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5 Things Olivia Blanchard Got Wrong: In Defense of Teach for America

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Detail of Painting by Angelo Bronzino via Wikimedia Commons

Just like Olivia Blanchard (who recently wrote the Atlantic piece “I Quit Teach for America”), I also quit Teach for America (TFA) before the beginning of my second year.  I was part of the 2005 Teach for America Corps; due to gang violence and having to file a police report against 2 teenage students who assaulted another student and me, I quit TFA in April of my first year of teaching.  I do not blame TFA for my resignation; even if I had taken the traditional route to teaching, I may have still wound up in that same classroom with those 2 unstable teen girls.

Though we both quit TFA, the stark contrast between Ms. Blanchard and me is that I still fully support TFA.  Despite all of TFA’s failings, of which there are many, I believe TFA to be the best widespread alternative teaching program in existence, and it has spawned some pretty fantastic, effective educational programs (look up KIPP, for starters).  There are a few arguments that Olivia Blanchard and others have been tossing at TFA, and I’d like to explain why they’re all essentially wrong:

  1. TFA is taking other “more qualified” teachers’ jobs.  Let’s be real here: GOOD TEACHERS DON’T USUALLY STAY AT ROUGH SCHOOLS, especially “bad” middle schools, unless they actually live in the neighborhood.  The middle school where I was teaching English in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles had a 35% turnover rate.  That means that about every three years, the entire staff was essentially new.  My school was grasping for teachers – we could barely even convince substitutes to come back.  These “more qualified” teachers were not appearing.  Why was there such a high turnover rate at this middle school and at most similar Title I urban middle schools in the US?  Because almost all teachers (not all, but almost all) hate teaching middle school, especially in a school where the average class size is higher than the average amount of desks in a classroom.  Teaching 200 plus hormonal 13-year-olds (rotating classes of about 35 kids each) – who are also involved in gangs, drugs, and underage sex, not to mention problems at home – is a daily lesson in psychological torture, the Marines of teaching.  After you pay two years of dues (and I’m not talking just TFA teachers, I’m talking most teachers), you can go teach at a better school that requires good teachers.  This was a common path.
  2. TFA doesn’t have enough minority teachers.  There were 12 TFAers and myself as first-year teachers at the middle school in Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught, and we were black, white, Asian, and Latino (and yes, I am a white girl, not a minority).  The other novice first-year non-TFA teachers at this middle school were all white.  The large majority of the staff members were white and black in a heavily (75%) Latino neighborhood.  This all means that TFA was actually bringing more diversity to the staff of this middle school (shocker!).  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of public school teachers in the US are white.  In TFA, fully 18% fewer teachers are white (65% of the corps is Caucasian).  Once again, this drives home the point that TFA is more diverse than the average pool of public school teachers. 
  3. TFA teachers don’t have enough training.  First of all, my summer institute experience was different than Ms. Blanchard’s and closer to what TFA describes.  I don’t remember having any of the forced emotional sessions Ms. Blanchard describes, and I taught angry middle school students every school day, usually for 1-2 hours, in addition to crazy intensive amounts of classes about how to lesson plan and how to set achievable high goals.  Five weeks of teaching summer school and taking classes may not seem like much, but it’s more training than required in many parts of the country (in addition to the fact that the classes taught in summer institute and during our periodic weekend TFA seminars were actually useful and meaty, whereas the professional development taught at my school on in-service days was generally a time to grade papers and tune out the speaker).  In many states, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and no training whatsoever can get an emergency certification where they are taking classes while teaching (which is what we were doing in LA Unified School District as TFAers, in addition to our “inadequate” summer training).
  4. TFA slams other public school teachers.  This may have been something that Blanchard inferred, but this was not my experience at all.  In my experience, TFA wanted to help all existing public school teachers.  In my experience, TFA was helping to shoulder the crazy burden that the government and society have placed on public school teachers.  We all got the idea that we were joining the fight, not creating one.  But perhaps I’m just an overly optimistic human being.
  5. TFA is creating a “revolving door of rookie teachers” (according to Julian Heilig, also cited by Olivia Blanchard).  Of Title 1 teachers in general, in a statistic quoted so frequently in my first year of teaching that it’s indelibly printed on my memory, 50% quit within their first 2 years (and 90% quit within their first 7 years – yes, teaching is ridiculously stressful, no matter which route you take to get certified).  Of TFA teachers, 60% stay in the field of education after their first 2 years.  That’s 10% more than traditional novice teachers.  That means TFA is bringing in a higher percentage of teachers who stay in the field than traditional routes.

Why should anything I say count since I was one of the quitters?  Even though I was horrible at classroom management, I found out around the time that I left that my seventh grade English students did better on their secondary periodic assessments (colloquially known as SPA tests) than any of the other seventh grade English classes in a school of over 2000 students.  They actually learned to write five paragraph essays.  I was more than a little shocked that my kids did so well, but maybe TFA made a wee little difference to my students after all.

Teach for America is making a difference and putting teachers in classrooms where no one else wants to go.  Recently, a Mathematica study has shown that TFA math teachers create more results than non-TFA math teachers in poor schools (equal to about 2.6 months additional instruction), no matter their experience level; that’s pretty substantial stuff.  Teach for America is not perfect, but they are taking decisive action on a problem that many other people only complain about.  That deserves support.

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

14 responses

  1. I’ve been in the profession since the late 90s (I got my degree through the traditional route), and it sounds as if this program prepares candidates for real world teaching, which is more than I can say for my university program. We focused on a lot of fluff and noise, and topics that in the end did nothing to prepare me for the nuts and bolts of day-to-day classroom life. I entered my first job not knowing what I was doing.

    I started out in a similar type school in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, with a 100% African American student body. While we had some teachers that had been in the building for years, they were hardened to the realities of the profession and had long lost their passion. Of the newbies that year, I was the only teacher who made it to June. Most left within the first month, a couple made it to winter break. Besides desks and textbooks (which I didn’t receive until the second week of school) everything in the classroom was there because I’d purchased it myself — books for the kids to read, construction paper, glue, paper clips, etc. We didn’t even have a copy machine in the building, so most mornings I’d stop in at Kinko’s to Xerox my worksheets before I hopped on the bus.

    The stress of the 14-hour days over those 9 months took its toll on my health. By January I was down to 106 pounds, what I weighed in the 8th grade, and this is what compelled me to resign and take a job at a magnet school in Chicago the following year. In some ways I felt like a weakling, a quitter, the scrawny white girl who couldn’t hack it in the ‘hood. But in the back of my mind I couldn’t squelch the thought that it didn’t need to be that hard. I didn’t need to prove myself in a job that was slowly killing me. There were plenty of other jobs out there.

    These days I’m in suburbia, where we chose to move when my kids reached school age. We were fortunate enough to have the choice to do so. Two years ago I made the decision to resign from teaching to take a part time job so I could be a better mother to my kids. In the meantime, I’m trying to decide if I’ll go back to the profession when the kids are older. My husband practically begs me to choose anything else: “Please don’t go back to that sh*tty job! I don’t care if you work at Burger King for the rest of your life.”

    Thanks for sharing your story and (hopefully) enlightening readers to the realities of public education, a dismal, broken system for which I believe there is no solution.

    • Education is such an important issue. I don’t know what the solution is either.

      Supplies were an issue for us, too. My entire classroom library (for weekly silent reading time during class) was either books I had scrounged from the previous teacher or books I had bought myself on ebay (ebay has great prices on book bundles, interestingly enough).

      That’s phenomenal that you toughed it out the whole school year and still didn’t get burnt out on teaching.

  2. Despite having teachers in my family, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of this organization. My sister teaches middle school (music) in Colorado. I’ll have to ask her thoughts about TFA when I see her next. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

    • TFA can be a really controversial issue inside education; everyone has different thoughts about it.

      That’s so fantastic your sister teaches music! Music teachers are so great for teaching self-discipline and instilling in kids a love of school.

  3. I completed two years of TFA, followed by 2 more years at my South L.A. site and then 2 more years of teaching part-time in a private school (which had more flexible scheduling).

    You do raise a couple good points. Any claim that TFA favors white candidates over minority ones is really, really hard to believe. I roomed with only minority ladies both at the Houston Institute and at the L.A. induction. There were many, many talented Latino, Asian, American Indian, South Indian, and African-American members of TFA when I was part of it.

    And the numbers from Mathematica make a good point, too.

    However, I can’t disagree with you more about #1 or #3.

    1) I have a kid who spent 5 years in public school and a husband and friends who continue to teach for LAUSD. The district routinely pink slips excellent, experienced teachers — sometimes rescinding them, sometimes not. Yes, many experienced teachers leave “tough” schools, but others don’t. Additionally, I believe that the district should provide incentives (including additional pay) to lure master teachers back to the tough schools.

    2) I felt entirely unprepared on every level to deal with my class. I was taught to use whole language — the district was using a (pretty good) phonetic + literature program. I was taught ineffective classroom management techniques. I was not warned how much of an emotional toll dealing with little kids (some of whom threw chairs in class, they had so much rage inside them) could be. I was not told how to manage paperwork efficiently.

    I asked over and over for help, from TFA, my credentialling program, and from administrators.It was only the local teachers and district-wide training programs that turned me into a serviceable teacher. Even if non-TFA new teachers also — frankly — suck about 65% of the time, it’s not because TFA trains well, it’s because so few training programs of any kind are adequate in any way.

    TFA, frankly, should be 3 years: 1 year as a classroom aide, with an hour of instruction in teaching practice at the end of the day; then 2 years in the classroom. Maybe then they’d be ready.

    • Incentives for master teachers are a really great idea; they are the ones who would make the most difference at low-performing schools.

      In terms of the training, I didn’t mean to imply that summer institute prepared me for teaching. It didn’t; nothing prepares you to teach except teaching itself. The point I was trying to make was that the 5 weeks of institute was better than many alternative certification programs that provide no training at all before you go into the classroom (one of our science teachers was in this situation, and she was even worse off than we were). Hands down, I was unprepared going into the classroom; I did not know how to discipline or manage effectively, but I think pretty much every first year teacher is that way.

      A three year program like you mentioned might be the best way to go.

  4. Great achievement, Christi, that your seventh grade students did so much better on the SPA than the other classes. Your passion for writing comes through.

  5. I hear stories like this over and over. It’s so hard, isn’t it? Thanks for providing a balanced view of TFA.

  6. This was so interesting, Christi. I don’t think I’ve ever really read an in-depth discussion of TFA, especially from someone who participated. Thanks for the eye-opener! 🙂

  7. I’m a soon-to-be (double degree criminology/psychology)college graduate who is interested in TFA, can you make any suggestions or recommendations? I typed TFA into Google and nothing but sensationalized news articles appeared. I must admit, it has caused me to rethink submitting an application. Any further insight would be extremely helpful, feel free to email me @ StefanovicN2004@Yahooo.com

  8. Not even the best teachers, TFA or otherwise, can bridge the achievement gap entirely. It starts at home, and the desperate level of poverty our most struggling students deal with every day of their lives creates an impossible uphill battle. Intervention efforts should include a heavy focus on preschoolers and family literacy.

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