A Conversation About Teachers for America

In Education on February 9, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Recently, I had the privilege of reading a fruitful conversation between a group of teachers about Teachers for America. It begun after an educator and activist sent out a petition to convince TFA to institute a Teacher Mentor System for new teachers (you can read his petition request below). For the sake of anonymity, I’ve changed everyone’s name and removed any clues in the emails that might give off who they are. Please, read. It was an interesting and passionate discussion between educators.

Paul: Hope you had a good weekend. As we individually and collectively continue strengthening and expanding equitable and empowering educational structures and experiences that “liberate” our communities and ourselves, I would like to ask for your help in addressing a pressing issue of racial and socioeconomic injustice in our public education system

Below you will find a link to the petition I launched earlier this week calling on Teach For America to evolve from a five-week summer training model to a one-year clinical/school-based training program in which TFA recruits would work under a master teacher for a year and gradually assume responsibility for instruction before leading their own classroom (if they have proven themselves effective). Ideally, TFA will leverage its infrastructure and vast resources to adopt an Urban Teacher Residency-like model that gives our low-income Black and Latino children teachers who are both academically accomplished and well prepared.

The goal of this grassroots effort… is to collect at least 1,000 signatures by February 11th, the day TFA kicks off its 20th Anniversary Summit/Celebration in D.C.  To that end, I ask that you sign and circulate/post the petition throughout your networks, especially among those individuals and organizations who belong to (or work to empower) low-income communities of color.

We, as educators, activists, and concerned community members, have an obligation to hold to the highest standards organizations like TFA–particularly those subsidized with our tax dollars–that target our Black and Latino communities.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Diane: Why is this necessary? If master teachers are those who say ” I should have came” and “I seen” , please deliver these young recruits from them. My daughter was a TFA recruit and one of the most highly effective teachers in the school in which she taught. At the end of the two-year commitment, she was asked to stay for an extra school term, of which she did.  Still today she is sought by principals and other education leaders to work with their students. Her assignment was in one of the poorest sections of Brooklyn, New York. Her students were African Americans and Latinos. So, does it really take a year – for successful college educated, talented, creative and compassionate young people –  to learn to teach? I think not. I think that being an educator/teacher for thirty-six year offer me the advantage to ask the questions: why is it necessary and what will be the benefit? Perhaps it is good that the young people recruited by TFA don’t  get a lot of time to be indoctrinated with preconceived ideas about any child.

Leo: I think this is a terrible idea. It would make Teach For America much less appealing; if it remains a two year program, it seems pretty fruitless to train for one year and teach for another. This is a program intended for individuals who only want to dedicate a couple of years to helping lower-income communities. I also agree with Diane; we want to CHANGE the school system, not help fuel the failures that generations have seen. Coming from a lower-income Hispanic community, I often found the brand new and energetic teachers much more effective than several “masters” who were tired of dealing with system.

Mateef: I never respond to these emails but TFA is not a program that improves the lives of black and brown students or the school systems that educste these students. TFA is a white elitist organization that only reaffirms that black and brown students that graduate from state universities are not worthy of TFA.

Sent from Yahoo! Mail on Android

Dan: 1) IF TFA is so great, why do “low income” students of color get just 2-year commitments from under-trained teachers, but this is not replicated in middle-high income communities? (note: 60+% of NYC’s new teachers now come from TFA type programs! Not the case in Suburbia NY.). 2)  As insinuated by Diane and Leo, is the typical urban master teacher an inarticulate burnt out person of color– particularly in NYC? 3)  Is it possible to have a viable alternative to the Instant Teacher model of TFA by buttressing the teaching colleges within the CUNY and SUNY systems and consciously recruiting future educators from the Black & Latino communities of NYC? In Struggle, Dan.

Melissa: I think that this is a great idea. Ok, yes, we all know TFA teachers that are phenomenal, as well as teachers who come through traditional teaching programs who aren’t so phenomenal. But, I feel that TFA is a bigger crap shoot since the teachers aren’t given a chance to fail with the safety net of another teacher there to pick up the pieces. I currently work at one of the worst, if not the worst, high school in [blank] and the TFA teachers that we have that are doing well are 2nd year teachers. The first year TFA teachers are struggling and one, I know for a fact, pulls all of her lesson plans from off websites. And as far as making the program less appealing, do we really want to encourage people who enter into TFA only to improve their marketability to law schools? The way I see things, our children are suffering in our neighborhood schools and we owe it to them to be as well prepared to teach them as we can be and a 5 week training period for teachers is insulting to them.

Richard: Here’s a proposal: Let’s start a program and call it Pediatric Cardiology for America.  Our program will take academically exemplary graduates of Ivy League universities, train them for five weeks in pediatric cardiology, then send them to understaffed clinics and hospitals in low-income communities of color to care for children with heart problems.  Won’t that be great!

Diane asks, “Does it really take a year…to learn to teach?,” and self-responds, “I think not.”  Diane, I agree with you.  It takes a lot longer than a year to learn to teach. If we want to CHANGE the school system, as Leo desires, we could start by treating teaching as a true profession, as Dan implies. In solidarity, Richard.

Lisa: Mr. Richard, this is powerful! Your point is well taken.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Tesa: I agree with Mateef. No children should be subjected to a stream of underprepared two-year teachers. In fact, I’d like to see the US adopt a system like Finland’s, in which every teacher must have at least a master’s degree. The country instituted that education reform 30 years ago and today they are considered the best educational system in the world–google PISA to check out the results. Finally, Dorothy’s criticism of people’s speaking skills is unfounded and insulting, and it’s not a little ironic that her own email contains grammar errors.

Pamela: I understand all of your concerns, and can say that not every who goes through TFA is doing it to make their resume look better. I, for one, am doing it not only to try and help the situation, but to give me some practical knowledge because I have a desire to work to change educational policies on a national level, that will influence state level education policies. I have previous classroom experience in some of the worst performing schools in the state [blank]. All of you are crying out for better performing teachers in the schools, but I would ask where are those teachers? We all want them, yet there are few people who are stepping up to actually be them. This list serve gives you access to a small pool of teachers that are doing above and beyond their job requirements but not every educator does that. You’re asking for individuals with at least master’s degrees to be put in schools, TFA allows for that. It does not take strictly undergraduate students, even though that is where most of its members come from. I’m not saying TFA is perfect. It’s not. None of these out-of-college organizations are. But before we tear it down as a white elitist organization, let’s look at the fact that for most, if not all, successful movements, it takes someone from outside of the aggrieved population to give support to help the movement achieve its goals. As a young black woman that has seen both the good and bad of the education system due to my own personal experiences, I do not see the harm in bringing fresh faces to the scene, just make sure they have the support and knowledge to make it through their first year(s) which will be the toughest, for anyone who enters a school.

Prissy: I really appreciate that we are all able to have this space for dialogue and critical concern around this topic. Thanks to everyone for sharing your experiences and input. I hope that we can continue to be respectful and supportive of the perspectives we all bring to this table. That being said, I struggle with the idea of TFA. On the one hand, it frustrates me to have – as someone earlier defended it – a program “intended for individuals who only want to dedicate a couple of years to helping lower-income communities.” It seems all too easy to give those individuals the opportunity to learn on the backs of our disempowered communities. It feels like yet another place where people of privilege are able to feel better about their service to “disadvantaged peoples.” And they come out never really having to dig deeper into their consciousness and understand the dynamics of power that have structured the very schools they are working in to systematically fail our children. It doesn’t challenge the majority of TFA participants to become a true part of the struggle. Sure, we all know those who have gone on to dedicate the rest of their lives to bring change, and I applaud that shift in direction.

But here’s the thing. We can’t simply vilify TFA. We can’t make these participants into an “other.” They are people whose intentions are well-meaning, if often misguided. And they are talented, and passionate; and their hope for doing some positive work brings an opportunity to guide, educate, and build on a movement to increase visibility of the true struggle of public education. Bring these TFA participants into the community of educators that are stepping up, as Pamela put it. Pair them with the organizations that are creating true community schools where parents are side-by-side with the teachers, so they can see the power of the whole community educating together. Reform their training to include working not only during the school day, but also in the evening programs, so they can understand what the students’ needs are beyond the classroom. Expect them to march with youth leaders, so they can feel the power of their students’ voices. Require them to sit in a Grow Your Own class with parents who are studying to become teachers, so they can grasp why our schools are desperate for educators who represent our children and our communities.

Many people in this [discussion] have offered great ideas for reform in the TFA program. And I humbly offer up that at the very least, we have to acknowledge the popularity of TFA, and put it to better use. See it as an opportunity to build from a base of bright, energetic people, who want to be a part of something. It’s up to us to raise the consciousness from there. Peace – Prissy.

Sandy: Interesting response Pamela. I think it points to the fact that there are systemic issues at play here. What systems best prepare and support our new and established teachers? The system I taught in… did a fantastic job of providing personal professional development opportunities AND a fantastic job of wearing me down professionally (overcrowded, dilapidated classrooms, small budgets, uneducated, ill informed implementation of federal, state and local policies, delayed salary increases, working near or in hazardous conditions – it’s a never ending list). It’s a system heavily dependent upon heroes and self-sacrifice for success and one that does not, in my opinion, honor human dignity.

TFA can and does work to prepare some beginning teachers. But it also appears that it’s better at supporting those who come into the program with a certain set of capabilities for teaching and learning, including knowledge, passion and commitment. Land at the right school and TFA and credential program candidates have a better shot at being successful teachers. How do we build better systems to support better schools?

One concern I have at the systemic level is that the TFA model is also impacting credentialing programs across the country. This worries me as it appears this trend is more about state’s saving money than it is about preparing quality teachers.

I also like Prissy’s response to not “other” our TFA colleagues.

Tesa: I appreciate this offering and fully agree–idealistic and energetic young people are not the problem; the cynical bureaucrats who often have never taught anywhere (like TFA’s Wendy Kopp, as reported by the New York Times) and who want to make money (Kopp was reported to earn $268k in 2010) and save money (by hiring poorly paid teachers) are. The problem with TFA is that it’s part of the project of privatizing everything that’s public; Kopp is making big money because teachers in privatized systems make low wages–she’s getting rich on their backs.

Pauline: As a current Teach For America corps member in her 2nd year, I can attest personally to the fact that 5 weeks of training is not at all enough. Although well-meaning, I can assure Diane that her daughter’s success is the exception, not the norm, much as TFA would like to make it seem as though it is so. As a person of color who went to a public state university, I can also attest to the fact that yes, the far majority of corps members I have met are white, from upper and upper middle class background, with degrees from elite universities.

Every single 1st year TFA corps member is completely miserable and has no idea what they are doing. I can’t tell you how many came in confident due to the “training” at Summer Institute, buoyed by their “success” with provided goals, assessments, small classrooms, and multiple teachers in each classroom. At least 25% of my corps from last year dropped out, either during the year or this past summer, not because they cared any less or worked any less hard during the year than in the summer., but because they were ill-prepared, poorly supported by TFA Program Directors.

I think that asking TFA and other alternative entrance programs to provide new corps members with a real student-teacher experience and training for a single year is more than reasonable. If these individuals are truly already committed to being a positive influence in classrooms and education, even for a short time post-college (and I do believe that, regardless of where they are coming from, most corps members do believe that all children deserve great opportunities in the classroom), an extra year should be part of that commitment, in order that they may still spend a full year in the classroom.

My first year was a disaster. It wasn’t until I had a true mentor at the beginning of this year that I learned how to manage a classroom and be a successful instructor in the classroom. I am now much more confident and looking forward to next year and future years in the classroom. My greatest regret is that it took me that extra year and a half to learn. I was an inadequate teacher to the students in my first semester’s kindergarten class and now, teaching kindergarten at a different public school in the same system, and wish that I could go back and be the teacher that they really needed.

Nyeela: I absolutely love the fact that we’re having this discussion over the listserve. I am also TFA alumna. The big question as educators and activists is how do we want our urban public education systems designed? Right now, extraordinary reforms are occurring to how urban school districts are run (i.e. the proliferation of charter schools and the re-emergence of voucher legislation). These reforms are all part of a long-standing (and fairly well-documented) effort to privatize (urban) public schools and TFA is largely responsible for making this possible in two ways. The first is by creating an ever-expanding and well-organized pipeline of new teachers, which has both ensured an endless supply of relatively affluent, low-cost labor and has virtually resolved the longstanding problem of urban teacher shortages. The second way is by giving birth to a host of institutions, policy-analysts and politicians who advance this reform agenda. These new corps members are overwhelmingly white, privileged, young, naive and well-meaning recent college graduates who enter into urban and rural communities of color to teach. As part of their training they are indoctrinated with the inaccurate and deeply elitist narrative that the primary reason why public schools are failing is because of incompetent teachers and administrators, often without any real exposure to scholarship that challenges this doctrine. Most disturbingly, they are trained to accept their often miserable and under-resourced working conditions, like soldiers temporarily fighting on a battlefield, without challenging or critically analyzing the existence of those conditions.  The trade-off for corps members enduring a difficult two-years is that they boost their resume as a member of a prestigious program; gain quick access to a wealth of resources and professional networks, notably the many leadership opportunities emerging from the large array of new social entrepreneurial ventures in education. These advantages aren’t tacit, but rather are often explicitly part of TFA’s recruitment strategy. It’s also worthwhile to note that almost all of the high-powered (and well-funded) charter school franchises were founded by TFA alumni and that the founder of TFA is married to the former regional head of the for-profit EMO, Edison Schools, who is now CEO of the KIPP Foundation. While TFA is a bi-partisan organization, it has successfully advanced a conservative political agenda that social justice education scholars/activists have been fighting against for decades. And it is doing so with the support of unwitting leftist corps members who don’t know any better. If more corps members were aware of the politics and economics behind this movement, many would begin to challenge it. I can go on and on. Again, the question really is, what kind of public school system should we be fighting for? Do we want a school system that is fully funded by the government and is both equitably and democratically run, or do we want a system of mostly charter schools that vastly range in quality with the more successful ones being sponsored by philanthropic funding that is ultimately unreliable and is largely sourced from corporate powers, who, as Diane Ravitch put it,  now exercise a dangerous amount of influence over public education. Do we want a system of thoroughly trained teachers who gradually enter into a profession they can make a long-term career out of, or a system of (perhaps slightly better paid) teachers who are trained for a couple of months before entering the classroom; try their hardest to be super-teachers (just like in the movies) for a couple of years until they burn out only to be replaced by new recruits. Keep in mind that regardless of how talented a new teacher is, they almost always get better with experience, but only under the right conditions and if they seek improvement.

Nyeela: I also want to make the point that TFA has played a critical role in putting urban education in the forefront of national public discourse. Empowering large quantities of young professionals to take an interest in education and propelling them into educational leadership is part of its mission, which has both positive and negative implications.

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