Education Week currently features a commentary written by Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp that asserts that Teach For America (TFA) interns have “a chance to make history.” But people with big visions have big responsibilities, because history records our follies as well as our triumphs. Mentor teacher David Greene has some first-hand understanding, based on his work with TFA interns, and he draws on this to offer some advice.
by David Greene
Over the past two and a half years, I have worked very closely with 19 first and second year Teach For Americans in my job as a Field Specialist for a local NYC university’s graduate school of education. I have seen their tears, fears, anxieties and heartaches. I have seen their moments of joy, success, and achievement. Unfortunately the latter are far fewer.
Educators who work with these young people often are confused about TFA and its motives, procedures, and effectiveness. Often they question the motivation of the participants. I have heard people accuse them of using their TFA experience only to pad applications to future graduate study or careers. I am sure for some that is true. But I have found that rarely to be the case. For most of these kids, and please don’t forget they are kids, it’s a rather painful way to get into grad school. The road is hard. It is filled with potholes the size of canyons. Why would they choose that path instead of a smoother one?
In a recent e-mail from a colleague, I was asked, “What factors increase the likelihood of success and what has been the most difficult for TFA participants to overcome? Here was my response.
I will start with the second question first.
They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. TFA has indoctrinated them to believe that what they give them is Godlike. TFA has always had a Peace Corp image. To some extent that is a good thing. I am in favor of more community service work before career. But sometimes, that ideal turns into missionary zeal and the idea that a particular service organization has the only answers. I am afraid that has happened to TFA, especially because of all the powerful endorsements and huge sums of money it has been granted. As its collective organizational ego grows, its collective head becomes bigger than it’s collective brain.
To maintain the edge and power TFA has gained over the past decade, it constantly reinforces its newfound authority and power through very concrete means. It uses public media who willingly feed the general public the TFA message. Politicians fall over themselves to get on line to congratulate TFA on its good work, with a photo op wherever possible.
But underneath that layer of propaganda is the real indoctrination. On top of all the time new TFA teachers spend in and out of their schools working, they must attend “mandatory” TFA meetings at “headquarters”, have TFA “supervisors” with 2 years experience come into their schools to reinforce the TFA data driven gospel, and be told they must rely on TFA prepared materials to be successful. I can’t tell you how painful it is to watch a young person cry because they were so frustrated about the pressure put on them by TFA to do all of those things. In some cases they actually travel hours out of their way out of their way to go to a local TFA “headquarters” because they feel they must go to a meeting or get the already prepared materials to copy and plug into the prescribed curriculum. The end result is having them drink more “Kool-Aid” and reinforce their fears of trying other things that actually work. To get a first hand account, watch this video by John Bilby: a TFA person with the guts to quit and learn to teach the right way.
The next issue that creates so much difficulty is that the schools they teach in vary. Some have administrators and staff that welcome quality teaching and are not locked in to teach to the test, Model Workshop agenda based lessons, and the like. They run more professional cultures where teachers can innovate and use ideas in their planning such as culturally responsive pedagogy. However they are the minority. Most schools have overbearing administrators who force these inexperienced teachers to rely on TFA materials and other corporate prepared materials or-lose their jobs. These educational leaders aren’t teacher trainers. Many haven’t taught.
Remember these are young people. In today’s society it simply takes longer to become a mature adult. Although successful as students, many TFA kids are naïve. They are idealistic, and often followers. They were great students because they learned to obey the authorities in their schools, follow directions, behave well, and do as they were told. They are perfect fodder for TFA and authoritarian administrators.
As a result, stuck in quicksand up to their nostrils while being between the proverbial rock and hard place, there are those who find it difficult to take the rope (advice) from an outside mentor, even when they know the rope is strong and can save them. They try it, yet revert to what they are expected to do by the Rock (TFA) and the Hard Place (School Administrators), either out of fear or habit or both. So when tossed a rope by an outside mentor, they pull themselves to safety, and then often let go, only to become more frustrated and filled with self-doubt, remorse, and the goal of getting out after their two-year sentence is up.
The exceptions are part of the solution. Several TFAmericans have successfully pulled themselves to safety because they aren’t followers. They are critical thinking problem solvers. Good teachers must be. They have practical wisdom. They have empathy. They clearly try to use, not fight the cultural baggage these kids come to school with. Clearly the criteria for job selection must include those traits. They also have to be lucky enough to be in the right school with the right leadership.
However good the new teachers may be, we have to keep them. That necessitates more principals who are teacher leaders. They must be people who are willing to listen to educators, not administrative, bureaucratic, pencil pushing, bean counters. They must read, research, understand where real staff development comes from, then go out and get it without fear of reprisal from above. It is a pleasure to work with young teachers in schools that foster this type of growth that work to encourage rigorous yet relevant, inquiry, discussion, project based learning.
These teacher leader principals cannot do it alone. Schools need a real mentoring program. In theory NYC schools have one. In practice it often doesn’t exist. As an example, one TFAmericans who taught MS social studies had a Phys. Ed. teacher as a mentor because “he comes in to quiet them down”. Who are these mentors going to be when schools don’t have enough high quality, experienced teachers to go around? First, we must make sure we create an environment so that our young people will stay. Second, there are thousands of retired high quality teachers willing to do more than just post retirement substitute work or “F” status paperwork. Why not use their expertise? We are told that would be too expensive. But the money is paid out to for profit cookie-cutter lesson plan providers. It is simply a case of economic scarcity. Unfortunately the opportunity cost is good teaching.
While we are on the subject of training and mentoring, University Ed. programs must get with the program. The ivory tower is often blinded by its own light. They must retool and develop more in-school mentor programs rather than rely on pedagogy classes that, well, for the most part, are less than helpful. They must do more lesson study and critical friends groups with their trainees. They have to put more emphasis on the fieldwork and internship work and less on the classwork. As long as they think Ph.D. academics is more important than teacher training, things wont change much.
Finally, TFA isn’t going away. It’s too powerful. We also have to acknowledge that without it, we would have approximately 8,000 fewer teachers where we need them most. We have to try to get them to see how to work together with experienced teachers, their associations and unions, and universities. We need to have them see how better training of their inexperienced teachers will help them achieve their stated goals. Coalition is a better word than confrontation.
Mr. Greene has been referenced by Christina Hoff Sommers, in her book, The War against Boys. He has given talks on the issues of boys in schools in Scarsdale and for Dominican College. He assisted in the organization of The Foundation For Male Studies’ Second Annual Conference On Male Studies: Looking Forward to Solutions. He has had work published in Ed Week on line and has also been referenced by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post web based column, The Answer Sheet. Finally, he is a regular contributor to The Teachers Talk Back Blog and is also currently working on a book tentatively titled, So You Think You Know Education? A Teacher’s Perspective.
How do you think we should respond to Teach For America? And how might Teach For America change so as to better serve our students?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.