Dear 2013 corps members,
I recently read and commented on a blog post calling on you to quit Teach For America because, as alleged in the letter, the program exacerbates inequalities, operates under a broken model, isn’t wanted by communities, and practices disaster capitalism. While I agree with many of the author’s points, I want to remind you that you came to TFA for a reason. If that reason was to dedicate yourself to improving the educational experience of low-income students, then I am telling you right now that we need you.
Regardless of how you feel about public schools, charter schools, private schools, or teacher preparation programs, the fact of the matter is that come August and September there are going to be millions of students across the country sitting at desks and tables in every type of school. In many cases, they will have a caring, dedicated individual at the head of their classroom. I don’t care what “Waiting for Superman” told you, nearly every teacher I have met has been an excellent educator. But, too often, the education system is working against our students, and there will be many cases where kids will walk into school on the second day or the second week or the second month or the second semester of school and face a different teacher or a handful of substitutes. If you’re their teacher, I know that’s not going to happen this year or next year.
Yes, you could make a statement by quitting TFA. You could highlight the severe problem of administrators and politicians playing games that created these vacancies. You could question TFA’s contracts with school districts. You could be a featured speaker at a union rally decrying the corporatization of our public schools. But, in addition to being an excellent teacher, I believe you will be a better advocate for your cause inside of a school rather than outside of a school.
When I started my journey as a TFA corps member in June 2011, I had three major questions: 1) How could I be ready for a classroom without traditional training? 2) How would my mere two-year commitment impact my future school? Doesn’t that exacerbate inequality in urban districts? 3) Doesn’t my participation in TFA dilute the labor movement?
“How could I be ready for a classroom without traditional training?”
First and foremost, the teacher preparation question is the most important. Before I committed to teach in Milwaukee, I had serious reservations about whether or not I could deliver an excellent education for my students. How could five weeks at Institute, TFA’s teacher boot camp, possibly be enough? I’ll tell you right now, its not. But neither is a traditional teacher preparation program.
I started at my school at the same time as a traditionally trained teacher. We were both scared on the first day, and we both struggled with behavior management and implementing curriculum concepts. We got it together around November not because of our respective training, but because we worked together to begin building our kindergarten program.
So here’s Lesson 1: You won’t be prepared on day one. Here’s Lesson 2: Make allies.
I mentioned it before, but it is so important to remember that you are not the only person in your building dedicated to helping your students. Almost every person comes to education for a similar reason as you. It’s easy to be cocky as a TFA corps member.
So here’s Lesson 3: Be humble, respectful of your colleagues and learn from them.
“How would my mere two-year commitment impact my future school?”
Now what about that two-year commitment. What does it say when someone spends two years becoming an excellent teacher only to walk away? What does it mean for the schools that have invested so much money and time into developing a staff member? It’s not great. In fact, it’s terrible. I hate that people stop teaching after two years. Teachers get better with age and experience and the only way our urban schools will improve is if we can attract and retain the best teachers. We cannot rely on a fresh crop of novices every single year. But TFA isn’t the only teacher dropout factory. The problem is systemic.
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reported in 2011 that 46 percent of new teachers will leave the profession within 5 years. Arguably, that number is higher in urban districts where teachers will face larger socio-economic obstacles. For my corps of TFA teachers here in Milwaukee, nearly half of us will be teaching a third year in Milwaukee or another city this fall.
Which brings me to Lesson 4: It isn’t enough to teach for two years, but that’s not simply a TFA problem.
“Doesn’t my participation in TFA dilute the labor movement?”
My last question about TFA came in the wake of the Wisconsin’s collective bargaining protests in early 2011. As a proud Democrat and staunch union supporter from the home of labor, I didn’t want to be part of a union busting organization. While I am sad to say that I can’t call TFA pro-union, it isn’t anti-union either. In most districts, TFA teachers are hired the same way as any other teacher. If they’re hired by a public school, they can join the union. I’ll add, however, that I’ve read that Chicago Public Schools are contracted to hire a set number of TFA teachers. I do not approve of that practice. If it’s true, then it runs counter to TFA’s mission of placing teachers in high-need areas and replaces it with a back-door patronage system. It would be an incredible black eye for TFA.
Which, with some trepidation, brings me to Lesson 5: TFA is not pro- or anti-union.
Moving forward I hope that you’ll keep those lessons at the forefront of your mind. Over the course of two years you will learn that education is full of politics and important debates about the future of our kids and our country. Your views will develop as you think about how important policies impact your students, their families, and you as a professional. No, you’re not a savior for coming to this work, but we need you. I believe in you. Please feel free to comment or email if you have any questions.