Learning from Counternarratives in Teach For America

Moving from Idealism Towards Hope

by Sarah Matsui (Author)
©2015 Textbook X, 230 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 472


Grounded in the belief that hope comes from a place of reality, not necessarily popular ideology, this book explores the gap between designated and actual narratives within Teach For America. TFA founder Wendy Kopp stated that there is «nothing elusive» about successful teaching; people simply need to «work hard» and be «disciplined». Taking an inquiry stance, Sarah Matsui surveyed and interviewed 26 of her fellow corps members in the Greater Philadelphia region. Their counternarratives collectively problematize this standard reform rhetoric. Many are working hard, yet their stories and challenges are complex, elusive, and commonly self-described with the words «shame», «failure», and «isolating». Corps members reported experiencing new levels of fatigue, alcohol dependency, depression, and trauma during their two-year service commitment with TFA. Learning from Counternarratives in Teach For America utilizes multiple frameworks to analyze the depth and range of corps members’ experiences. Relevant to helping professionals and people working to address constructed systems of inequity, this book ultimately advocates for a more honest, contextualized, and egalitarian approach to reform – one that openly addresses both individual and systemic realities.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Counternarratives and the Complexity of a Fuller Truth
  • Chapter 2. Examining the “TFA Script”
  • Chapter 3. Unexpected Life Changes Teaching in TFA: Counseling, Medical Prescriptions, Weight Changes, Increased Alcohol Consumption, Strained Relationships, Fatigue
  • Chapter 4. The Reality of Trauma in TFA
  • Chapter 5. TFA’s Culture of Guilt and Shame
  • Chapter 6. The Complex, Politicized Process of TFA and CM Identity Development
  • Chapter 7. TFA Idealism and the Hero Teacher Narrative
  • Chapter 8. Listening and Learning from Counternarratives: Moving From Idealism Towards Hope
  • Appendix A. Titles & Acronyms
  • Appendix B. Journal Reflection
  • Appendix C. Data Analysis
  • Appendix D. Recommendations to TFA Staff on What Can Be Done to Better Support TFA Greater Philadelphia CMs
  • Appendix E. Elle’s E-mail
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This is an abridged note of acknowledgment, since adequate thanks would be a longer text than the entirety of this book.

There are many people of overlapping identities—students, colleagues, educators, CMs, helping professionals, academics, writers, friends—who helped this book come into being. I want to extend heart-held thanks:

To the staff at Peter Lang for providing me the formal opportunity and support to write and publish my first book. And to Hannah Mode, an incredibly talented artist, for collaborating with me and creating my cover.

To the academics who have fostered my growth outside of a PhD program. You have been generous with your time, and your ongoing support has been exceptional. In particular, Alice Ginsberg, my thesis advisor, was the first person to encourage me to write this book. I think I laughed when you first suggested it. Thank you for planting that idea, for your follow-ups, and for both your mentorship and friendship. Paul Thomas, who I have yet to meet in person, has acted as a sort of fairy godmother in the new world of academic publishing—helping me to navigate an unfamiliar space, providing quick responses to my range of questions, and inviting me to think more deeply about the social context of my work. Your contributions helped my book grow into itself. ← vii | viii →

To former students and educator colleagues. You are among the most human, dynamic, resilient, resourceful, and thoughtful people I know. My former students, I feel more grateful than I can articulate for the ways you’ve shaped my life. You have pushed the bounds of what I imagine possible in the world, in the best way possible, and I am so proud of what we accomplished together. I hope I have been a similarly positive presence in your lives. Courtney Lemon-Tate, Brenda Garcia, Caitlin Nelson, Alia Bukhowa, Allison McClain, Meghan Swanson—you are beautiful people, and I learned a new kind of camaraderie working alongside you. Joseph Dugan and Charles Jackson, I can only hope to be as brilliant and as much myself in whatever I do as each of you are brilliant and yourselves in your classrooms.

To my extended community and friends who, through my years in the corps, cooked meals for me, drove me home on snowy days, graded papers competitively and jokingly tracked their hours on the star chart, offered words of prayer and encouragement for me and my students, served as a sounding board for various lesson plan ideas, wrestled with and mourned the reality of injustices I encountered, affirmed and celebrated the reality of the good I experienced, gave me a space to rest over the summer, and more. People who, through this writing process, read drafts and provided feedback, tracked with my web of disparate thoughts, listened to my insecurities and concerns, reminded me of what I knew but was unsure of how to claim, nudged me towards and helped me practice self-care through this process, and more. There were many, though to name a few: Elizabeth Nicolas, Stephanie Wheeler, April Ognibene, Taryn Nakamura, Sascha Murillo, Lee Vandivier, Heather Miki, Russell Trimmer, Susanne Flood, Nicholas McAvoy, Emily Carter, Ashley Umberger, PJ Raduta, Matt Lanza, Joshua Roddy, Sister Thèrèse De Balincourt, Vineyard Community Church’s West Philly Small Group and Restore, my mom, and Richard. I don’t deserve you. But I’m thankful you choose to stick around.

To Liz, my anam cara, thought partner, the ENFP to my INFJ, and my most diligent reader. You have examined more drafts than I would have thought possible. Your way reminds me to be myself, nothing more and nothing less.

To Taryn, my 300%. Thank you for sitting up with me ’til various deadlines and doing word check after word check. The bias is mutual.

To Steph and April. The Amish honey wheat bread and the leopard headband exist in memory as symbols of what I experience regularly in our friendships. Who needs Patagonia when I have you two.

To Sascha and Lee. My thought process is not an easy one to decipher. It/I require commitment. As you noted, good thing that years of listening to my stream of consciousness primed you to tease out my early outline. ← viii | ix →

To my brother, Richard. You are, regardless of circumstance or differences in opinions, always on my team. I won the brother lottery. I would not have been able to write this book without you. I’m always for you, too.

Lastly, to the CMs who, despite enormous workloads and pressures, made time to speak with me and entrusted me with hearing their narratives. Your honest reflections, resistance to the powers and principalities, commitment to being yourselves in the struggle, and critical deconstructions have made this book possible. Thank you.

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“In sum, successful teaching in urban and rural areas requires all the same approaches that transformational leadership in any setting requires. It requires extraordinary energy, discipline and hard work. What is encouraging is that there is nothing elusive about it.”

—Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, 2011, p. 33

Seated in a corner of a Starbucks in Philadelphia Center City East, Susie and I met informally over a quick cup of coffee.

“Hey, how are you? How’s Philly life going for you?” I asked.

“Ahh well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Because it’s been so rough. To be honest, I’ve had so many thoughts about quitting. I’m legitimately so miserable,” Susie responded.

It was Monday, October 8, 2012, and we had each been using the Indigenous Peoples’ Day1 holiday to catch up on planning lessons and grading papers. Susie was a month into her first year teaching, and I was a month into my second. She was a 2012 Teach For America2 (TFA) corps member (CM) and a friend of a friend. TFA is a national teacher corps which selects graduates from many of the nation’s most selective universities and places them in urban and rural schools serving predominantly poor students of color.

Though we did not know each other very well, when Susie reached out to talk through some of her first-year experiences, I said I would be happy to listen. ← 1 | 2 →

Just four months prior, Susie had graduated from Yale, where she had excelled academically, held various positions of leadership, worked a part-time job, and also served as an active member in her small church community. Our mutual friend introduced us over e-mail, noting that Susie was going to be new to Philly, and that “she’s wonderful beyond belief” and “always looking out for everyone else.” Though I found TFA included a range of backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and personalities, Susie typified many of the CMs I came to respect: an intellectually and socially accomplished individual actively committed to caring for others.

Closing her laptop, Susie began describing her first month:

In my classroom, like every CM, I’m good at checking off boxes. My TFA Manager of Teacher Leadership and Development (MTLD) and my Mastery Charter School evaluator both checked me off as doing the right things. I can hang up my posters, write up an agenda board, make sure everyone’s in their seat. On paper, all the boxes are checked. I’ve got all my boxes checked and I’m all boxed in. But it’s not enough. I’m not enough.

With both fluidity and urgency, she proceeded to give examples of what seemed to make her work so challenging—culture shock, what she understood to be “disrespect” in her classroom, limited resources, inadequate support, incredibly long work hours which left little time for herself or her friends, and other commonly listed reasons for what makes “hard to staff” schools acquire that label (Ingersoll, 2001; Prince, 2003; Shernoff et al, 2011). Beyond the commonly listed reasons, however, Susie also struggled to identify exactly what it was that made this job harder than the various challenges she had overcome in her school, work, and personal life prior to the corps. That in itself—the inability to name what she was experiencing—seemed to present its own challenge:


X, 230
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
TFA Wendy Kopp Counternarrative
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 230 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Sarah Matsui (Author)

Sarah Matsui holds a BA in urban studies and a MSEd In secondary math education from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught middle school math and is an alumna of the 2011 Teach for America Greater Philadelphia Cohort.


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