I miss the era when my blog was hosted on the teachforus.org website. Back then the site was promoted by TFA as a place where current corps members and alumni could blog and communicate through comments. Until the site went down, it was a happening place with at least twenty different bloggers contributing to the conversation. It was also my way of finding out what TFA was up to, particularly with regard to the summer institute training sites.
Back before TFA had let their greed for money and power distort their original purpose, my main issue with them was the way they cheat the corps members out of an authentic training experience. I’ve said throughout the years that I think that most people are capable of becoming competent teachers and that it is even possible to get enough training in a summer that the first year does not have to be a disaster. And even though TFA has an annual budget of about $300 million, they simply refuse to invest the resources it would take to improve the training. In the early 1990s there were about 1,000 corps members a year and the annual budget was more like $10 million. Now they have a bit more than 4,000 corps members yet they have about 30 times the amount of money. Where is all that money going?
I haven’t heard much from the new TFA 2015 class. Aside from some “Yay! I got into TFA” tweets, they are an oddly silent bunch of leaders. They don’t blog, they don’t tweet. Not to start any conspiracy theories, but possibly they have been discouraged by the organization. Just seems strange that not one out of 4,000 people is blogging their way through their experience.
Back in the day before teachforus.org was gutted, I’d sometimes, in my less-well-advised posts, take something I’d read on a new corps member’s blog and critique it or analyze it. This made some people upset, I remember, including a post from another alum called Don’t Let Gary Rubinstein Bully You.
My critiques, from my perspective, serve two purposes: The first, yes, is to shine a light on how negligent TFA is in their training. They are pretty much negligent in every aspect of the organization, but coming up with tangible proof of this negligence in perhaps the most important branch of TFA does expose how little they care about improving. The other purpose, though, is to help the misguided TFA corps member who, by no fault of his or her own, has been a victim of the bait-and-switch and is going through a third rate training experience and headed toward a disastrous first year. TFA allows this to happen since they don’t really care about individual corps members struggling, even having mental breakdowns, as long as there are a few success stories, the TFA PR machine can continue running. The reaction to one of my posts that called me a ‘bully’ was not by the corps member that I was critiquing. That corps member actually wrote a response thanking me and he and I kept in touch throughout his time in teaching.
OK, disclaimer set up is now complete.
So the TFA Houston institute is producing a short five part documentary where they chose six new corps members and interviewed them at different points throughout the five week institute. As TFA is so careful with their public image, I’m surprised that they would do this, actually. Also, I commend the six new corps members for being willing to go on camera and be seen at vulnerable times.
Seeing the six corps members, Jae, Jonathan, Madison, Tyler, Julia, and Mary Beth it is clear that TFA did a fine job in selection. All six are bright, articulate, motivated, and caring.
Of the six, the biggest wild card is clearly Tyler. It’s not that I don’t think he is a very bright, intense, and passionate young man, nor do I think that he is not capable of becoming a first rate teacher. I actually think that most people, if given the proper training, can become pretty good teachers. Teaching is hard, but with proper preparation it isn’t ‘that’ hard. Kind of like driving a car isn’t that hard, but you want to get a lot of hours of practice on side streets before taking a spin on the Autobahn.
In the first video, Tyler says the quintessential TFA response to “Why do you want to be a teacher?”
“I’m coming to teach because I fundamentally believe that every child can do it. You just need someone who believes in you and won’t give up, and is willing to work hard to take you to your goal.”
Though this sound innocuous enough, notice the implied ‘teacher bashing’ that has become the life blood of TFA? Obviously the students he will teach have only had teachers who did give up on them and were not willing to work very hard to take them to their goal. TFA has to use this message in their recruitment since otherwise many of these very motivated young people would not be willing to do it. “The kids of America need you since the teachers they have are too lazy and uncaring for this work.”
I should point out again, I like Tyler. I’d think he has an enthusiasm and energy and quirkiness that will eventually be a real asset in the classroom — assuming that he can channel it in the beginning of his career. And this is why watching these videos makes me sad since I believe based on another video that was publicly posted that Tyler’s student teaching class has only 5 students in it and this is a disservice to him and to the students that he will soon teach. (Though I do like the professional dress he’s got going.) Tyler should ask his trainer why he has such a small class and say he wants “no excuses,” as TFA is known to demand of everyone else.
Some people are natural ‘teachers,’ meaning that their natural personality will instantly command respect in the classroom. Most people are not naturals in that way and Tyler is one who will need to practice a lot to channel his energy in a way that will not lose his class. And twelve hours with five students is not going to do it. I’m going to advise Tyler, if he reads this, to watch the video of the workshop I used to do at the TFA institute where I explain how to adapt your personality to minimize risk in the classroom.
At the end of video two, Michael, a veteran soldier who surely is glad that his training for combat was better than the junk he is now experiencing, says “It is not easy to disrupt the system,” another ‘reformer’ cliche. Again TFA thrives on the premise that lazy teachers preserve the ‘status quo’ so that hard working teachers are needed to ‘disrupt’ it. The word, ‘disruption’, certainly takes on new meaning when we see how it gets played out to the extreme, and to the benefit of TFA, in places like New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, and most recently, Newark where TFA hero Cami Anderson was booted for being disruptive to the point of marginalizing the desires of the community there.
Two of the six corps members have family members that are in education. Julia says her parent are both teachers. What do her parents think of the Race To The Top that TFA so loves? Mary Beth’s father is a current high school principal. What does he think when TFA icon Michelle Rhee comes on TV and says that American schools, even the ones that are supposedly ‘good’, are actually all doing a horrible job? What is his reaction when he hears about Alabama needing more charter schools that TFA so treasures? My guess is that their parents haven’t made the connection between TFA and the corporate school ‘reformers’ who have been wreaking havoc on American students and teachers since the passage of No Child Left Behind under Bush and intensified with Obama’s Race To The Top.
In video three, we see Julia speak about how behind her students are and offers this as one of the reasons:
It’s another world. It’s a world where these kids get tested in writing every three years and, thus, are only trained in writing every three years.
I wonder why she thinks this. While it is true that reading and math have dominated the curriculum ever since state test scores in reading and math have become the goal of all education, especially with the TFA-trained leaders and their ‘reformer’ allies. Maybe she is saying that teachers are being negligent because they only teach to the two big tests? I’m not sure if this is a critique of the over testing of things that don’t include writing, or a wish that there were more testing which would include more writing tests. Or is this another faulty assumption that the majority of teachers these students had until now (of course it is likely that many of these students in Houston had TFA teachers at one time since Houston is a big TFA city — Houston 1991 in the house!) were negligent in their teaching of writing.
In video three we also see the typical TFA narrative with Madison’s and Mary Beth’s transformation from a rough start to things starting to turn around after about a week. With tiny classes of about 15 students, I suppose this can happen, but I worry they will have a false idea of what the arc of a typical first year is. That workshop I used to do (and my books — if any of these six contact me, I’ll gladly send them free copies) go into this in grueling detail.
In video four, Julia (Wearing jeans while teaching! Why is the TFA staff OK with this?) is seeing big improvements after six day. Jae’s class is noticeably larger than the classes of the other corps members from what I can see. Michael and Madison both say that they are learning how to “be themselves” which is some of the more oversimplified advice for new teachers and can be quite dangerous. The most encouraging part is the revelation by both Tyler and Madison about breaking down the process of analyzing a story with a graphic organizer. We hear so much about “have high expectations” yet there is also the somewhat opposite practice of “scaffolding” which, by definition, is lowering your expectations in order to help students learn a skill with a certain degree of hand-holding. This is why I do think there is hope for Tyler and why I am angered that their training experience is inadequate.
Episode five is coming soon (assuming the entire project isn’t shut down by my bringing attention to it! Why does everything I touch turn to mud?) and, not to put any pressure on these six I know they have enough to worry about, I hope that they’ll be willing to have a follow up interview with me six months from now (and that TFA permits them to).
TFA is like a very ugly mosaic despite each of the individual little squares being perfectly fine. I think TFA did a nice job in selecting these corps members and also in choosing them for this video. I can see all six of these corps members teaching beyond their two year commitment and they do not seem like the type that are going to grow up and become heartless TFA ‘reform’ leaders and join the profitable world of teacher scapegoating. I know I’m going to take some criticism for this post, as happens whenever I do one like this. Listen, it’s not my fault that TFA continues to neglect the training program. I’ve been begging them to fix it for twenty years and I have email threads to prove it!
Teachers are constantly being evaluated by administrators, and even by their own kids, so I hope a bit of free, though not requested, evaluation from a veteran teacher who was a one time teacher trainer for TFA and also wrote a few books about teaching isn’t so bad. I don’t do this to ridicule them, but to bring attention to TFA’s failure to take seriously their responsibility to provide their trainees with proper training.
Note: This has been a bit of an annual tradition for me.
For my advice to 2014 corps members go here.
For my advice to 2013 (including my famous not-quite ‘viral video message) corps members go here.