‘Five things I did not expect from my Teach For America experience’

each For America founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)
Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp (The Washington Post)

Here is part of a post that Julian Vasquez Heilig, an award-winning researcher and associate professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote on his Cloaking Inquality blog. The piece, entitled “Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout,” is largely about a former student of Heilig’s who came to him to tell him about her experience in TFA. The student is still teaching at a KIPP school as a TFA corps member so asked not to be identified.

You can see the whole piece here; following is the part of the piece that is in her words:

 

Graduating from college, I was energized and ready to take my place on the front line of education reform by becoming part of the Teach For America Corps. Many entering corps members are captured by the convincing sales pitch of TFA recruiters on campus. While I did meet with one of these recruiters who reinforced my decision to join, I had also spent time in my undergraduate coursework studying parts of education reform, including charter schools and Teach For America. I knew the criticisms, but I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was wrong about many things regarding Teach For America.

Here are 5 things I did not expect from my Teach For America experience:

 Unpreparedness for the Classroom

The 5-week summer session at Rice University was a fast-paced, well-run training session, but it was not enough to prepare me to lead my own classroom in my first year. While I learned valuable techniques and tools to become a teacher, it certainly did not equip me for creating systems in my classroom, writing unit plans, and creating valuable assessment. Five weeks was not enough to create the type of magic that Teach For America describes in its vision. Training was like leading us to the top of a cliff before we had to jump off into the reality of our own classrooms. All I can say is the mountain was high and the fall was hard.

 

Lack of Focused Support

I imagined being a part of TFA would provide a network of resources. I didn’t imagine I would have to recreate 2 high school history curriculums on my own without any training. My “manager of teaching leadership and development” (MTLD), who is supposed to be my main support in my classroom, was a Teach for America alumni who had spent two years in the classroom before moving into his current position. How is a 2 year teacher (who taught middle school math, no less) going to give me the sort of advice I needed to teach high school history?

 

Isolation

I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager. Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me.

 

Shame

Shame has a terrible place in this organization. I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members. Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members. The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.” Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course. Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

 

Burnout

I never imagined not making it through 2 years of teaching, but there were so many occasions that I thought about quitting. I experienced anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns from the unrealistic expectations and workload. The immense amount of pressure that TFA places on Corps members, however, is not matched by a reciprocal amount of support and preparation. What TFA lacks in support and preparation, they replace with “inspiration.” Will this “inspiration” and “vision” change the education system? Not without some backing, and I am afraid that TFA teachers do not last long. After my two years of experience, I have learned a lot about teaching and what works for my students, but I will not teach next year. I am burnt out. I am done.

As I enter my final semester, I have to be careful when I speak about Teach For America because TFA is more than one experience. For instance, not every Corps member has experienced a KIPP school with three principals in a year and a half. There are many unique stories, so I have to analyze it in two parts. There is the effect of Teach For America on its members and the effect of Teach For America on the education system. Do I believe that young people are coming out of Teach For America with important skills and knowledge about education and the education system? Yes. Do I believe that Teach For America as an organization is solving the problem of educational inequality? No. Teach For America sets forth a plan that is creating more conversations about solutions but it is perpetuating many of the issues that already exist within the system. Teach For America is like when you shake a machine because you cannot make it work, and you think what the heck, maybe this will magically solve the problem. Unfortunately, 5 weeks of training and throwing unprepared, young people into the classroom will not create a sustainable solution. Most of us are human and the pressure to create transformational change is too great without the proper training, resources, and preparation to do the job as it should be done.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 30, 2013