Unlike most of the people who drop out of Teach For America, as I did, I really like and respect TFA.
I think TFA does great and important work—but I also think it can do better. While internally TFA is a model of reflective practice, at times the organization has resisted outside criticism. This is not unreasonable, as much of the criticism leveled against it is less than constructive. But as a not-so-successful corps member who now works in education policy, I think I can offer some constructive criticism from my perspective as both a TFA insider and outsider.
Here’s the deal: More than two years ago, I joined nearly 48,000 people in applying to TFA. I was head over heels for the cause and proudly accepted my offer. I remained in New Orleans, where I had attended Tulane University, to serve a community desperately in need of great teaching.
I didn’t stay, though. I didn’t fulfill my two years as a corps member or as a 4th grade teacher at Nelson Charter School, where I had been assigned. In fact, I left after only nine months on the job. Unfortunately, my story is not unique. Nine percent of corps members leave before the end of their two-year commitments, a TFA official told me. And my personal experience tells me that many more corps members struggle to adjust to their work.
As an organization that serves the dual objectives of closing the achievement gap and engaging future leaders in education, Teach For America may find that my perspective—while not necessarily better, or truer—merits some consideration. That’s because, based on my experiences, I can offer two pieces of advice that could help TFA get smarter about recruiting and retaining talent in the classrooms.
• First, recruit new talent honestly. Teach For America knows how to attract talent. The organization’s profile has gone viral on elite college campuses. Tulane, which does not have an undergraduate education concentration, sent 28 graduates to the organization in 2011—and many more applied. Among Ivy League institutions, 12 percent of graduating seniors applied to the corps in 2010, and the numbers keep rising. But just because students are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the organization does not mean that they are aware of what it really means to join the TFA teaching corps.
More often than not, TFA paints an idealistic, rather than realistic, picture of what life in the trenches is really like. TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s June 2012 op-ed in the Huffington Post is a great example of this: The stories are indeed inspiring, but they are also a shiny misrepresentation of what to expect.
While TFA does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection."
When a corps member fails to live up to these success stories, he feels like the lone wolf who simply wasn’t cut out for the program. For instance, Teach For America told me that my leadership experiences as student body president would prepare me for the hardships in the classroom. The (very persistent) recruiter said that I was the “perfect candidate for TFA"—though I had no classroom experience—because I was a campus leader. As it turns out, my extracurricular successes at Tulane did not translate to successes (by TFA standards) in the classroom.
TFA should reconsider its approach and move to a more transparent recruitment process.
It should share some less-than-ideal stories of what life is like in the classroom. Show prospective or incoming corps members a struggling teacher’s classroom. Perhaps conduct a debriefing about possible pitfalls and solutions in the classroom. Don’t just talk about how TFA may be the “hardest thing a young adult will ever do.” That vetting strategy does not effectively weed out the weak among the Type-A, never-give-up applicants the organization attracts. Instead, that kind of truth-telling is like catnip to them.
Making the process more transparent may scare some people away, but TFA will be left with corps members who are not only mentally prepared for the real deal, but who are also joining the corps with the right mission in mind.
• Second, motivate, don’t indoctrinate, recruits. While TFA does its best to provide professional support for corps members, sometimes it fails on providing them with a real human connection. I do not necessarily fault TFA for this, but the overarching TFA culture makes new teachers feel guilty for saying—or even feeling—anything that would go against the organizational grain.
At one regional meeting during training, the Greater New Orleans team addressed the need for some corps members to give up their urban placements and take jobs in the Louisiana Delta, a new addition to the region four hours north of the city. Most corps members had already been placed in schools in the city, and the corps members who did not yet have placements did not want to uproot the lives that they had just started to build.
The conversation stalled until a new corps member said: “Those kids need us in the Delta just as much as they need us in the city.” Definitely true. But the comments devolved into: “I already have a placement in New Orleans, but if I didn’t, I know I’d move to the Delta. We should be sacrificing everything for our kids,” and “I’m putting my students before my friends, my family, my health, and my sanity.”
To me, this showed an irrational lack of perspective. It’s the kind of mindset that leads to unhealthy behaviors that could be harmful both to teachers and those they are supposed to teach.
What if TFA adjusted its motivational culture to change that perspective? What if the organization provided a safe space for dialogue and even dissent? It could give reasonable people room to doubt and question TFA norms. This would mean not responding with one-size-fits-all, big-picture-driven responses when corps members express real concerns about the corps and their students. If TFA fails to do this, the organization will risk alienating great teachers—teachers upon whom TFA depends to continue a strong movement.
If TFA could start to engage with corps members as people—not cogs in the organizational machine—it would see a jump in retention, teacher performance, and, ultimately, student achievement.
There is a bright side, and I want to be clear: I believe in Teach For America. My shortcomings as a corps member were as much my fault as the organization’s. But, I hope that TFA, after reading my story, can find some value in the lessons learned by those who left the corps early. With some careful reflection, the organization could better attract and retain the high-quality individuals it—and many, many students—so desperately need.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Advice to TFA From a Former Insider