I've been having an ongoing conversation over the last week or so with a colleague about the merits and drawbacks of programs like Teach for America and DC Teaching Fellows. I am a TFA alum, but my colleague went to school to get a legit teaching degree. She's a first year teacher, but she is in her thirties and this is not her first job out of college. She's an outstanding teacher who has made huge academic gains with her kids this year, and I really respect her opinion.
As a TFA-er, I am obviously a proponent of the "mission," as it is referred to in TFA parlance. But I'm also not a drone, and I accept that there are shortcomings with Teach for America's model. In my discussions with her, I've identified three main criticisms of the program.
First, many people feel that alternative route certification programs undervalue the teaching profession by giving the impression that anyone could do it. This criticism seems weak to me, because I don't think anyone affiliated with TFA would tell you that they think teaching is easy. But I can understand how a person outside the world of education might look at alternative certifications and say, "well why would anyone go through teacher school?" For this, though, I think the fault lies with university education programs who have by-and-large done a poor job getting enough people to commit their careers to the education of low-income students. Alternative certifications, to me, aren't born from a disrespect of teachers, but from a desperate need for people willing to teach in difficult schools.
Second, many people doubt the efficacy of Teach for America's teachers. Trolling around the internets (as I'm known to do) looking for information on the effectiveness of TFA will give you studies that range widely from extremely positive to extremely negative (sorry that the second link is just an article about the study -- I searched for a bit on google for the real thing, but then got bored). Whether or not Teach for America teachers are effective obviously differs on a teacher-by-teacher basis, but I can tell you that, in my experience, I've never seen a TFAer fall asleep during class, curse at students, or be generally incompetent. We might not all be great, but at least we're trying. There are some veteran teachers (definitely a small minority of them) about whom this cannot be said. Compared to those teachers, I bet TFA teachers rock it out.
Third, and probably most important, many people are bothered by the fact that Teach for America is only a two-year commitment. Although I'm a relatively new teacher, I have decided to make education my career, and I think more TFA alums should do the same. I whole-heartedly agree that two years is not enough time to become a great teacher. Also, in high schools, kids see a revolving chorus of teachers coming in and out every year, and I think this is hurtful both to their psyches and to the school community. Leaving after two years also decreases veteran teachers' willingness to help you -- why invest their time in supporting someone who's going to leave for Goldman-Sachs in two years?
All these are fine points. But I also want to push back against this criticism for a second. A lot of Teach for America teachers leave not because they were planning to leave all along, nor because their kids were so poorly behaved, but because their schools are total ass. My first year, I was placed in a room without a white board, with only 12 desks, and with no textbooks. It wasn't until November that I got a computer, not until April that I got a printer. I still don't have a phone. The only other teachers in my building who offered any assistance that first year were other TFA and DCTF teachers. I admit that I strongly considered leaving after my second year of teaching to go work for a high-performing charter school (as many TFA alums do), but ultimately decided I wanted to stay with my kids and watch them graduate. Although I didn't enjoy many supportive relationships with veteran teachers, I also didn't encounter many problems. I've heard horror stories about the ways other corps members were treated at their schools by their colleagues and administrators. Perhaps more TFA teachers (and new teachers in general) would stay longer if their workplaces weren't so toxic. Maybe if more established teachers were willing to help out the new teachers, fewer of us would go running for the hills. While the two-year commitment is problematic, I think it's important to understand the ways in which schools themselves exacerbate this problem.
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