What are you dreading the most about joining the workforce? If it’s the idea of having someone constantly watch over you or the threat of not having creative input—and you also happen to be passionate about education—you might want to consider joining Teach For America. There’s not a lot of micromanagement in this system—you’ll get some intense training at the beginning and support throughout the program, but for the most part you’re on your own in the classroom every day.
We caught up with University of Pennsylvania English major and Teach For America alum Katie Mazer to talk about her two years at this not very normal job—and what she gained from the experience.
Where and when did you participate in Teach For America?
At Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. I taught English 10 and 11 and ESL 1 and 2 in the 2009–2010 and 2010–2011 school years.
Tell me a little bit about the Teach For America application process. How long did it take and were there any unexpected surprises along the way?
There are three or four deadlines throughout the year. The first step is a written application, which includes an essay or two. Then you have to do a phone interview, and then you go in for a full-day interview where you have to teach a five-minute lesson in front of a group of 11 or 12 people.
When I was applying, there were 31 regions (large areas that included multiple cities, so for example the Bay Area region includes everything from San Jose to Oakland) and you had to rank each of them as well as the subjects and ages you wanted to teach. I put that I wanted to teach high school English in the Bay Area, and when I found out that I got the position, they also told me where I would be placed and what subject I’d be teaching. I think if you apply for one of the earlier deadlines in the year, the chances are higher that you’ll get the placement you requested. You can either accept or reject the offer, but you can’t negotiate or change pieces of it—it’s all or nothing.
I think one surprising part of the interview process was completing the writing portion. I found it interesting, but very hard to write. The irony is that I’m writing this essay at Penn in this beautiful dorm, and my background is so different from that of the students I’d be teaching. Doing the five-minute sample lesson was really nerve-wracking, too, but it’s the ultimate test. Can you get up in front of people and teach? I think overall it’s a long process and a lot of steps, but there’s a reason why something like 99% of teachers end up sticking with it.
Also, the summer before you go in to teach, you go to Summer Institute, a four-week program where teachers from five regions (in my case it was LA, the Bay Area, Las Vegas, and the Twin Cities) all get together on a college campus. You spend the mornings teaching summer school in your subject and the afternoons in study groups being trained by former and current Corps members. These were 18- to 19-hour days, so it’s definitely a survival of the fittest situation. It was the most exhausting four weeks of my life, but it does really prepare you for what you’ll face during the school year.
What was a typical day on the job like?
I lived in San Francisco and worked in Oakland, so I’d get up at 6 and get to school by around 7. I liked to be the first one there—you never knew whether the photocopier was going to be working or not—and I’d spend the first hour getting ready, getting classes organized, and talking with students. I’d have three classes in the morning, lunch, and three more classes in the afternoon.
It’s very likely I’d have kids who were dealing with all sorts of issues, big and small. Someone might have been missing the day before or gotten deported and was out for a month or someone got suspended or there was a fight and we had to break it up. No day was the same because of the chaos of the bigger issues.
There was a teacher across the hall who was also TFA (it was my second year and his first), and we’d talk through things and share our successes and frustrations.
I’d stay after school until I was prepared for the next day, be home by 5, go to the gym and grab a snack, and spend a good portion of my evening (until 11 or 12) grading papers.
What were some things that surprised you about your experience?
I was surprised by how close I got to my students—they were like my coworkers I was with every day. We’ve stayed close and a core of about ten of them just graduated so I was on the phone with them the day they were heading to graduation.
I never really thought about education as a career and while I was teaching I was so burned out by the experience, but I’m surprised by how passionate I feel about my experience on the whole. It’s more than just teaching; I made a connection to the students and the community.
I was also surprised by the total juxtaposition of life in Oakland to San Francisco. Driving over one bridge changed everything completely. Some of the kids I taught had never even been to San Francisco before.
What were your favorite aspects of your Teach For America experience? What were some challenges you faced?
I loved my students and the connection I had—that they felt so comfortable with me and I could be a confidante. As a result of coming to me with very serious, deep problems, they became better students and I could better teach them.
On the other hand, knowing what’s happening and wanting to fix things can be really heartbreaking.
When you’re 22 and you graduate and you’re in charge of 150 people every day with essentially no one watching over you, it’s wild. I loved the freedom that I had to lead conversations about current events and things that were happening in the world. Having the attention of young minds is really powerful, but it comes with a lot of responsibility because you want to plan it to be impactful.
Were there any resources that were helpful to you throughout your experience?
You have an advisor who was a Corps member and you’re part of a 12-person cohort teaching the same topic in same area. Your advisor will come watch you in the classroom and provide feedback, and you’re going to credentialing classes in the evenings so a lot of your classmates are fellow Corps members. All the resources you need are there; you just need to implement them. And really, more than resources, you just need someone to vent to.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for Teach For America?
It gets a bad rap sometimes. You hear a lot of people say things like, “My friend did it and said she had the worst time.” TFA offers you the chance to do something incredible, but the reality is that the day-to-day is very hard and if you have this sexy idea of what it’s going to be like, you’ll be disappointed, because it’s not. It was an unbelievable experience, but I look back at it and I’m so grateful.
If you’re thinking about doing it, really make sure it’s something you want to do for you and not just for your résumé, because your desire to do it is what will keep you going.
Go in as open-minded as you can, recognizing that it is not a normal job you would have out of college.
The two biggest perks for me were getting to live in San Francisco and TFA matched my personality. I couldn’t figure out how to get to the Bay Area straight out of college. I think it’s hard when you first graduate to get an entry-level job where someone is willing to pay you to relocate, but TFA offered me the chance to get there.
I think the most important personality characteristics are being curious, adventurous, hard-working, and passionate. It’s not only about teaching; it’s about fixing a bigger problem, being part of a community, and having passion and the drive to work really hard.
P.S. Want to learn more about Teach For America from a participant’s perspective? Check out our interview with Amber Moore, who taught Biology in rural Mississippi.
Katie Mazer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 as an English major. At the time of this interview, she was working as an English teacher at the African Refugee Development Center and Kuchinate African Refugee Women’s Collective and training to represent Israel in the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, which took place in July 2013. She’s also studying for the GRE and looking into programs to get an MA in Education and Business.