Down to the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 14 2012

Making Peace With TFA and My Role as a Corps Member

For anyone who talks to me on a regular basis, it will come as no surprise that I have spent a large part of this year and probably way too much time grappling with TFA, its mission, my role, and pretty much everything I could. I came to the conclusion not long after entering the classroom that I did NOT like TFA. Why you ask? Well, a lot of it has to do with small things like the fact that I haven’t felt all that supported and that I am still not sure how I feel about taking a group of highly self-critical people and being really really hard on them. The bigger part of my disdain for TFA has to do with the fact that although I believe (mostly) in the mission of TFA, you know, that “one day, all children” thing we hear over and over. What I do NOT believe, however, is that this mission can be accomplished inside the classroom. There are so many factors that we as teachers cannot control. TFA preaches a “locus of control” philosophy, thinking about change on the microscopic level and wanting its corps members and everyone else to believe that if we can change kids, classrooms, and schools from the inside out, eventually the achievement gap will be closed. I do not believe this. Not in the least. There is too much outside of my “locus of control,” and I have been told to accept that. So the questions that pop up (most recently at our final pro sat of the year)  the following: Are TFA corps members part of a larger education reform movement? Are we leaders in the effort to end educational inequity? Are we actually doing anything bigger than just our kids and our classrooms for two short years?

I have finally been able to answer these questions in a way that satisfies myself. TFA, in my humble opinion, is doing two things.

1. TFA is doing a great job at training and placing teachers. I showed up at a school that needed teachers, and I showed up with enough training that I was arguably as well prepared as those teachers coming out of a local, traditional education program. Now in an effort to be honest, I was not prepared for what I would face, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me or anyone else for a first year of teaching in a totally new community teaching a subject I never saw myself teaching. My preparation was, however, good enough. So in an effort to provide teachers to areas where teachers are hard to come by, TFA is succeeding.

2. TFA is creating a critical mass of young, motivated, highly educated leaders with an extremely unique perspective on education and giving these people  a real reason to care about education reform. Before joining TFA, I had no interest in education outside of the classroom. I wanted to be a teacher, yes, but I didn’t really see myself getting involved in educational leadership or reform at all. This was, of course, before I had seen the achievement gap first hand and struggled with it every single day in my own classroom. The old me thought there were problems with education that could be addressed (at least pretty well addressed) with more good classroom teachers who really care. The new, end-0f-my-first-year-of-teaching me knows that the problems with education in this country as so bad that they pose a threat to the future of a nation. They are bigger than students or teachers or classrooms or really even than schools. They are HUGE, and they deserve the attention of the best and brightest thinkers in America. If I had not experienced the educational system in the rural south firsthand, I would not have believe this. Even if I had believed this, I would have known it, not felt it. After a year in El Dorado, Arkansas, I feel it. Nobody with my background could spend a year here and not feel it. This has been a powerful year, and I know that all over the country, TFA is giving people the chance to have the same powerful experience. TFA is doing a GREAT job taking people with the potential to enter into important leadership positions and making them deeply feel the injustice of education in America and truly believe they might be the right people to lead the movement to fix it.

So, what is it that TFA is not doing a good job of? I don’t think that before I spent a year as a TFA corps member, I really understood what TFA’s mission meant. I thought I was supposed to close the achievement gap in the classroom. Now I know that even if I were the best teacher in the world (and believe me, I am not…you can ask my students), a million little Miriam’s running around wouldn’t be able to close the achievement gap inside the classroom. It isn’t possible. What IS possible is filling positions that would go otherwise unfilled and, in doing so, give leaders a reason to chose education reform as their cause. But let’s be very clear about one thing: TFA did not give me the reason I needed. If I DO decide to go into educational leadership or policy when I leave the classroom, I won’t be thinking about TFA when I go to work every day and fight for change. I will be thinking about my students. I will think about T in my 7th period telling me he can’t do math, and he knows he is going to fail. I will be thinking about J in my 6th period who can’t add negative numbers in the 10th grade. I will be thinking about E in my 5th period who wants more from his education and deserves more. I will think about K in my 3rd period who has the potential to go places in life but whose education will almost certainly fail him even when he doesn’t fail himself, L and K in my 2nd period who at a better school might actually be successful, and I will even think about F in my 1st period who is constantly suspended for fighting but is naturally talented at math.

Without knowing my kids, my school, and my community, I could never have understood the state of education in America. Before this year, I never felt like I was the person to be at the forefront of reform, to make the decisions that affect thousands or millions of people in America. Now not only do I feel like I am capable of being that person, I also know that if those of us who understand the state of education in this country do not fight for change, nobody else will. I don’t know how to solve the problems, but I’ll be damned if I can’t help figure it out.

7 Responses

  1. Harriet

    If even 1% of TFA Corps mmbers come away as fired up about education reform as Miriam is, our students, schools, and country will be HUGELY better off.

  2. Meg

    I think you’re dead on with a lot of this, especially the part about the kids. When I think about teaching ten years from now (whether I’m in the classroom, in education, or somewhere completely different) what I’ll be thinking about is not TFA, but my kids. I won’t remember one specific about a TAL session, but I’ll remember my students names, and their faces, and their laughs. What I do keep coming back to though is that I wouldn’t have been brought to them if it wasn’t for TFA. In the end, I think that’s a big part of TFA’s mission. I think they know very well that the kids will be what tie us to the achievement gap and ed reform, and they bring us to them.

  3. YES.

  4. Tami Philyaw

    Wow. Do you want some help in that daily fight?? I know some folks who are willing to fight with you…

  5. James

    Except as numerous articles point out, in many places TFA isn’t putting teachers in “areas where teachers are hard to come by”; it’s REPLACING veteran teachers with years of experience under their belts with TFA corps members who have had only a five-week training session.

    Teaching is a career and a profession, not a two-year stint on the way to something else. Surely you wouldn’t want to be operated on by a “Doctors for America” corps member, or fly in an airplane flown by a “Pilots for America” corps member, where fresh college graduates got 5-week crash courses in medicine or flying airplanes instead of going to medical school or flight school.

    Why, then, is it okay for poor kids to be denied teachers who have experience and extensive professional training, in favor of 23-year-olds with five weeks of training under their belts?

    It would seem to me that real “reform” would be wealthy school districts hiring TFA corps members to teach the scions of the well-to-do, and using the lower cost of inexperienced teachers to free up resources so they can pay experienced and veteran teachers more to teach at the low-income schools that need them. But wealthy parents would never accept their children being taught by a 23-year-old with five weeks of training. Why is that acceptable only for the children of the poor?

    • miriam

      Just to give a little bit more perspective, the town where I teach does have a large amount of poverty, but it is also home to Murphy Oil, a very large oil company. Due to the company headquarters being here, there are many families in my town who would be considered “wealthy” in any town across the country. They send their kids to the same high school, and some of their kids are being taught by these 23 year olds with five weeks of training. If you talk to these families, they are extremely grateful to have TFA teachers here to teach their kids.

      Additionally, a huge percentage of teachers these days come from alternative licensure programs as opposed to the traditional licensure path of studying education in college. Many of the teachers coming from other alternative licensure programs have significantly less training than TFA provides in 5 weeks. Most of them have never set foot in a classroom as a teacher before the first day of school, and a large number haven’t actually even started their education classes.

      Now, this is not to say that you are wrong about experience being important, but there is something to be said for the energy, dedication, and enthusiasm that a new teacher brings into the classroom. If a kid likes you and respects, they will work for you, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference to them how long you have been teaching.

  6. Ms. Math

    I agree with your post-I never knew I’d spend my life in education until I lived and felt the achievement gap in our country.

    I also think that TFA is pretty hard on people who are used to doing really well and already criticize themselves a lot. Telling me repeatedly that I was failing because I wasn’t expanding my locus of control or working hard enough ended up making me depressed. I did not have the knowledge I needed to really address some of the serious issues faced in math education. To tell me that this was possible, when in fact I have not heard of a TFA secondary math success story, was just a little too cruel for my taste. I wish I could have accepted more my first year instead of feeling guilty and awful about every single student I couldn’t reach.

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