Teach for America Searches Outside the Box for Tomorrow's Teachers

The organization has begun directing recruitment efforts at undocumented students and other overlooked populations.
A student attends an Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee hearing on 'The DREAM Act.' (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)
Jan 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

As an associate professor of education, Samina Hadi-Tabassum has helped undocumented students become teachersand it isn't easy. Students can have all the right skills, but without the paperwork, opportunities are scarce.

Hadi-Tabassum recalls one student in particular. "She was an excellent student in the school of education, and I was her advisor. When she went to do her student teaching, that’s when it became problematic.”

As the child of immigrants, the student spoke perfect English and was assimilated in American culture. But that didn't matter. The program required its student teachers to have a Social Security number and submit to a background check. So, Hadi-Tabassum helped the student fight for the ability to student-teach using a "shadow" S.S. number granted by the state board of education until she was able to get an official one last December.

“This decision reflects our belief that if you’re brought to the U.S. as a child, you should be able to pursue an education without fear of deportation and have a path to contribute to American society through achievement in education,"“At 27, she is finally entering the teaching field,” says Hadi-Tabassum, who teaches at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. “But with a program like Teach for America allowing people like her, her career could have begun much earlier.”

Teach for America recently announced that it would recruit DREAMers, undocumented immigrant students who came to the United States as children. They are now eligible to obtain work cards and Social Security numberstwo things schools usually require of employeesthrough President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“This decision reflects our belief that if you’re brought to the U.S. as a child, you should be able to pursue an education without fear of deportation and have a path to contribute to American society through achievement in education," Teach for America co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard said in a written statement.

Hadi-Tabassum agrees. “To have a strong nonprofit that holds education in such high regard, Teach for America will provide so much support for a population who lives in the shadow,” she says.

In the 1970s, Hadi-Tabassum’s parents moved from south Asia to the United States. When she arrived in this country, she didn’t speak English. For years she attended school without U.S. citizenship. It was only when she was about to attend college that her parents pursued citizenship to help their daughter earn scholarships.

Even with citizenship and a degree from Northwestern University, Hadi-Tabassum felt unsure of how to break into the teaching profession. But Teach for America, then in its infancy, provided the answer. “They recruited heavily at Northwestern, so in 1993 I became a Spanish bilingual language teacher in Houston, Texas,” she says. “If I had gone into teaching without that, I would have been swimming against the current. It built a pipeline. If I had gone straight into education, I would have been one of 100s of people applying for a position...." Although Hadi-Tabassum wasn't familiar with Houston, she says the non-profit gave her an invaulable support network.

Teach for America began in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, who based the program on her 1989 Princeton University undergraduate thesis. Since 1990 when the charter corps was established, more than 28,000 corps members have completed their commitment to Teach For America. In 2012, more than 48,000 people applied, resulting in 5,800 new corps members placed throughout 46 regions. The organization reports that more than 7,000 of its 24,000 alumni are still teaching and that 64 percent of its alumni are working or studying in education full-time.

The program, however, isn’t without its critics who say the program replaces experienced teachers for cheaper and less experienced ones. The National Education Association has long criticized the program and its executive director, stating in a 2009 memo that the program allows “the least-prepared and the least-experienced teachers” into low-income schools.

In recent years, Teach for America has expanded its recruitment efforts from high-achieving seniors on top college campuses to military veterans and mid-career professionals. According to its website, the program has over 100 veterans teaching this year. It predicts that by 2015 five percent of its teachers will have military experience. The program has also in recent years urged low-income and minority candidates to apply to its program.

Hadi-Tabassum says it’s good to see Teach for America diversifying to include DREAMers who want to teach. “When I was in the program, they never talked about diversity,” she says. “They didn’t want to attach themselves to anything political or controversial. This would have never happened 20 years ago. It’s good that they are embracing diversity and a politically charged issue.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.