Former TFAer: Teach For America didn’t prepare me for troubled kids

Here’s a video from a former Teach For America corps member named John Bilby, who taught in the South Bronx from 2009 to 2010 after going through TFA’s five-week summer training and finding it totally inadequate to prepare him for what he faced.

TFA famously recruits new college graduates who aren’t looking for a teaching career, trains them briefly and then places them in high-poverty schools in urban and rural areas, expecting them to know how to deal with needy students. Some recruits do just fine, but the overall premise that five weeks of summer training makes a teacher for the most needy students is, well, preposterous, or, would be seen that way if we were talking about any other profession other than teaching.

In the video, which he made for the Teachers Talk Back Project, Bilby says the training left him unprepared to meet the needs of the children who came to his South Bronx classroom suffering from conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder from seeing parents shot.

Here are some of the things he says in the video, but take a few minutes and watch it. From Bilby, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from Rutgers University and is now completing a masters degree in American history with a focus on the school accountability movement that began in the 1970s:

…I joined Teach For America because I felt like it was the best avenue for me to be an effective force for social justice in this country. And I think that a lot of people come into Teach For America for idealistic reasons….

He said he began the five-week summer institute in Queens in 2009.

Summer institute is supposed to prepare you to work with high-poverty children in an urban setting or high-poverty children in a rural setting… and in no way did it prepare me and I don’t think it prepared many of my colleagues… It was mostly a highly structured psychological booster…. Coming into South Bronx was an absolute culture shock for me… Every day I went in and came home feeling like an absolute failure. I had one parent start a fight two other children in my classroom… I had children who had post traumatic stress disorder from seeing parents shot or seeing parents have strokes, and the child had to be the one to call the ambulance… Having to deal with this coming from a comfortable middle-class suburban upbringing.. was a complete disconnect and I didn’t really know how to deal with it and what to do for the kids. The things that Teach For America gives…  to help you don’t help you…. They are not realistic.

He said he came into the classroom — in which he taught English to 7th and 9th graders — with no curriculum to use, no textbooks and no other books for the students, and he spent $700 of his own money in the first month for basic supplies, including photocopying papers because the photocopier was broken. He finally got some professional help from a veteran teacher, David Greene, who came into his class to observe. Bilby said that Greene observed his class in December and said, ‘This is absolute garbage. You need to fix this.’ Bilby replied that he wanted to but didn’t know how. Greene helped, giving him lessons in classroom management that were counter to what TFA had taught him. They worked.

I left the organization because I felt that it does not adequately prepare its people to serve the poorest children in public schools. I also think that TFA is more interested in power, access, and influence in the federal game of education than it is concerned with resolving educational inequity….

I still believe, however, in the democratic power of education and the right of the people to vote out those who might infringe upon it. I am beginning a traditional route teacher certification program and I am looking forward to getting back into a city classroom soon.

Here’s the video:

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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