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Learning from Counternarratives in Teach For America

Moving from Idealism Towards Hope


Sarah Matsui

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.
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Chapter 5. TFA’s Culture of Guilt and Shame


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“If my students don’t do well, it’s my fault. If I am not teaching the way TFA wants me to, I am widening the achievement gap … Of course it’s important, but you know, I’m not fucking perfect.”


“… the emphasis is that you’re failing children. I don’t know how you couldn’t feel shame over that. You wouldn’t get into TFA if you didn’t feel shame over failing children.”


“We’re doing the best we can. You’re one human being.”


CMs frequently described their TFA experiences with the words guilt and shame.1 Guilt and shame are both feelings associated with negative evaluation (Lewis, 1974); as such, guilt and shame are considered “self-conscious” and “moral emotions” (Tangney & Stuewig, 2004; Tracy & Robins, 2004). Colloquially the words guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but therapists draw a distinction that helps to nuance the experience of causing harm to someone. Guilt and shame are connected but distinct emotional responses. Guilt is defined as a feeling of responsibility and remorse for causing harm to someone; guilt relates to others. Shame is defined as a painful feeling from our ← 97 | 98 → interpretation of who we are for causing harm; shame relates to and interprets ourselves (Burgo, 2013). Simply put, guilt is feeling badly for something you do, and shame is feeling badly for who you are; guilt...

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