Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 20 2013

Nothing comes from internet articles except annoyance…

It occurs to me that I have no idea what the general public opinion is of Teach For America. On the one hand, all my parents’ friends really seem to like it, and most older folks I meet think it’s great. On the other hand, nearly every time I see TFA mentioned in an internet article it seems to be being bashed. Partly this may be that angry voices speak louder than happy ones, and partly it may be that I sometimes actively seek out these voices (hi Gary Rubinstein), both to try to get out of the self-fulfilling-information-seeking position that is so gratifying, and also to see what people’s complaints are so I can try to, you know, not do that.

There seem to be a few main points, as outlined so beautifully in this article.

Here’s what’s going through my head, though:

1. TFA teachers are underqualified because they were only trained for 5 weeks.

This is probably true in the first year. Second year no longer true, because you’ve survived a whole year of trying and erring and adjusting and learning what works and what doesn’t. You’re not a seasoned, veteran teacher with tons of experience, but you’re not a bumbling dweeb either.

As an aside, people say TFA CMs aren’t qualified because they haven’t taken education classes as an undergrad. At this point, I have taken most of the undergraduate teaching courses offered at our local state college (the Ed majors that are supposed to be better trained than us will have taken those) and most of them were not very useful. My math class was awesome and my science class rocked, but the reading ones were online and mostly junk. The social studies one was usually cancelled. Much of elementary education classes felt a bit like going back to elementary school. I’m sure there are great education programs out there and there are also some fabulous teachers who have come out of our local program, but the classes that were supposed to make me “qualified” were definitely not making or breaking someone’s ability to be a great teacher

2. TFA teachers are generally white and their students are generally not.

This was true when I got here. It’s becoming less true here because our region has been really focusing on recruiting more Native CMs, and this year about 1/3 of the incoming corps was Native, and I think it was like 50% was either Native or coming from a low-income background. So we’re trying to get to a point where teachers share some of the background of their students. Personally, nothing I can do about this: I’m white and came from an upper-middle-class family. All I can do is try to be culturally competent and open.

3. TFA teachers are hurting kids through their incompetence.

This is where I totally disagree.

Here’s the thing. People who have these criticisms have this idea that there’s this fabulously qualified group of teachers just waiting in the wings, unable to teach because we TFAers are there. People think that there’s a huge contingent of people who are Native and qualified and wanting to teach. “Hurting” implies that they’d be better off without TFA CMs, and things would be better if we weren’t here. I am the first person to tell you that my kids deserve the best: they deserve someone who is an awesome teacher, shares their background, and is dedicated and excited to teach them.

Those people are hard to find.

It pretty much boils down to this, and maybe this is a sign that I should stop reading these articles. Also maybe things are very different in other places and those criticisms are more valid. But it makes me annoyed because these articles overgeneralize and bash TFA universally, when the flat-out honest truth is that, at least here, WE HAVE NO ONE BETTER. In fact, we have no one else at all. There’s no veteran teachers looking to transfer to our district. There’s huge teacher turnover (admittedly, contributed to but by no means limited to TFA), a low bar of qualifications to be a teacher (with easy teacher competency exams and no limit to how many times you can fail them before you get pulled from your classroom), and tough working conditions. We have job postings and vacancies all year long. If I have been “hurting” my kids these past years, they would have been better off without me…with no teacher at all?

There is a national debate going on. There is concern over charter schools and education reform and teachers’ unions. TFA is good or bad or on the right side or wrong side.

But here, TFA is on the side of teaching kids. And no matter how naïve or under-trained or culturally different we might be, there aren’t enough people on that side. It makes me angry to read these articles calling for less TFA, no TFA, get rid of the CMs. Because all that would do here is pull more teachers and leave more vacancies, and what does that do for my kids?

One Response

  1. Emily

    Hey, I really enjoy reading your blog and have been keeping up with it for awhile (I’m a teacher-in-training). You have evidently done some wonderful things with your kiddos, and I really commend you for teaching in a rural area.

    So with all due respect I’d just like to respond to your post, as someone who is extremely concerned about TFA:

    Regarding your 1st point, I agree with you that in the 1st year TFA teachers struggle, but most shape up by the 2nd year. But this is precisely why we should encourage people to actually STAY in the profession. Teaching should not be a “temp” job, where you quit after 2 years — just when you were beginning to get good. Having waves and waves of 1st year TFA teachers is only going to hurt kids, because it increases the likelihood that they will be taught by an inexperienced teacher.

    And regarding point #3, I definitely agree with you that in areas like yours, there is such a shortage of teachers that TFA teachers are absolutely a viable option. It’s definitely better to have a TFA teacher than a long-term sub. However, TFA doesn’t just operate in rural areas — they are in many major cities (e.g. Phoenix, Chicago) where certified and experienced teachers are looking for work. Districts should not be hiring TFA teachers over certified teachers who have, at the very least, student taught for a semester.

    From your blog I can tell that you, individually, are doing an enormous good for your kids. And TFA definitely is a huge help in rural, hard-to-staff areas. But when you consider the larger picture (and especially its role in big cities), TFA is working to make teaching a “temp” profession, where the large majority of teachers only stay for a few years before moving on. I think it ultimately hurts the kids.

    Sorry if any of that was strongly worded. I don’t normally comment on blogs, but I have read yours for awhile and respect what you do, so I hope you won’t take offense.

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In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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