Danya in Dallas

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 10 2013

Teach For America: Pluses and Deltas

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here. It’s been a busy, crazy year, but I’ve finally managed to pull something coherent. In the past couple of months, I’ve had quite a lot of experiences that have shaped my opinions on not only my experience as a corps member, but on Teach For America as a whole. I’ve assembled a Top 10 list of things that I’ve liked about Teach For America , and 10 things that I would improve. Obviously a lot of the improvements I suggest require a lot more money than what is being spent now, but I’ll go ahead and dream as if money was no object. This is by no means a set of exhaustive lists, and I have plenty more positive things to say and suggestions for changes/rethinking, but I’ll just leave it at ten so that this post can eventually be posted.

10 Things I Like about TFA:

1. The recruitment, application, and interview process are all very well-run. Applying to jobs as a senior in college is fraught with anxiety, but it really helps when the prospective employer has their stuff together and is excellent about communicating deadlines, providing an easy way to keep track of the process online, and providing opportunities to talk to real people throughout the whole thing.

2. The staff is very technology-friendly, and makes things as easy as possible for corps members to submit online. At the beginning of the year, my mentor had us list our preferred method of communication for various types of matters (I prefer email for serious matters, texts for reminders, and hate phone calls), and has been great at sticking to that. At Institute, I was asked if I am more of a “soft copy” person or a “hard copy” person, and was then given free-reign to complete anything and everything on my laptop. I wish I could say that my district is as up to date, but I’ve literally spent the last week hand writing data into individualized folders to satisfy the observers, whereas TFA has a really cool system set up online through Kickboard in which all of my data can be tracked instantly and be accessed 24/7. If I’m going to have to do all of this data, at least they make it convenient.

3. My mentor, or MTLD is actually really cool, and treats me like an adult, and respects who I am and where I’m coming from. We’ve had difficult conversations, as most corps members end up having at some point, but I’ve never felt demeaned or threatened. Building a relationship over the year has been cool, and I feel like it’s helped me a lot through this process. I’m not someone who is really needy when it comes to mentors, but when I do have questions or concerns, I feel safe bringing them up.

4. The readings for Pre-Work ahead of Institute were amazing. I hadn’t expected them to be so great, but I loved it. I don’t think most corps members end up doing all of the readings, but I got to read some very real articles and selections from The New Jim Crow.

5. Having been to their offices in Chicago and Dallas, I really like the aesthetic of their workplace. Dallas just got a new office, and everything from the collaborative spaces, to the cubicles, to the kitchens are designed to foster ideas and creativity. Kudos to the interior designers.

6. I’ve gotten to make friends from all over the country who are committed to teaching and justice, and it’s really fun to get to know them and pick their brains over dinner on weekends.

7. This has been a year of incredible personal growth and reflection, and I am being challenged in ways I wasn’t being challenged in college. Sometimes I feel like this will be the end of me, and that it will destroy all self-confidence and idealism that I had going in, and I will not say it hasn’t been a rough year, but I think it’s molding me into a more mature adult who will be able to work for justice through a clearer and better equipped framework.

8. I’m given a lot of room to do my thing, dream, get angry, and experiment, more so than I would have thought, in retrospect now that I see how my district functions.

9. They’ve been great at accommodating my Shabbat observance and making it easy to catch up.

10. While not perfect, their professional development sessions are infinitely more helpful, up to date, and well-done than the ones I have attended by any other organization.

10 Things I believe would improve TFA:

1. In order to maximize a positive impact on the schools it works in, Teach For America should hire someone to work full-time at each school where it places corps members, and provide daily support and mentoring to corps members, manage data and assist with paperwork so that corps members can be fully focused on instruction. This mentor would also focus on building a relationship with the school administration and other teachers, and would provide constant feedback through frequent constructive observations. The way we are observed now from our district is often very intimidating, and it would be great to have someone who I could count on to be on-site daily and help me improve without fear of being put on a growth plan or something else like that.

2. I would get rid of huge regional institutes and focus on training teachers in the regions they’ll be teaching in for the entire summer. I would focus the summer on developing, understanding, and implementing a curriculum and lesson plans for the whole year ahead of time, as well as professional development and mock classroom settings instead of real summer school classrooms. This could also be used to orient corps members to the region, expose them to community organizations that could be useful, and allow them the chance to look for apartments, get drivers’ licenses, and find the essentials long before the school year begins so that they’ll be able to transition to the school year as seamlessly as possible.

3. The 2-year commitment has gotten a lot of criticism, but I think that given the kind of economy that my classmates and I graduated in, and the shifting trends in the labor market, a 2-year absolute commitment is really all one can realistically ask of anyone, including teachers who pursued traditional certification. This is unfortunate, but I believe that this is going to be more common in all professions. Keeping that in mind, I think TFA should maintain the 2-year commitment, but also do something to incentivize corps members to stay in the classroom as long as possible after these two years (perhaps more Americorps grants, leadership roles). However, I would also launch a 5-year track that recruits people in existing education programs and equips them with the same level of mentoring and professional development that corps members receive. This would be a great investment in forming teachers into leaders who will actually stick around with it, while exposing the 2-year corps members to more people who plan to stick with it – it could end up convincing them to stay as well.

4. Additionally, Teach For America should develop another program that offers a formal training partnership with already-certified veteran teachers who also want to develop their skills and don’t feel like they’re getting those opportunities in their current schools. This could be accomplished through a formalized membership model, in which veteran teachers attend Institute during the summer and develop their craft by serving as mentors and teaching alongside corps members. They, as well as corps members who do stay longer than 2 years, would continue as formal members of Teach For America, perhaps as “associates,” as long as they’d like, renewing their membership each year by attending professional development seminars and mentoring 2-year corps members. This will put Teach For America’s words about valuing veteran teachers into action, and create an opportunity  to make a concrete commitment to treating veteran teachers as partners in improving education and leading the way for positive change.

5. Teach For America should use the strong relationships that it builds with its partner districts and with leaders in each region to advocate for equal protections for its corps members. Once Teach For America has been in a region for more than 3 years, it should use its relationship with its partner districts and friends in local government to push for a thorough nondiscrimination policy that protects teachers in areas that do not have laws in the books that protect according to sexual orientation and gender identity. In regions that have not made such strides, special consideration and accommodation should be made for LGBTQ corps members in issues related to requesting region transfers mid-year or at the end of the year, providing additional mentoring, and specialized legal advice/training.

6. TFA should also allow corps members to have online access to all files, data, and evaluations that Teach For America keeps on them as individuals. Transparency on behalf of staff should be highly prioritized, and we should know where we really stand in the eyes of the organization that we have committed to, and what is being said about us in all professional communications. This would make the conversations we have with mentors and staff more fair and open.

7. I would phase out the placement of teachers in charter schools – especially new, unproven charter schools –  and renew a commitment to strengthening and advocating for neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, while Teach For America partners with both neighborhood schools and charter schools, I often feel like we’re made to see charter schools with an aura of mystique that is very seldom accorded to high-performing traditional public schools. If charter schools work so well, they ought to have no problem attracting high-quality teachers. Teach For America is often seen as a big player in the privatization of public schools, and people mistakenly paint all corps members with the same brush when they blame us for the shuttering of public schools. However, this is not the case for me and many of my friends, and it does not have to be the case for any future corps members. As a teacher in a traditional public school, I am actually on the front lines, working hard and fighting for the survival of my school, and to ensure that it does not get turned over to a charter company. If our goal is to ensure that “One day, all children  in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” we should be placing corps members in schools that are actually required to work with all children, regardless of whether they are bilingual, special needs, or other designations that charter schools under-serve.

8. Teach For America should acknowledge that education reform is an issue with a deeply political component, and that despite present bipartisan support for much of the “reform” agenda, there are many significant groups who present valid objections who care every bit as much about student success. As such, it should strive for diversity in organizations that they partner with and present to corps members. All of the opportunities that I’ve received or heard about through Teach For America tend to be in the “reform” camp, such as LEE, which was heavily promoted during Institute, or through charter schools. I haven’t really been connected with groups that match my philosophy and politics as much as other corps members whose views are more in line with the corporate reform agenda. Either that, or they should stop trying to involve corps members in policy while they should really be focusing on becoming effective teachers. After their initial two year commitment is up, corps members will have a better grasp and will be able to have a more critical approach when it comes to joining organizations such as LEE, etc. instead of just signing up at a table at Institute because that’s what everyone else is doing (I somehow ended up signing up on accident).

9. Teach For America should partner with mental health professionals in each region to provide free confidential counseling to Corps Members during evening hours by appointment, with some walk-in hours. New teachers face a lot of challenging situations, and often do not have money for regular therapy, or access to one that keeps hours at times that they can make. I feel like this would also reduce the burden on MTLDs, who often field late-night “I am going to lose my marbles HELP ME” calls from their corps members.

10. Convince Apple to donate used iPads to entering corps members again :P

7 Responses

  1. Emmanuel Parello

    Excellent post. This encapsulates a lot of ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for a while during the past years. Moving away from the huge regional institutes is one of the best points you raise.

  2. Demian

    Having mentors is a great idea. And, would likely help reduce attrition. However, the idea that we should just accept the high rate of attrition as the new normal is not right. Research is very clear that better training leads to less attrition. Work environment, PD, and competitive pay are also obviously important.
    Of course, some teachers will still leave early, but we can set our sights much higher than a couple years for average retention.

  3. meghank

    I don’t know what is going on in your district, but in my district, which has numerous problems, when experienced teachers are hired or kept on and offered a pension plan, they do tend to stay for long stretches of time.

  4. danyaindallas

    @Demian: Thank you!

    Here are my responses to your comments:
    1. In my district (where there is a significant teacher shortage), there is high attrition for teachers, period. TFA or not TFA – teachers leave right and left. It’s a difficult district to work for. This is also not something that only happens in teaching. Most people these days go through around 5-7 different careers in a lifetime, and only around 25% of workers under 24 have been with the same job for over a year. It’s unfortunate, as I agree that we should make it possible for teachers to commit for longer periods of time, but I don’t know if we’re anywhere near making that a desirable or viable option in my district, or if teachers should feel bad about not being able to sign a commitment to stay in one place and in one job during one of the most volatile and ever-changing decades of their lives. Instead of wringing our hands about this, I feel like it’s more productive to find ways to make these two year commitments count, such as by having a full-time mentor, etc.
    2. The iPad comment was mostly a joke, and is neither here nor there. This entire post has been about what Teach For America in particular can do, and what it can do for its particular set of corps members, not about what should be happening across the board in education. Of course I am not implying that other teachers shouldn’t have iPads!

  5. danyaindallas

    @Gary Rubenstein: Thank you very much!

  6. Demian

    Very interesting thoughts and ideas. I’m glad to see more TFA CMs/alum speaking up with constructive criticism.
    A couple comments:
    - The high attrition problem of TFA would likely not be helped by extending the 2 year commitment. The high attrition is most likely due to who TFA recruits (and how they’re recruited) and the inadequate training. More training would weed more people out before they get to teaching and would keep them in the classroom longer after they get there. Since there are few significant teacher shortages these days, I really don’t see why more training is not done.

    - Apple should donate iPads to ALL new teachers, not just TFA recruits.

    For more critical views on TFA, check out http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/

  7. Gary Rubinstein

    This is great. Very insightful. I posted it on Twitter and it is getting a lot of positive reaction.

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