River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 26 2012

Don’t Hate Me ‘Cause I’m TFA

Sometimes, I get tired of feeling like a TFApologist. I get tired of being called an elitist money-grubber who’s trying to pay off my student loans off the backs of poor children- c’mon now. At the same time, there are many teachers who may not fit my demographic but who are doing great things in the classroom. These characterizations I hear and read about are even more unfair to them. I recently read this blog post and while I agreed with many of the points, the following irritated me:

“’Standing in line for #CPS BOE meeting, people behind me from #TFA& #KIPP. They look like money-starkly diff from other teachers/parents…’

I ended up talking to a few of them, and they spouted the usual talking points. (Someone actually said to me “I don’t believe poverty is destiny” and “I think all children can learn”.) And some of them did go up and speak at the board meeting and unsurprisingly were all for school closings and turnarounds.

These types, these upper-middle class–and I will give them the benefit of the doubt—most likely well-meaning people were unequivocally on the side of the 1%. Their views, their dress, their worldview all aligned perfectly with the mayoral-appointed school board of millionaires and business elites. They were the voices of the moneyed powers that be.”

When I look at my pay stub at the end of the month, I often wonder what it would be like to be part of the “moneyed powers that be.” Yeah, pretty sure I’m going to need Bill Gates to spare a couple extra digits to join those ranks. My tax return won’t quite get me there.  Please don’t get it twisted.

Contrast: my school recently voted for teacher of the year candidates and three of those on the ballot were TFA corps members (we don’t know who won yet). I could go on and on about them all day. These women are not from Mississippi. Two of them don’t look like our students, but they are making a greater impact than most. For example, I’m inspired to do my best everyday because my students compare me to their favorite 7th grade science teachers. I know that my students have a high expectation for me, which is perfect, since I have high expectations for them. If it were not for TFA, my school WOULD NOT HAVE HALF A SCIENCE DEPARTMENT! This doesn’t even mention all the work they do outside of the classroom to provide enrichment opportunities for the children and to keep our school in compliance through endless paperwork.

The math teacher next door to me works constantly with her kids to make up the ground they lost before they got to 8th grade. They need more of this personalized, thorough instruction. However, she would not be here without TFA though she’s far from a “TFA-diehard” who goes around droppin’ TFA knowledge and lingo. She keeps it real; she gets the job done, and then some. As the only third year corps member in my school, she inspires me. And it really is about paying it forward as she was influenced by my current MTLD, who is a major reason I’m still here.  Regardless, we all have to work extra hard to compensate for other people not doing their job at some level (for whatever reason) in the broader context of poverty.

You can argue that for every rock star, there is a corps member that quits and you may be right, but we should encourage TFA to figure out what differentiates success, which they already do, but not recommend that they close up shop. It is possible to praise the hard work, results, and dedication of TFAers without degrading the merits of traditional teachers. We have many wonderful veterans as well. The problem is this, at the end of the day, we are ALL thrown under the bus because “test scores are not up” as a whole, so forth and what not. I have plenty of concerns with TFA as an organization but I’m not going to demonize all corps members! I have plenty of issues with some poor traditional teachers but I’m not going to demonize all traditional teachers! That’s not called being pro-union or pro-choice or even pro-student; this is called being a rational human being.

Hello? Please, don’t get it twisted.

Also, folks, please come off of the New York-centric mindset, for a moment, and recognize that there are areas of the country where TFA still fulfills its original mission. If one day, the biggest problem facing the Delta is that glossy-eyed TFAers are taking the jobs of “real teachers” then we’ll have made progress. I sympathize with the struggle for job security, but no one was fighting over poor minority children before the recession. NCLB was heavily flawed, but at least the focus is in the right place now. It’s what we do with it that counts.

In the fight to humanize the ill effects of poverty, the reform movement has claimed the mantra that “poverty is not destiny.” If anything, this conviction paired with extensive data collection of sub-groups achievement has helped society personalize poverty by acknowledging that all “poor people” are not the same. So, why are we so quick to make sweeping generalizations about everything else? When we fight over poverty, poverty prospers. The movement for educational equality will not progress if we continue to have reformers on one side who view traditional teachers (and unions) as a monolithic group. By that same principle, however, we won’t get far if those same groups (Ravitch, NEA, etc.) consider Teach For America (and it’s corps members) and corporate “rheeformers” as a monolithic group. When grown folk become so preoccupied with character assassination and ad hominem attacks, we should know there is a problem. Why haven’t we learned this from watching C-SPAN and the GOP 2012 campaign? All traditional teachers aren’t preoccupied with their pensions and all reformers are not elitist TFA opportunists trying to mooch off the public.  Can we move on to actual solutions please? Besides, what we need to worry about is the elites who ARE preoccupied with THEIR pensions. While we waste time debating silly stuff, we are losing sight of what matters and SOMEONE is benefitting. It’s a vicious cycle because we keep pointing fingers claiming the other side is said beneficiary. Again, we claim politicians are petty? It’s a people problem, not #MGM but #Universal…

We’re not at a private school / we’re teaching in the trenches.

 You say we’re taking someone’s spot? / No bodies on the benches.  

Note, I said “no bodies” not “nobody’s.”

We’re not all elitist do-gooders. Again, please don’t get it twisted.

41 Responses

  1. jlange


    Also, nice post!

  2. Mike E.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Anthony. I agree that labeling and stereotyping amongst people with similar aims and goals makes it way too easy for divisive and unproductive discourse to happen – and in the charged world of education, it can get especially heated and vicious because the stakes are so high.

    That said, I think the blog excerpt you quote above isn’t that far off base in some of its observations. TFA brands itself as a corporate entity. It’s ethos is fully professional, it’s all about data and results, it even has its own font for all official publications. It encourages or requires CMs to dress professionally for its functions, it’s on-message at all times, it’s extremely slick-feeling. These are NOT bad things, depending on your point of view. But they do project a particular image – an image of privilege, as the blogger you quote identifies – that is not always an easy or appropriate one to graft onto every situation.

    It’s easy for me to see how CMs at a board meeting could come across as the “voices of the moneyed powers that be,” given the above – and, frankly, given the predominately white face of the organization (perhaps this is widely different in other regions, but KC was VERY white, both in terms of CMs and leadership). If you’re a member of a group that pulls members from elite colleges and universities, puts those members in leadership situations in underprivileged communities, and explicitly works to prepare those members for further positions of leadership to shape policy change from above, then you are absolutely going to be perceived by some members of those communities as a trust-fund baby with a white savior complex. That’s not who I am, but I understand why I got that reaction as a CM. And, frankly, it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make, and I’m not sure TFA works very hard to help its CMs refute it.

    I guess my point is this: you caution TFA critics against getting it twisted, and I think that’s a great reminder. It sounds as though you and your fellow CMs are doing great work, and, as I taught in a school where long-term subs rotated throughout several classrooms all year, just the fact of your presence is wonderful. And, of course, we should all strive to judge people on their individual merits and their own deeds, not to set up monolithic blocks to attack. But, while reminding others to look deeper and get beyond labels and stereotypes, I’d encourage you to take a step back and ask, when a blogger writes something like the above, “why are they coming to these conclusions?” I don’t read your blog religiously, so I don’t know if you’ve written about this more thoroughly before, but it just felt to me that you were dismissing his or her observations a little too easily without really engaging with the questions of privilege and power-dymanics they seem (to me) to suggest. Is it wrong to suggest that all TFA-ers are the same, and that they’re all teaching for the wrong reasons? Of course. But I also think it’s wrong to dismiss those concerns out of hand without trying to find their roots.

    Anyway, I hope your semester’s going well, and that your students are achieving great things. If you’re ever back in Beantown, shout me a holla so we can catch up (or at least make fun of Keith together). Keep on rockin in the free world.


    • Thanks, Mike! i definitely agree. The dilemma I face is whether to work within the context of TFA to help it change its image. As I’m sure you aware, TFA leadership tends to become self-selecting as those who are turned off by the corporate, elitist image leave after two years and lose the ability to shape the organization from the top. For example, I know feel like the values of an organization such as City Year, are a better reflection of my own values than TFA. It doesn’t have to be this way. In a prior post I wrote “TFA has it’s flaws as does every organization. The issue is that it’s not very upfront about them.” http://tonybonthemic.teachforus.org/2012/01/08/holiday-inn-express/

      At any rate, I hope to be back in Bean Town sometime in the near future and hope all is well man!

    • “And, frankly, it’s not an unreasonable assumption to make, and I’m not sure TFA works very hard to help its CMs refute it.”

      To be honest, I don’t think TFA wants to refute it. Well, maybe the white part, but not the rest of it. A large part of how they get their funding, corporate and otherwise, is to have a face that the people who have the money are comfortable with, and this is that face. And a large part of how they attract the pool of applicants that sustains that image is by attaching this upper class (but earnest!) cachet to the TFA brand. There are plenty of other quality alternative pathways to teaching, but TFA is the one that gets the national attention, and this image is a big part of why. TFA has become self-propagating, so there’s no way it’s going to endanger that.

      • “To be honest, I don’t think TFA wants to refute it”

        I agree! Which is sad, because I joined TFA because of it’s mission and values (though skeptical of its strategy) and though I think it is selling itself short, I often feel like I’m not one to judge. Ideally, TFA could craft a less elitist image and still rake in the money, but that doesn’t seem feasible in our present society. Alas…

        • The question I think you need to ask yourself is why those moneyed individuals and organizations like TFA so much. What are they getting out of it? You don’t get to be a billionaire by being altruistic.

          • Demian

            Excellent point.

  3. After I read this post I sat for a good five minutes attempting to find the right thing to respond to in the right way. Then I navigated over to said “Ms. Katie” and instead found plenty over there. Thanks for pointing out and engaging in dialogue with an entry like hers. There is no black and white right or wrong, but the debate is important and valid and I tip my hat to you, good sir, for bringing it again into the teachforus universe…

    • I read your response. Amen, sister! I just wish she’d respond thoughtfully instead of mocking us over twitter smh :/ It’s funny because her latest post about “teaching environments” is exactly what I wrote about last week! I hope she responds to you because we really are on the same page, which you clearly lay out, and I hope she can see that…

  4. It seems like dialogue between the TeachForUs universe and the outside world has increased recently. I like it.

  5. Hey TonyBontheMIC,

    I’m Katie, the one who wrote the blog post– I’m glad some CMs to are willing to discuss these issues. I appreciate this chance for debate.

    Honestly, I don’t care so much what individuals in the classroom are doing well after a few years to figure it all out. I’m sure many CMs make great teachers eventually, I just think it’s wrong that they get there by experimenting on other people’s children. And as a special education teacher, I am absolutely appalled that TFA places as many as 20% of corp members in special education placements. This is so ridiculously wrong, I can barely control my rage.

    I believe TFA does damage by its very design. And I will lump all who support it together. If you want me to work with TFA, then push the organization to change.

    Here’s my idea on what TFA could do so that it was actually helpful:

    TFA often claims that its purpose is to create “leaders” and not classroom teachers. If so, why not change the program so that the novices are ASSISTANT teachers to career teachers? Why throw these young people into the deep end to be the teacher of record with very little training especially now that most districts have no teacher shortages and in fact are experiencing teacher surpluses? Dedicated, hard-working teacher assistants in high-needs schools would be a god-send to many overwhelmed career teachers. TFA novices could learn about the system while engaging in tutoring, small-group lessons, helping with massive amounts of paperwork, and learning academic/behavioral interventions for students who struggle. Those who wished could enter a certification program to become career teachers, but those who did not choose teaching would not be doing damage while they prepared for other careers.

    TFA has a lot of money, they could be spending it differently than the crash-course that is Institute. There’s no reason to have uncertified novices teaching our neediest students, especially in special education, when there are large pools of experienced fully-trained teachers available. Plus, these young people’s drive could actually help career teachers stay in the classroom longer by sharing the immense workload. So, instead of exacerbating the already existing problem of high teacher turnover in low-income schools, TFA could change to become a part of the solution. Why doesn’t TFA do this??

    Still, I think every CM should be skeptical on who TFA aligns itself with. It matters that Wendy Kopp and the organization are buddied up with the moneyed elites including billionaires, hedge fund managers, rich businessmen, wealthy politicians, and the big foundations like Gates and Broad. It matters that these are the same people who are trying to privatize public education and make a buck or two in the process. It matters that TFA’s friends support agendas that look very much like the Koch Brothers or any of the crazy Republican governors going after public education, teachers, and their unions. It matters that the whole reform debate is overrun with talk about “teacher quality” instead of addressing other more important things we CAN change if we tried, like fixing the gross funding inequalities within and between districts, creating better teaching environments to alleviate the high teacher turnover, having more enticements for strong teacher candidates to go into teaching like loan forgiveness, and greater teacher autonomy in the classroom instead of all this top-down NCLB ridiculousness. Neoliberalism has run wild in education and it is not good for kids.

    At end of the day, this question remains: would the high schools most TFAs graduated from ever allow a 1st year uncertified CM to teach in that school? If you think the answer would be “no”, if you think parents would be outraged that someone who had no experience or credentials was teaching their children–sometimes even their child with special needs–then how can it possibly be just to let them teach our poorest, and in many respects, neediest children?

    • Hey KatieO,
      Thanks for responding with your thoughts here. I’m amazed because we actually share a common feeling about the potential for change within TFA. My thing is that there are “simple” steps TFA could take to improve but right now, it does not have strong enough incentives to do so.

      “TFA often claims that its purpose is to create “leaders” and not classroom teachers. If so, why not change the program so that the novices are ASSISTANT teachers to career teachers? Why throw these young people into the deep end to be the teacher of record with very little training especially now that most districts have no teacher shortages and in fact are experiencing teacher surpluses?
      First of all, I agree for the most part. This is one of the reasons I am drawn to City Year, which does exactly what you outlined. After nearly two years in the classroom, I too have concluded that: “dedicated, hard-working teacher assistants in high-needs schools would be a god-send to many overwhelmed career teachers.” I don’t know whether TFA will move to a two-tiered system because outside of New York, many districts do still have shortages, and the economic recovery will likely exacerbate this unfortunately. At the same time, it’s a less logical, tougher sell to claim to create “leaders” when you are actually an assistant. I know that there are City Year corps members who go on to TFA and it would be interesting to see how they do. Again, TFA would have to reevaluate itself and this would be a major shift. As of right now, TFA is a band-aid in many communities but I still believe it is a part of the solution, despite its flaws. Still, it’s only a part and you may be rubbed the wrong way because the corporate image can sometimes come across as being THE solution rather than a piece. Why? Well, likely since it is more compelling for raising money. At the same time, there are other organizations that are leadership pipelines and they are doing amazing work. TFA’s just kind of in the middle.

      “Still, I think every CM should be skeptical on who TFA aligns itself with.”

      True. Though as a society, we need to reevaluate the link between corporate America and the non-profit sector. That’s not to say that making money is bad, far from it, but it’s a weird dynamic. TFA’s just really good at messaging and perhaps it’s position as a prolific fundraiser is something we can all learn from.

      “It matters that the whole reform debate is overrun with talk about “teacher quality” instead of addressing other more important things we CAN change if we tried, like fixing the gross funding inequalities within and between districts, creating better teaching environments to alleviate the high teacher turnover, having more enticements for strong teacher candidates to go into teaching like loan forgiveness, and greater teacher autonomy in the classroom”

      I was drawn to TFA in part because these are issues I can focus on when I become an alumnus. At the same time, it’s a fine line because you have to be careful when you say that schools are failing because the kids are poor. WE want to elevate kids out of poverty and elevate teaching as a profession but haven’t yet reached a point where we can have this more intelligent debate. And this “we” includes both non-TFAers and TFA. I have yet to speak to a corps member who doesn’t believe that we need to fix the inequalities and create more supportive environments for teachers. If such a CM exists, he would not be a friend of mine. Blaming teachers for poverty is dumb, just as blaming kids for poverty is dumb.

      “At end of the day, this question remains: would the high schools most TFAs graduated from ever allow a 1st year uncertified CM to teach in that school?”

      Agreed. And the question that follows is how can we improve the schools TFA is in so that “one day” no corps members are necessary? As you said, it goes back to funding, support, professional development, and incentives (not necessarily merit pay). Again, this is something TFA alumni are working towards I just wish there was less of an emphasis on doing these things in charters and more so on infusing traditional public schools with these aspects of success. Thanks for sharing your insight, and I hope we can remain engaged in dialogue in the future.

  6. Joey Michalakes

    Hi KatieO and Tony,

    Haha sorry to butt in–it’s just that I’ve been following this discussion pretty closely since I saw the link to Tony’s original post on facebook and I wanted to throw a question out there for you both. In light of Katie’s contention that TFA would be a more effective and juster program for kids if CM’s assisted veteran teachers and Tony’s point that TFA would likely have little incentive to change itself for a variety of “logical” reasons, is it possible that there exists a kind of middle ground–one that would ultimately preserve TFA’s goal of establishing a “pipeline to leadership” but also result in, hopefully, a better-prepared corps and more positive relationships between TFAers and veteran educators? Specifically, what are your thoughts on converting TFA into an Urban Teacher Residency-type program, where CM’s would apprentice for a year with a willing veteran teacher and then make a commitment to teach in the same school district for a further two years? Whenever I’ve talked about this thought with other CM’s, we’ve basically come to the conclusion that TFA would never go for it since recruitment would probably go way down with the additional year tacked on (sad but true). And it wouldn’t do anything to counter the influx of TFA teachers crowding out the job market for certified teachers in a lot of urban districts (which, for the record, isn’t the case in Milwaukee, where I work; most of our corps got laid off from MPS at the end of the ’09-’10 school year and works in charters now, whereas I’m lucky enough to still be in the district because I’m teaching bilingual ed, which is a shortage area even when you include the alternatively certified teachers). But it at least ensures that influx of newbies is substantially better prepared to become the teacher of record than first-year TFA’s are now. Additionally, maybe the extra time and investment embedded in that initial year of “apprenticeship” could serve as an incentive for CM’s to stick with the profession for longer than their initial commitment. Admittedly, I don’t know much about retention statistics for organizations like Boston or Chicago Teacher Residency, but instinctively it feels to me like the prospects are more promising than what we’ve seen with the majority of TFA’s, since you’re making the transition into teaching less abrupt and hopefully less brutal for people.

    There’s a lot to talk about here, but I figured I would throw that out there to start. Generally speaking, I appreciate what both of you are saying and hope that the dialogue continues!

    • Hey Joey,

      I think a year of apprenticeship is a great idea, and I’d feel a little more comfortable with the program with that change. Unfortunately, my understanding is that Wendy Kopp has been pretty adamant about the 2 being the magic number.

      I wish that TFA would at least go back to its original mission as a stop-gap only for areas with actual teacher shortages. I know Chicago is not one yet we still have TFA. TFA doesn’t even try to stick to this regions. I recently read this blog (and I encourage all following this debate to please look it over) (http://allthingsedu.blogspot.com/2011/05/teach-for-america-from-service-group-to.html) which stated: “More seasoned and more rigorously trained teachers continue to be pushed out in favor of TFA teachers. This letter by such a teacher in Baltimore is just one example of a teacher who had a hard time finding a job in a district that has a high number of TFA teachers. According to Barbara Miner, whose journalism investigating Teach for America can be found in Rethinking Schools, Dallas, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and DC all laid off teachers while sparing TFA-ers. When ex-Chancellor Rhee declared a RIF (Reduction in Force) in October 2009 due to alleged budget shortages, 229 teachers total lost their jobs, but only six of them were from TFA. Seattle Public Schools recently signed a new contract with TFA, despite parent opposition and despite recent layoffs of veteran teachers. The state Education Board in South Carolina recently approved guidelines that would allow TFA recruits to apply for teaching positions, thirty percent of which would be for elementary school positions, where thousands of teachers have recently been laid off. The teachers’ union in Kansas City, Missouri, supported Teach For America as a way to fill gaps, but teachers there recently protested the district’s plan to fire 87 non-tenure teachers who have been deemed effective while brining in 150 Teach For America recruits. Teach For America’s regional director Alicia Herald confirmed TFA’s new mission: ‘We’re no longer here to fill gaps. We’re here to provide value.’”

      (I’m sure everyone here has already read TFA alum Gary Rubinstein’s excellent post: http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2011/10/31/why-i-did-tfa-and-why-you-shouldnt/)

      I just wish the TFA organization would acknowledge some of the very real and valid criticisms, but so few in the mainstream media question the org that there is no real pressure to change.

      • Still even with compromises, I am reminded of a seminar I attended re:TFA at last summer’s SOS conference and march (David Greene, who posted below, was one of the leaders on the panel). A group of maybe 75-100 teachers and parents were having a very similar debate about how TFA could change when a group of young people from New Orleans came in. They listened politely for a few minutes until one young man spoke up. He said he had been taught by many TFA CMs in his school career and urged all of us “Don’t try to change Teach for America, Teach for America has got to go!” I’ll admit it, that moment has stuck with me. That was the spark that ignited my passion to fight against this organization.

        • I’m not sure if there’s a school-based team (consisting of the tecaher, school counsellor, vice principal etc) but I’d meet with them and discuss the issue and how best to approach the issue. Perhaps the child needs to spend some time with the school counsellor. Also, maybe have a meeting with the parents and the child. Let the child know that you have their best interest at heart and that you want the child to be their best self. Together with the child, create a contract with consequences. If they do this, they get ___ but if they don’t do it, they have something taken away like computer/tv time. But the parents also need to have some responsibility/consequences as well. By creating a contract together with the child, their input/negotion should encourage them to follow it. Sounds airy-fairy but it just might help. :)

      • I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don’t know who you are but delenitify you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already Cheers!

        • You can ask the same teacher to write mputille letters, they will just have to change the name of the school. It’s really up to you, but you should try to pick the teacher(s) that will give you the best recommendation. Was this answer helpful?

    • Hey Joey! Thanks for the thoughts! I think TFA could make this change if it felt compelled to, but it’s theory of change is not yet “broken” but it’s standards, so there’s little reason to change at the moment. This inertia is probably bolstered by the Teacher residency programs that do exist, since TFA seeks to remain unique and differentiated to maintain its niche. From my POV, it wouldn’t hurt if TFA’s selectivity wasn’t around 10%, but that’s like telling Harvard it wouldn’t hurt to admit more than 6% of applicants. It’s a tough sell due to incentives. Bottom line is that there’s a disconnect/ misalignment between the level of need for HQ educators, the numbers wanting to enter the profession in some way, and the programs to get them there.

      To be fair, there are few organizations that criticize themselves openly like we want TFA to do. I’m hard on TFA because I think it can be so much greater than it currently is and I hate to see its mission sold short. TFA could learn A LOT from City Year though.

  7. I am an adjunct at Fordham University who works with CMs in the Bronx. I am a traditionally trained teacher who taught in HS for 38 years, 16 of which were in the Bronx, where I grew up (as a “White Shadow”).

    Last July at the SOS Rally and Conference I ran a workshop re:TFA. This MArch 31st I will lead a teach-in at Occupy DOE DC . I hope al of you join me and join in.

    So I will keep this brief.

    I despise TFA…the organization.

    I don’t see TFA disappearing easily without alternative solutions to increasing teacher shortages and budget mandates from DOE.

    Therefore we must work HARD to get it to fix itself…if we can. If not, then we work to get rid of it…BY OFFERING BETTER SOLUTIONS.

    We must find those within it who KNOW it is deeply flawed to work to fix its training process and its expectations of CMs.

    After working with 20 CMs over the past 4 years, I can honestly agree that it is ok to hate TFA the organization, not only for what it does to districts, teachers and children, but also what it does to its own CMs, but not to hate the CMs.

    Every single CM, good or bad, I have encountered was there to work, to teach, and to nurture their kids. We must recruit them to fight back against the machine.

    For more, please read my blogs on TFA
    @ http://dcgmentor.com/ and come to Washington DC 3/30-4/2.

    Join me in the crusade to make things work better.

    • Thank you David,

      I admit I am sometimes too hard on CMs, and I forget that most of them really are just kids. I am sorry for that. It’s just that I, too, despise the Teach for America organization. It’s damage needs to be stopped.

      I would love to see more CMs start speaking loudly against TFA. I think most of you do mean well, and once you are in classrooms and see the reality, you do start to get it. Just looking over many of TonyBontheMIC’s other blog posts I think you see a lot. But you can’t be the lone voice, you have to speak out and push back as a united front in order to change the organization.

      I urge anyone who believes TFA has lost its way to consider joining all of us in DC 3/30-4/2.

    • Hi David, I’ve actually read your blog before and thank you for your insight.

      “Therefore we must work HARD to get it to fix itself…if we can. If not, then we work to get rid of it…BY OFFERING BETTER SOLUTIONS.”
      -I agree. TFA does fulfill a critical need but I think it should head in the direction of making itself irrelevant. It won’t do that, of course, so we need to look at how we can help it evolve.

      “We must find those within it who KNOW it is deeply flawed to work to fix its training process and its expectations of CMs.”
      -the problem with this is that most of the CMs who think it is flawed become extremely jaded and want nothing to do with it. This is a problem because you end up with a self-selecting pool. There are many AMAZING, conscientious individuals in the higher ranks of TFA, but not enough yet.

      • I tried for years to share my concerns and was consistently brushed off. TFA has no ears to hear, or at least no ears to hear people like me.

    • That’s a tough one indeed! I would say offer a rarwed system for doing something right. I guess it also depends on the age. There’s so much a teacher has to do already, but she could add or implement some time of etiquette club or training at her school. Suggest it to the principal or the counselors. I think that meeting with all adults involved is a good idea to put into place an action plan, but you want something that is gonna be long term and help all students not just the trouble makers, per se.

  8. M

    This has been such a fascinating dialogue to keep up with. I really appreciate the perspectives that have been brought to the table, and the mature and thoughtful way they’ve been communicated. And before I continue, I’d like to stress that the things I share below are based on my own experiences and observations, and are in no way meant to be wholly representative of the experiences of all CMs, all teachers, or all of those involved in serving our students in come capacity.

    It’s interesting to me how different the views of TFA are depending on where you are, or where you’re from, or which region of TFA you’re most familiar with. I was a CM in Kansas City, and, based on the above comments, my regional experience was very different than that of others in different places like NYC or Chicago (not only as a participant in TFA, but as an observer of the way it operates). In many other regions, it seems, resentment of TFA stems IN PART from the fact that traditionally-trained teachers can’t get jobs that CMs apparently can. From a quote in KatieO’s comment above, it would seem that KC would mirror that, as well: “The teachers’ union in Kansas City, Missouri, supported Teach For America as a way to fill gaps, but teachers there recently protested the district’s plan to fire 87 non-tenure teachers who have been deemed effective while brining in 150 Teach For America recruits. Teach For America’s regional director Alicia Herald confirmed TFA’s new mission: ‘We’re no longer here to fill gaps. We’re here to provide value.’”

    However, that doesn’t quite reflect my experience on the ground. I’m curious as to who deemed those 87 teachers “effective” and by what means; my understanding was that those teachers has been deemed INeffective by the district (the link provided in the allthingsedu post led to an error page). There were certainly ineffective teachers working at my school – and that’s NOT meant to be an inflammatory statement or an attack on traditionally-trained public school teachers (that’s what both my parents are, for the record); instead, I think it’s a fair observation based on my interactions with my coworkers. Here’s one example: a 7th-grade SPED teacher called me (a 7th-grade math teacher) into her classroom on my prep to ask for some help. She showed me one of our district’s assessments and asked if I could show her how to do it – she didn’t know how to find a missing value in a proportion. That’s concerning enough on its own, but then I took a closer look at the assessment, since it didn’t look familiar; it was a 6th grade assessment. This was November. It turns out she had been teaching her 7th-grade resource students the 6th-grade curriculum all year: this wasn’t an accommodation; she just hadn’t noticed. Her reaction when I told her? “Oh. Whatever. I guess I’ll just start 7th grade after this unit. It’s not like they’ll know the difference.” I also had the opportunity to sit in this teacher’s classroom during class: she sat at her desk and read a romance novel while her students sat with worksheets on their desks, talking to each other for 45 minutes.

    KatieO, you wrote above: “And as a special education teacher, I am absolutely appalled that TFA places as many as 20% of corp members in special education placements. This is so ridiculously wrong, I can barely control my rage.” If I read that statement before my time in KC, I would have agreed vehemently with you. And I would still vehemently agree that TFA’s training and preparation that it provides its SPED CMs with is nothing short of shameful. However, having had the opportunity to work with or observe 3/4 of my school’s SPED teachers, it would be difficult for me to overstate how much more organized and competent the two SPED CMs at my school were than their fellow SPED teachers. Both of them were put in charge of coordinating IEP paperwork for the department because they were more successful with it. Both of them managed to move multiple students from their resource classrooms into a mainstream class w/co-teacher after one year in their classrooms; no other SPED teacher moved a single one. When one of these CMs learned that the majority of her resource class students were assigned to the 7th-grade SPED teacher I discussed above, she wept. Am I suggesting that TFA is the best option for SPED training? Absolutely not. Neither, though, am I suggesting that TFA shouldn’t place any CMs in SPED – it certainly made a difference for the students in my school.

    Further, at my school, there were two full-time teaching positions that never got filled. They were “covered” by a rotating cast of long-term subs and other teachers on their plan period. We had a few applicants for those positions in the first few months of the year, and some of them actually began teaching; the most successful one lasted two weeks. We lost another position when one of our teachers (who had been in the district for over 15 years) was removed halfway through the year because she could not control her classroom. She couldn’t be fired, so she instead became the rotating sub for sick teachers: when no one was sick, she sat in the break room; when teachers were, she would spread her brand of havoc around the school. She continued to draw her salary.

    I want to stress again that these are NOT supposed to be general indictments of traditionally-trained teachers, tenured teachers, non-TFA teachers, etc. Nor am I suggesting that all CMs are magically superior to their traditionally-trained counterparts – I KNOW there were better teachers than me at my school. But I also know that, even if my students didn’t achieve all they could have in my classroom, they achieved more than they would have with a rotating long-term sub. All I’m trying to do is give a single snapshot of a single school that is part of the TFA picture. Are there schools where a TFA presence doesn’t make sense? I’m sure that’s the case. But did it make sense in my school? I have a tough time believing otherwise. Frankly, I’m one of the harshest TFA critics I know on a macro level (sometimes to a fault), but I try to acknowledge the good it can bring to students’ lives, as well.

    Anyway, the reason I share all this is because the conversation seems to have been quite abstract and ideological. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I also think it lends itself to generalizations and sweeping statements about what TFA is or isn’t, and what is does or doesn’t do well. And to a certain extent, that’s unavoidable in the process of advocating for change. But it also risks simplifying and compartmentalizing experiences and realities that are complicated enough to defy those broad strokes – frankly, this is a problem with education reform in general, as I’m sure you all know and have experienced. Maybe what works in KC doesn’t work in NYC. Maybe what’s true in KC isn’t in Chicago. But these are the things that were true at my school, in one place that TFA had a presence. I think it’s wrong to ignore them, even if you believe, as I do, that TFA is not the best tool of education reform.

    • It seems every time a TFA CM responds to criticism they always point to anecdotal personal stories. TFA probably encourages that type of thinking (something about the “locus of control”?) I will say it again, the problem with TFA is an organizational problem. It doesn’t really matter what you saw at your school because those micro observations mask the bigger picture.

      Why are some positions at your school so very hard to fill? Why are teachers so burnt out they don’t do their best work? My guess is there are some terrible teaching conditions there. In SpEd, especially, under-resourced programs can lead to extraordinarily difficult classroom environments. But schools and districts do NOTHING to change those circumstances. TFA and its endless supply of compliant teachers willing to work in those places knowing it will only be short-term, in part, let those in charge off the hook. Politicians can claim they are addressing inequalities, while in actuality doing nothing. Cycling through untrained teachers is even worse than cycling through the traditionally trained ones. What if the district acknowledged the problems in your school and halved the class sizes? What if they added more support staff? What if they cut back on paperwork in order to support good teaching? What if they changed the schedule to allow for more collaboration? But they didn’t do those things, they turned to TFA.

      Who is accountable for effective learning environments in schools and districts? (And it is important that TFA recruits do tend to be successful students which means they are more likely to be compliant, rule-followers and are therefore much less likely to put up a stink about the gross inequalities in our educational system, especially through unionism.) Who is accountable for the lack of resources, the overcrowded classrooms, the broken dirty buildings, and the lack of school nurses and social workers in low-income schools? Who is accountable for the increasingly boring, pointless, test-prep curriculums infesting our schools and the crowding out of all the fun, exciting learning that might actually engage kids? And in the end, who is accountable for the apartheid schooling conditions which have the worst segregation since 1968?

      Let me tell you an anecdotal story. Before I ever taught in a Chicago Public School, I worked for many years on one of the best inpatient psychiatric units at a Children’s hospital as a mental health counselor. During that time I learned the most up-to-date and effective interventions to help children with significant disabilities. But, when I started teaching in an inner-city CPS elementary school, there was not even close to enough staff or resources to implement the kinds of interventions which would matter. I repeatedly proposed research-based alternatives for the use of the resources we did have, but to no avail. That school was so ridiculously under-resourced that those children with special needs did not get anywhere near the kinds of services they deserved. And surprise, surprise, the Sped positions needed to be filled again every year. And at one point, I heard the principal was thinking about Teach for America. And I say to that, if that school (and the district which funds it) would just address the actual underlying causes of teacher turnover, and actually staff and resource the school adequately, the problem would disappear. It is always a resource issue!

      At the end of the day, a teacher is only as effective as their environment allows them to be. I don’t know much about Kansas City, but I would be very careful on believing stories about “ineffective” ratings. Here in Chicago, one west-side high school interim principal gave ineffective ratings and fired a number 2nd and 3rd year teachers for minor infractions like “not putting lesson plans in the red folder”. That principal then proceeded to fill those newly open positions with TFA despite the affected teachers’ students walking out and protesting the move. (Not that TFA directly caused this to happen, but it is the reality of the current educational landscape of cronyism, union-busting, and the desire to save a buck by deprofessionalizing teaching.) Unfortunately, these types of low-down moves are common place these days.

      How do we distinguish who is truly ineffective and who is in an ineffective environment? How do we know who was set up for failure and who was adequately supported?

      TFA is a band-aid indeed, but its band-aid covers the gaping wounds of inequality so that we as a society do not need to deal with the greater problems of inequitable funding, racist housing, health, and school policy, as well as the neoliberal mechanisms trying to break unions, lower labor costs, and open the floodwaters of profit. I say we need to rip that band-aid off and do what’s needed to stop the bleeding.

      All I ask is for you CMs to look critically at the big picture in education and the role TFA is playing in it. TFA is leading us down the wrong path in education. I want to stop it.

      • parus

        I am interested in the idea of an alternative universe version of TFA, that rather than recruiting grads from top universities and relocating them, went into the neighborhoods where underserved schools are located and recruited people to be trained as teachers, with the primary requirements being aptitude and a sense of investment in the community. You would in many cases have to put longer into training (for example, putting people through BA/BS programs) but could also require a longer service commitment.

        I would expect to see stronger community-home-school bonds resulting from such a program, as well as increased advocacy for the schools. Alaska provides some good models of this when you look at the differences between village schools staffed by teachers from outside (and/or the cities) versus schools that have more local faculty and staff.

        There are smaller-scale programs along these lines, but think of what a nationwide juggernaut of a program could do, with all the political force and bargaining power it could bring to the table.

        • Adrilicious

          you are a genius. honestly.

        • You must read Harry Wong’s book, The First Days of School. It will show you that if you are well-organized, fair to the kids, and keep them doing all the work instead of you doing all the work, class will run more smolohty, you will be happier, and they will learn more and respect you more.

          • I could watch Schindler’s List and still be happy after raendig this.

        • Megan H

          I taught PreK on the south side of Chicago for the past 3 years and I agree 100%!!! Many of the women I worked with struggled to go to school because the hours they worked directly interfered with their classes. However, those of us in TFA had a “special” agreement with the agency so that they allowed us to control our hours thus making it possible for us to attend the watered-down credentialing program they had set up for us. The whole thing for a group of people that only stayed for the two-year commitment. I am not much better (I stayed a third year) and I know many of my co-workers wish they could leave our agency (poorly run, unprofessional, completely takes advantage of employees) but if they had a program like TFA behind them they might stay at these centers (seeing as regardless many of them do for 20+ years!)

          When I realized TFA would probably never go this route was when I truly uncovered the subversive racism and classism that lies within the ORGANIZATION that is TFA.

          I always say, it’s called TEACH for America, not TEACHERS for America.

          • Yes, I have worked with many parents, aides and school staff would are interested in becoming teachers, and have extensive experience in k-12 schools that they could bring to bear, but find it difficult to meet the academic and credentialing requirements due to time and financial constraints. A TFA-esque program for individuals like this within the local communities would be very powerful, I think.

          • Jona,Your analogy is cnlmelpiog. It takes all 4 entities to engage for a child to have a better opportunity of success in education. However, I do believe that if the child has the motivation or drive, if only one of the three legs provides exceptional support to the student, he or she can accomplish their dreams. However, the one exceptional leg needs to stand up and plead for assistance from the other two legs otherwise failure may occur.I do find that the most disturbing failure seems to takes place at the parental level. It hurts to see parents allow their children to flail about with no clear support from them. It also hurts to know that the parents aren\’t enjoying the happiness and joy that comes from seeing their child love to learn, to read, to explore, to experience new things. They are missing out on the stuff that life is made of…that stuff that brings true joy….true happiness.Great blog. Thanks for the insights from what I perceive to be a master teacher.Dad

      • “Who is accountable for effective learning environments in schools and districts?” I read this yesterday and had to take a step back to keep from reposting this wholesale. Love it! I can’t second and third and fourth this enough. #co-sign.

        “How do we know who was set up for failure and who was adequately supported?”
        This goes for both students AND teachers. We’ve finally gotten to a point where we (overall) believe in creating environments conducive to student learning before labeling them as failures. We need to realize that doing so does not preclude creating environments conducive to teaching- in fact, they should go hand in hand!

      • It should be docenemtud in school records and as another commenter suggested, special needs just might be a better fit for that child. One of the problems facing educators are these particular instances. Who should get the attention? Every child deserves an equal amount of attention from the teacher, and every now and again its cool if one child needs additional attention on a specific matter. But when that teacher has to continuously provide extra attention to the same child over and over again, that child should be a teaching environment where they can get more one on one attention from a teacher. And a regular classroom is not it.

  9. Heather

    Just please understand that, in many regions, veteran teachers, including veteran TFA teachers (!) cannot get jobs because schools are obligated to choose cms and teaching fellows for open positions. It is frustrating.

    • I agree with Rachel as an Elementary teacher the best avidce I could give you is finding a teacher that would be willing to let you go into there classroom. Teaching is hard work but very rewarding. You will never make a lot of money, have to deal with angry parents, spend a lot of your own money of resources for your classroom, and work a lot outside of school (grading, preparing etc) but if this is the right career for you all of these things become less important and trying to educate a teach achild is what really matters.If you want some questions when I was in college we had to go and observe and some questions I asked my cooperating teachers were:What is the most/ some rewarding things that you find as being a teacher?What are some of your challenges that you face? Hardest things about being a teacher?Describe a typical dayHow do you deal with angry parents? demanding?Why did you become a teacher?What keeps you teaching?What are three (or whatever number you want) things you wish you knew going into teaching your first year that you didn’t learn from school or student teaching?those are some things I thought of otherwise google what to ask my cooperative teacher? questions to ask a teacher?S

    • I am a high school tcaeher. I get lots of requests for recommendations for colleges from my students.Here are suggestions.1) Put the request in writing. It does not have to be a formal letter to the tcaeher, but in our busy days, a casual Hey Mr. G, can you write a recommendation for me? is easily forgotten.2) With the request, include the form if there is one. I usually only write see attached on such forms anyway. I will write my recommendations on my high school’s letterhead. 3) I will ask the student if they want it to a specific institution or just a general one. If they need a specific institution or two, I do not mind as it is a simple thing to change as I type my letters on a computer.4) Is students want general recommendations, I will actually print 3 or 4 of them and sign them separately so the student has 3 or 4 originals. no need to copy. If they find they need more, I save my letters to disk. They just come by and I print and sign another.Good Luck applying to college. Don’t sweat the small stuff like who to ask for these letters. Teachers are usually more than happy to write them for good students now if you were not a good students .LOL Was this answer helpful?

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