Why I did a third year of TFA and why you should too

Despite the TFA PR that claims that 60% of TFA teachers keep teaching for a third year, the reality, according to a study at Harvard University, is that about 44 percent of corps members remain at their original placement schools for a third year and only 15 percent stay at their schools for more than four years.

Maybe I imply in my writing that I was one of those 15 percent who stayed at my original placement for more than four years, but I’ve never actually said that since it would not be true. Though I am nearing the end of my 14th year in the classroom, I spent four years in Houston. My first year I taught 6th grade middle school math. The next three I taught high school math. I left Houston, taught in Denver for a year, and then did not teach again for the next seven years. Now I’ve been at one of the best high schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School, for the past nine years.

I’ve written before about why, historically, the TFA commitment is just two years instead of something longer. When asked about why not make it a three year commitment, Wendy Kopp has said that they have researched this and found that the three year commitment would scare away some very good applicants — applicants who eventually end up doing more than two years anyway. It is a pretty valid point if it is true.

Nineteen years ago, around this time, I was in the middle of my second year which was going infinitely better than my first year. I decided to continue teaching at my school for a third year in Houston, not because I was some kind of martyr, but because I really wanted to keep teaching. I was thrilled that I was finally making the ‘difference’ that I joined TFA to make. That third year went so well that by the middle of it, I knew I was going to stay for a fourth year too.

When I chose to do my third year, as this was 1993, it wasn’t a very common thing to do. I wasn’t encouraged by TFA to keep teaching. When I chose to, I wasn’t thanked or acknowledged in any way. In my fourth year, I really felt alienated as the ‘old guy’ at TFA parties as almost all my friends from my 1991 corps had already left Houston.

But I, as well as a lot of others, did keep teaching beyond our two years. Eventually, some of those people went on to become the ‘famous’ TFAers like Dave Levin, Mike Feinberg, and Michelle Rhee. And TFA, though they did not really do anything to encourage people to stay, soon realized that those of us who did stay were really doing good things at our schools and TFA started publicizing that some people were teaching beyond their initial commitment.

Even as they realized what a nice statistic is was that people were continuing, I would have expected that they would start some kind of campaign to convince people to do this. But for whatever reason — maybe they thought that 44% was a pretty good enough number and that the people who choose to stay without any persuasion might be better than people who only stayed because they were somehow forced to. It didn’t make sense to me, though.

Think about it: TFA spends about $80,000 to train and support the corps members though their two years (In my opinion, if they spent more on training, they wouldn’t have to spend so much in supporting them — but that’s another issue.) The average corps member does not do a very good job in their first year. I don’t take seriously the studies that say that TFA corps members are about as good in their first years as other new teachers. All first year teachers struggle. I would never let my own children be taught by a first year TFA teacher. Then, in the second year, that which did not kill you only makes you stronger, and second year TFA corps members are, on average, quite good. After spending all that money to turn corps members into teaching machines, it is a shame when they leave after two years — yet most people do. Why wouldn’t TFA, the way I’m sure they do in the military, make a serious sales pitch to people who complete their two years about why they should go for at least another year?

But for whatever reason, they have not done this. But I recently learned that they have made it one of their new goals to raise the percent of corps members continuing. Why they suddenly have decided this, it is hard to say. I’d like to say that they are doing this because it is good for the kids that will get taught by that wise third year teacher. I suspect, though, that it is something for TFA to use to defend against their critics. (If they really cared about the kids, they would never allow corps members to have less than ten students in their student teaching at institute.) But whatever their actual motivation, encouraging people to stay for a third year is something that is good for kids so I applaud them for this and am writing this post to help people who might still be deciding.

There are several types of second year corps members, so I’d like to address them each:

1) If you are someone who had a tough first year and, despite what most people experience, you had a tough second year too, well, I permit you to go on with your life with no guilt trip from me. You tried. You probably did more damage than good. It’s really not your fault. Not everyone is cut out for it. I’ll tell you the truth: though I’ve been at it for fourteen years, I sometimes feel that I’m not cut out for it. There’s just too many kids and not enough time to give them each the individual attention they deserve.

You know, first hand, that TFA is a pretty stupid idea. How does giving the most needy kids the most inexperienced teachers really going to close the achievement gap? The $80,000 of taxpayer money and private donations would have been better spent giving it to an experienced teacher as an incentive to transfer from a ‘better’ school (with richer kids) and maybe you could have taught at that school (though the parents of those richer kids would never tolerate it). Though you did not accomplish all you set out to, you can make up for it in a very important way: Rather than lie about how well you did, tell everyone how difficult teaching is. Especially when you hear the President talking about how we need to fire all these ineffective teachers, you can stand up for the teachers. You can be a crusader against the corporate reform movement. Helping bring them down will do more good for the kids of America than you could have accomplished for the kids you taught in your TFA tenure.

2) If you are someone who had a good first year and a good second year, well, I suppose you don’t have to teach for a third year. You didn’t do a lot of harm so you don’t have anything to do penance for. Still, you’ve got a gift. And though you might have been scared away, two years ago, had TFA been a three year commitment. Now that you’ve done the two years, does three years seem that long anymore? Come on, isn’t a two year commitment kind of stupid? I mean, Wendy Kopp decides when she was in college that since the Peace Corps was two years, the Teacher Corps might as well also be two years. It was totally arbitrary. I know I said you are off the hook, but come on? Why wouldn’t you just do the extra year? You might go on to start the next charter network and get rich off of it. You might become the next Michelle Rhee and get rich off of it. On the other hand, maybe you better just go to law school or medical school, or whatever.

3) If you’re someone, like me, who had a rough first year and then a good second year. Well, if you don’t stay for a third year, then you’re going to have a lot of trouble sleeping at night. Like mine, your first year does not, in my mind, count. You have not done TFA for two years because you can not truthfully say that you have ‘taught’ for America for two years. The harm you inflicted on those poor guinea pigs that were your first students — well, they’re not getting that year back. The only way you can really make up for it is to have a good third year, and maybe, like me, a good fourth year too.

Sorry to be laying this guilt trip on you, but this is the ‘gotcha’ that should have been part of TFA all along. It’s like when you sign up for one of those free vacations and then at the end you learn that the whole thing is a set-up to get you to purchase a time-share there. As they say, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” — except for the free lunch that your first year students would get each day. Like their teacher, it it wasn’t ideal, but it was better than having nothing. If you don’t do a third year now that you’ve been trained and have the ability to truly help kids, you should be ashamed of yourself. Michelle Rhee should hold you up as an example of someone who benefited from a system that was good for the adults, but not for the children (though she won’t).

I should let you know that some of my best friends were people who fell into category three and who did not teach for the third year. But things were different in 1991. There wasn’t this political landscape that you, unknowingly, have become a part of. You need to do the right thing and, deep down, you know it.

I hope this helps everyone out. Have a good second semester.


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11 Responses to Why I did a third year of TFA and why you should too

  1. parus says:

    I still feel bad about not staying on at my TFA school longer-term, especially since I actually liked my job most days. I was pretty fed up with my placement (subject area and region), though…TFA’d put me in among my lowest ranked choices, and I tried to make the best of it, but I never really adjusted to certain things, like the climate, and feeling isolated in a sea of anonymous humanity, and feeling like I was winging it with regard to content knowledge. I’ve taught in high-needs schools and subject areas since, so it’s not like I abandoned my ideals, but I did abandon those students (I was the Title One reading teacher, so I would have had many of the same kids again in my third year had I stayed) and I still feel bad about that.

    • Andrew says:

      Parus, I do agree with you. Not everyone is placed in the subject or the region of their choice.
      In the end, there are so many factors (region/subject aside) and I don’t believe it’s as cut and dry as you describe it Gary.

  2. Kate says:

    Curious about the $80,000 figure – where did you get that number?

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I thought that’s what I remembered it costing. I looked it up here http://tfacms.heroku.com/about-us/regions/new-regions/faq#newsite and it suggests $40,000, but it’s not clear if that’s for one year or for two years. TFA’s operating budget is massive. It is at least 300,000,000 a year and I’ve heard estimates of 800,000,000. As there are only about 9,000 CMs, and I know that money goes to other things besides training and support, it adds up to a lot of money, especially for people who just stay 2 years.

  3. els says:

    I’m in my first year and it’s going pretty well, I think — I plan to stay in education, and I’ll probably stay for 3+ years. The only thing is that my placement town is really polluted, so I’ll probably leave after a few years so I don’t get cancer :).
    I think it really is a shame that people stop teaching just as they are getting good.

  4. efavorite says:

    This line caught my eye: “Rather than lie about how well you did, tell everyone how difficult teaching is.”

    I’ve often suspected that was going on among TFA teachers – covering for themselves and the program, rather than acknowledging the difficulties of teaching that they MUST be aware of — they are smart people, right?

    Many may go in idealistically, but it’s hard to imagine they leave after two years thinking they’ve saved the public education with their excellence.

    Is it just another case of putting adult interests over children’s interests that more TFAers aren’t speaking out?

    They get their loans paid off, a master’s degree and a notch on their resumes. What do the kids get?

  5. Wess says:

    What if your second year is six hundred times better but you’re not convinced it’s “good”?

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Wow. You’ve gotten even more skeptical about the effectiveness of TFA teachers (namely, yourself) than me. You don’t have to be convinced that you are good. All that matters is what I think, and I think that you belong in category 3, not category 1, so you are obligated to keep teaching.

  6. emily says:

    I could not agree with you more. As a teacher in a high needs school in an urban setting, I constantly see TFA members come in and out of our school. I chose this setting because these students need me the most, not because I graduated with a philosophy degree and need to make money before law school. The high absenses of TFA members due to ‘stress’ are by far not a positive impact on the students

  7. Chris Mihm says:

    As you know we were both TFA core ’91 coming from the same university but we had very different placements (Me:Los Angeles-elementary, You: Houston-middle school). I, however, knew very few people in LA who stopped teaching after our first 2 years. More importantly it wasn’t even a point of conversation. It was just assumed that we would keep teaching. It could be the different culture of the placement cities, the subject matter or just small sample sizes that might explained our different perception.

    I applaud your efforts to keep effective new core members in the classroom and I think this should be TFA’s foremost priority. I’m glad that you have evidence that TFA is making it a priority because I feel like I meet too many current core member who are struggling with what they will do OTHER than teaching after their two years are up. There has been too much hype that businesses are chomping at the bit to hire TFA grads. I too think that the two years was random and should be seen as a MINIMUM commitment-not something that you can satisfy, check off and move on.

    I do, however, want to say that the stat that only 44% of TFA core members teach a third year at the same placement school is not a useful number to gauge attrition. After my first year I ended up getting a pink slip with all other new teachers due to budget issues so I had to move to a nearby school district for my second year. You stated you moved early on as well. According to the stat above we would show up as statistical quitters since we were not at the same placement school even though between the two of us we have logged nearly 21 years in the classroom. A more useful stat comes from the same Harvard study which says “60.5 percent voluntarily remained in the teaching profession for more than two years and 35.5 percent stayed in teaching for more than four years.” While I think these numbers could and should be higher, the second stat does accurately show that we were not alone and that most of us do teach beyond the first two years.

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