Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Young Teacher Tells Why She Said "No" to Teach For America

This anonymous teacher's explanation of why she passed on the opportunity to "teach for america" — as if only Wendy Kopp's acolytes are out there doing the truly patriotic thing — brings together more of the criticisms of TFA in one place than I have seen before.

~Gene V Glass

Nearly six years ago—during my college’s first year orientation—I set my sights on becoming an elementary school teacher. Five years ago, I attended a Teach For America (TFA) info session at my college’s library. Many people encouraged me to apply, and (at a time when getting a job is anything but guaranteed) it was tempting. My East Coast liberal arts school is a sort of powerhouse for TFA. Between 40-60 of my class’ 500 graduates went on to TFA. As a comparison, six of us graduated as credentialed K-12 teachers.

Three years ago, I wrote “Why I Won’t Teach For America”. As I complete my second year of teaching (aka the length of a TFA commitment), I firmly stand by that decision for both political and personal reasons. From my personal perspective, here’s why:

I was properly trained to teach.

Had I done TFA, I would have had five weeks of training. Instead, I had literally years. Under the guidance of a master teacher, I experienced it all. If something went wrong or I didn’t know how to respond to a situation, I had people to help me. I studying education theory and pedagogy and learned material I still use every day.

I had a strong first year.

The TFA teachers I know often say things like, “My first year was horrible, but that’s just how it is!” TFA pushes the myth that a teacher’s first year necessarily is rough. In this assumption it is implicit but ignored that the students of these first year teachers are experimented on and get a sub-par education.

Even for credentialed teachers, the first year is challenging and new. But even with that, I loved my first year. I felt prepared, had an amazing class, and was finally doing what I loved. I know I am a better teacher now than I was then, but I also believe that I gave my first students a quality education. This is not because I am inherently “better” than those who teach through TFA, but because I was given the proper training and experiences prior to having my first class.

I teach in and am dedicated to my community.

TFA has applicants rank a number of locations, and the teachers I know got placed all over the United States. Two years after their placements, many are moving back to where they are from or to where they desire to live.

I teach at a school very similar in demographics to those where TFA teachers are placed: 85%+ minority, 80%+ free or reduced lunch, majority ELL. I also teach 10 minutes from where I was born. I foresee myself saving up to buy a house and raising my family in the town. I have connections to the community, and am personally invested in its long-term strength. I feel fortunate that, after two years of teaching, I am already established in the town and not looking for a transfer.

I am a public school teacher.

Had I done TFA, I would have likely ended up in a charter school. TFA has a very close relationship with the privatization movement. In LA, 90% of TFA teachers are placed in charters. I am proud to be working in a school that is making huge gains with an “underserved” population AND is fully public. For so many reasons (way more than can fit in this post!), I am a supporter of public education.

I am a member of my school’s community, not of a “corps.”

When I entered my school at 22 years old, I was by far the youngest teacher. But I was also just that: a teacher. I quickly bonded with the other teachers, many of whom have 10 or 20+ years experience. TFA teachers often say they are “doing TFA” rather than “teaching.” Amongst the TFA teachers I know, there is close camaraderie within the corps members. They live together, party together, and support each other. While this is likely necessary because many of them are placed far from home without any support system, I feel fortunate to be a part of my school’s community, and not an organization.

Teaching is sustainable for me.

Teachers work hard.

Many TFA teachers speak of the burnout they experience. I believe the organization does this purposely: if you are only getting two years out of your teachers, you might as well work them until they can’t do it any more. Every teacher I know—student teacher, career teacher, TFA teacher—gives 110% of herself mentally and emotionally. There are countless long nights and draining days. But at the same time, I know I want to stay in teaching, and I am not doing myself or my current or future students any favors by giving up my sleep and personal life. Moreover, my colleagues are people who are balancing work and personal life (often including kids and other obligations) very well, not other sleepless 24 year olds.

I am not leaving teaching now (or likely ever!).

I know for a fact I will teach next year. While we can’t predict the future, my long-term goal is to stay a classroom teacher. This shapes so much of what I do: I have invested literally thousands of dollars into my classroom and my library, I eagerly attend professional development workshops, I reflect on my practices and preserve my best lessons, and I forge strong relationships with families in the hopes that I will someday teach their children. I firmly believe all of this makes me a better and happier teacher.

The second year TFA teachers I know are taking many different paths. A few are staying in the classroom. Many are getting recruited out of their current placement by charter chains or by TFA itself. Others are going on to graduate school or, yes, to banking.

While there is a lot of dispute over TFA’s retention rate, many state that about 50% leave after two years and 80% after three years. I could not imagine what my second year of teaching would be like if I was planning on packing it all up and moving on to my next professional adventure come June.

One of my largest critiques of TFA is that it focuses on the experiences of the teachers over that of students, and I realize I have done just that here. Still, after two years of teaching, I firmly believe that NOT “Teaching for America” was the best move for me professionally, and certainly was the best service to TFA’s supposed mission that “one day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”

Gene V Glass
National Education Policy Center
Arizona State University

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