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Posted at 01:04 PM ET, 04/09/2011

Teach for America alum: Problems with the model

This is the second in a series of posts written by Anna Martin, an alumna for Teach for America who has stayed in her original placement school in California for seven years, five years longer than the TFA demands of its recruits. (You can find the first post here.)

Martin calls herself “conflicted” about the organization, which places college graduates from top schools into schools with high rates of low-income students after providing them with five weeks of training.

The organization is a favorite among current school reformers, and is supported by the Obama administration, as an innovative way to rejuvenate the country’s corps of teachers. TFA’s many opponents say, among other things, that five weeks of training is hardly enough to prepare a young person for the difficulties of teaching needy children and that this approach devalues the teaching profession and winds up hurting the students who most need the most experienced teachers.

By Anna Martin

“I like Teach for America teachers. I just wish they would stay more than two years.”

-Comment in my school’s staff room during lunch

This comment, made by a non-Teach for America teacher new to our school but not to our district, seems reflective of the feelings other staff have towards Teach for America teachers.

I am nearing the end of my seventh year at my placement school, and most staff who have been around as long or longer than me seem to have forgotten my origin.

But there is a feeling about teachers still associated with the TFA-brand that coming to work at a school for two years and then leaving is not a great deal for the school or its students.

Building relationships and creating a collaborative environment conducive to the kind of educational outcomes achieved by high-performing districts and countries outside the United States takes time.

In school time, two years is a blip on the screen.

Of course, not only Teach for America teachers come and quickly leave, but it’s hard not to see fault with a two-year sell-by date.

In fact, if a corps member is perceived as effective after the two-year commitment, then they are often almost immediately recruited out of the classroom to work for Teach for America or to begin funneling into the school leadership pipeline.

After my fourth year of teaching in the same school, TFA realized that I wasn’t budging and stopped hinting.

Something feels wrong about an organization that draws its most talented teachers out of their classrooms to help achieve its vision.

What my teacher colleague was expressing is the frustration with how Teach for America’s saturation of our district’s hiring pool creates a Catch-22 for school communities provided with corps members.

Investment in forging strong relationships with any of these young, eager teachers can seem burdensome when you are not sure how long they will stay.

Further, the two-year cycle places schools, which could benefit from teacher-driven leadership, at a loss to sustain change as teachers move in and out of positions. In a weird way, TFA seems almost to be supporting, rather than dismantling, the idea that excellent teachers are widgets” — easily replaceable, easily replicable.

This frustration with the way TFA can collude in the inability of a school to attract and retain highly effective teachers for the long haul can translate into some “us” versus “them” mentality on a staff.

Although my school has had a relatively positive experience with its TFA hires, little things stand out.

For example, it is not uncommon for a TFA first year corps member to only learn of the existence of the staff room sometime around December. This is not a joke; TFA first-year teachers are so busy—with being a classroom teacher for the first time, with credentialing programs, with new teacher observations—that they can literally not come up for air for months.

And unless their classroom is out of control, their new principals (again, symptomatic of how the school became low-performing in the first place) and other teachers may not feel it imperative to support them.

Such insularity, while perfectly excusable in a newly minted first year teacher, does not set any teacher up for success in building relationships or influencing anyone (or being influenced) outside of the classroom microcosm.

Humility is one of the traits that TFA talks about a lot but which can seem lacking in its corps members, alumni and organization. I think this is a part of that. Isolation, whatever its causes, tends to make someone seem aloof and unapproachable, rather than humble.

The frustration also mounts, because TFA teachers rarely stay long enough to partner with our local union successfully.

One complaint that often puts TFA teachers at odds with other staff is the feeling that the union is not progressive enough and “protects bad teachers” rather than protecting our students’ right to a high-quality education.

I bought in to that feeling to a certain extent during my first years in the district. But did I go to a union meeting and make my voice heard? Did I run for an elected position to help with our collective bargaining or shaping our union’s agenda? No.

While many TFA teachers and alum in the district have taken on the school site representative position, there has only been a little traction in getting TFA alum interested in running or successfully winning elections for district-wide union positions.

I think this stems from the disconnection and slight resentment that builds at many placement schools where teachers leave within two to three years. Non-TFA teachers can be skeptical of someone with great ideas and a great message when they are associated with an organization that fuels teacher-turnaround and potentially weakens collective bargaining power through its disengaged corps members.

What could be a powerful force for change in fundamental district and school policies that impact our students is undermined by the skepticism that TFA hires face and, often, foster.

This all explains my wariness with Teach for America’s 2015 agenda. As impressive as this army of new hires to high-need districts sounds, my own school already has exceeded this vision with about 30-35% of its teacher employee base allotted to Teach for America placements, permanently. Currently, 7 of our 28 teachers are 1st through 3rd year corps members and recent alumni. I’m not even counting myself and another alum, in his fifth year, who have been here too long to be rightly associated with the organization. If I did, that would bring us to nearly 1/3 of our current staff. These placements are at the will of the district and supersede the principal’s own ability to hire staff to fill teaching vacancies.

TFA recruits stay an average of two to three years—just long enough to clear their teaching credential permanently—and then leave for greener pastures (teaching positions at schools that are more “like-minded” and less “frustrating,” scrabbling up the school leadership ladder, heading to graduate school, or moving on to work for Teach for America). These teachers are then replaced by a new crop of first-year corps members and the cycle begins again.

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