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The Difference between TFA “Corps Members” and Regular Teachers

By Nancy Flanagan — October 24, 2011 4 min read
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A few days before Barack Obama formally chose Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, I was forwarded a message string clipped from a Teach for America listserv. The forwarder was a TFA “corps” veteran, with whom I was working on an ed-policy initiative. It was a fascinating glimpse into the judgment and mores of Teach for America and an articulate cross-section of her sons and daughters.

It would be unprincipled to snip and print quotes from a private listserv--but I was intrigued by a peek at this insider conversation. The initial prompt was a post by a TFA alumna, urging her fellow TFA corps members to take immediate action on the possible nomination of Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education.

The original poster noted that decision-makers were paying attention to the TFA discourse--that TFA alumni should read and post frequently on blogs, have their public say, as active participants in the “reform movement that has no name.” Of which Teach for America seemed to be a vital, integral part, in her not-so-humble opinion.

There was zero consensus among the corps members, who posted long and lucid responses. Some of them thought Linda Darling-Hammond was a respected scholar and advocate for the very kids they were currently teaching--and had been unfairly portrayed as TFA Enemy #1. Others were itching for a fight--believing that the only way to effect radical change was overthrowing a dysfunctional system, which could only benefit from an infusion of innovative, market-driven leadership-- not “teacher-centric” (read: weak, selfish) ideas.

A few commenters felt that protecting and defending Teach for America was short-sighted. They thought a clear-eyed discussion of what was good and bad about alternative routes into teaching was a far better strategy than blind loyalty to the organization that birthed their teaching careers.

I was impressed with the dialogue, frankly--the tone and logic were thoughtful and informed. Many posts were laced with sincere passion for kids in high-poverty schools. Presuming that most of the writers were in their 20s, and had exceedingly short teaching careers in a single school, there was remarkable accord around the idea that good teaching mattered more than anything else in school reform. Their points of controversy were around crafting good policy.

What struck me most, though, was the inherent confidence and self-assurance evident in their writing. These were clearly young people whose life experiences included lots of success and affirmation--their very acceptance into Teach for America, beating out four other bright young things, gave them a certain poise and faith in their own knowledge and observations.

Plus, they were opining as participants in an exclusive club with restricted membership. They knew their thoughts would be read and seen as valid by their peer group. In fact, mentioning their TFA corps member status in national blogs and gatherings would give their ideas credibility and cachet.

I am part of a gathering of honored, exemplary teachers--the Network of Michigan Educators--who design and host an annual conference on teaching in Michigan. Attendees are State Teachers of the Year, Presidential Math and Science awardees, National Board Certified Teachers, Milken Award winners, Disney teachers and more. Every year, we invite colleges with teacher preparation programs to send their most outstanding student teachers to the conference. I have had the privilege of creating a short workshop on leadership for these novice teachers.

The interns are always an amazing group--whip-smart and ambitious. What distinguishes these new teachers from those posting on the TFA forum? For starters, their primary concern is actually getting a teaching job--soon. At the conference, the student teachers are focused on building relationships with award-winning experts, who can serve as valuable mentors for ideas about building an effective practice.

All of them are committed to becoming fabulous practitioners, launching long-term careers in education, becoming members of school teams. I doubt if they have strong opinions on Arne Duncan or redefining the reform discourse. They simply, but passionately, want to teach.

In a session with State Board of Education members, they were clear that even those with five years of preparation didn’t have enough coursework and field experience to make them fully prepared. They knew that it would take years of trial, error and reflection to make them masters--but they were absolutely burning to get started.

So what’s the takeaway here? The Teach for America alumni assumed they already had a seat at the table, and a genuine voice in policy creation. The student teachers in Michigan were just trying to get hired.

And the contrast in their expected futures could not have been more different.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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