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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 6. The Complex, Politicized Process of TFA and CM Identity Development


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Rather than a fixed entity, identity is a changing construction and performance (Butler, 1990; Foucault, 1977; Rigole, 2011). Identity development is the ongoing process of narrowing the gap between actual identities and designated identities, what is and what can be (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Sfard & Prusak, 2005). The process of identity development is complex and politicized; power and knowledge are inter-related in a way that makes every relationship, every narrative, a negotiation of power (Foucault, 1977).

Within this landscape, CMs struggled to understand their intersecting, developing personal and professional identities as new TFA teachers. CMs experienced a conflict between the nature of identity development as a process and a pressing, immediate need for improvement as new teachers. Additionally, many CMs felt ill-equipped to work through their questions about complex racial, class, cultural, and political dynamics experienced while teaching. These CMs felt they lacked the language, time, and support to engage meaningfully in understanding their own identities independently or in relationship to their students’ identities.

The first two subsections in this chapter explore the general constraints teachers experience: Learning the Basic Professional Identity explores a range of teaching and extra-teaching challenges, and Teaching as Political and ← 127 | 128 → Intellectual Work explores the power dynamics of teaching. The next three subsections explore particular identity development failures in the TFA context: CMs Struggling to Identify their Social Location & Prejudices...

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