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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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“Sarah Matsui’s book offers an unusually rich example of what practitioner knowledge and inquiry can contribute to critical conversations about educational equity and the toll that simplifications can take on teachers and, by extension, their students. Her intelligent and thoughtful narrative unpacks the complex interplay between TFA’s persuasive discourse and the intense experiences of corps members as they grappled with profound gaps between expectations and their on-the-ground experiences as participants in the most highly touted reform of teacher education in recent history.

Conducted with great sensitivity to their self-described conflicts and trauma of participation, Matsui’s analyses and interpretations of her extensive interviews are informed by her considerable knowledge and insights as an insider, as well as her use of compelling interpretive frameworks drawn from a number of disciplines.

The book is timely and provocative, a must-read for anyone who cares deeply about teaching, teacher education, and quality education for urban communities.”

—Susan L. Lytle, Professor Emerita, University of Pennsylvania

“Few elements of the education reform movement have been as polarizing as Teach For America. Critics of TFA have focused on its leadership, the inadequacy of the training, and the placement of recruits in mostly high-poverty minority schools, but Sarah Matsui’s study opens a new and important window into why TFA deserves critical reconsideration. Matsui provides a detailed and revealing look at what it means to be a TFA...

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