Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Date with Teach for America

A couple of years ago, I went out on a date with a guy who worked for Teach for America.  At the time, I was a starry-eyed naïve little grad student getting my master’s in education with the dream of someday working in an urban school. 

We met at a quaint little wine bar on the north side of Chicago.  The guy explained how he had done his two years teaching in New York Public Schools and was now working for the Chicago TFA office.  We talked the night away over wine and cheese discussing the plight of education in America and just how crappy public schools were!  I’ll admit it, I fell in love a little bit.  Not with the guy, but with the TFA rhetoric. 

Now, however, after having actually worked in an inner-city public school, my thoughts on that night and on my attitude towards TFA in general have…well, let’s just say changed.  Dramatically.  Like, complete 180.  First of all…TWO YEARS?  After seeing how impossibly hard the job is, man do I respect those career teachers.  And how they can teach!  I can only hope I’ll be as powerful as those experienced teachers are in time.  Two years in the classroom is NOTHING!  And then I think about how I struggled my first year after getting a full Master’s degree which included going into dozens of schools, observing many teachers, planning and discussing lessons, studying curriculum, writing IEPs, practicing reading programs, and more.   I can’t even imagine being just thrown in after five weeks.  Why??  Why would anyone do that? 

But, as if teaching only a short time was bad enough, I remember the guy explaining that teaching was never the point of Teach for America (too lowly of a profession for the Harvard-types, right?).  He admitted they purposefully pick candidates who do not want to go into teaching ultimately.  TFA wants to expose bright young people to the horrors of our education system so they can fix it, or something along those lines.  (Does that mean heading a charter school franchise or becoming a billionaire themselves so they can decide personally which parts of education to “fix”?)  At the time, it somehow didn’t sound so absurd.  Maybe I’d had too much wine.

And it’s not that I didn’t like this guy or the people who chose to do Teach for America.   In fact, I think most of the TFA teachers are good, caring, hard-working people (this guy included).  It’s just that the idea of “volunteering” as a TEACHER (er, if getting paid a full teacher’s salary can even be called volunteering) makes no sense at all to me, now that I actually understand the job.  I’m still waiting for a “Doctor for America” or “Engineer for America” program to spring up.  If you really want to make an impact in the lives of children, then put the time in to learn the profession BEFORE you step into the classroom!  I kinda got it when the purpose of the program was to fill teacher shortages.  I mean, I’d rather have a well-vetted elite college grad in the classroom that Joe Schmoe off the street (Alternative Cert anyone?)  But times-they-have-achanged.  Certified teachers are being laid off due to budget cuts.  Why are we still saving slots for well-meaning unprepared newbies?

I wish I had asked that guy “Why not take all that passion and energy and put it to real use in the schools?”  What a difference those young people could make as an assistant teacher, supporting the certified teacher to provide even better instruction!  I did that job in Japan through the JET programme.  The Japanese (one of those high performing nations, ah-hem, ah-hem…) would never let some uncertified smart person lead a class!  It’s too important.  (And yeah I know, that would never happen…who would pay for that, right?  Well, the Japanese figured it out.)

I guess to me, TFA is a little like that date.  Everything seems great at first, but ultimately it just doesn’t work.  


  1. I so agree! I'm so glad I was rejected from TFA! With only 5 weeks of prep I'm shocked that people even complete their two years of teaching. I just think it's terrible that TFA programs or programs to test students do not take into account long term goals (ie longer than a year or two!) to make real change you have to start at the beginning and slowly, methodically, carefully, faithfully, change how kids are supported, taught, fed, entertained, etc to see any sort of long term real change in education. And who would be an expert on this? A career teacher, but no one wants our opinions oh well.

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