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Five Reasons We Did Not Choose Teach for America

The impetus for this and the following post came from a conversation with one of my pre-service teachers. She expressed her frustration with having what she was doing as a Master of Arts in Teaching candidate de-valued by Teach for America on our campus. Disclaimer: some of the best people I know in education have entered the profession through TFA and remain in education, so this is not an indictment of all things TFA. These students’ response has its roots in being marginalized for investing time and resources in preparation.

The blog that follows lays out their reasons for not choosing TFA even though they have been recruited through their major departments (math and physics). Their second post will explain why they chose the MAT. They are not defending all teacher preparation programs nor are they demeaning their peers who joined TFA. They are offering reasons for their choice to be as well prepared as possible for their future students.

This is a guest post from Megan Thornton and Derrick Rohl, two of my pre-service teachers at Wheaton College. (Check out their follow-up post, too.)
 

Last semester, a TFA recruiter came to Wheaton College igniting a conversation among our friends and peers. While many of our friends were electrified at thought of engaging in such a noble task, we wanted our peers to hear why we chose a different path to that noble task. As MAT candidates in math (Megan) and physics (Derrick), we will spend over 40 additional course hours beyond our bachelor’s degrees and over 500 hours in clinical placements before we become teachers of record.

1. Teachers need more than five weeks of training.

TFA sends corps members into schools after five weeks of training. We knew that would not be enough. The TFA five-week crash course barely begins to scratch the surface on all that goes into teaching.  The TFA program serves low-performing schools with at-risk populations; shouldn’t their teachers have even more preparation?

2. A career lasts more than two years. We are in this for the long haul.

TFA only requires a two-year commitment of its corps members. The lack of preparation combined with high-needs schools is a sure-fire model for burnout. Many corps members spend two years, leave exhausted, and move on to their “real” careers, if they even stay their full term.

3. They’re students, not guinea pigs.

First year corps members are thrown into classrooms. They practice, make mistakes, and refine their skills with real students. We will make mistakes, too, but by the time we are teachers of record, we will have spent years in schools as a part of practica embedded in coursework. In these experiences, a cooperating teacher is always present to ensure strong educational practices for their students. Rather than learn under a cooperating teacher, TFA corps members take charge of their own classroom with limited pedagogical understanding.

4. Does having surgery make you a qualified doctor?

No one would trust a doctor who didn’t go to med school; why would we trust teachers who weren’t prepared? In fact, only in education would this kind of attitude be tolerated. We didn’t buy the we-can-teach-because-we-were-once-students proposition. This stance marginalizes the profession of teaching and suggests it’s okay to allow unprepared teachers to attempt to educate students.

5. We care more about our students than our résumés.

TFA is populated by well-meaning college grads ready to change the world. The TFA model is predicated on this hubris. The theory of action is that if you are one of the “best and brightest,” minimal training is all you need to begin as a teacher of record. This hubris can lead to arrogant assumptions about ways to improve the education system. What is more troubling is that some of our peers have joined TFA as a résumé builder. While TFA corps members are busy building up their résumés, we hope to build careers investing in our students.

Why did we choose our MAT program? We explain here. 

25 Comments

A. Miller commented on February 21, 2014 at 5:16pm:

The TFA experience

I definitely agree. A friend of mine studied art in college, then did the TFA program. She shared with me how miserable her experience was, and how she afterwards went into ministry because she was so horrified by the teaching experience. If she had done an education program and received significantly more training than a mere five weeks, she likely would not have burned out so quickly. But because she had such meagre training and absolutely no experience before being tossed into one of the most difficult settings in the entire state, she found herself crying out to God each day that she would get hit by a train on the way to school rather than having to face the rude and apathetic middle school students and the brutal slap of failure that would greet her at the school. It's a tragedy that such teachers get so little training and then are expected to teach for two years in a very difficult setting; and it's no wonder no one stays long in the field of teaching.

Bill Ivey commented on February 23, 2014 at 7:06am:

Love this!

And please pass my love on to Megan and Derrick. Over the past several years, I have repeatedly defended my M.A.T. program (which was in French), online and off, when faced with particularly egregiously denigrating generalizations of teacher ed programs. The worst I've heard in response has been people who praise my program but term it a rare exception to the rule. I hold out some degree of hope that that means people recognize a quality program when they learn about one, and that years of propoganda have just made them think quality programs are far more rare than I personally believe they really are.

I'll be sharing this. Thank you!

Precious Crabtree commented on February 23, 2014 at 2:52pm:

Right on!

This post by your students is inspiring! They list all of the concerns that I have about TFA...  as do my colleagues.  I am working with a student teacher now. While she is doing well, she only has 8 weeks with me. Even that isn't enough time to really be fully prepared for the challenges of the classroom. She is just getting comfortable in her role as facilitator, and she wants more time to develop her behavior management skills, lesson development, etc.  Our students deserve highly trained and skilled leaders who are in education for the long haul. Anything less than that is shameful.  

Stephanie commented on February 23, 2014 at 11:08pm:

It's true.

Love this! 
It's true. We wouldn't allow an unqualified "doctor" operate on a child; yet we agree with, and support an institution which allows unqualified "teachers" to instruct and educate young minds. How is this ok?!? Students are not “guinea pigs” and all students, including (and especially) those in low-performing schools deserve qualified and effective educators that see teaching as more than just a “résumé booster.” 

Roxie commented on February 24, 2014 at 12:22pm:

My Thoughts Exactly

I'm really glad that Derek and Meghan wrote this. These are the same reasons why I decided to pursue the M.A.T. program at Wheaton instead of seeking alternative means of certification. I don't do things halfway, and the TFA experience seems to do just that. As another Wheaton education student I know likes to say, "yes, take insufficently trained teachers and put them in the schools the trained teachers want to avoid, great idea." There is so much work that goes into teaching that most people don't realize. It takes hours of practice, reading, and discussion to begin to understand major concepts of education and hours in practicum experiences before anyone is prepared for their first year in the classroom. TFA makes it seem as if anyone with enough brains and "go-getter" personality can be a teacher. This attitude completely demeans the majority of teachers who have worked really hard for a career in the classroom. 

Grace Walter commented on February 24, 2014 at 12:23pm:

Putting Students First

I found this post very helpful. While I do see some merit in TFA's program, I can't imagine going into a difficult teaching setting after only a few weeks of training! That sounds horrible. 

 I especially enjoyed the point about putting students before experience. It seems that a fundamental issue with TFA is an interest in giving teachers a great experience and not as much on helping real students. Especially because these students are in areas that struggle, they deserve a very qualified and passionate teacher who really desires to help them. 

I don't wish to demonize TFA. I simply feel their model is flawed in this paticular focus. 

K. Cowan commented on February 24, 2014 at 1:24pm:

They're students, not guinea pigs.

I really liked this point because it focuses back on the students.  Teaching should be about student-centered, not teacher-centered.  By puttting an incredibly inexperienced teacher in a challenging setting, you are risking the future of a whole classroom of students.

Bethany W commented on February 24, 2014 at 2:06pm:

Experience as Teacher

I completely agree with your point addressing the fallacy that just because we've been students, we should automatically know how to be teachers. Even though I attended an excellent school for all of my pre-college education, my Education classes in college have exposed many teaching practices that I experienced as a student that really aren't so good, after all. There is also the practical reality that teachers do a LOT of work behind the scenes. I had some sense that teachers must prepare for class, but until I was forced to write my own lesson and unit plans, I had no idea how much work it actually was! It's a disservice to the teaching profession to assume that it can be mastered through observation only--we need to learn the reasons behind the "why" of what teachers do, and I don't think that's something that can be learned in 5 weeks over the summer. I'm thankful for the years of training and experience that my Education program will give me before I enter my own classroom for the first time.

Robyn Fehrman commented on February 24, 2014 at 2:18pm:

We need more great teachers from all sources reaching all kids

I manage Teach For America's work in Eastern North Carolina and am happy to answer questions about our work.  The 15 school districts we have partnered with for more than 25 years would welcome more incredible teachers from all sources raising their hands to work with their brilliant students in  their highest need schools.

I'd also encourage you to check out our responses to common critques: http://www.teachforamerica.org/blog/answering-questions-twitterverse

Jon Eckert Jon Eckert commented on February 26, 2014 at 1:09am:

Thanks for this, but this misses their point.

Robyn, thanks for sharing the blog and for commenting. Like you, want as many great teachers as we can get in the classroom. This becomes real for me when I have TFA corps members request to take one of my courses afther they have been accepted but before summer institute. I alway waive the prerequisites and let them join. However, what is so hard for great students like Derrick and Megan is that their preparation and future profession is marginalized by friends and peers who will be teachers of record well before they will even though they are far better prepared. There is no way around the fact that this de-professionalizes what they do.

One huge benefit that TFA does offer is the support provided in the first two years. For that reason, I do support our education majors when they apply for TFA after student teaching as you have supports we do not have the resources to provide. 

Ilana Horn commented on February 27, 2014 at 5:37pm:

#6: In some districts, TFA contracts displace teachers

We can't forget the larger labor market issues here. In some districts (including my own), TFA makes contracts that make them hiring priorities over credentialed teachers. This no longer solves a teacher shortage, as the TFA PR machine likes to claim: it displaces career-committed, fully credentialed teachers for dilettantes. Students in high poverty schools need a stable teacher workforce. Research shows that not having one contributes to inequities in achievement.

 

Jon Eckert Jon Eckert commented on March 1, 2014 at 6:40pm:

We have the same issue in Chicago ...

Thanks for this point - well said. We have the same issue in Chicago where TFA corps members from Wheaton take hiring priority over our teachers - even some of those who student teaching in Chicago Public Schools. 

Rachel S commented on February 24, 2014 at 6:18pm:

I definitely agree with this

I definitely agree with this and the comments that have been made. It seems crazy to me that a nation that likes to say how much they want education reforemed and how they want better teachers allows people to become certified with so little training. I love the idea of TFA, but if we actually care how well those students are educated, we need to make sure their teachers are the ones with the most training, not the least. Since many people argue that education is one of our major problems in the inner cities, we should really pay more attention to this. I find it ironic that soon teachers will have to pass this extensive edTPA criteria to be certified in hopes to better our education systems, yet we still have organizations like this allowed to certify teachers with much less work and training. 

Tommy H commented on February 24, 2014 at 8:25pm:

Students come first

These are very well articulated reasons supporting their point. I think what it comes down to is that TFA seems to be preparing its corp members for a life after the program, rather than focusing on bettering the lives of the students. While TFA has done some great things for students and school districts, it seems more teacher-centric than student-centric. I like the point, "they are students, not guinea pigs". Teachers in preparation programs are testing their skills on students in the controlled environment of an observed classroom under a cooperative teacher. If the teacher who is a part of the TFA program is simply not cut out for the job but just "hangs in there" for two years, it is the students that suffer. Insufficiently trained teachers, regardless of whether or not they are an expert in their subject matter, simply do not measure up to someone who has spent years in school preparing to be in a classroom.

Sarah commented on February 25, 2014 at 12:28am:

Teaching For The Long Haul

As an Accelerated MAT program candidate, I can say first hand that I grappled with how best to pursue an education degree. Studying abroad my junior year messed up my four year graduation plan. In essence, I could graduate on time with my English degree, but not my Education degree.

Deciding that I wanted still wanted to pursue education, I decided to make up for lost time (well spent lost time) by doing the Accelerated Masters program. TFA was always a very tempting option for me as it would get me into my profession sooner and with less hassle. However, I have discovered that my skills as a teacher need to be developed and exercised for me to be the most effective version of a teacher I can be. And looking back at the knowledge and skills I have developed in learning how to teach since coming home from studying abroad, I do not regret my decision. Teaching is a profession and an art and should be treated as such. We are not semi-professionals, but professionals. 

Kelly commented on February 25, 2014 at 12:50am:

Does having surgery make you a qualified doctor?

I found this point to be both humorous and striking.  No, I would never allow someone without a medical degree to treat my body in any way.  Similarly, I would not want someone without a teaching degree to treat my brain in any way.  Through an education major, students are prepared with theory, tools, and techniques to enable them to work with students of a certain age in a specified discipline.  I do not see how five weeks within a classroom can equate to four years of learning, classroom observation, and active practice of education.

Whitney Hall commented on February 25, 2014 at 12:01pm:

Save the guinea pigs!

This article is such a fun and clear explanatin of what all Ed majors believe! Putting students first, realizing the burden of teaching, and accepting it as a calling instead of a stepping stone: I've heard them all before and I'm glad to hear them so concisely and wittily put. I remember talking to a friend in IR/Polysci about how they are encuraged to teach for a bit before heading on to "grander" things. It made me feel like an idiot.

The only part of this that gets me down is that ed/MAT students are pretty much only defended by themselves, their profesors, or former TFA folks who realized our plight the hard way. It isn't very fun to defend myself and my profession when everyone sees it as simple. I wish there was a way the general populus could understand the complexity an difficulty of what we do; it would open up all kinds of avenues toward ed reform. 

Patrick commented on February 26, 2014 at 11:07am:

TFA

TFA teachers are no worse than teachers which come from traditional college programs. Teacher certifications have no bearing on teacher quality either.

Next, I think it silly that the entire teaching profession is based around finding a 22 year old and convincing them to teach for 30 years.

Finally, there are lots of teachers 10-20 percent who are worse than first year teachers (and thus even worse than the average TFA teacher). In fact, teaching quality starts to decline after a decade or two in the profession. What is this websites position on that?

Jon Eckert Jon Eckert commented on February 26, 2014 at 4:40pm:

Wow ...

Patrick, thanks for commenting. I will briefly address your comments - would be a much more interesting conversation, however. Your statement about TFA teachers being no worse than teacher who come from traditional college programs is remarkably loaded. Some studies have shown this is true in the aggregate based entirely on test scores, however, this is by no means an endorsement of TFA. The 2004 Mathematica study that has been a go-to study for TFA for years seems to demonstrate this, but both sets of teachers have students performing below the 20th percentile. The real story here is that we are not doing a good enough job educating students. In fact, there are some outstanding preparation programs, and we need more of them - not less prepararation.

As far as certification not mattering, I am not sure what study would demonstrate that as all teachers in public schools need to be certified, so I am not sure what the comparison group would be to say that certification does not matter.

To your point about trying to convince 22 year-olds that they need to teach for 30 years goes, I don't think that was the authors' point. They are just saying that they view teaching as more than an initial stopping off point on the way to something else. Teach First, Great Britain's TFA, expresses the notion Derrick and Megan are striving against in their post - teach for a couple of years and then do what you really want. Being marginalized for thinking about teaching as a career is certainly not conducive to attracting and retaining talent in the profession.

Your final point about veteran teachers being ineffective can be true, but I am not sure what studies you are citing that "teaching quality starts to decline after a decade or two in the profession." In the aggregate, this is not true - the steep improvement that experience brings in the first five years does begin to plateau, but I have not seen evidence that effectiveness declines with additional experience. 

Ross Hogan commented on February 27, 2014 at 8:29pm:

Another TFA Perspective

As a Teach For America alumni and a current teacher in the Bronx I have to say I'm torn on this question. I have been teaching in the Bronx for six years now and I can attest that many teachers that come into the profession though the traditional route are just as unprepared, if not more, than TFA recruits out of their summer institute. It's safe to say that the summer institute I did with TFA was one of the most intense and demanding experiences I've had. I struggled my first year, just like any first year teacher does in the Bronx, but I survived and throughout the experience I felt like TFA gave me great support and feedback. I ended up getting my Masters Degree in a traditional education program and I can honestly say that I learned more during my time in TFA than I did during my Masters program. Things like data tracking, investment strategies for underprivileged youth, and assessment tools were never even discussed in my Masters program, but were covered thoroughly during my time in TFA.

With that being said, I saw many of my fellow alumni go off to law school or into the financial industry after their two years. Very few of my cohort seemed to stay in teaching past three or four years, which disappoints me considering some of them were very strong teachers. I truly feel like Year 5 or 6 is where you really hit your stride in the teaching profession and most TFA alumni do not make it to that point.

In my opinion, the bigger issue with TFA is their participation in and support for school privatization via charter schools. Until charters have more public oversight and are forced to accept all populations of students I do not believe you can point to them as a solution to the problems in education.

Renee Moore commented on February 28, 2014 at 1:42am:

TFA is Just A Symptom

There are many alternate route programs into teaching around the country; TFA happens to be the largest and best known (and best funded).

But the battle over whether TFA or traditional programs are better wastes energy and attention that should be aimed at the larger and more pressing issue: We, as a profession, have not clearly defined for ourselves or the public what the minimum level of pedagogical skills and knowledge should be for someone to be honored with the title and responsibility of teaching precious children.

Consequently, political agencies trying to act on behalf of the public have developed 50+ different criteria for teacher licensure and certification. Not until a teacher is ready to attempt National Board Certification (after at least 3 years in classroom) is s/he assessed based on truly meaningful professional standards.

Dr. Deborah Ball, among others, has spoken most eloquently on this subject. As she notes: "There are over 3,000 independent providers of initial teacher training and....no common standard of practice for entry to practice with (on) young people."  Name another profession as responsible for human lives that has or tolerates such a mishmash of preparation and induction into its ranks.

When NCLB was implemented, most states opted for the lowest bar possible--anybody who could pass the state teacher exam (usually the Praxis or some similar exam) is considered highly qualified, regardless of other preparation or whether or not that person can actually demonstrate the ability to teach.

That's why we have people who come from all of these programs with such a wide range of abilities: some succeed, many fail or quit; others are just mediocre. The tragedy is we allow this state of affairs to continue at the expense of children.

 

Jon Eckert Jon Eckert commented on March 1, 2014 at 6:50pm:

Thoughtful replies, Ross and Renee

Ross, thanks for your thoughtful response - so glad teachers like you have remained in the field. I have no doubt that you took away a great deal from the summer institute. We have so far to go to improve preparation in this country as Renee points out. Derrick and Megan just feel this TFA or MAT choice acutely. My hope is that we will prepare them well enough that the edTPA will be an afterthought for them and that they will grow into great teachers.

Renee Moore commented on February 28, 2014 at 1:45am:

*

*

Karl Ochsner commented on March 2, 2014 at 1:54pm:

Great article. Charter

Great article. Charter schools hire young graduates without certification to work as teachers and get publicly funded money to do that.  Even a hair stylist needs to be certified, as I believe are dog groomers.  It goes to show you how some legistlators value educators.  A bad hair cut will set you back two weeks, where as a bad education will set students back farther.  A hierarchy of educators needs to be be ascertained. 5 weeks of education vs 4 years. hmmmm

Jon Eckert Jon Eckert commented on March 3, 2014 at 2:29pm:

Interesting point about hair stylists ...

Karl, I have not seen the hair stylist comparison before - think it is compelling. We always go to comparisons with doctors and lawyers, but this is even more compelling. I think there is a "safe to practice" principle at play here - Deborah Ball speaks about this eloquently. 

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