The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

“Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.” – “White Man’s Burden”, 1st Stanza, Rudyard Kipling

Inner city children of America, “half-devil and half-child,” fear no more.  Dr. Livingston is here and he’s got a protractor.

The good folks at Teach for America are here to give you the education only privileged children can obtain.  Why, in only two years, your little urchin can rise to drink gin fizzes at the Porcellian Club at Harvard, hobnob at the eating clubs of Princeton, or stand around Yale looking morose.  All he/she needs to do is sit up straight, throw his/her cultural identity out the window and do exactly what these fresh-faced go-getters tell you to do.

Why does it work?  Because even though they have no certification, no teaching degree and a grand total of five weeks of training, they are better than your teacher.  They are better than your principal.  They are better than you–because their bachelor’s degree has more Latin scribble on it than other people.   

Utter nonsense.

I have had a huge stick in my craw about TFA for quite a while.  When I was undergoing summer training as a New York City Teaching Fellow, I’d run into these guys every once in a while.  They were all glassy-eyed and full of chants and whistles and sunbeams–as if Cat Stevens taught freshman English.  Many of them looked down on us because we were pursuing teaching seriously, as a profession, while they were enjoying their two-year safari among the natives teaching them stuff without making sure the kids are actually learning something. 

I often ran into these folks later in the year, at seminars and such.  They all have that look like Michael Caine at the end of Zulu.  One more massive attack by the Zulus and they’d be sprawling on the floor with spears in their bellies.  The look of horror in their eyes–I felt bad for them, but also kind of pleased.  Those preppie punks had it coming.

The Boston teacher’s union agrees.  Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a letter sent to TFA from the union in Boston, urging them to not send recruits into their school system, citing that their personnel unfairly take positions away from tenured faculty who have been excessed due to the financial situation.  Boston schools will have anywhere from 100-200 openings due to retirement and resignation, yet there is still the threat of layoffs because of the numbers of “surplus” faculty available.  According to the union, TFA would only make matters worse.

Many critics of the union say that this is simply a tactic to keep unqualified, failing teachers on the payroll and maintain union membership.  They also cite studies showing gains in performance in schools that hire TFA personnel.  The program got a huge boost from President Obama’s call for public service, as applications to the program rose 42%  this year.

Let me be clear: I am not in the business of defending the union blindly.  If the teachers proved to be substandard, or “failing”, then they probably should go, provided all avenues have been exhausted.  Even among veteran faculty, there are those who have survived in the system by doing just enough to not get hassled.  Obviously, these people do the profession no service.

However, if enhanced teacher quality and teacher retention are the goal, then Teach for America is the wrong way to go.  President Obama, I admire your zeal for improving education, but TFA is an antiquated “colonialist” relic.  It is simply a stopgap measure to fill vacancies where more qualified people do not want to go.  It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers, but rather intellectual missionaries sent to preach to the unwashed masses and hand out Norton’s Anthology of English Literature before going to an investment banking  job readying the next recession.

Teach For America is inherently flawed for a number of reasons.  Let’s begin with recruitment.  While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.  Education is not solely about knowing the material in a textbook–otherwise, we would just have students in massive rooms with headphones listening to James Earl Jones reading a trigonometry book (wouldn’t his voice lend weight to Pythagora’s theorem?).  Teachers wear many hats: lecturer, facilitator, disciplinarian, actor, storyteller, etc.  A good teacher understands his/her class and adapts to meet the needs of the students.  Not every brainiac or J. Crew-wearing co-ed can do this.

The two-year commitment is a joke.  I have been teaching for five years, and am considered a “master” teacher, according to the education establishment.  Yet I’m still clueless about lots of aspects of this vocation.  Ask me to schedule a field trip…I’ll guarantee something will go wrong.  And this after FIVE years of study and on-the-job experience.  These TFA guys are out the door before they even begin to realize what they entered in the first place.

Another fault lies in training.  TFA recruits go through an “intensive” program for five weeks in the summer.  This will prepare them for decorating their room, writing in their plan book, taking attendance and getting kids to and from lunch.  It does not prepare them for teaching.  Teaching is a craft that takes years of study and apprenticeship to master: you cannot take a crash course for this.  Not only will it make the TFA-er look like a fool, but it hurts the students by depriving them of quality teaching.

Many deride the program as “Teach for a While” for good reason.  There is no incentive to retain teachers in TFA after their commitment is done.  I’m lucky in that I entered a program where the city payed for my Masters Degree–a huge incentive to stay in education, plus a requirement of a certified teacher.  Furthermore, I’ve met people in different aspects of education that have helped foster lasting connections to improve instruction and programs for children.  The TFA’ers have no such thing to keep them here, hence their reputation as hired mercenaries who enter corporate America after their stint.  If the President was serious about education, he should be invested in programs that not only train teachers efficiently, but also provide benefits to stay in the profession.

Yet, the last is probably the worst flaw of all–and President Obama should be ashamed to back TFA because of it.  Harkening back to Kipling and the rest of the pith-helmet crowd, TFA is often a divisive influence in education because of its very culture.   For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.   If George W. Bush is any indicator, an Ivy League education can be obtained by both brainiacs and boneheads–depending on the trust fund.

This attitude trickles down to the students, as TFA recruits lord their knowledge over underprivileged students who couldn’t care less.  Why won’t Jose read the material?  Why can’t Johnny solve a simple algebra problem?  The answer is simple: TFA’s chauvinist mentality places an extreme disconnect between teacher and student.  These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day.  Why should they?  They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?

I’ve learned one immutable fact in my years in the classroom: You learn just as much from your students as they learn from you.  If you just listen to your kids, look at what they do and see what they see, they will tell you what they need to know.  Not only that, listening to students will tell you HOW to teach them–and not to lord over their ignorance. 

Lastly, this is like being a priest or a cop.  Teaching is a vocation–if you’re in it, you better be in it for the long haul.  If not, you’re of no use to anyone. If TFA’ers cannot make the commitment, they are no help. 

Maybe they should actually do something more constructive, like killing lions in Kenya wearing a monocle.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

  1. Amanda Davenport

    Insult the institution not all the members, please. Maybe you think they all suck because they only ones who admit they’re TFA do suck….lots of us are ashamed and keep it on the D/L. If you’re anti- TFA insulting TFA refugees – those who quit, got fired, kicked out, finished but hate it, like me – will not help your case! we have the best ammunition out there to take those bastards down. 🙂
    amanda

    http://amandadavenport.wordpress.com

    • ldorazio1

      Hi Amanda, I can see how you’d take offense. You are correct that the institution is the problem. Yet the most vocal TFA people I see are the worst examples of teachers…it is unfortunate that the “true believers” like yourself got relegated to the shadows. Let’s work to recify that!

  2. Amanda Davenport

    sounds like a plan!

    unfortunately, TFA is so focused on publicity – sometimes to the exclusion of education – that they get their message out a lot. Those of us who are more concerned with teaching usually don’t care as much about getting press time. an unfortunate paradox, no doubt!

  3. uofrvergil

    i feel ya.

  4. JesseAlred

    I am seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers. I have taught for 14 years in inner-city Houston. When I started teaching, I saw myself as a reformer, as some of Teach for America teachers do. I had some pretty serious success with AP students, and some serious frustration with our regular students. So my experience, to be honest, has been mixed. I want a dialogue about the political behaviors of the Teach For America elite.

    In our city, a former TFA official, now a school board member, has led the charge for beginning to fire teachers based on student test scores. She also opposed allowing teachers to select a single major union representative. After a little research I found this appeared to be a pattern with TFA”s leaders. There seems to be a close relationship between conservatives and the TFA elite.

    This goes back to its origins, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp’s original efforts to create Teach For America. A few years before, Union Carbide’s negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything it could to avoid and minimize responsibility after the event.

    A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their financial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools with corporate schools. Two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. I then read the popular magazine articles about Michelle Rhee’s firing of teachers and closing of schools, and then her admission she had gone to far too fast.

    I think you do great work. Ironically, my former mentor works for Ms. Rhee. He saved me in my first year as a teacher in Houston. He was a terrific teacher. I respect and honor your work, as I do my own.

    But your leaders seem to attack the public sector and blame teachers for student failure in order to curry favor with rich conservatives. To be up front, I grew up in a low-income housing project in Mississippi and eventually became a good student, and I am a social democrat. I believe school reform must include better schools, but also health care, stable employment, long-term unemployment benefits, a revitalized union movement, a higher minimum wage, freedom for alternative lifestyles, and affirmative action. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their kids than economically or emotionally unstable families. Better schools are part of this, but only one part of it. Your leaders seem to have gotten in bed with people who believe the market solves all issues—and that makes the money flow faster. Yet your hard work gives them credibility with the media.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even if they alienated powerful people. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is JesseAlred@yahoo.com.

  5. A bit o-t-t, but your finger’s on something…

    Certainly, 2-and-out teachers are disruptive. But while NYCTF often don’t go further, TFAers don’t go further by design.

    Look, if we could get TFAers to stay longer… different story. But it looks like we have far more success retaining NYC Teaching Fellows… and not enough success there, either.

    Jonathan

  6. meh

    don’t get me wrong: there are some things I can’t stand about TFA… and, yes, I am an alum.

    But there are some things you got completely wrong…and it can be difficult to have a sound debate when you’re not factually correct, or disingenuous at the very least:

    “While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.”…

    No teaching program, no principal, ALWAYS “necessarily” chooses people who will be good teachers. And while the proportion of TFAers that won’t be good teachers might be higher than in other programs (arguable point), as a fact, TFA consistently improves their recruitment & selection model. They specifically recruit leaders with proven records of fighting for equality on their campuses, have strong ties to their communities, and have persevered through difficult personal or professional odds. They select not on a curve, but rather, according to a rubric. That rubric is enhanced each year by research about TFA’s most effective teachers. In other words, TFA researches what attributes were discovered about corps members at the application and interview stage that had great impact on their teaching success. They then use this information to improve the rubric. If you don’t satisfy the rubric–you don’t get in. Period. This system actually is built to obtain people who will become good teachers.

    “It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers”…besides what I have already stated about recruitment and selection, our training (correct me if I am wrong) is not all that different from yours as a teaching fellow. We do have an intensive 5-week program in the summer, which only follows intensive spring readings to provide the foundation for the summer work. That summer work includes teaching summer school, lesson planning clinics, training in cultural issues and diversity competencies, best practices and teaching structures, etc. Once we get back to our regions, the training continues prior to the start of school and once school starts. We, too, are enrolled in Master’s and certification programs, by requirement (our aren’t even paid for in full…); we participate in professional development with TFA at least once a month, oft times more…and we still participate in our school’s/distrcit/s professional development sessions, because we are, direct employees of the schools we serve.

    The teaching models TFA uses are tried and true, data-driven and proven effective. So how, exactly, is that not aimed to produce effective teachers? And how (this is a serious question–because I truly don’t know) is this much different from the training teaching fellows receive?

    “For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.”…okay: this really got my goat. Some people are born thinking they are better than other people–this is true. Some of these people belong to TFA–this is also true. But to state–when you have no clue or evidence–that TFA actually TEACHES this, explicitly or implicitly, is insulting. A simple look at the website will display TFA’s “respect and humility” motto; we are EXPLICITLY taught to rely on the advice and experience of veteran teachers, and to enter our communities with the respect that other professionals, students, and families deserve.

    I will concede that there are people who inherently think they are better than because of their race, educational background, or class, and could very well be implicitly passing this along…but let’s not paint with such a broad brush, or make outright incorrect statements–it makes it hard to take you seriously.

    “These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day. Why should they? They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?”

    None of my students were savages. I live 10 minutes from my school. I took several of my students to Saturday school when their parents had to work, since I lived so close. I went to parades, cheerleading performances, basketballs games and track meets. I went to church concerts, birthday parties and funerals. When I left–yes, after my two years–it was to work on educational policy because I couldn’t stand the heartbreak of knowing what my students were going through everyday because of the systematic racism and classism that prevented them from equality in education, health care, and opportunity. And because I felt I could be best used in a more macro capacity–there are far better teachers in that school than I ever was.

    I currently make less than I would have if I had stayed on my third year, which was the plan, as I would loop and teach 4th grade.

    I’ve met TFAers along the way who are exactly as you described. But I know plenty who are the exact opposite. A healthy debate should include the acknowledgment of these people–who might never have become the incredible teachers, policy makers, non-profit founders, principals and administrators they are had it not been for TFA.

    • ldorazio1

      …and here I thought this thread was dead already!

      It’s always good to have spirited responses to posts, and you have made some very good points.

      “No teaching program, no principal, ALWAYS “necessarily” chooses people who will be good teachers.” — This is true, but this is not what I implied. I implied that the TFA recruitment process may have other goals in mind besides finding candidates who fit into teaching. “fighting for equality on their campuses, have strong ties to their communities, and have persevered through difficult personal or professional odds” is no better rubric for finding a teacher. Community leaders, activists, even local politicians, maybe, but not necessarily teachers.

      “And how (this is a serious question–because I truly don’t know) is this much different from the training teaching fellows receive?” — it isn’t, with the exception of a subsidized Masters program. The difference, however, is HOW they are trained. Fellows are trained to be full members of the DOE faculty, alongside veteran teachers learning techniques that have proven effective in a classroom, not on a data chart. Now if TFA works in a similar manner, please clarify this.

      “I will concede that there are people who inherently think they are better than because of their race, educational background, or class, and could very well be implicitly passing this along…but let’s not paint with such a broad brush, or make outright incorrect statements–it makes it hard to take you seriously.” — Well, if you don’t take me seriously, that’s your business. But if there are a silent majority of TFA-ers that truly want to be in education, I haven’t seen them. The TFA’ers I see are of the “two-and-done” category, mostly by design. If there are more TFA’ers that entered to really become great educators, I’d love to hear from you.

      Also, if you notice one of my tags, it is “comedy.” So if I’m not seeming entirely serious, lighten up.

      Life’s too short to worry about everything.

  7. meh

    for clarity–

    the rubric is based on attributes that made SUCCESSFUL TFA teachers–the recruitment is based on the things you quoted.

    we, too, are trained by effective faculty and trained on how to be fully functioning and integrated members of our professional communities. (I can certainly agree that fellows programs and TFA differ greatly in their recruitment messages and practices–I can not say that I am the biggest fan just because of some of the “fakers” that can still make their way through!)

    Also for clarity–2/3 of TFA teachers stay in education after their 2 years. I was actually the only TFA teacher at my school to leave after 2 years…on a small elementary school faculty, 6 of the teachers and the reading specialist are TFA alum.

    and i’m not worried…just engaging in healthy debate.

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  10. Curious

    Why is it impossible to find out what the TFA selection rubric looks like?
    -Memphis ’09

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