Recently, I've been hooked on the series on New Orleans and DC done by John Merrow's production company, Learning Matters. These short episodes are aired on PBS's Newshour and the internet. The stories told by Merrow are a true indictment of our inner-city systems and our culture as a whole.
One of the episodes that really caught my attention is entitled, "The TFA Effect." It follows a few Teach For America recruits in New Orleans and gives a pretty accurate depiction of what it's like to work in a truly challenging school in your first year. Here's the link to the episode if you're interested: http://learningmatters.tv/blog/current/paul-vallas-in-new-orleans-episode-10-the-tfa-effect/2171/
I've always been interested in TFA and reflective on whether it's a worthwhile endeavor in our most challenging environments. I even thought I'd apply for it myself as a way to enter the profession if I hadn't managed to get accepted into my graduate program back in college. I thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. Take the people who are least jaded, who are most excited and energetic about saving the world, and allow them to work in areas that most need saving. It seemed like a pretty good match. I've since changed my mind.
Since having moved to DC, I've had the opportunity to work pretty closely with a lot of people who've had up-close experience with the program. I've talked to a lot of veteran teachers who have worked with TFAers, a lot of teachers who got their start with TFA, and a few people who are currently going through the program (although admittedly not all that many). I've also had the opportunity to see first hand the biggest challenges that DCPS faces (which, I have to admit, are pretty different than what I thought they were before I moved out here).
These experiences have led me to believe that TFAers, and for that matter, first-year teachers in general, have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS working in these kinds of systems. And if we were to really get serious about boosting student achievement, I'd say five years should probably be the minimum number of years experience required to apply in these districts (with some exceptions).
The children of DCPS, New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, LA, Memphis, and any other severely challenged district across the US that one might think of do not have the luxury of being guinea pigs for a legion of completely incompetent, albeit well-intentioned, college graduates. Anyone who's taught for more than a few years can tell you that the vast majority of teachers (I'd say all, but I suppose there's a small possibility that there are one or two miracles out there) have virtually no idea what they're doing in the classroom in their first year (I know that was certainly the case for me).
Your first few years are spent learning that almost everything you thought teaching was supposed to be was completely wrong. You're overwhelmed by classroom management and discipline struggles. You have no idea how to plan a unit or an effective lesson. You don't recognize the importance of constant quality assessment, and you sure as hell don't have a clue as to how to go about creating one. You don't yet know how exactly to build relationships with kids (even though you thought you did), nor do you quite realize how critically important they are to the children who are almost completely deprived of positive relationships. You don't realize that in addition to teaching your subject matter, you desperately need to teach your kids how to read, but you don't have a clue how to. You can't see through the bull that the administration throws at you or the petty bickering that some of your colleagues may do around you. And on the day that you think your lesson actually went okay, you don't realize that not a single one of your students will be able to demonstrate that they learned what you thought they did the next day.
I could go on and on and on, but I'm going to stop there because I figure I've made my point.
These are things that teachers learn over years of experience. You don't get them in a summer training, or even in your first year of teaching. They come slowly. The most glaring example of the importance of these skills comes in the video I shared above at 2:45 when you see Daniel's class. At that moment, it's painfully obvious that he is utterly incompetent at what he's doing. Even I almost feel asleep when he started asking kids to put their thumbs up or down in order to gauge whether they knew what a leader was.
I don't blame the TFAers themselves. I was like them not very long ago. I did my first year teaching in a socio-economically disadvantaged school in Knoxville, TN, and then wanted desperately to try my hand in DC or NYC. I wanted to go out and save the world. I thought I could do it. I found out how ridiculously wrong I was. Luckily I couldn't find a job in DC or NYC, and I'm so glad that I began teaching in a school that, while not perfect in supporting new teachers, at least offered me an environment in which I could make mistakes and learn from them.
I would not recommend ANYONE try their hand at their first year teaching in a district like DC or New Orleans. It will make you believe that education is something that it's not, that to be a teacher is to be a martyr, that getting through a school year is like running a marathon EVERY DAMN DAY, and that you deserve no rights or respect from your administration or district. It's a run through a gauntlet, and it's no wonder so many new teachers leave the profession when this is how we treat them.
I also don't think that it's impossible for a TFAer to do a decent job. I believe there are a few stars out there who actually manage to do a decent job in the classroom their first year, but I believe those are few and far between. There are certainly not enough of them to justify using them to make up 20% of your teaching force, as in New Orleans.
I blame the leaders of these districts for saying things (as Paul Vallas did in the video) like new teachers' energy and enthusiasm more than make of for their lack of experience. I've heard similar things from Michelle Rhee. It's my opinion that statements like that are extremely misguided. I can't imagine anyone who's been in a classroom for more than a few years could actually believe something like that. Sure, there are a few newbies out there whose energy and enthusiasm will really help their teaching in their first year, but there is NO substitute for a teacher who is reflective, willing to learn, and experienced. There is simply no way the vast majority of first-year teachers could ever impact students in the way that an experienced teacher will. In fact, most first-year teachers will probably do a tremendous amount of harm to their students if they lack the support that's so critical in your first years of teaching.
Ideally, a teacher would begin their career in an environment where discipline is not as much of a problem and support is provided consistently. This would allow them to focus on quality instruction, which is another MASSIVE challenge that all good teachers have to spend a number of years struggling with. Once a teacher has the basics of instruction down, which could take between 3-5 years, it's time to consider working with students who need so much more than just quality instruction - but, by that time, how many teachers would really be willing to leave the comfort of their established environments? Ah, the pitfalls of reform.....
There are obviously a number of problems with this "solution," none of which will probably ever be solved in American education, but I can't imagine that continuing to place our least experienced teachers in our most high-needs environments is ANY kind of solution. Rather, I believe it's part of the problem.
Perhaps, however, if TFA did not exist, the inner-city districts would only ever employ those individuals who are so jaded that they merely sit in their classrooms and read newspapers all day. I know that a lot of districts have had, and continue to have, this problem. Perhaps if that is our alternative, then TFA is not so bad after all.
All I can surely conclude here is that, either way, our values are really messed up.