Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Teaching for America

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.


Some Thoughts said...

I'm glad to hear to you want to stay. I sort of got the feeling you would from following your blog. I'm happy that you are. I've been in my school now for several years and don't have a printer (I print out stuff at home) nor have I ever had a phone. It is a dream of mine to have a job where I have a phone on a desk, but I digress. Now, I just use my cell phone all the time to call parents or any DCPS ofice I need to call.
I believe the toxic atmosphere you describe is much more prevalent outside of elementary schools, where the atmosphere at best is warm and fuzzy. Some of the veteran teachers, and I am one, are just plain jealous. You mention leaving (not you) to go to Goldman Sacks? Forgetting for the moment our country's economic crisis, going to Goldman Sacks or Wall Street or publishing or working on the Hill or in public or foreign policy sounds like the promised land, the land without lunch duty and knowing parents with criminal records who mess up their kids. A wonderful world outside of DCPS. Where we aren't going because we're stuck here. TFA teachers can get out when it just becomes too awful, the genuine idealism fades and all you see are mean kids who don't want to learn, semi-literate colleagues who aren't curious about the world, filthy dirty old buildings too hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. And your parents are glad you're leaving teaching, that great degree Mom says you're wasting and do something else. Because you can.

Toby said...

I've heard of negative experiences from some friends of the Teach For America teachers I've known. Luckily teachers where I work have been generally welcoming to all new teachers. I can see why there would be some resentment, maybe at first, from veteran teachers towards Teach For America teachers. Rhee obviously prefers them to career teachers. Many TFAers, though not all, are not African American, in a school system that is at least 70% black, with an equally majority African American teaching force. Whether people like to talk about it or face it, race is always an issue. There may be honest resentment against whites or just a lack of familiarity with other races. I knew of one TFA teacher who other teachers assumed to be rich just because of her background, because she was white and Jewish from New York. In fact she was the daughter of a single mother who had always gotten scholarships and grew up in an apartment. Just because she was white some other teachers made false assumptions about her, until they got to know her. The attitude that TFAers are like urban missionaries trying to save poor black children who black teachers haven't been able to educate effectively may also be troubling to traditional DCPS teachers. They may feel threatened by TFAers. But veteran educators who are on the wrong side of the educational reform movement look like obstacles to progress. And I too have never heard a TFA teacher curse at children, fall asleep in class or put on DVDs every Friday afternoon.

Dee Does The District said...

"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."

Amen. Although we are all DCTF, my friends and I had a lengthy, similar conversation at dinner about this. We all love our students and we love teaching them. It's the constant headaches that come from outside the classroom that force people to leave. No one in their right mind should/would/could put up with the ordeals that we go through. The school system in DC has created a system where people cannot survive more than a handful of years without serious consequences. I'm pretty sure most of us could be diagnosed with some form of depression or anxiety. One of our friends has ground through a layer of tooth enamel within the last couple of months!

Just to highlight how absurd the schools are in DCPS, we had dinner with a friend who has student-taught in an fairly affluent-area and another who is a non-education career person. Both of them repeatedly said, "I can't believe this is actually a true story" or "I cannot believe what you have to put up with."

DCPS is a circus and we are just the sideshow.

Erin said...

I am a teacher and I went the traditional route. My problem with TFA is one that it is a short commitment and two you receive so little training before they throw you into a classroom. I do think to some extent there is a failure at the University level. What I believe is the real problem is how little training and support new and young teacher's get and that includes teachers that went through University. I think everyone in all areas would be served better if there was more support and mentoring given to young teachers. Our tendency in this country is to say to teachers here is a classroom sink or swim. That was how my first year went and it was miserable. All teachers would stay longer if working conditions were better and there was more support from veteran teachers and administrators.

Toby said...

With my former principal, any time a new teacher would come, she'd assign a veteran teacher in a similar grade level as support. No one told the principal to do it; it just made common sense. We would meet with the new teacher during grade level meetings or collaborative planning time to offer help and suggestions on my levels. The fact we were so-called cooperating teachers was factored into our evaluations in the professional responsibilities part of our evaluations. I don't see this done anymore. Of course this local, in-house teacher-to-teacher support would be in addition to a helping or mentor teacher who would come in from the various programs to offer even more assistance.

lodesterre said...

To Some Thoughts I would like to answer with a quote from Luke 12:48 by way of John Kennedy:

"For to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."

I don't think TFA and DCTF teachers should be dismissed because they can "get out when it becomes too awful". The question shouldn't be whether or not these teachers should leave but how can they be helped in order to stay in the system, to grow as teachers and contribute the most to their schools and communities?

I am a Teaching Fellow. I've been teaching way past the initial 2 year stipulation for my fellowship. I plan to continue teaching, in DCPS, for as long as I can. If I get out of DCPS it will be to teach somewhere else, but I don't want that to happen.

I think we lose many potentially good teachers every year in both programs and we lose them because the support that needs to be there isn't. I think this is true for the traditional path teacher as well. Otherwise the number of teachers who quit after two years or five years wouldn't be as high as it is. There needs to be a mentoring system where new teachers are placed in a room with an experienced teacher and they can develop their skills without feeling as if they are barely keeping their head above water. This would make stronger teachers who would be willing to stay longer even under more trying circumstances.

As far as the idea that TFAs and DCTFs can jump ship and take a job on Wall Street or the Hill - not everybody considers such places as some kind of idyllic island where all their troubles will be far away. You have to have a certain mindset or makeup in order to thrive in those places. The stresses of these jobs are there, albeit different from what we face as teachers, and not everyone who can work in such places wants to.

As for teachers who feel this is all they can do and there are no career options available to them - I don't necessarily think I would want such teachers in my school. A person who feels trapped doesn't always offer their best to their school or community. I would rather they develop skills that could translate to any other job situation - they could then teach so much more to their students and all would benefit. The teacher would not feel trapped and the students could get a better understanding of how the skills they are being taught work in the world at large.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree in some part with Some Thoughts saying that elementary schools are filled with warm-fuzzies. I am a TFA corps member in Charlotte in elementary school. Once you hit the testing years, it gets hardcore. My school is disorganized and frustrating. My principal can be so rude it's ridiculous and you've got to approach him crawling if you want him to do anything for you. So, while I do feel that high school is probably a lot harder in a lot of ways, elementary schools are no cake walk.

I agree completely with this idea of schools being toxic affecting teacher retention. When people come in unannounced, walk around inspecting everything and then never GIVE you any feedback, it creates an atmosphere of fear. Did you like what you saw? Did you hate what you saw? Am I going to be called into your office anytime soon? The ineffective use of TIME by administration stresses teachers (especially new teachers who are still spending a lot of time planning and gathering materials for the first time) to the point that I stay at school sometimes until 7 when the custodian literally has to escort me to my car.