This is the third 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 and the second 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

TFA Staff Member: “So how’s your first year going?”

TFA Corps member: “Oh, I’m in my second year.”

TFA Staff Member: “Oh, great! Isn’t it a world of difference? Like, your first year you want to shoot yourself?”

TFA Corps member: “Yes! I’m definitely going to stay a third year.”

TFA Staff Member: “That’s good. I always tell people that if you’re interested in being a principal or in district leadership, three years is a minimum. And four years really makes you a master teacher.”

TFA Corps member:“Yeah, I know.”

TFA Staff: “Then you can go to grad school, but you have those

four years.”

-Conversation overheard on flight to 20th Anniversary TFA alumni summit

This comment angered me, and I know it would strike many teachers the same way. Four years makes a master teacher? It’s all old hat from there, I guess.

It’s that kind of thinking that makes Teach for America—or at least TFA staff members and corps members who share these thoughts in public—seem out of touch with the craft of teaching (and certainly less than humble).

I am not saying that fourth-year teachers cannot be great; they can. But when four years is the maximum one can imagine needing to stay in a classroom – the hallmark, in fact, of master teaching – there’s a problem.

I felt this in my first year with TFA when they got me a sub for a day so I could observe “excellent teachers.” I was taken to two districts outside of mine and brought to observe two second-year teachers. In one teacher’s class, the students were silent the entire lesson, a sure sign to me that the teacher had no idea if the students were learning anything but felt really good about their ability to be quiet. I also observed a fourth-year teacher who taught 14 “troubled” boys at a charter school and kept shouting at them. I walked away profoundly disturbed at this picture of master teaching.

The person I consider to have taught me the most about the craft of teaching—and who I would still go and work under—was a woman in her 30+ year of teaching who I observed after being accepted to TFA.

On the third day before summer vacation began, 7th grade science students in an “intervention” class—a subject I have never taught and probably never will—were paired up and asked to discuss from memory their understanding of male and female reproductive systems. The class was active, alive, and all students were engaged. I have wished many times that I had the privilege to enter teaching through a different route, one that would allow me to be the apprentice of a master teacher such as this woman for a year or two before ever teaching my own classes.

I thank Teach for America for placing me in my school and for emboldening me to feel I could be successful when by all rights I probably should not have been so bold. But, knowing what I know now, I wish there was a way I could have worked with a true master teacher.

That model, unfortunately, is incompatible with TFA and, because TFA has a tendency to hire its own and thereby reinforce its own insularity, “master teacher observations” do tend to involve observations of 3rd and 4th year TFA alums, who may or may not hone a new teacher’s craft.

TFA’s purpose, however, is not to create long-term master teachers or to solve the teacher shortage, but to create a saturation of new hires that can be replaced every two years by their self-selected cadre of recruits.

What has this statistically significant saturation of Teach for America teachers brought to my school? [My own school has 30-35% of its teacher employee base allotted to Teach for America placements, permanently.] Teach for America would probably say that their research demonstrates measurable positive impact on our students, and in a sense, they would be right.

Many of the teachers placed here have made what TFA terms “significant gains”—moving students who were significantly behind grade level more than one year’s worth of growth in reading or math on standardized tests.

However, our rotating door of new TFA teachers, who spend on average one to two years figuring out how to manage and then teach 30-35 middle schoolers, and then begin to demonstrate gains for a year or two before leaving for bigger and better things, has not made a statistically significant dent in our students’ state test scores for the last four to five years—we have continued to hover at around 30-40% proficient in math and reading.

Without touching on the validity of mandated high-stakes testing as the only way to measure growth, I am not convinced that Teach for America has made an entirely positive impact on our district or our school.

In the 10 years since TFA has been in my district, at least three charter schools have been created, two of which were started and staffed by alumni who were dissatisfied with the educational opportunities afforded by our district to highly motivated students and families.

As part of my role as a teacher on special assignment at my school, I have the honor of scheduling many of the kids rejected by charter schools—students who were either expelled or self-selected out of the rigorous and rigid learning environments afforded there.

Apparently, it is an education good enough for those who are “lucky” enough to be self-disciplined, motivated, and possess a family that is supportive enough to seek out alternate options to the neighborhood school. Students who live in troubled family situations, have special needs, or struggle in school, often just don’t cut it.

While Teach for America may be comfortable replacing over 17 teachers at my school alone in the last 10 years, I am not. If and when we reach the day that there are no more positions to fill because high-performing teachers are jumping at the chance to teach here, or that the kind of education TFA lauds is being provided to my students, then maybe I will finally be comfortable leaving.


(You can find the first post in Anna Martin’s series here and the second here.)


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