Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 31 2011

Monday surprise: Education is broken.

The honorable, fact-checking, fraud-exposing educational policy debater Gary Rubinstein just wrote a post on his blog entitled “Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t” (click here for the link). It’s super interesting, as many of his posts are, which is why I read them even if I often feel like his TFA gripes and experiences don’t usually mesh with mine (which isn’t to say I don’t have my own gripes, just that they’re different, probably because I see things on a much less grand scale than he does right now).

But this one really doesn’t mesh with mine. Soundbyte if you don’t feel like reading the article:

If I were ‘America’ I would have this to say to TFA:  While I appreciate your offer to ‘teach’ for me, I’ve already got enough untrained teachers for my poorest kids.  And if teaching is just a stepping stone, for you, on the path to becoming an influential education ‘leader,’ thanks, but no thanks to that too.  I don’t need the kind of leaders you spawn — leaders who think education ‘reform’ is done by threats of school closings and teacher firings.  These leaders celebrate school closings rather than see them as their own failures to help them.  These leaders deny any proof that their reforms are failing and instead continue to use P.R. to inflate their own claims of success.  We’re having enough trouble swatting the number of that type of leader you’ve already given us.  If you want to think of a new way to harness the brain power and energy of the ‘best and brightest,’ please do, but if you’re just going to give us a scaled up version of the program that tries to fill a need that no longer exists, please go and teach for someone else.

Wow. Talk about powerful writing. But although I agree with a lot of his points about TFA Institute having nothing to do with real teaching and TFA over-inflating success stories at the expense of realism, one of his central points is that there is no longer any teacher shortage and often TFA teachers are replacing experienced, talented teachers because those teachers are more expensive for districts. While I believe in the evils of penny-pinching districts enough to believe that is true sometimes, I just don’t see it here. In our area there are quite a few schools that have lost teachers for various reasons and cannot fill those spots. At my roommate’s school, jobs have been posted for months with no takers. There just aren’t very many people who want to come to the relative middle of nowhere to teach kids who are really freaking hard to teach (and, oh yeah, one of the main reasons they are so hard to teach is our fault for sticking their parents/grandparents in boarding schools…ARG stupid unfair decisions with awful repercussions). The people who are here are often from here, which is awesome and gives them such a connection with kids and families. Or some of them are from overseas, which is sometimes great and brings a wealth of experience and sometimes tricky as our ELL kids might have a hard time understanding other ELL difficulties. It’s hard for me to see who I am kicking out of a job when I have been explicitly told that were I not to be here, a rotating sub would likely take my class all year.

I have no savior complex, I don’t think I’m doing any better than someone who knows the area and has experience (I’d be the first to tell you I’m doing worse). I’m also not trying to vouch for the country, the Southwest, or even the whole state of New Mexico (because I just don’t know). What I do know is that in my area, in my district, in my experience, TFA fills a hole that otherwise would likely be filled with rotating substitutes.

Here’s what made me sad though. I posted something to this effect on the GR post, which was a bad idea because nothing good ever comes of disagreeing on the internet, and because I didn’t have much time to carefully craft my response to not sound bigheaded/prejudiced/ridiculous/etc. And the response I got (not from GR) was this:

“One problem with TFA is the “we are going to save you from yourselves” attitude that their recruits sometimes bring to our state. It’s not appreciated.”

One thing that makes me sad is when people assume the worst about my attitude or thoughts just because I’m part of TFA. I spend a whole lot of time thinking about how to present myself so that it doesn’t seem like I think I’m better than anyone, which, for the record, I AM NOT. The prevailing attitude here in NM is the same that Gary describes as his incoming TFA attitude: no, I’m not very good; no, I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m here, I’m better than nothing, I love my kids, and I’m trying like hell to be the teacher they deserve.

To date, there is only one other comment on the original post in defense of TFA, or even saying anything nice about TFA. It seems like, even on a TFA blog site, people loudly and emotionally hate TFA, mostly because they feel that TFA takes the place of experienced, better teachers. I would love to see some data on that, such as records of how many teachers were laid off, how much experience they had, testimonies from students and colleagues as to whether they were good, lesson plans or video of them teaching. Basically, the kind of holistic, non-test-score driven data that no one has or collects. Because knowing my principal, knowing the teachers at my school (a couple of whom, honestly, are not trying or succeeding and are the very picture of the stereotypical “bad teacher” that TFA-haters say doesn’t exist), knowing how much people think and expect of me (i.e. very little), I cannot imagine that if anyone had another choice, they would have hired me. I am expected to do nothing and suck at it, and have yet to be given any feedback by my school on anything besides what is posted on my walls. If they did kick out a good, experienced teacher in favor of a 1st year TFAer, that sucks and it is stupid and it is bad for kids.

Newsflash that is wholly unsurprising: education is broken. Not just unions. Not just TFA. Not just internet bloggers trying to disagree without sounding like a big jerkface. The whole darn thing is broken. And it’s exhausting.

9 Responses

  1. CJK

    Hang in there. You are making a difference. I’ve really valued learning about the particular language deprivation challenges your kids sometimes face. And thanks for defending what is good about TFA. It is important to keep the dialectic in perspective and some posters just get down on their end of it all and shout. You are willing to see the whole picture and give us a view from the ground up.

  2. Lauren

    I came across the blog you’re referring to on my own yesterday. I just went through the final round of interviews and I am trying to see the whole picture of TFA from the viewpoints of current TFAers. I really appreciated reading your response, and felt disappointed to read all of the negative comments on Greg’s blog. Thanks for a different perspective!

  3. amy

    I agree with you on some points and I actually teach in an urban region (Baltimore). I teach at such a disenfranchised school that it’s hard to believe anyone is lining up around the block begging to take a job there, or that I snatched my job out of some deserving, veteran teacher’s hands. That’s just not how it happened at all in my case and I don’t think it is how it happened for the majority of Baltimore. I hear so many vague complaints about TFA and the fact that it “takes jobs away from deserving teachers with the experience to truly help their kids” and I am sure that is true in some cases, but it’s not true in all cases and I don’t understand why it’s hard to recognize that many (not all, but many) traditionally trained teachers who want to be in education for life gravitate towards more stable areas and districts. Baltimore is a great city–I grew up around the corner in DC and know it well–but there’s not too much else than squalor here. My school isn’t just bad, it’s… dysfunctional. Even though your points make more sense given a rural region, they are accurate for some urban regions, too. Of course, there are some veteran teachers and some new teachers who wish to work in impoverished areas like the one I work in; I’m not trying to contest that. But I think it is a complete misconception that a city like Baltimore has a huge teaching surplus that TFA is exacerbating. It’s just not true here.

    • amy

      I regret my comment that there’s not a lot more to Baltimore than squalor. that’s really not accurate; Baltimore has plenty to offer. However, it’s NOT a city like New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, or even Boston, that can claim some intrigue and glamour despite its poverty. Baltimore’s poverty is, I believe, its defining feature. It symbolizes (no, is) urban decay at its most obvious.

  4. parus

    I think there are regions that Gary’s post doesn’t apply to – I think he overreached a bit – but the problem is that TFA doesn’t let you refuse specific regions or placements except by declining to join in the first place or by quitting. So let’s say I join intending to work in an underserved school, but TFA sends me somewhere where I’m probably putting an experienced teacher out of work…especially if that happens after institute and all the time/energy/money investment that requires, am I really going to be in a position to quit TFA on ethical grounds? For a lot of broke-ass CMs, that wouldn’t be an option.

    It’s part of why I would recommend that anyone who is interested in alternative pathways to teaching in high-need areas look into local programs rather than going with the TFA juggernaut.

  5. CY

    In Memphis CMs definitely took the place of experienced teachers, but of course I lack the data to say whether those experienced teachers were effective. I imagine that some were. I know there were English and Social Studies teachers that got surplussed but English and Social Studies TFA teachers were hired in the district, and even in surplussed teachers’ schools.

    • parus

      I know it’s happened in the Twin Cities, too, and I’m familiar enough with a few of the non-renewed veteran teachers to know that firing them was a loss for the students. I’m sure in some cases the districts are – to use the crass phrase you so often hear in these discussions – getting rid of dead wood, but definitely not all the teachers displaced are unskilled or lazy.

      And that’s just looking at people whose positions TFA has replaced, not at the experienced individuals who could have filled new (or legitimately opened) positions had TFA not been around.

  6. Kate

    I am applying for TFA now and am trying to fill out my region preference form with places that are NOT laying off teachers. Does anyone know of, for sure, any other places that have or have not laid off experienced teachers? I would love to do TFA, but only if I really CAN do more good by replacing a long term substitute or fill a need.

    • eminnm

      New Mexico is not. South Dakota is not. Colorado makes you apply to jobs yourself, so you could apply only within districts not laying people off (I don’t know if CO as a rule does this). I would bet most rural regions are not, because we tend not to have enough teachers as it is.

      As Amy mentioned above, there are DEFINITELY places in urban regions where there is a need for teachers because experienced teachers don’t want to work there. I taught Health classes in Chicago in college, and in at least 3 of our schools there were classes taught by long-term subs (I was in 5 different schools, so that’s pretty bad).

      But in many urban regions placements happen as often in charter schools like KIPP as in regular public schools. These charter schools, nothing against them as institutions, don’t usually have the trouble recruiting teachers that typical public schools might.

      I guess my advice, if that’s a concern for you, is to not discount the urban regions but know that in many of them you are more likely to be put in the situation of filling a job that might not “need” you than you would in a rural region. Urban CMs, anyone got ideas? Represent the rural, but I’m obviously biased.

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