Peace Corps vs. Teach for America

Before I accepted my invitation to join the Peace Corps, I scoured the internet for resources comparing Peace Corps with Teach for America.  Here’s the blog I wish I had read. 

I was invited to Peace Corps Ethiopia March 22, 2012, one day before my interview for Teach for America.  I discovered I was accepted to Teach for America April 6 and formally accepted my invitation to the Peace Corps April 9.

Prior to my Teach for America interview I spoke to two friends who were a part of the TFA corps, one in Memphis, TN and another in Jacksonville, FL.  The teacher in Memphis had graduated from Furman University in 2009, completed her service with Teach For America, and moved on to become a unit leader in a Teach for America-affiliated school in Memphis.  The teacher in Jacksonville had graduated from Presbyterian College a year before I did and was halfway through her commitment with Teach for America.  Both teachers had amazing things to say about the organization Teach for America, but expressed major challenges working in their communities.  My friend in Jacksonville mentioned that the majority of her kindergarten students’ parents were drug addicts no older than she was, fresh out of college.

Though serving in an international context and doing the grassroots-level work Peace Corps is known for appealed to me much more than teaching in high-needs public schools in America, the recruitment process for Teach for America was much more thorough, selective, and intense than the recruitment process for the Peace Corps.  After preparing a mock lesson, solving a problem in a group setting, and interviewing with several former Teach for America teachers, I felt like I earned the invitation I received to join the TFA corps, and by the end of the month-long application process, I felt like I knew the Teach for America brand.  On the other hand, following my Peace Corps interview in June 2011, I endured months of waiting, medical paperwork, and inconsistent communication from headquarters before receiving my invitation to Peace Corps Ethiopia.

My recruiter from Teach for America was a true friend to me.  She would text, call, and email me throughout my application process.  She knew about my specific dilemma in choosing between Teach for America and the Peace Corps, and she connected me to other TFA alumni who were in similar positions when they joined Teach for America.  She was beside me the entire way through my Teach for America application, interview, acceptance, and placement process.  For the Peace Corps, I was tossed between the hands of a recruiter, nurse at headquarters, and placement officer.  Though all of the people I worked with at Peace Corps were nice, they didn’t know me the way my Teach for America recruiter did.

On the outside, it seemed like I’d gain more hard skills in Teach for America and more soft skills in the Peace Corps.  The Teach for America representatives stressed how results-oriented TFA-trained teachers became.  Peace Corps Volunteers’ blogs discussed the intense challenges and joys of living in small communities overseas. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I’ve received training in Project Design and Management and Monitoring and Evaluation.  As a result of my service in Ethiopian schools I am aware of specific tools to aide classroom management and facilitate teaching English to foreign learners.  But I don’t in any way consider those resume buzzwords the highlight of my Peace Corps experience.  I saw the mountain, I climbed it, I descended, and now I carry a circle of friends and a lifetime of memories from Ethiopia with me.

The ambition and intensity of the Teach for America brand was inspiring.  But I was scared of joining the TFA corps for many reasons.  Mostly, I was scared that I would become a good teacher, make good money, and do good work.  I was scared of becoming comfortable, scared I would never travel or pursue the dreams I didn’t believe I deserved.  Moreover, after spending high school and college consumed in academics and extra-curriculars, I wanted to escape the American culture of busyness.  I wanted time to read books, to educate myself on the topics that intrigued me in college.  I wanted time to cook and plant a garden.  I wanted time to build relationships with people who were different from me.

The more I learn about the politics of Teach for America, the happier I am with my decision to join the Peace Corps.  High-needs public schools offer Teach for America an amount of money for recruiting and training successful, ambitious undergrads with no necessary background in education, often at the expense of employing qualified, experienced teachers.  In return, Teach for America teachers pour themselves into their work and their students with no necessary commitment to the community or profession they assume.  Peace Corps is by its nature a temporary commitment.  My group specifically came to equip Ethiopian teachers and work beside students in community projects, but more importantly, we came to learn a new language, culture, and way of life.

If I’d accepted my invitation to the Teach for America Corps, I would have been teaching high school math in a public school two or three hours outside of New Orleans.  I would have been making a teacher’s salary there. It’s tempting to assume my quality of life would have been better and my savings account fuller had I joined Teach for America.  The financial benefits of joining the Peace Corps are often overlooked due to the fact that Peace Corps Volunteers live in developing countries.  Peace Corps covers medical healthcare in full for volunteers thoughout their service and assumes financial responsibility for any condition a volunteer gains in his or her service.  Furthermore, the Peace Corps provides Volunteers $250/month of service in the form of a readjustment allowance.  For most Volunteers this ends up being about $6500.  Peace Corps Ethiopia offered my group the option to receive cash in lieu of a plane ticket.  We saved a significant amount of money by purchasing our own plane tickets home.

Ultimately I’m incredibly satisfied with my experience in Peace Corps Ethiopia.  It was important to me to join a diverse cohort of individuals after college, which is why Teach for America and the Peace Corps were at the top of my list.  Judging from the experiences of people I know, I would have gotten a lot out of Teach for America, but my conscience sits well knowing I’ve been true to my values by serving in the Peace Corps.

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