Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major

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Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major

NEW YORK—Teach For America, a national program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income rural and urban communities, has devoured another ethnic-studies major, 24-year-old Andy Cuellen reported Tuesday.

Cuellen stands in front of the elementary school where he used to teach.

"Look, the world is a miserable place," said Cuellen, a Dartmouth graduate who quit the TFA program Monday morning. "All people—even children—are just nasty animals trying to secure their share of the food supply. I don't care how poor or how rich you are, that's just a fact. I'm sorry, but I have better things to do than zoo-keep for peanuts."

Just one of the 12,000 young people TFA has burned through since 1990, Cuellen was given five weeks of training the summer before he took over a classroom at P.S. 83 in the South Bronx last September.

"I walked into that school actually thinking I could make a difference," said Cuellen, who taught an overflowing class of disadvantaged 8-year-olds. "It was trial by fire. But after five months spent in a stuffy, dark room where the chalkboard fell off the wall every two days, corralling screaming kids into broken desks, I'm burnt to a crisp."

Cuellen said his TFA experience "taught him a lot about hopelessness."

"The cities are fucked. The suburbs are fucked. The whole country is fucked," Cuellen said. "And there's not a goddamned thing you or anyone can do about it. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Or trying to get you to teach kids math."

According to Dartmouth literature, as a member of the ethnic-studies department, Cuellen learned "to empower students of color to move beyond being objects of study toward being subjects of their own social realities, with voices of their own."

Teach For America executive director Theo Anderson called ethnic-studies departments "a prime source of fodder."

"Oh, I'd say we burn through a hundred or so ethnic-studies majors each year," said Anderson, pointing to a series of charts showing the college-major breakdown of TFA corps members. "They tend to last a little longer than women's studies majors and art-therapy students, but Cuellen got mashed to a pulp pretty quickly. It usually takes ethnic-studies majors another year to realize that they're wasting their precious youth on a Sisyphean endeavor."

Continued Anderson: "Of course, we don't worry about it too much. Every year, there's a fresh crop to throw in the grinder. As we speak, scores of apple-cheeked students are hearing about TFA for the first time."

According to Anderson, a small portion of these students will lose interest after hearing horror stories from program alumni.

"But the majority of them will march on like cattle to the slaughter, thinking that pure determination and hope can change young lives," Anderson said. "I can hear their footsteps now, marching toward our offices like lemmings to a cliff. And believe me, we're ready for 'em."

Cuellen said he applied to TFA in search of a "character-building experience."

"I knew that teaching in a severely under-funded inner-city school would be challenging, but I wanted to get out into the real world," Cuellen said. "Well, breaking up fistfights between 8-year-olds all day long, I got a real ugly view of reality. Do you want to know reality? Look at a dog lying dead in the gutter. That's reality."

Although Cuellen quit the program early, his mother said he was with TFA long enough for it "to crack open his bones and suck out the marrow inside."

"Andy is a ghost," Beverly Cuellen said. "Those [TFA] people beat the idealism out of him, then they stomped on him while he lay there gasping for air."

TFA regional coordinator Sandra Richman said it is common to blame the TFA employees for the organization's high plow-through rate.

"Should I have said something to wake those kids up sooner?" Richman said, crushing out her seventh cigarette. "Probably. But listen, no one can tell you that you can't make a difference. It's something you have to figure out for yourself."

"You can only do so much," Richman added. "After a couple years of trying to teach our applicants about how difficult and depressing their lives will inevitably be—no matter what they choose to do for money—I just got burnt out. In the end, you've gotta resign yourself to failure and move on with your life."