River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 15 2012

When You Fail To Plan…

“When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

While in college, I participated on a lot of student-run organizations from those dealing with leadership an public service to others focused on race and politics. I think it’s fair to state that I learned more from my experiences in these organizations than I gleaned from many of my official classes. I value the opportunities for personal growth through increasing levels of responsibility that I had. On the same token, I gathered one major insight from the occasions in which my peers dropped the ball:

“Your lack of foresight and failure to plan accordingly* does not constitute an emergency of my part”

In other words, I hated when a person didn’t fulfill their own commitments to the organization and subsequently tried to pass responsibility (and often blame) down the line to someone else. I’m all for shared responsibility and collaboration; occasionally picking up the slack for other members is a good indicator of a strong team foundation. At the same time, few things irk me as much as a leader who dodges accountability, instead choosing to pass the buck down the line to an innocent bystander or subordinate. A true leader who leads with integrity knows how to hold themselves accountable just as much, if not more so, than their expectations of the group and/or partners.

Relatedly, all the back-biting and buck-passing going on in the education reform debate is becoming increasingly counterproductive. In response to a comment on my previous post, I contested that TFA shouldn’t be blamed for a lack of foresight and appropriate prior planning by district leaders. Anyone who has worked with a non-profit should understand that sustainability and funding (a.k.a. “development”) are essential components of the organization achieving its mission. Personally, I don’t like the dynamic of dependence created by non-profits having to rely on foundations and corporate sponsorship, but I’ve also seen a lot of good of good generated by these donor-sponsor partnerships.

Unlike some administrations in public education, TFA develops a comprehensive vision and seeks to reach benchmarks in order to ultimately attain their goals. Doing this often requires multi-year partnerships in which school administrators and TFA directors agree to setting a certain level of corps members within their schools. This number isn’t arbitrary and is significant because it affects everything from targeted funding levels and recruitment to training hires and university partnerships. TFA doesn’t have all the bargaining power at the table. In fact, in the Mississippi Delta, some school district leaders have recognized the need to develop more sustainable means of recruiting and retaining excellent educators. It’s not fair to lament TFA’s position while there weren’t many educators flocking to poor schools when the economy was blooming. Regardless, you can be pro-TFA while acknowledging its limited role as a stop-gap measure.

There is a caveat to all of this. For example, being able to rely on TFA for new hires may encourage administrators to cut costs and corners but keeping poor conditions and low pay stable. I would be interested to see hard evidence and proof of such dis-incentivization. Moreover, I don’t know how widespread it is, but the practice of TFA alumni taking district leadership roles and then seeking to expand the amount of TFA CM’s in their regions isn’t completely upstanding. This strategy is less of an issue if it occurs in a region such as the Delta, where there are actual shortages; however, applying this same strategy to NYC or perhaps Philly would seem more damaging than helpful. At the same time, districts likely could have inserted a clause that caps the number of corps members hired during layoffs or indexes hiring to the budget. Those are just some ideas rather than criticisms.

This may be egotistical, but I’d like to see a day or week-long period where everyone involved with TFA “boycotts” any involvement with the system- teachers stop teaching, for example. On one hand, we’d see the incredible reach and impact of its corps and alumni. On the other hand, perhaps we’d see that TFA props up a broken system by artificially plugging staffing gaps that should exist naturally because of the lack of pay, prestige, relevant training, and respect for the teaching profession.

What do people think? Should TFA voluntarily scale back because struggling districts did not plan for the economic crisis and subsequent layoffs?

*”Plan Purposefully”: TAL rubric gold

7 Responses

  1. “I think it’s fair to state that I learned more from my experiences in these organizations than I gleaned from many of my official classes.”

    This is my number one reason why I push my kids to get to college. I absolutely entirely am on the same page.

    So glad you’re still blogging despite your new position in the world.

    To answer, I don’t think TFA should scale back, but be way more considerate with resources. From the tiny tiny pieces I know, it seems like the scale is growing because of all the pressure to get bigger faster, to satisfy funding and keep “proving” whatever it is we’re trying to prove. Every time I hear about expansion I cringe a little, because I think financial resources should be spent on having more highly qualified (content & experience) and better paid M,TLDs who have significantly fewer Corps Members. I think better, more consistent, more accountable coaching would dramatically increase the effectiveness of CMs– more than a wider scope would increase the effectiveness than TFA.

    • *…increase the effectiveness OF TFA, not than! Eep.

  2. Teach too

    Maybe TFA should go where there are true shortages of teachers rather than create them just for TFA. Are there shortages? Spec. Ed, science and math, most likely? But since TFA doesn’t certify anyone in a particular subject area, I’m not sure how that would be managed?

    No matter how you spin it, TFA should not be taking jobs from certified teachers, new or experienced. Those who have lost their jobs consider the TFA type to be nothing more than a scab. There is definitely a resentment and an us. Vs. them, elite vs. trained teacher with 4 yr education degree mentality. Most assume you will be gone in two years and they just tolerate the TFA temp….another perspective to consider.

    • Meg

      TFA does send teachers to areas with true teacher shortages, and you see this most often in the South and particularly in their rural areas – the Delta, New Mexico, Appalachia, Eastern NC, South Dakota, Alabama, etc. I think a good step for TFA would be to increase the size of the corps in these areas and stop increasing the size in the major cities without shortages. Again, of course, TFA is in places with multi-year contracts that were arranged before the economic crisis and when there were genuine shortages.

      On your second point though, I’m not sure where you heard that TFA teachers aren’t certified in specific subject areas but that’s incorrect. You obtain certification in your specific placement subject – it varies by region but its usually either ECE, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary or a subject-specific Secondary. For example my certifications are Middle Grades All subjects (4-8) and Secondary Science (7-12) because I teach middle school science. Math and Science are actually the two most requested placements by districts, and two of the most popular (hands down) in my opinion.

      I do agree that there’s an enormous teacher shortage in Special Ed, but disagree that TFA should be the one to fill it. In so many of these schools/districts special ed becomes a mish-mash of severely emotionally disturbed and children with severe behavioral issues. I don’t think TFA is in a position to offer adequate training or support to teachers in those placements.

      • Teach too

        If a city, town or district can lay off teachers, even those with a contract and tenure, due to budget constraints, lower enrollment, consolidation of schools, then why can’t they cancel a contract with TFA?

        Individuals (several of them) can be let go, but corporations (or however TFA classisfies itself) cannot?

        Have you stayed with teaching past your two or three years?

        I did not know you could receive certification via TFA? Is that based solely on your summer training? Or does it include the initial two years of teaching? If so, why would a prospective teacher choose the traditional route?

        • Meg

          I’m a teacher, not a staff member so I’m not going to touch on your first question because I honestly have no idea what the answer is.

          To answer your second question, I’m starting my second year of teaching now, and teaching is absolutely my career. I’ll definitely stay at my placement school for a 3rd year and when I do eventually leave it will just be to move closer to my family (but I’ll still be working in a high-poverty urban school).

          For your certification question, the process varies from region to region. One constant though is that while Institute is a PART of your certification process it is absolutely not the entirety. In each region TFA has a university partner – BU in Boston, Penn in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore etc. Throughout the two years corps members are REQUIRED to complete certification coursework through these schools, most typically in the form of night classes during the school year. The type of license you have after your certification coursework depends on the state – in Tennessee (where I am) you need to teach for a 3rd year to be eligible for a professional license.

          Almost all university partners offer the possibility for an M.Ed or MAT during the two years, and in regions (such as NY) where you need a Master’s to teach it’s required of all corps members to obtain one. The number of corps members that pursue the masters varies by region, in mine its around 50%.

          Most universities offer some credits for Institute/teaching, and we receive AmeriCorps education awards (about $10K total) but outside from that the certification and masters costs are paid for by corps members out of pocket, not by TFA or the district.

          If you’re looking for more specific information on a particular region its all on the website under “Expenses and Certification”.

          • Teach too

            I hope that your pursue teaching as a career. You sound like a thoughtful, caring person. I actually think adminstration and “leadership” is easier and less stressful. Many make it up as they go, which you cannot do in the classroom everyday, as you know. Best of luck this year and in the future. I hope you find something close to home eventually.

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