Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The TFA Effect

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.


  1. I've had a similar post in my backpocket. Inexperienced teachers have NO business in these places. But, for some inexplicable reason, we are not doing ANYTHING to create an environment that would lure excellent, seasoned professionals to teach in urban education. It's a conundrum.

  2. Reflective educator - you are wise, wise,wise. Granted, it comes from experience, but that's the best kind of wise, I think.

    Dee Does DC - It's no conundrum - it's Rhee's plan - cheap, idealistic teachers who will put up with anything for a couple of years - who cares about the kids?

    Anon - "What a post" yourself! and No, there's no TFA or DCTF at Sidwell - they are reserved for impossible situations where the kids best interests are not at heart.

  3. Okay. So, I did Teach For America back in the beginning and have made a career out of education. You are entitled to criticize Teach For America and my position is that it's an absolute shame that our country (not Michelle Rhee, not Paul Vallas, not Teach For America) has failed to promote education as the most desirable and rewarded profession leading to a supply of qualified, professional teachers for all kids.

    So, I think we agree that placing inexperienced teachers in the most challenging school environments is a specious enterprise at best. However, what must be acknowledged is that there are no lines out the door of personnel offices in these districts. We must also acknowledge that the teacher turnover in these schools is due to the fact that traditionally trained teachers often accept the jobs in underresourced schools because they have no options and leave those schools as soon as they can get their job in the suburbs. Is that an unfair generalization? Perhaps, but I saw it first hand in South East Los Angeles and East Oakland.

  4. Excellent post! And on the money. I am a Teaching Fellow myself but I am fortunate in having a background that supplied me with enough skills to weather the first years and I was fortunate enough to have some great veterans to help guide me. Bullshit is the word. Rhee constantly makes the odious comparison of the enthusiastic, energized 2 year teacher vs. the 20 year burnout as if there are no veteran teachers who still possess enthusiasm or energy for their job. Really nice job.

  5. John Miller - Disadvantaged kids deserve better schools and better lives and putting any teacher in a school with poor administrative back-up and resources will not help the kids no matter who is teaching them. TFA works great as a stepping stone for the teachers, but let's face it, there's no evidence that it helps the kids. The teachers get TFA on their resumes and a tuition support for a master's degree.

    The kids get well-meaning but completely inexperienced teachers who rotate through every two years. These short-term teachers are touted as heroes - "the best and the brightest" - for sacrificing 2 years of their elite lives before they go off to make the big bucks. Meanwhile, while the kids are stuck in the ghetto and teachers who make a career trying to teach and reach these kids are treated like scum.

  6. No argument from me about the kids deserving better. The question is where are the these better teachers? Everyone has to remember that TFA only exists when there are not enough certified teachers out there. I'm sure the resume builders are out there but there are a lot easier ways to pad the resume than to work in these schools. Also, Teach For America provides their teachers with a tremendous level of support that is envied by other teachers in the districts that has prompted these districts to beef up their programs.

  7. Very insightful comments. I am a 3rd year teacher in the Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Va Beach, Hampton, Newport News). I consider myself, as lodesterre, as having a background that has helped me tremendously as a new teacher. I became a teacher through a non-traditonal program (military transition program). I believe my military background, social work background, and administrative/technological skills have served me better than help from my district. The only exception is that I do receive some assistance from a retired teacher who is paid an hourly stipend to come in and "tutor" students during the school day. I teach at a title one school and every day is a challenge. I love teaching but many days I don't feel as if I've done enough. What do we do? How can we make it better? Our top administrators claim that the students best interest is what most important but their actions proclaim otherwise. They cry "broke" (no raises for teachers this year) but flagrant waste is seen at every turn. What do we do to change it?

  8. What I just don't get about TFA is if they want to change the world and teach, why not get a degree or at least a certification in teaching WHILE IN COLLEGE? That's what I did. I had an academic degree and then thought I'd teach, spent another year, student taught and got certified to teach. I've been doing it ever since as I believe in the power of education to change lives.

  9. We've all had ed courses that are jokes, but we took them. It's like jumping through hoops, doing what you need to do to be able accomplish what you want. I wanted to teach, so I took the stupid courses to get certified. TFA is not alone in disliking most ed school courses.

  10. Hi,

    I work for Learning Matters and was excited to see your post!

    We're expanding our coverage of TFA with a series that premieres online tomorrow, "Teaching for America." Find more information on our facebook page: www.facebook.com/learningmatters.

    If you have any questions about the project, please feel free to email me at eschilder@learningmatters.tv...

    Elena Schilder of Learning Matters

  11. To anon of Jan 7 who said "if they [TFA] want to change the world and teach, why not get a degree or at least a certification in teaching WHILE IN COLLEGE?"

    Because TFA doesn't respect college teaching courses nor does it respect people who actually aspire to be teachers. TFA is looking for "the best and the brightest" who are willing to spend a couple of years teaching before moving on to better things.

    Think about it, if TFA recruited people who wanted to be career teachers, there would not be the revolving door that keeps TFA in business.

    It's not about the kids - keep that in mind and everything else falls into place.

  12. I don't even know what to say...no words can describe how I felt when I read through this blog. I was just introduced to this site last night by a colleauge and have been soaking it up since we (by some divine intervention i'm sure) were let out early this afternoon due to the expected snowstorm, I have been laughing, reflecting and damn near crying. Since August, I've been suffering through the same hell. So many of your posts touched me becuase they were like reading my own thoughts (the ones that I haven't been able to communicate through the layers of stress I've endured). I thought this might be the most appropriate post to comment on because I am, fortunately and very unfortunately, a first-year TFAer.

    When my colleague first told me to be aware because you had your own opinions about TFA too--not just DCPS--I was careful. But after reading this post, I was convinced it was the truth. I don't hate TFA or Wendy Kopp or my motivated peers or Michelle Rhee...I am the motivated youngster who came to change the world, afterall. I really am. However, as part of an "education movement," I'm disgusted. I can't speak for any of TFA's other regions or any other teaching experience for that matter. My only experience is DCPS. On that note, I'm also not THAT naive.

    In no way, shape or form is it humanly possible to come to DC and create miracles. I'm glad that Teach for America brought me to teaching. I'm not so glad, however, that my first year is, in fact, like "running a marathon EVERY DAMN DAY" (my fav quote by the way). I need to learn how to be a decent teacher before I dare tackle a sad, sad situation like the one I see every day inside my classroom. And in no way have I been prepared to get my students to read by the way (also a very good point).

    I, like yourself, thankfully work (or worked in your case) with AMAZING teachers and staff. AMAZING. Perhaps if it hadn't been for them, I would have already made the move to quit. But you see...that's how they suck you in..especially first-year TFAers like me. Quitting is not an option for me because it means quitting AmeriCorps too and it means quitting a half-ass grad program that will build my resume. I'm a realist, and that's what's real. If I really speak my mind at this point, with such little experience, I won't be taken seriously. I fear a bad reputation. I fear having no job.

    However, it's the people like you, the people who have been teaching for a decent while, to really speak up about how f-ed up this whole scenario really is...thank you for having the courage to voice it, to constructively write about the issues at hand and to stand up for those who just don't have the energy or courage to speak up.

    I, too, even if I am young and inexperienced, see the major problem being an administrative problem. This is not what's best for kids. It's bullshit. I have plenty of kids who aren't getting the services they need, plenty of kids whose parents think they're doing well (what the hell am I supposed to make them think?..I don't know myself!) and plenty of kids with behavior problems who aren't dealt with in an appropriate manner.

    If I didn't fear my own job security, I could share with you a quote or two from my "great leader" (what I sarcastically refer to her as) that really says it all. But, for now, I will soak up the words you've shared, keep working hard for my kids and be comforted with the possibility of HOPE...coming from those especially like you. Thank you for your inspiration and here's to hoping I make it to June.