What TFA Tells The New Recruits About ‘The System’

The Teach For America mission statement does not mention the word teacher.  It reads “Our mission is to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”  I don’t remember exactly what year this happened, but at some point in the past 10 years they made a big deal about how they are a ‘leadership’ organization.  Certainly this wasn’t what they were saying back in 1991 when I started as a TFA corps member.

Each year TFA recruits a new cohort of these leaders, around four to five thousand a year in recent years.  When I think of what some of the qualities that a 22 year old leader would possess, I think that many, if not most, would be somewhat outspoken.  Yes, I know that you don’t have to be outspoken to be a leader, but I’d expect there to be some very vocal ones.  There would be at least a few who are writing blogs, who are mixing it up on Twitter, things like that.  One of the mysteries of TFA is how it is possible that none of the 4,000 leaders has any sort of public presence on social media.

I believe that TFA strongly discourages the new recruits from engaging on social media.  It would be just too much of a coincidence for 4,000 people enthusiastic about becoming teachers, even if they don’t possess great leadership qualities, to be so quiet.

For sure, TFA likes to control the exposure of the new corps members.  Sometimes they will on Twitter link to something they wrote about a new corps member.  Or they retweet a new corps member who just got his or her acceptance letter.  But we almost never get to hear from an actual corps member first hand.

In Houston for the past three years, TFA has chosen some new corps members and made a series of videos documenting their summer experience.  In 2015 I critiqued the videos and was eventually contacted by one of the subjects of the videos and we actually had some conversations by phone over the years.  Another one emailed me and said he wanted to keep in touch with me, but when I tried to contact him later on, he never got back to me.

With the beginning of the 2017 Houston Institute, there is a new set corps members.  Based on something I heard two of them say in this video, I get the sense that TFA is feeding the new corps members a strange message.  Watch the video for yourself if you want and see if you pick up on anything strange.


So the thing I found strange was said by both Savanah and Madisenne .  Savanah said that one of the things she has learned in her three days is “Just because outside sources are putting a value on them doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to learn.”  Madisenne said “What I really learned about KC (Kansas City) is that it’s not a lack of funding.  It has been conscious decisions that has made this educational inequity.”

It’s pretty clear that these are messages that TFA is transmitting, though I’m not sure what it accomplishes.  The first comment about ‘outside sources putting a value on them’ seems like something that TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva-Beard says a lot, basically that too many teachers have low expectations and these low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.  The reality is much more complicated than that and this oversimplified reading of it, I think, is a form of teacher bashing.  And for TFA to teach the new recruits that there is not a funding problem, particularly in Kansas City, really serves no good purpose.  Instead, they teach them, there is some conspiracy hatched by who, it’s not really clear.  But someone, is it politicians?, teacher’s unions?, teachers?, has made this conscious decision to make ‘educational inequity’ and that as a teacher she will reverse it by consciously battling those other decisions.

To me these messages are not the sorts of things that are productive for new TFA corps members to be told to believe in their first days of institute.  I don’t think they should start with the premise that the system is broken and a-la-Betsy Devos, it can’t get much worse, and then that the TFA teacher’s role is to somehow single handedly undo the deliberate decisions that have led to this.  Instead I’d rather they were told that teaching is very hard and that teachers all over the country are working very hard despite limited resources and that TFA teachers are going to fight alongside these other teachers and try to learn from them and hope that they can quickly become like those experienced teachers so they won’t increase educational inequity for their own students.

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10 Responses to What TFA Tells The New Recruits About ‘The System’

  1. That is a very weird conclusion.

  2. Jack Covey says:

    If these kids are placed in a school alongside veteran teachers — you know, those same failed-status-quo hacks whom the TFA Corps Members have been brainwashed into thinking have ruined education — how will they be able to collaborate with, or work alongside them?

    • Michael Fiorillo says:

      It is my understanding that TFA temps are often, if not as a matter of policy, told to stay with their own and have little or nothing to do with veteran public school teachers, lest the propaganda drilled into them during their “training” be undermined.

      That is, among the TFA temps that actually work in real public schools, since so many of them work in charters.

    • E. Rat says:

      My experience is that they are generally promised a high level of organizational support that would enable them to avoid us lazy union veterans, but between that support’s limited to non existence and the daily challenges of teaching, their teachers rely on veterans enormously. This in turn is a sizeable drain for veterans, who are now providing uncompensated mentoring – mentoring we’ll get to repeat annually as TFAers cycle through.

      All in all, I agree that conscious decisions do impact the quality of education – specifically, the one to place uncredentialed and untrained newbies into high-needs schools and tire out your more experienced staff by forcing them to compensate for their new peers accordingly.

  3. Kayode Ogunsola says:

    Hey. As a recent alumni of TFA, the video made me cringe as well. But when I think back to my experience during Institute, I recall many of my fellow corps members reciting the same misnomers. But I disagree with you that they get these messages from the organization itself. In fact, I believe they stem from the way the organization structures its training. From my experience, most corps members drop those worrisome beliefs by the end of their service. Why? Because their experience working in impoverished schools and communities opened their eyes to how our education system revolves around privilege and racism. During Institute, corps members are so hopped up on the excitement with being chosen to be a part of the “fight”, that they are unable to truly see or understand the systems they are going to become quickly entangled in. So I think our energy would be rather spent on untangling those systems rather than focusing on the views of these very inexperienced corps members. Their beliefs will shift once they face the true burden of being teachers in this system.

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  5. Stephen B Ronan says:

    “Instead, they teach them, there is some conspiracy hatched by who, it’s not really clear. But someone, is it politicians?, teacher’s unions?, teachers?, has made this conscious decision to make ‘educational inequity’ and that as a teacher she will reverse it by consciously battling those other decisions.”

    If they were aiming to serve in Boston, I’d encourage them to read this article:
    “The Ethics of Pandering in Boston Public Schools’ School Assignment Plan”

    How can access to public elementary schools of variable quality be justly distributed within a school district? Two reasonable criteria are (a) that children should have equal opportunity to attend high-quality schools; and (b) school assignment policies should foster an overall increase in the number of high-quality schools. This article analyzes Boston Public Schools’ (BPS) new school assignment plan in light of these criteria. It shows that BPS’ plan violates equal opportunity by giving middle-class families privileged access to existing high-quality schools. BPS arguably panders to more-advantaged families, however, in order to pull them into the system and deploy their economic, political, and social capital to increase the total number of high-quality schools. Is this ethically defensible? To answer this question, we need to develop an ethical theory of pandering: of privileging the interests and preferences of already unjustly privileged actors because the consequences tend to benefit everyone. Such a theory will need to be ethically pluralistic and weighted along a contextually sensitive continuum, rather than rendered in all-or-nothing terms.”

    Or for that matter, wherever they work, I’d encourage a read of the entire book: “Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries” by Meira Levinson (Editor), Jacob Fay (Editor), which includes a later version of that article. https://www.amazon.com/Dilemmas-Educational-Ethics-Cases-Commentaries/dp/1612509320

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  7. John says:

    Don’t worry Gary. The antidote to that indoctrination will be the incompetent administrator they have to work for who will write them and ineffective rating. I teach some of these TFA students after they’ve had their first year of teaching. I feel sorry for their predicament, many getting ineffective from incompetent principals. They definitely don’t feel the rating system is fair and see there’s nothing that their union can do for them. That’s here in NYC.

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