found it intellectually engaging and he was good at it – and his path provides evidence of the factors that encouraged him. From the cooperating teacher who regularly provided pages of notes on his beginning teaching efforts to the team teaching arrangement of his first year, from home visits made with other teachers to a supportive principal and a “very experienced but still forward thinking” faculty that “really looked after me,” McKenzie benefited from the just the kinds of supports that can nurture teachers’ growth in as well as their commitment to the profession (Hammerness, 2006; Johnson et. al, 2004). Yet even for McKenzie, despite the supports and efficacy he experienced in teaching, making a long-term commitment to the profession required an emotional leap:

[I]n any job, you want to feel like, you know, you’re pretty good at it, and that it means something at the end of the day and, you know, it’s important work, and I think I was finding those things. And, I think, as much as I resisted it, I think I found that is what I want to do with my career … even though every time that thought came up I was like, no, I thought I was going to go and do something different.

Why should making a commitment to work perceived as important, rewarding, and meaningful be so difficult? Huberman (1989, p. 34) observes that the act of committing to classroom teaching “is not a simple affair,” entailing as it does “the double act of choosing and of giving up other choices.” Some life cycle theorists portray the act of choosing a defined professional role as a positive resolution to the “ego diffusion” that results from prolonged role uncertainty (Huberman, p. 33; see also Erikson, 1950; Gould, 1978; and White, 1952). But for some individuals, particularly those with multiple interests, talents, skills, and options, choosing one career path may provoke such anxiety that they resist sacrificing their options (Pask-McCartney & Salamone, 1988). What is perhaps more specific to McKenzie’s case, and relevant to our argument, his choice to teach bumped up against that tension between public perceptions of teaching and his own educational achievements and professional options. In other words, teaching may have seemed a choice that went against the grain of social, and even personal, expectations.

On the other hand, the unusual support he experienced as a novice teacher may have made McKenzie’s initial commitment to teaching possible, while the opportunity to experiment with new challenges associated with classroom teaching helped to keep him there (Huberman, 1989; Johnson et al., 2004). For example, McKenzie earned his National Board Certification and took on a variety of leadership positions from grade level chair to instructional specialist and began work toward a doctorate in education. His experimentation has involved detours outside the classroom. Yet McKenzie argues, “The further away from the classroom I’ve gotten, the more I realize that … the most essential job in any district is teaching.” His current work, in which “I go in and I do demonstration lessons, and I team teach with teachers, and I coach coaches to teach teachers better,” still represents “the focus on good teaching;” indeed, he states, “I don’t ever want to lose that focus.” With his combination of responsibilities that straddles many classrooms and roles, McKenzie has clearly reached the “increased confidence and self-acceptance” that teaching career theorists associate with a phase of “serenity,” all the while demonstrating a deep commitment to continued development – across the boundary of the classroom – that “serenity” belies. This too reflects scholarship on retention: if teaching served as part of a “career ladder” that offered opportunities for increased or new responsibilities and growth outside of classroom teaching but close to the instructional work of schools, more teachers might be persuaded to stay or productively cycle in and out of classroom teaching (Johnson et al., 2004).


As members of the first cohort of Teach for America, Jeffrey Simes, Caroline Sabin, and Andrew McKenzie represented a different kind of teacher, one who was supposed to bring new and desirable attributes – elite undergraduate education, a liberal arts major, cultural capital, and altruistic motives aimed at social change – to the work of teaching. They epitomized the sort of teacher that a host of alternate route programs were designed to attract into the classroom, based on veneration of a particular set of qualities and on the idea that changing who was teaching would ultimately change the nature of urban schooling.11 In the intervening years since Simes, Sabin, and McKenzie entered the classroom, conflicting claims have emerged about the degree to which the characteristics that tend to distinguish TFA candidates actually give them an edge in the classroom, or make them “better” teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Darling-Hammond, Chung, & Frelow, 2002; Decker, Mayer, & Glazerman, 2004; Dobbie, 2011). The fact remains, however, that since the first cohort of TFA teachers entered classrooms, the debate about staffing urban schools continues to focus in large part on attracting individuals with specific background or personal characteristics that supposedly suit them better for the challenges of urban teaching than typical teacher candidates.

Analysis of our subjects’ stories within the context of the larger body of research about teachers’ lives and careers undermines this focus, by suggesting that the urban classroom itself acts as a powerful equalizer among teachers. While TFA participants generally bring unique characteristics to urban teaching, we saw how, in the case of our participants, many of those distinctions seemed to “wash out” over the course of their classroom experiences, to the point that their struggles around whether or how to stay in or leave teaching look very similar to those associated with teachers in general.

Specifically, through Simes, we see the “reality shock” in response to chaotic and unsupportive conditions that drives many teachers away in the early stages of their careers. Simes also provides an instructive example of the status clash that some teachers – for example, teachers deemed “more qualified” by their attributes (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002, p. 55), or teachers with higher degrees of social capital may experience – they leave the classroom because continuing to teach conflicts with an obligation or desire to attain greater prestige or make a “bigger” difference. Sabin also represents a common response to urban teaching in her retreat to a school that served less needy students. Sabin’s story is further complicated by the demands of her family, and the fact that teaching ultimately fails to pay enough for her to justify hiring childcare. These too are familiar refrains that shape the career arcs of many women teachers. Finally, if we take into account recent scholarship documenting the thinking and choices of more traditionally trained teachers, we can see validation of Hammerness’ (2006) point about the need to keep choosing teaching in the face of new life changes and opportunities, and the accompanying need for teaching to offer something positive to continue to attract that commitment (Johnson et al., 2004; Nieto, 2005; Salas, Tenorio, Walter, & Weiss, 2005; and Weiner, 2006). In MacKenzie’s story, finally, it becomes clear that the right supports at the right time, as well as opportunities for new learning and development outside of but related to the classroom, helped him to effectively move across that classroom boundary.

In the end, the TFA participants’ much lauded differences did not seem to inoculate them against the challenges of urban teaching. Nor, as it turns out, is this an isolated finding. Sykes, Bird, and Kennedy (2010) note that “the situations of practice” in which teachers find themselves play an influential role not only in defining their experiences, but also their “competence.” If the contexts and conditions of teaching exert such impact, it is little wonder that the career junctures of these three TFA participants mirror a more general pattern associated with the teaching careers of traditional entry teachers.

Our data echo other scholarship, which suggests that attending to the conditions under which all urban teachers work may be just as important as paying attention to who enters the field. Berry, Daughtrey, and Wieder (2009) write that while teaching “can and should recruit more talented individuals into the profession … contemporary evidence calls for less focus on individual teachers’ attributes and more attention to the quality of the structures that develop, support, and facilitate the work of effective teachers.” Even more specific to our case, on the basis of their recent survey of 2,029 TFA participants from the 2000, 2001, and 2002 cohorts, Donaldson and Johnson (2011) draw attention to the critical role of urban school conditions in TFA participants’ decisions to stay or leave teaching. As they conclude, hard-to-staff schools will ultimately succeed not “because they receive a steady stream of well-educated, committed novice teachers, but because they become places where those individuals find they can succeed and, therefore, choose to stay.” In short, as Berry et al. urge, we must pursue policies and practices that can create the working conditions and professional encouragement that teachers need if they are to “persist and excel in high-needs schools” and, in turn, make a substantive difference in the education of underserved youth.

Unlike larger, aggregate studies, the close-in investigation of these TFA participants’ choices and lives breaks new ground by demonstrating the variety of shifts they made along their professional paths over a 20-year time period – i.e., what they did – but even more importantly, by documenting their reasons for these shifts. But our analysis provokes new questions as well. In particular, along with Berry et al. (2009), we would advocate for “more finely-tuned” research to identify the specific conditions and supports that contribute to more effective urban teaching. On the strength of our findings (and against the contemporary grain), we would also argue that some of this future research ought to be qualitatively focused on drawing out the complicated connections between individual characteristics and experiences, on the one hand, and the particulars of the urban and professional contexts in which individuals are working, on the other. At the very least, as our work endeavors to show, the details of individual lives – as understood by those individuals – can add nuance and depth to our understandings of the challenges of staffing urban classrooms. Without such in-depth understanding we cannot ultimately participate in a more viable approach to meeting these challenges.


Research for this manuscript was supported by grants from the City University of New York Collaborative Research Incentive Grant Program and the PSC-CUNY Research Award Program.  The authors would also like to thank Judith Kafka, Ken Gold, and Karen Hammerness for feedback on early versions of this manuscript, as well as Heather Lewis, Jonathan Greenberg, and two anonymous reviewers for their help in shaping the final product.  


1. Barbara Veltri’s ethnographic study is a rare exception – see Veltri, B. T. (2010). Learning on other people's kids: becoming a Teach For America teacher. Charlotte: Information Age Publishing – as is Ng & Peter (2010), “Should I stay or should I go?  Examining the career choices of alternatively licensed teachers in urban schools,” Urban Review 42, 123-142. The several autobiographical accounts of TFA participants that exist demonstrate little (if any) connection to a serious scholarly conversation about teaching.

2. The inaugural year cohort taught in poor schools located both in rural and urban areas; this paper focuses on teachers and teaching in urban schools.

3. While much oral history practice has rightly focused on introducing the voices of disenfranchised and historically silenced individuals, Linda Shopes reminds us that interviews with the cultural elite can provide “the story underneath the story,” which often goes missing from the public record. See Shopes, L. What is oral history? Retrieved March 19, 2012 from the Making Sense of Evidence website: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/oral.pdf.

4. We had no formal way of determining participants’ race, though we did try to control informally for a racially diverse sampling.

5. Michel Patton describes snowball sampling as follows: “By asking a number of people who else to talk with, the snowball gets bigger and bigger as you accumulate new information rich cases.”  See Patton, M. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

6. As we later explore, such role changing over time, particularly within the larger field of education, has been noted among other groups of teachers who have been considered “elite” in terms of their education.

7. Approximately a third of the parents of the 30 participants from the larger study did not go to college.

8. The first cohort of TFA participants attended an eight-week summer institute; subsequently, the summer institute has consisted of five or six weeks of training.

9. It is interesting to note, however, that these participants’ educational privilege did not necessarily match their social backgrounds. Though Simes and McKenzie described their families as “middle class,” Sabin characterized her family and community as “blue collar” and “lower middle class,” and all three represented the first generation in their families to attend college. In fact, in terms of their social origins, Simes, Sabin, and McKenzie more closely resembled traditional teachers than scions of the Ivy League. Teachers have historically come disproportionately from middle-class origins. Yet in the case of these three participants, their social origins are also characterized by the notion of education as a cultural, social, and economic imperative. Specifically, Simes’ Jewish heritage, Sabin’s father’s economic ambitions for his children, and McKenzie’s mother’s thwarted educational opportunity suggest some of the important influences that pushed these individuals toward their academic achievement and private K-12 education.

10. The original letter sent by TFA staff member Daniel Oscar to recruit campus representatives equated TFA with “a common spirit, a common mission” to give back to America, an opportunity that the era’s college students were lacking. See Kopp, W. (2001). One day all children … The unlikely triumph of Teach for America and what I learned along the way. New York: Public Affairs, 2001, pp. 30-31.

11. Others may subscribe to the theory that improving urban education calls for changing who teaches in urban schools, but promote a different set of characteristics or attributes to define a successful urban teacher. See, for example, Haberman, M. (1995). Star teachers of children in poverty. Bloomington, IN: Kappa Delta Phi.

12. Interestingly, two participants who quit the program after their first year teaching, Christina Brown and Arthur Schuhart, went on to earn their teaching credentials and taught for many more years.


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Appendix A: Table of Interviewees, Years in Classroom, and Career

TFA Interviewees

Years in the classroom

Career (as of 2009)


Participants who quit the first year12


Feeley, Kathy


History professor

Lawson, Lori


Teaches fundraising for non-profits

Schneider, Jane



Stephan, Mark


Environmental policy professor


Participants who taught for 2 years


Name withheld

2 years


Brewer, Diane

2 years

Theatre professor

Brown, Furman

2 years

Director, school innovation organization

Downing, Spencer

2 years

History professor

Flanagan, Leo,

2 years


Joftus, Scott

2 years

Educational consulting

Lyles, R. Brent

2 years

Director, education non profit

Norbert, Bill

2 years


Ramos, Marife

2 years

Human resources administrator

Simes, Jeff

2 years


Trasen, Jan

2 years



Participants who taught 3-8 years


Bird, Eric

3 years

Golf course superintendent

Bond, Constance

3 years

Woodrow Wilson Foundation

Clark, Felicia

3 years

Math curriculum leader at L.A. Unified

Rosenstock, Ellen

3 years

Public Broadcasting Service Interactive

Turner-Weller, Heather

4 years


Robinson, Lisa

5 years


Sabin, Caroline

8 years


Schuhart, Arthur

8 years

English professor


Participants who taught 9-18 years


Brown, Christina

10 years

Director of school reform organization

Leon-Didion, Priscila

11 years

Science teacher

Childs-Wardlaw, Nichole


Certified nurse midwife

Name withheld


Education professor

MacKenzie, Andrew


Instructional specialist & grad student

Terrell, Avis

17 years

Assistant principal

Gomez, Carlos

18 years

Spanish teacher

Appendix B: Interview Guide

TFA Alumni Interview Guide

Biographical information/Personal History:

I’d like to learn a little bit about your personal history.


When were you born?


Where did you grow up?


What was the neighborhood like?


How would you characterize your family’s ethos concerning education? Was it important? In what ways?


What kind of school did you go to?


 Did anyone in your family work as a teacher or in education in some other capacity?


What kind of work did your father do?


Did your mother work outside the home? What did she do?


During the years in which you were growing up:


What kinds of activities, vacations and special holidays did you enjoy with your family?


Would you say your family was politically active? Can you describe what that entailed?


What role did religion play in your family?


Where did you attend college?


How did you choose this institution?


What was your major?


What extracurricular or community activities were you involved in during your undergraduate years?


Did you consider teaching as a career option during college?

Did you take any education courses as an undergraduate? If so, what do you remember about them?

Joining TFA:



Describe how you heard about TFA and decided to apply.


What materials, presentations, or literature did you see? What do you recall about these materials?


Tell me about the application and interview process.


How were you accepted to the program? What information did you receive about where you would be teaching and where you would be trained?


- What appealed to you about TFA?

- Were there aspects of your background [values, education, politics, family, teachers, peers, or experiences] that inclined you to apply to the program?

- What were your expectations in joining TFA?

-What do you remember about your parents’ reaction to the news that you were joining TFA?


What did you hope to get out of the experience?


What specific fears or concerns can you recall having about joining the program?

TFA Preservice Training: The summer institute w/ TFA.


What do you recall of the curriculum the training offered?


How many weeks were you there? Do you remember your schedule?


Where did you student teach?


If so, in what grade did you teach?


Did your cooperating teacher and/or your supervisor have an impact on you and/or your teaching? How?


What experiences did you have?


What events from this period stick out in your mind?


What do you recall about your students? Were there any surprises?


What did you imagine that teaching would be like after the training?

Teaching during the TFA two-year commitment:

Where did you teach?


- What grade level? Describe the school and its community.


Who were the students? The other teachers?


Were there other TFA teachers in your school?


What was your contact with them?


What was the role of other TFA teachers (not from your school) in your teaching experience?


In what ways was the TFA organization involved with your school experience


- How were you received in the school? How did veteran teachers treat you? Administration? Parents/students?


Did you attend a credentialing program while you taught?


If yes, what program?


What did you think of it? Tell me why.


What kind of involvement did you have with the larger community?

What was it like?

Tell me about this teaching experience – what do you remember?


What kinds of challenges did you encounter?


What did you feel was rewarding?


Did the experience meet your expectations?


Describe a memorable student.


Did you ever consider quitting the program? Why/why not?

Changes as a result of participation:


Do you feel that your teaching changed over these two years? In what ways?


Did your views of education change while you were teaching? Please describe.


And what changes did you experience personally during these two years with the program?

Post TFA Experiences:

Describe how your career progressed after you completed/left TFA.


What positions did you hold?


How did you decide to pursue these positions? What was behind these choices?

Do you think that your experience with TFA influenced your subsequent choices, beliefs or values?


Did the experience shape your career choices? In what ways?


Do you draw on your TFA experience in your current work? In what ways?


Did your TFA experience affect your politics? If so, how?


Do have a family?


Does the experience affect choices you make regarding your own children?


Did your time with TFA develop or change your views about education? In what ways?


As a result of your experiences, what kind of teacher preparation would you advocate? I.e., if President Obama invited you to the White House to advise him on education policy, specifically, teacher policy, what would you say that teachers need to know? Of what should teacher preparation consist?


Have your views of TFA changed over the years since you completed/left the program?

In what ways? Why?


Did your TFA experience change how you saw yourself as a person or your ideas about what you wanted to do in your life?


Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you feel it is important to add?


Do you consider yourself an advocate for education? What do you mean by that?


Do you have suggestions for us of other people we should interview?


Do you know anyone who left the program that we might interview for our project?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 6, 2013, p. 1-46
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16976, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 9:54:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Bethany Rogers
    The College of Staten Island
    E-mail Author
    BETHANY L. ROGERS is Associate Professor in the Education Department at the College of Staten Island and also holds an appointment in the Urban Education Doctoral Program at the City University of New York Graduate Center. An education historian, her work focuses on the history of teachers, urban education, and school reform, and the links between those histories and contemporary policy. Her work has also been published in History of Education Quarterly, The Oral History Review, and The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture.
  • Megan Blumenreich
    The City College of New York
    E-mail Author
    MEGAN BLUMENREICH is Associate Professor of Childhood Education and Director of the Childhood Education Program at The City College of New York, CUNY. Her research interests include urban education, teacher inquiry, and qualitative research methodologies. She is co-author of The power of questions: A guide to teacher and student research, Heinemann, 2005 and Teaching matters: Stories from inside urban schools, The New Press, in press.
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