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The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell’s TFA volunteers strong in numbers, spirit

On Wednesday, Sept. 3 Teach for America (TFA) released its annual list of schools contributing alumni to its 2014 teaching corps, with Grinnell being featured among the top 20 small colleges and universities for contributing 10 alumni this year. This is the fourth consecutive year that Grinnell made the list.

TFA looks for the same commitments that the College considers for its student body: over one-third of the 10,000 corps members in 2014 were first generation college students, almost half were Pell Grant recipients and about half identify as people of color.

“[One] of the most commendable things about TFA is that it … fundamentally changes the lives of the corps members who join the program,” wrote Ashley Schaefer, the director of the Careers in Education Professions program, in an email to The S&B.

TFA participants are required to spend at minimum two years in a high-need school. Schaefer commended the effect the program has had on Grinnellians after graduation.

“The large majority of corps members leave their stint as teachers, as educational activists and are very effective at leveraging their experiences in the classroom to push a new educational agenda in future positions,” she wrote.

Jacqui Vautin ’13 is currently in her second year of teaching in Alabama as a member of the TFA Corps. She teaches secondary math and coaches volleyball and track at her school, a Title 1 school where teacher turnover rates are incredibly high. She finds the most rewarding part of her job to be teaching her kids, although that comes at the cost of constant worry and work.

“I love my kids. I think I’m going to stay next year. Unless my school closes, which is a possibility,” Vautin said. “TFA is not a gap year program. Teaching school is incredibly hard.”

Vautin described experiences that she deals with on a daily basis as an example of the occurrences that can happen in rural districts mired in poverty, which TFA targets to ensure that these schools can maintain a full roster of teachers.

“We are currently under a desegregation order … so the Department of Justice is intervening … If you live anywhere in the projects … somehow you are just at my school,” Vautin said. “Working in a Title 1 school with extreme poverty and extreme behavioral issues, throwing lifesavers to kids who are drowning in poverty is extremely exhausting.”

Likewise, Vautin commended TFA’s efforts to put recruits in schools that struggle to keep teachers but she wants to make sure that Grinnellians know what they’re getting into.

“Grinnellians care about helping people, but when you enter TFA it’s just you and maybe 30 different adolescents in every period. If you’re somebody who has a lot of personal struggles or your heart’s not in the right place, this isn’t for you,” she said. “You better have a spine, because you’re going to go in every day and get cussed at, stuff thrown at you.”

Vautin credits her experiences in TFA to helping her mature drastically as a person in a relatively short period of time.

“TFA is very hard. TFA has made me a lot more resilient,” she said.

Along these lines, Schaefer is concerned about certain aspects of TFA and how meaningful these impacts are in the long term but she appreciates the program for doing its best to hold true to the goal of educating at-risk students and revitalizing poverty-sunken schools.

“The desire to do good and create change for the better defines most of the Grinnell students I’ve worked with over the past year, and while I have concerns about whether or not TFA is actually ‘doing good’ in some locations, TFA’s mission to provide quality educational experiences in low-income and at-risk schools meshes well with Grinnell’s belief in social justice,” she wrote.

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