BLOG: “Stayin’ Off Center”

After 38 years of teaching high school I finally graduated to newer and more wide reaching ventures in 2008.

I have been a member of the WISE Services (staff since then. WISE Services seeks to help high schools start and sustain experiential learning programs in the senior year to help students transition to life, work, or college.

I have worked in two NYC area Universities with new teachers and clinical supervisor in my attempt to pass forward what I learned about teaching to new professionals.

Additionally, my book, Doing The Right Thing: A Teacher Speaks, adds to my quest to spread to parents, teachers, and teacher developers what true teaching should be in this world of privatized reform.

Finally, I am proud to say that I am both an administrator of the BadAssTeacher Association (BAT) and the treasurer of Save Our Schools (SOS), two organizations fighting hard against this takeover.

TFA: BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Over the past three 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.

DIFFICULTIES:

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. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-LW31oQ-bc)

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.

SUCCESS?

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.

How’s that for starters?

DG

11 thoughts on “BLOG: “Stayin’ Off Center”

  1. Interesting perspective on TFA. Your position as field specialist means you get to see the classroom experiences of these unprepared novice teachers. It is heart-breaking to hear stories of just how unprepared and even brainwashed these well-meaning kids truly are. There young idealism is being abused.

    Still, I am concerned when people say we need to work with a group like TFA. While the young people themselves may have good intentions, the end game for the organization is one I cannot and will not support. When it began, TFA simply looked to place its members in districts with teacher shortages and was at best a stop gap. The only claim about the novices teachers’ abilities was that “they were better than a string of substitutes”. In the early days, there was talk that TFA hopefully should someday become unnecessary.

    Today, however, the organization claims their novices are actually “better” than veteran teachers. As you pointed out, this is simply not true for the vast majority of core members. But TFA’s rhetoric itself has become dangerous. By claiming “experience doesn’t matter”, TFA empowers adminstrators and lawmakers to save a buck, fire older teachers, and fill positions with these untrained novices. And as an extra, these kids do tend to be more compliant, obedient, and almost never stick around long enough to collect a pension. Heck, they spend so much time with TFA’s organization, they don’t even have time to become involved in their unions.

    I don’t know how it is in New York, but here in Chicago there is NO shortage of teachers. At the last open job fair they had (more than 3 years ago), there were far more teachers looking for work than schools hiring. Add to that school closures and turnaround staff newly looking for work, and you have plenty of highly-qualified teachers wanting to get back in the classroom.

    TFA has controlled the media and therefore the message for too long. But that’s all the more reason for career educators to speak up for our profession, and more importantly for the children whose lives are being negatively impacted because of this program. I am a special education teacher and I believe it is immoral and illegal to put an untrained teacher into a special ed position. TFA does this all the time. That is wrong.

    I will not stay silent on this. Putting untrained novices into schools which need the MOST higly-trained and effective teachers is an injustice I will not let slide.

    • NYC is different than Chicago in terms of the # of TFA’s and TFA’s impact. I do agree with you that TFA, the organization must be stopped. It’s goal is power. As a teacher, my students have and will always come first. In this case it is these abused 20 somethings who have been brainwashed by an organization out for its own good.

  2. Pingback: Ms. Katie’s Ramblings: TFA, Brainwashing, and Not Playing Nice «

  3. our mutual acquaintance Nancy Flanagan tweeted this as “the post of the day” – it might be of the week, especially in light of Dennis Van Roekel doing an editorial with Wendy Kopp that has raised hackles among a lot of teachers and teacher advocates.

    I have passed the link to this on widely. Contact me either on my cell or via email (you can get it from this post) – I might want to repost what you have done at Daily Kos to give it more visibility, with your permission.

    Great job!!!

  4. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • There could possibly 2 cnerdtiois that such a voucher system will lead to. The growing cost of education in private sector is one of the fundamental problem faced by people, even in the upper middle class section. Such a voucher system will either ending up putting too much pressure on the government budget or render the vouchers ineffective by not matching the increasing premium that such schools levy on its customers. The other dimension is, as Mr. Prithvi rightly pointed out is, the risk that schools turn into coaching classes, given the result oriented approach that we, in India, have ingrained over the last few decades. The education system in India needs to be looked into holistically. The voucher system will bring to book the absent teachers or those who hide behind union doors,but it is still a far cry from the kind of quality education system that Mr. Jobs is talking about. The age old discussion about overhauling the current education system to make it more meaningful is still a valid one, even more in this context.

  5. Thanks for the post. I have a question for you. Have you had any experience working with TFA corps members who have a education degree. Have you found them to succeed or be better than a traditional TFA corps member?

    • I worked for 4 years with corps members getting their Master Degree at Fordham University in my role there as a “foiled specialist”. It was a mixed bag. Of the 19 I had 2008-12, 5 are still in the classroom. Two of the very best went on to their goal of med school. 2 went on to work for either TFA or E4E and the others are in various places.

      I believe that the influence I had on them as an experienced master mentor teacher had a great deal to do with whatever success they had. They would 2nd that. In short they inspired me to write a book that started with materials I prepared for their use.

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