Houston teacher Anthony DeLeon is giving some prospective educators a hard-knocks lesson on life in an urban classroom.
When he was an ‘06 Teach For America corps member in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, his colleagues assumed he was from some posher part of town, he explains. In fact, he had been born and raised in Little Haiti.
“You’ll see this when you become a teacher,” he tells the half-dozen or so undergraduates who are listening in on a videoconference line. “When you go other places and tell people where you work, you’re going to get some kind of crazy looks. Sometimes people are going to say, ‘Wow, I hear that school’s rough. I hear those are some bad-ass kids.’ There are few things more frustrating than that, because you know those people have never been to that community and know nothing about your kids.”
It sounds like something out of a class on racial justice and inequality, but in fact, the session is part of a new TFA pilot program. The initiative’s goal: to give a small number of recruits an additional year of preparation, with an emphasis on cultural understanding.
A Blended Course
Formally termed Education for Justice, the program launched this year with 75 candidates. Education for Justice participants all applied and were accepted to TFA during their junior year of college.
This year, as seniors, they’ve been split into six groups that meet on a monthly basis on a Web-based platform, where cohort leaders like DeLeon guide discussions. Participants also have two face-to-face meetings bookending the course.
In between each monthly session, the students complete an online module combining everything from journal articles to videos, TED talks, and poetry. Then they reflect on those sources in online discussions. Each session also requires the seniors to complete one assignment at local schools, where they’ve been matched with mentor-teachers and are expected to observe a certain number of hours each week.
“I appreciate the fieldwork aspect because it gives face to the issues that we discuss in our cohort meetings. Rather than just talking about these issues, we’re seeing it firsthand,” said Kassidy Maxie, a senior at Hunter College, in New York City.
And if the course seems largely theoretical in its first semester, the syllabus for the second half is more concrete, requiring candidates to learn how to plan a lesson aligned to a content standard. They’ll also have to videotape themselves giving at least one lesson and get feedback on it from cohort leaders and peers.
To evaluate the program, TFA will compare outcomes of participants with those of a control group formed of TFA corps members who applied to the program but weren’t selected.
The Education for Justice program is based on feedback from principals, parents, and teacher educators, said Jamie Jenkins, a former TFA coach who now serves as TFA’s managing director for pre-corps development. Topping the list: They wanted teachers who knew how to teach, who were good at building relationships within schools, and who knew how to navigate cultural barriers.
DeLeon, who has taught in Texas after three years in Miami, jumped at the chance to participate in Education for Justice.
“One thing I really loved about it was that it was going to address a lot of the concerns I’ve always had with TFA,” he said. “I thought it could do a lot better with recruitment and with supporting new teachers, because a lot of them don’t know what they’re going into and come into it with a lot of ideas about these communities that are really off base.”
Education for Justice draws heavily on scholarship from African-American education scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lisa Delpit. The syllabus bubbles with terms like “hegemony” and “praxis” that come right out of critical race theory. The emphasis on culturally relevant teaching methods is a striking addition for an organization that has long faced criticism that it implicitly or explicitly promotes a “savior” narrative to the communities in which it works.
TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard says the organization’s central strength is harnessing “top-notch” talent to work toward ending educational inequity, a process that includes strengthening their cultural competency.
While TFA’s regular summer training includes sessions both on humility and on racial inequality, Education for Justice’s creators hope the additional time will mean a deeper understanding of those topics.
“We don’t separate out the conversation about diversity, community, and achievement. They’re married,” Jenkins said. “It’s a great on-ramp to being a culturally responsive teacher in the future.”
Some of DeLeon’s charges already seem to be finding their voices.
“We have children where I’m placed who are medically complex, medically fragile, and [other colleagues] call them handicapped. And I’m like, ‘You can’t say that, and here’s why you can’t say that,’ ” one participant said during a September meeting. “It’s little things like that that gave me a certain level of liberty. If I can get this out, I can keep speaking, and maybe things will change.”
TFA still has plenty to learn about the program, such as whether it’s gotten the right balance of in-person and online interaction.
The organization has also heard from some participants that the addition of the noncredit-bearing class to their schedules has posed some challenges. As of press time, some 18 participants had dropped out citing time crunches.
But for others, Hunter College senior Maxie among them, the class is evidence that TFA has indeed taken criticisms to heart.
“Honestly, it’s what TFA has been missing this whole time,” Maxie said. “It’s the foundational piece needed for every TFA corps member in order to be successful in low-income areas and communities, period.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as New TFA Pilots Aim to Tackle Frequent Critiques