When Dymir Arthur graduated from Rutgers in 2009, he had a short-term plan and a long-term plan. The long-term goal was to become a civil rights lawyer, which was not surprising. Arthur, a history and political science major, had been a social activist since middle school. But his immediate plan was to join Teach For America, and he did, becoming a special education English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia. His two years in the classroom were, he says, tough, wonderful, and personally transformative. Though no longer teaching – he was notified in May that he would be laid off due to cuts in state funding – he has since joined the staff of the national nonprofit. As Teach For America’s director of alumni in New York City, his job is to nurture relationships within the growing network of former corps members.
More than 3,000 TFA alums live in greater New York; 820 still teach, and others work elsewhere in education. Many have moved into other fields, but TFA believes they can also have an impact on its goal.
“We want people to stay connected. Teach For America is not just an organization. It’s a movement. We don’t just bring people into the organization to teach for two years, and then send them on their way. They are in it for life,” said Arthur, who works in mid-town Manhattan and lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Whatever you call it, TFA is attracting more applicants than ever. Founded in 1989 to foster educational excellence in low-income communities, it enlists and trains top college talent to become public school teachers for two years.
This fall about 9,000 first- and second-year corps members were employed in 34 states and the District of Columbia. While a weak job market has surely boosted interest in the program, it is also considered an effective force in the push for quality schools.
In recent years it has also evolved into an elite brand. Last year 48,000 college seniors applied to join; only 11 percent were accepted. Among the country’s large educational institutions, the biggest number came from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, with 119 graduates. Harvard was first among medium-sized schools, with 66. And Spelman had the greatest number among small colleges, with 36. Rutgers has 25 graduates in the 2011 corps, and interest from current seniors at Rutgers is running at an all-time high, TFA recruiters report. More than double last year’s number submitted online applications in August and September, the first two of the organization’s five 2011-12 deadlines.
Arthur, right, with his students at Benjamin Franklin High School. He says his two years teaching were tough, wonderful, and personally transformative.
During his first year Arthur taught English and managed a caseload of 15 to 20 special needs students, most of whom were not in his classroom. He was also appointed to the high school’s leadership team. During the second, he taught English and philosophy.
“There were a lot of parts of the job that were hard,” he said. “I didn’t always feel there was a cohesive vision for the school, and there were some leadership changes that made things difficult. There were times decisions were made that were politically motivated, and not in the best interest of kids – sometimes I wanted people to be a little more gutsy. I also got bothered at times by the emphasis on testing, and by curriculum that didn’t align with what the kids needed to know.” Deep budget cuts, meanwhile, stirred demonstrations in the community and attacks on teacher unions, but Arthur learned to tune out the noise: “I focused on things that were inside my control.”
On the plus side, he was welcomed by veteran teachers, who proved friendly, respectful, and helpful. His second year at the school went infinitely better than the first. He grew to understand that, while he could help close the achievement gap, he could not change the world. And of course there were the kids, most of whom were eager to learn. Seeing them progress gave him a feeling he had never experienced before.
“For me, teaching became a spiritual process, "said Arthur, who grew up in Camden County. "I really built strong relationships with my students, not only as a teacher but as human being. I learned how to humble myself enough, to realize kids are fantastic teachers."
And law school? “It’s still an interest of mine, just not this year,” Arthur said. “We need civil rights advocates for kids. I saw, on the ground, a lot of problems in the district that could be managed by legal reform.”
By Mary Jo Patterson