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.