4 Claims about Teach For America… true or false?

I saw a link to this piece on Twitter and thought it would be appropriate to respond given that this weekend is Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit right here in Washington. This is an interview between a guy named John who did Teach For America for six months and a guy named David who is his teacher mentor now. John quit TFA because “it doesn’t prepare or support its teachers for the challenges they will face”. John cites a few major frustrations: a) he was assigned to teach English even though is background was in Social Studies; b) he taught Social Studies during his summer training rather than English; c) TFA’s supervisors are too inexperienced to be helpful; and d) TFA uses scripted solutions that don’t work for everyone. I’d like to address each of these in turn.

1. TFA assigns people to teach a content area they are not prepared to teach.

This is true – or at least, it’s true that people are assigned to teach contents they may not have a ton of experience with. That happens more in certain school districts and in different ways – New York City places a lot of corps members in math teaching positions, for instance. But John’s experience doesn’t sound that horrible. English is probably the most commonly taught content area among TFA corps members, and it strikes me as one that would not be significantly harder to teach if you didn’t have much of a background in English. With our students, the goals are: get them on reading level, and get them to write well. Social Studies has the same goals but from a different angle. I’m not feeling too much sympathy for John here.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think this is an issue worth further discussion. If you think about it, tons of TFA teachers are placed in content areas they are less prepared to teach. For example, I have significant concerns about the number of corps members we place in Special Education. In my opinion, teaching Special Ed requires more training and specialized knowledge than anything else. You have to really understand some fundamentals of learning and what the various learning disorders are so that you can figure out how to help your students. TFA corps members do great things in Special Ed, but I think they’ve got it particularly tough and would probably accomplish more if they weren’t coming in at such a disadvantage relative to their peers teaching in general education.

This leads into the next point…

2. TFA’s summer training doesn’t provide adequate guidance or experience.

Here we come to one of the most controversial parts of Teach For America: the summer institute. It’s evolved a lot over the years, and in its current form, it’s a five-week experience during which corps members truly live up to one of my favorite quotes: “the first year teaching is like trying to fly a plane while building it”. CMs spend the first week in sessions learning the most basic elements of teaching, then it’s four weeks of teaching for about 45 minutes in the morning followed by more sessions. CMs are in groups according to content area; my group of 16 was comprised of Spanish teachers from each of the regions represented at my institute. Group leaders have experience in that content area and provide some feedback and pedagogical guidance tailored to the content area.

I was fortunate to teach Spanish at institute before teaching Spanish at my placement school; not everyone gets to do exactly the same thing. TFA does its best to align institute assignments to future teaching assignments, but it’s tricky: the school systems don’t necessarily have the same teaching needs. A lot of people in my corps who were teaching at the secondary level didn’t get to teach exactly what they’d teach later, but they at least got to work with students near that grade level. It’s not ideal, but it’s also not a guarantee of future failure or increased struggle. Unless John’s corps experience was a long time ago, his institute probably offered content-specific workshops that should have helped him learn how to teach English even though he was teaching Social Studies at institute. He shouldn’t have been completely clueless walking into the classroom.

I actually had a different complaint from institute – although I got to teach the content area to which I’d been assigned, I only had five students in my class. Others might disagree, but from my perspective, I would rather have had the opportunity to manage a larger class than to teach my content area. It was easier for me to figure out how to teach Spanish than to respond to misbehaving children. Going from five kids in July to 35 kids in August was a rough transition!

Either way, TFA does what it can. They also offer workshops that corps members can choose based on what they feel they need the most help with. I went to sessions on classroom management; others went to sessions on instruction. The point is that when we started school in the fall, all of us had some experience being in front of kids, crafting and executing lesson plans, developing assessments, and implementing a classroom management system, and we knew what our weaknesses were so that we could try to preempt them.

3. TFA’s corps member supervisors don’t have enough experience.

I definitely do not disagree with this, and I’ve written about it before. The supervisors – called Program Directors or PDs – usually come straight out of their two-year corps experience. Although the selection process is extremely rigorous (yours truly wasn’t picked), you’re ultimately still talking about people who have taught for two years. I’ve been out of the classroom for two years, and I’m still thinking about all the ways I could have improved during the two years I was teaching. Could I go into a teacher’s classroom now and use a rubric to determine how well he or she is doing? Yes, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to offer a ton of solutions for the problems I saw. Two years of teaching just isn’t enough to figure all of that out. If I hadn’t done it myself, I would have had real trouble explaining to someone how to implement a new classroom management technique or Spanish speaking exercise.

As if that’s not troublesome enough, PDs also don’t necessarily work with corps members who teach the same thing they did. My PD my first year was a 5th grade teacher; my PD second year was a middle school science teacher. Both helped me to be better teachers, but they were limited in the support they could give me – particularly with what I felt I needed most, which was how to actually teach Spanish. (Classroom management is really just a matter of trial and error with a list of techniques; teaching a foreign language is far less intuitive.)

The support structure is what I would most recommend changing within the TFA structure in order to see increased student achievement among corps members.

4. TFA uses scripted solutions and tricks that don’t work for everyone.

There certainly are some things that are “typically TFA”. John mentions using chart paper; that’s definitely a TFA favorite. (I personally loved chart paper and used it every day.) But I don’t think that any of them are forced upon corps members; I never had anyone in TFA tell me that I had to do something a certain way. I felt a lot of freedom to sift through the large amount of resources I’d received and figure out what worked best for me. I’m also not sure where John got the impression that teachers shouldn’t show personality – that was definitely never implied to me, and my personality was the thing that helped me the most in my classroom.
I’m only one of thousands, and there’s definitely some truth to the idea of TFA being cult-like… so I’m willing to admit that my skepticism of this claim doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not true elsewhere.

Here’s my general message: TFA has grown and changed tremendously in its 20-year history. It’s far from perfect, but it’s also an incredibly introspective organization. I don’t anticipate ever being in another group that pays so much attention to its effectiveness and what contributes to that. In terms of the experience each corps member has, the application system can have just as much impact as the training – some people just aren’t cut out for TFA as an experience or a culture. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be good teachers; it just means that teaching is complicated, and if you’re not flexible and creative enough to overcome the challenges that come with the type of training you receive and the day-to-day experience of teaching, you’re not going to be as happy.

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About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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One Response to 4 Claims about Teach For America… true or false?

  1. SteveRB says:

    I posted this on EdWeeks comments and figured I would cross post here since you directed me to the article. Thanks!

    Why isn’t more attention given to the fact that John left the classroom after 6 months? We all know what happens in these cases. John’s kids likely were left with a long term substitute, who taught them very little for the rest of the year.

    Most Teach for America teachers, myself included, complete their 2 year commitment, and over 60% of corp members stay in the teaching profession for more than two years. Previous comments have cited studies about TFA teacher effectiveness, which I will not repeat. Countless TFA corp members go on to careers in public policy, non-profit, and other sectors in order to change the systematic problems in low income schools and neighborhoods.

    Is TFA training perfect? No. Is the classroom support adequate? Sometimes not. However, in my experience, the organization does a good job, offering support that far surpassed my district’s support structures. Plus, the organization is constantly self-evaluating and trying to improve.

    As for the charge that TFA foists “teacher proof,” scripted materials on their corp members, I never saw that happen. First of all, the districts dictate curriculum, not TFA. TFA will certainly suggest methods of student engagement and relevant teaching tools, but I have never heard of TFA proscribing scripted lessons. In fact, my district prescribed terrible scripted lessons, and my TFA program director helped me to think outside the box and engage my students in new ways.

    TFA is a tough two years, but John was told that when he signed up. In my school, I looked around and asked myself, who would replace me if I left? I did not like what I saw.

    The bottom line is that John made a two year commitment to do everything possible to teach effectively in an under-served school. He did not honor that commitment. There seems to be some guilt there, but rationalizing his decision to quit by trashing the organization that he could not hack it in is not an appropriate response.

    Is TFA the answer to all problems with the education system in our country? Absolutely not. I understand criticisms of the program as promoting short-term, rather than career teaching, and failing to prepare teachers adequately. What critics do not understand is that TFA teachers are recruited from amongst the best and brightest and placed in schools where other good teachers won’t go. Most come in with a dead set determination to succeed, and a will to work extremely hard.

    With the terrible pay and conditions in these schools, there are not enough 20 year career saints to go around. I have seen my share of veteran teachers that sit at their desk and watch movies all day after passing out worksheets. Would I rather have a top notch veteran teaching my kids than a TFA corp member? Yes! But given what I saw at my urban school, I would take a brand new TFA teacher over at least 70% of the “veteran” teachers there.

    The system needs change, but until vast improvements are made, TFA will remain relevant and necessary.

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