Le Prof Francaise

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 27 2011

TFA, do better

Something that has been bothering me for several months now is what seems like TFA’s assumption of socioeconomic privilege for its incoming corps members.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m so grateful to be a part of TFA and a part of the greater movement to close the Achievement Gap.  However, it is unfair for TFA to assume that each applicant who is admitted to the program can afford some of our required expenses.  For example, it is a requirement for us to have a laptop at Induction and at Institute.  Really, TFA?  What if I can’t afford a laptop?  Well, they might reply, that’s what you can use your transitional funding for.  I am grateful for my transitional funding, but I was thinking of using that for, you know, my transition, and not a laptop.  For the record, I do have a laptop, but I got one fairly recently compared to my peers and it was certainly somewhat of a struggle to afford one.  But someone who is not as fortunate as I might not own a laptop and might not have the means to purchase one in time for Induction/Institute (especially since we don’t get the transitional funding until after we start Institute).  Not everyone in TFA has money.

Certification exams themselves were expensive for me (in Michigan we must take three exams, and they are not cheap).  Moreover, I was barely able to afford a trip to Michigan to take those exams.  Then, placement interviews started a month later, and I had to interview via Skype because I did not have enough money to return to Michigan again.  I know that TFA will reimburse you for up to $250 for the cost of the flight, but I don’t have the money to get there in the first place, so I obviously can’t get reimbursed for a flight I can’t pay for.  Plus, the cheapest flight I found was around $400 (I live in Seattle now), so even with the reimbursement I’d still be out $150, which I desperately need for things like, you know, bills.  I still don’t have enough money to get to Induction in Detroit (costs money), and then get from there to Institute in New York (even if I carpool, this costs money.  Of course I plan to chip in for gas, and now TFA recommended that drivers stay in a hotel in Pennsylvania on the way to N.Y., so it looks like I need money for not only fuel but for a night in a hotel too).  Then once Institute is over, I need money to get back to Michigan and get an apartment, get a car (yes, that’s right folks.  I don’t own a car), and other things.  Again, I am so grateful for Transitional Funding, and I’m not trying to bash TFA here.  I’m just saying that we (as an organization) obviously realize that there are students who come from poverty, but we don’t seem to realize that there are some corps members (like me) who come from similar destitution.   Paying to get fingerprinted, then paying the FBI to do the background check itself, then a ridiculous mandatory payment for laundry at Institute (I could have done laundry on the weekends at my cousin’s place in NYC and saved money, but no.  I didn’t have the option.  You MUST use the laundry services at Institute), then payment for CPR/First Aid Certification, then later this fall will come payment for certification courses at the university (I’m not even considering the Master’s Program at this point)…. It’s all too much for me.  I.Can’t.Afford.It.  Not with rent, cell phone bill, food, etc.

It may seem like I’m whining and kvetching about being poor.  I’m really not.  I’m whining about TFA’s insensitivity to corps members who come from low-income backgrounds.  There should be more programs set up to help offset costs.  I don’t expect TFA to pay for everything, or even pay for most of our expenses.  I just expect TFA to at least think and talk about it.  It’s like they don’t even realize what an enormous financial burden that these requirements can place on some people.  It’s true that we corps members are all high-achieving and exceptional, but we come from different backgrounds.  Most people I encounter who are corps members or alums are middle to upper-middle class, affluent suburbanites.  There is nothing wrong with having money, and I don’t think people should ever have to apologize for their privilege.   But I’m a black chick from Detroit’s east side, and I definitely realize that I’m in a different arena when I’m dealing with TFA.  They have an air of nonchalance surrounding this issue.  It’s like, “Oh, it’s no big deal to give you all this stuff to pay for; you don’t need any help.”  Why yes, actually, I do.

There is no tab on TFAnet.org that I can click on called, “Struggling with costs?” and as far as I know, the e-mail address financialaid@teachforamerica.org does not exist.  We should work on that.  I’m not trying to sound like I don’t appreciate everything TFA has done for me, but I just think that TFA needs to open its eyes.

11 Responses

  1. jlange

    I totally agree. I’m a first-generation college student saddled with student loans that are worrying me like a ticking time bomb. Thankfully, my parents were able to pay for my PRAXIS exams and are going to make sure I make it to Institute; I’m still using an old gas-hog truck of theirs. They might not have been able to help me much with college, but they are supporting me in these start up costs. I am so thankful for my parents, but what if I didn’t have them? Well…. I’m not sure TFA would be a viable option.

  2. mrs. ohlams

    I think you make an excellent point. It’s especially interesting because TFA makes a point to say that they want to attract candidates from diverse backgrounds. The financial burden is very real and problematic. I’m one of the people lucky enough to have induction and institute in the same place. I can’t believe they make so many corps members travel to induction in their region and then go to institute hours and hours away. It seems like there is a better way to do that…like having induction after institute when you’ve arrived in your region for the fall.

  3. solopatriot

    I think many of us could agree with the sentiment you express in your post. If not for generous friends and my partner’s help, I would not have been able to afford the various, required costs for getting started with TFA – even with the transitional grant/loan. This is a conversation that is probably not a new one, but also, it is one not being held at a visible level. Thank you for bringing it forward, and hopefully, we can all work together to find a solution to this very real problem.

  4. elsa

    I’m totally with you. I’ve been saving like no other, but I’m still nervous.

  5. Alisha

    I was right there with you. I made it work, but I ended up paying off some credit card bills during the first year that I racked up during institute despite really watching my expenses. I actually think TFA should actively find more people like us because we end up being too poor to drop out…..better retention rate anyone?

  6. Kaye

    Yeah. There are a lot of assumptions built in to the way TFA operates.

    I’m not sure how institute is now – I did it seven years ago – but I remember alternately laughing and wincing through a lot of the training. There was one particular session that reminded me of nothing so much as one of those commercials where that old guy holds a big-eyed kid on his lap and talks solemnly about how much the child’s life blows. All of it seemed to assume that no one in the room was from a socioeconomic background similar to that of the kids in the districts where we’d be working. It made me really uncomfortable, like I was there undercover, spying on the the do-gooders.

  7. Katie

    I agree! It also bothers me that TFA does not disclose ALL of the costs before you apply/accept. I was not prepared for the $1,600 fee for Institute coursework, nor the costs for travel/testing. I also had a lot of communication problems with grants and loans and they simply neglected to give me any of my login info until AFTER the deadline (and I started to think my aid was going to be taken back and I had a panic attack).

    Not all of us have parents that are willing and able to help out and many of us don’t have the savings needed to cover extra costs.

    I hope it all works out for all of us…good luck!

  8. Franny

    I am glad you posted this – this has been frustrating me for an entire year, starting with the high costs of getting to induction, then Institute, then back again. While at Institute there were small disturbing things- such as being expected to buy “prizes” for our students, or having staff tell the bus drivers they “weren’t allowed” to stop for anyone running for the bus in the morning – leaving people needing to take $20-$40 cab rides to get to their schools. Our corps is required to attend a state licensure program that costs about $12,000 – and they didn’t tell us that ’til we got to induction. I have repeatedly felt like the expectations of TFA were entirely insensitive to low-income CMs – ironic, no?
    Oh, and Alisha – you are absolutely right about the retention rate – many in my region were dissatisfied and left the corps after the 1st year or earlier. I always said, no matter how mad I get I’m sticking, because I invested to much and need to keep the job!

  9. Sobchak

    You actually took every word from my brain and inserted it in a blog post. Amazing.

  10. G

    I’m late to this party, but I stumbled upon your blog today…and totally agree with your post. There is also another kind of CM: the non-traditional kind, with a family, bills and all those yucky responsibilities that come with adulthood. It cost me a ton of money to move my family, plus I’m the sole income in my household, so I totally understand where you are coming from…totally. TFA sometimes “forgets” that some of their applicants don’t have Mommy and Daddy to pay their bills.

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