The 2008-09 school year is still months away, but for soon-to-be graduates of traditional teacher education programs, the job search for next fall has already begun. Here in Virginia, large suburban districts are on the hunt for well-prepared, high-quality teachers to whom they will offer early contracts. Beginning teachers find these offers flattering and enticing; after spending time and money to earn certification and often an advanced degree, they are excited to begin working and establish a salaried lifestyle.
Yet not all highly qualified beginning teachers are seeking employment in suburban districts. More than a few are interested in teaching in urban environments where there are endemic teacher shortages. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, though, these well-meaning teachers-to-be may receive discouraging messages about their potential role in these places.
I recently received an e-mail from Casey, a bright and enthusiastic teacher-candidate who will graduate in May with a credential and a master’s degree in education. She wrote seeking my thoughts on Teach For America, and asked whether she should apply. Casey is deeply committed to working in a high-need school, yet I struggled to compose a response, mainly because the reality at present is that TFA does not appear to want Casey, and Casey would profit little from the existing TFA framework.
Teach For America recruits individuals who might not otherwise enter the teaching profession. And Casey doesn’t fit that demographic. More significantly, if accepted into the corps, Casey would be required to attend TFA’s five-week summer institute for a modified and distilled version of the teacher-preparation program in which she has spent the last three years.
There is an unacknowledged and disturbing assumption that graduates of traditional teacher education programs are unwilling to commit to high-need schools.
I sought alternatives for Casey. There had to be an organization like TFA for traditionally certified teachers, right? My search turned up few options, and nothing with the scale or clout of TFA. I was dismayed by my limited findings, more so by the fact that the existing options were relegated to the bottoms of Web pages, following extensive descriptions of fast-track and alternative-certification programs.
There is an unacknowledged and disturbing assumption that graduates of traditional teacher education programs are unwilling to commit to high-need schools. Indeed, the programs themselves are criticized for not producing enough teachers to satisfy the staffing needs of these schools. Upon reflection, I believe what perhaps is lacking is a mechanism to help certified teachers gain employment in these shortage areas. Casey clearly wants to teach in such a setting, yet she believes Teach For America is her only option for doing so. To be sure, she could strike out on her own and probably secure a teaching job before the start of the new school year. But two reports from the New Teacher Project allude to the perils and uncertainty teachers face when they attempt this approach. Certified teachers do, in fact, regularly apply to hard-to-staff urban school districts. Yet because of late hiring practices in these districts, they often do not end up teaching there.
Hiring delays have myriad sources: district policies that allow teachers until the summer to provide notice of their intent to retire or resign, union rules that require vacancies be made available for within-district transfers before being publicized, and budget uncertainties that in many cases persist throughout the summer. By the time many urban districts actually get around to hiring new teachers, the best applicants—well-prepared teachers like Casey—have given up and accepted secure jobs in suburban districts, thus exacerbating educational inequality between high-poverty and high-minority schools and their low-poverty and low-minority counterparts.
What can be done about this persistent problem? Ironically, one potential answer can be found by examining key elements of Teach For America, the very organization that many advocates of traditional teacher education hold in disdain. If we’re serious about doing something to promote the employment of well-prepared candidates in areas of teacher shortage, here are three lessons we can take from TFA:
• Promote a Corps Mentality. Teach For America draws young people who believe it will provide the opportunity to “make a difference” as part of a national movement. This is appealing to many recent college graduates (including traditionally certified teachers) who are committed to service. TFA has been successful in its recruiting efforts using this approach—over 18,000 applied to be part of the 2007 corps. A similar national certified teacher corps would enable education graduates to pursue their work with a greater sense of purpose. Instead of just getting a teaching job and toiling away independently, they would contribute to and benefit from participation in a larger effort to alleviate educational inequality.
Why should those who have made investments in their own development as instructors be passively shunted away from teaching in high-need schools?
• Assuage Employment Uncertainty. As the New Teacher Project’s work reveals, high-need schools often miss out on well-prepared, certified teachers because of dysfunctional hiring practices. Yet TFA places (uncertified) corps members in these same schools every year. It is able to do so by establishing relationships with districts that guarantee a certain number of positions for corps members. TFA recruits may move to their given region without a specific job, but they are assured of a teaching position and thus are willing to relocate, find a place to live, and become settled in a new location.
For most newly certified teachers who have no such assurances, moving to a potentially expensive city and establishing roots without having a job seems a risky proposition at best. The creation of a certified teacher corps would allow representatives to forge connections with districts in areas with teacher shortages and ensure that certified teachers have teaching positions by the start of the school year.
• Provide Ongoing Support. Leaving college to enter the world of work is intimidating for most 20-somethings, especially when the transition entails starting a new job and moving to a new locale. TFA corps members do not face this change alone. After five weeks at the group’s summer institute, the new recruits move to their designated regions with other corps members. Together, they will experience the inevitable challenges presented by the difficult work that lies ahead of them. Moreover, they will have the backing and encouragement of regionally based TFA staff members, to help them navigate district politics and community norms.
Newly certified teachers who strike out on their own rarely have such support systems if they choose to teach in high-poverty and high-minority schools. The development of a certified teacher corps would provide well-prepared teachers with the social, emotional, and psychological support they need to be effective instructors and change agents in areas of teacher shortage.
I spoke with Casey the other day. She mentioned that, in addition to TFA, she would be applying to two other urban-based programs that accept certified teachers: TeachNOLA, in New Orleans, and Teach Memphis. While I am pleased that Casey is pursuing these routes, I still harbor a sense of frustration and opportunity missed. Why should those who have made investments in their own development as instructors be passively shunted away from teaching in high-need schools? Teach For America taps a youthful commitment to humanism as its wellspring—a bounty that exists in the nation’s teacher education programs. We urgently need an organized structure to assist teacher graduates who, in addition to seeking positive and lasting change in our schools, have already demonstrated a commitment to the profession of teaching. A certified teacher corps would fit the bill.
A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Young, Idealistic, and Certified