By Jameson Brewer and Sarah Matsui.
What are counter-narratives? And why are they significant in the conversation? Counter-narratives are essentially “little stories” of individuals and groups of people whose knowledge and histories have been excluded from the telling of official narratives (Giroux, 1996, p.2). These localized “little stories” have the power to interrupt the grandiosity of the metanarrative, advocate for a fuller, more truthful representation of reality, and encourage new practices to emerge. Because “narratives, storytelling, and counter-narratives can be transformative and empowering for educators, students, and community members (Fernández, 2002, p. 60),” it is vitally important that TFA’s oversimplified, whitewashed version of corps member narratives be offset by what may be more honest descriptions of what it means to be a teacher – specifically a TFA teacher. If for nothing else, the existence and accessibility of counter-narratives provides a much-needed balance to the decades old single-sided rhetoric of education reform.
Both books – while centering on providing counter-narratives to TFA’s dominant narrative – approach the work in different ways. Brewer and deMarrais’ text, “Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumnis Speak Up and Speak Out,” provides a broad collection of voices from diverse alumni. Matsui’s text, “Learning from Counter Narratives in TFA: Moving from Idealism to Hope,” focuses specifically on Corps members (CMs) from TFA Greater Philadelphia’s 2011 and 2012 cohorts to explore patterns within a particular region, the impacts of TFA’s narrative on its own CMs, and the implications of the gap between TFA’s dominant narrative and these omitted counter-narratives.
Teaching has long been an embattled profession (Goldstein, 2014), and perhaps, has never really asserted itself as an actual profession (Harness, 2012). Not too disjointed from that, the discourse of schooling in the U.S. has largely been that of failure – a reality heightened since the Regan administration’s A Nation at Risk in the 80s. Then, and now, our society has largely bought into the idea of the failed school and has fit teachers squarely in the crosshairs of blame for that failure. As a result, and partnered with the growing narrative of the neoliberal imaginary that seeks to replace government-run entities with market-based reforms, many have called for the deregulation of teacher education, de-unionization of teaching, and harsher accountability measures to weed out so-called ‘bad’ teachers. And while TFA is certainty not credited with the genesis of pushing for the deregulation of teacher education or other accountancy measures, the organization has clearly capitalized on the idea. And therein lies TFA’s secret to success: (1) the nation buys into a myth that schools have failed and that teachers are to blame; (2) colleges of education then, by default, are to blame for the poor/lazy teachers they produce; thus (3) new approaches to teacher education must be encouraged. As a result of deregulation, these new types of teachers are purportedly better suited for the type of teaching required in a world of hyper-accountability and excessive standardization. Yet, individuals with no experience in pedagogy or methods are ripe for manipulation into believing that the measurement of good (or bad) teaching comes down to student test scores. Because when teaching is reduced to a technocratic skill where teachers live and die by test scores, teaching is no longer a profession as it becomes slave to the false narrative of failed schooling and bad teachers (Brewer & Cody, 2014).
With that in mind, the whitewashed narratives from TFA’s public relations machine create the false representation of the ‘bad’ teacher and the ‘failed’ school, thus creating the need for TFA. Additionally, without the balance of counter-narratives TFA corps members are depicted as all too eager to accept low teacher pay, ‘work harder’ than their ‘lazy’ non-TFA peers, undermine union membership, all the while producing ‘better’ results. Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out not only challenges these myths about teachers and teaching, but it also provides a more nuanced and honest account of the negatives of TFA from a collection of alumni representing, geographic diversity, varying levels of affiliation with TFA, as well as varying years from TFA’s inception to present day (Brewer, & deMarrais, 2015).
TFA founder Wendy Kopp (2011) stated that there is “nothing elusive” about successful teaching; people simply need to “work hard” and be “disciplined.” Many of TFA’s narratives about both students and teachers emphasize the singular power of hard work to overcome injustice—a simple equation founded on the principles of meritocracy and idealism.
Grounded in the belief that hope comes from a place of reality, not necessarily popular ideology, Learning From Counternarratives in Teach For America: Moving From Idealism Towards Hope explores the gap between designated and actual narratives within Teach For America. Taking an inquiry stance, Matsui surveyed and interviewed 26 of her fellow corps members in the Greater Philadelphia region. Their counter-narratives collectively problematize the standard neoliberal reform rhetoric of “Work hard, get smart” and “No excuses.”
Though many CMs worked hard and experienced varying levels of success as determined through improved students’ test scores, CMs found the work of addressing educational inequity in their classrooms to be elusive and at times incomprehensible; they worked hard and still experienced both significant failures and unexpected negative life changes. CMs’ experiences of struggle challenge TFA’s dominant narrative. Consistent themes emerged within this sample group of CMs: after joining TFA, 35% began professional counseling; 27% began taking prescription medications to address depression, anxiety, and trauma; 38% experienced increased alcohol consumption and dependency; 42% experienced major weight changes; 46% experienced strained relationships; and 73% experienced physical fatigue, some to the point of requiring medical attention. CMs identified primary trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), secondary trauma, and vicarious traumatization as part of their experiences in TFA. CMs described feeling helpless, isolated, guilty, ashamed, and like failures, and they connected the teacher hero narrative to cognitive dissonance, disillusionment, blame, and burnout (Matsui, 2015).
Corps members’ counter-narratives ask the questions of why TFA is not considering both their own CMs’ experiences and the implications of these experiences on TFA’s theory of change. For CMs as people, teachers, and future leaders being groomed to “lead an educational revolution in low-income communities across the country” (TFA: Our Mission, 2014), and for the value of the work CMs are engaging in, it’s concerning that the reality of trauma and these other intense struggles are for the most part unaddressed and ignored in the dominant discourse on education reform. The challenges CMs faced are not exclusive to TFA, though it is difficult to discuss relevant solutions in TFA without first acknowledging the realities common to many CMs’ experiences. Before expanding their current model, TFA needs to reflect on whether these meritocratic-heavy reform narratives are accurately descriptive of their own CMs. Further, TFA needs to consider whether promoting individual education access will sufficiently dismantle structural educational inequity. If CMs who are recruited for track records of grit and accomplishment are having these experiences in the public education system, how does this reality challenge TFA and the dominant discourse? In what ways does this challenge the claim to meritocracy behind the words of simply working hard to get smart? There seems to be, at best, a kind of accidental hypocrisy in not identifying our positionality and lived experiences in this work. It is problematic and ineffective to prescribe onto others what does not even work for CMs and without recognizing students and their communities as primary stakeholders and authors of their own narratives. Scaling up idealism is insufficient to dismantle systemic, historically-rooted inequity. Without a committed practice of action-reflection, it would be easy for TFA and CMs to promote hegemonic practices and neocolonialism, to bolster deficit views of students and their communities, and to extend false generosity while reinforcing the very structures TFA seeks to dismantle.
Using counter-narratives to reframe the reform conversation
TFA claims that the organization is “data-driven” and that it values critical questions (Villanueva Beard, 2013). However, for an organization that purports to value data and feedback, their track record of listening to and responding to dissident voices – especially internal ones – has not only shown that TFA takes an offensive position on subverting critique (Joseph, 2014), but Nonprofit Quarterly used TFA as an example of what not to do as an organization, citing TFA’s habit of fostering both certainty and hubris with its “self-protective reaction.” TFA has many areas where it can and must improve. And if the organization is not keen or eager to incorporate reforms from outsiders, it can likely find a roadmap forward by listening to internal counter-narratives that challenge the certainty and hubris of the organization. Yet, that listening must be authentic rather than listening to respond.
In the effort to do “more,” powerful entities like TFA have as much potential to harm as they do to help the people they serve. As TFA continues to expand in scope and influence, CMs’ counter-narratives become increasingly important; CMs’ counter-narratives collectively articulate specific changes needed within TFA. Critical reflection on its CMs’ experiences can help TFA to shift from recognizing phenomenon as isolated and individual to noticing patterns of what is social and systemic in nature (Crenshaw, 1991, pp. 1241–1242). CMs and educators often possess insightful, salient critiques of their work contexts and preparation programs. It is important for TFA as an institution to listen and incorporate these critical reflections into their discourse. Counter-narratives are a necessary component to reforming the dominant TFA and corporate reform narrative.
If able to wrestle with the tensions between their dominant-and counter-narratives, TFA can make a meaningful contribution to the popular discourse on improving the quality of care helping professionals and helping institutions extend; on how to listen to and support helping professionals; and on how to ethically, constructively partner with people who are already recognizing and responding to the reality of injustice.
If left unchallenged and unchanged, it is questionable whether TFA’s current discourse and the neoliberal approach are suited to addressing educational inequity. TFA needs to fundamentally restructure conversations around how they engage in this pressing work, how to respond to the complexity of what CMs and their students experience, and how to address the particular histories and dynamics of power which undergird educational inequity.
Note on the authors
Jameson Brewer is an advanced Ph.D. student and Associate Director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a traditionally certified teacher who joined Teach For America (TFA) to find a teaching job during the height of the Great Recession. It was during his TFA Institute experience that he saw the incredible dichotomy between traditional pre-service teacher ideologies and the more narrow ones of TFA. His first foray into the need for TFA counter-narratives was after speaking up to challenge TFA ideologies to only have TFA attempt to silence him. And while Brewer’s academic work includes examinations of TFA, the need to compile alumni narratives became increasingly apparent as other alumni reached out and expressed a deep desire to share what they considered to be hidden or suppressed narratives about the organization.
Sarah Matsui holds a B.A. in Urban Studies and an M.S.Ed. in Secondary Math Education from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught middle school math and is an alumnus of the 2011 Teach For America Greater Philadelphia Cohort. During her corps commitment, she observed a significant, often unnamed gap between the designated narratives of TFA and the actual experiences of her fellow corps members (CMs). Additionally, there was little structured space in TFA for CMs to ask questions constructively or discuss their complex lived realities. Matsui began interviewing CMs to explore both why CMs struggled and why it was so difficult for them to name their realities. She has openly shared her findings with TFA staff since 2013, but has intentionally remained an independent scholar to maintain control over her study’s findings. Because TFA is such a powerful institution with an increasingly significant influence on the public perception of education and education reform, she believes discussion of TFA’s identity and positionality in this work should also be public.
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Brewer, T. J., & deMarrais, K. (Eds.). (2015). Teach For America counter-narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
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Giroux, H. (1996). Counternarratives: Cultural studies and critical pedagogies in postmodern spaces. New York: Routledge.
Goldstein, D. (2014). The teacher wars: A history of America’s most embattled profession. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Harness, M. A. (2012). Pretending teaching is a profession: Why public school teaching will never be considered a true profession. (MS), University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Joseph, G. (2014). This is what happens when you criticize Teach For America: An internal memo reveals how tfa’s obsessive pr game covers up its lack of results in order to justify greater expansion. Retrieved from
Kopp, W., & Farr, S. (2011). A chance to make history: What works and what doesn’t in providing an excellent education for all. New York, NY: Public Affairs.
Matsui, S. (2015). Learning from Counternarratives in Teach For America: Moving from Idealism Towards Hope. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Villanueva Beard, E. (2013). What we heard: Initial thoughts from the listening tour.