For the past thirty summers, Teach For America has trained their new recruits in a five-week crash course known as ‘the institute.’ The first institute trained 500 corps members in Los Angeles. As TFA grew, more institutes were added and last summer they trained around 3,000 corps members spread out among four different sites.
At the institute, corps members are split into groups of about 12 where they have a TFA alum as their Corps Member Advisor. This group is further split into teams of 4 who will work together to teach a class of students in summer school. The first week is an orientation period where corps members get to learn the basic principles of teaching and also to have discussions about race and society. The next four weeks are centered on student teaching. Since summer school is about 4 hours a day, each teacher gets to teach, on average, one hour a day for the remaining 20 days. The Corps Member Advisor will observe the student teaching and in the afternoon each day there will be a group meeting with that advisor and also some kind of lesson taught by another alum called the content specialist.
Twenty hours is not a lot of student teaching. I’ve been complaining for years that they could increase this to eighty hours if they would just get more students for the summer schools so that each teacher could teach four hours a day instead of just one. Though they only get twenty hours of teaching actual children, all corps members — like all student teachers — would agree that these were the most valuable hours in their entire training. You can talk about students in the abstract all you want and what sorts of things they will respond to and what will help them learn, but student teaching is where you get to learn the all important chasm between theory and practice in teaching. Twenty hours of student teaching is certainly not as good as the months of student teaching that a teacher in a traditional certification route receives, and it isn’t as good as the eighty hours that I consider possible with TFA and which I used to nag TFA about when I used to try to make suggestions directly to them. But twenty hours, though short, is twice as good as ten hours. And twenty hours is twenty times as good as one hour. And twenty hours is 1,200 times as good as one minute. And twenty hours is, of course, infinitely better than zero hours.
COVID-19 has shaken every aspect of American life. Throughout the country, school buildings are closed and teachers are doing their best to teach remotely. Colleges are also closed. It is not even certain that schools will re-open normally this September without some miracle cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
Because of COVID-19, people have had to cancel a lot of things that were very important to them. Weddings that had been scheduled for over a year had to be postponed. Trips had to be cancelled. In times like these, unfortunately, some things are temporarily impossible. Some things can be done virtually. A wedding, I suppose, can be done remotely. It’s not as fun, but there are no real ‘victims’ of a remote wedding. I had the unpleasant opportunity to attend a remote funeral a few weeks ago. So there are things that can be done virtually, but there are other things where the remote version is so different from the live version, like trying to play baseball remotely, where it doesn’t make any sense to do it at all.
I learned yesterday that TFA has chosen not to cancel the 2020 Institute, but instead to hold it remotely. So this means that TFA has weighed out the pros and cons of cancelling training vs. remote training and decided that the reward of remote training outweighs the risks of remote training. I see this as a huge mistakes that harms children. But for this decision to harm children, there are three other parties that share responsibility. I will outline who these other parties are in a minute.
Teach For America surely knows that a remote training with no actual student teaching will produce extremely unprepared teachers. And those teachers will each teach 30 (or up to 150) students next year and each of those students will suffer for having such an untrained teacher. I don’t know what alternatives TFA explored, but there was another option besides just cancelling the institute altogether. If I were in charge I would take some of the $300 million that TFA has in the bank and make this summer a remote training for teacher assistants. Next year will be a challenge for teachers and having 3,000 teacher assistants who are knowledgeable about the different remote learning options can be very useful. And TFA could pay the salaries of these 3,000 teacher assistants too. This way, the 2020 corps members can actually be helping improve education and there would not be student victims who have completely untrained teachers as their lead teachers. But this is not the decision TFA went with. They are comfortable sending teachers with zero hours of student teaching into real schools next year with students who have just suffered the emotional, physical, and educational trauma of the previous six months.
But as I mentioned, TFA is not the sole culprit here. TFA can only get away with this if the states that TFA partners with allow it. In each state that TFA sends teachers to, there is some kind of contract where TFA promises to provide teachers who have been trained to some kind of minimum standard. That standard likely includes some minimum amount of student teaching hours. TFA was already likely claiming that their trainees got 80 hours of student teaching since they were technically team-teaching for 20 days for 4 hours a day even though, in reality, they generally only taught for one hour each day. But there is no way that any amount of remote teaching for students that these trainees do this summer can count as actual ‘student teaching’ by the original intent of the agreement. I think it would be fair for any of these states to say that TFA violated the terms of the contract and that the state is under no obligation to issue teaching certificates to those trainees. So if the states decide not to do this, I see them as equally culpable in this scheme.
But even if both TFA and the states are OK with allowing TFA trainees with zero hours of student teaching to become full time lead teachers for students who are in most need of teachers who have had more than zero hours of actual teaching experience, there are still two more parties that have to be complicit for TFA and the states to actually get away with it.
The next responsible party would be any principals who actually hire these TFA teachers who have only participated in a virtual training experience. If those principals don’t hire the TFA teachers, then those teachers can’t go on, as well meaning as they may be, and make students be victims of these irresponsible decisions by TFA and by the states.
I know it might seem hopeless now. If TFA won’t do the right thing by cancelling institute or ‘reimagining’ the role of TFA at this moment. If the states won’t have the courage to refuse to certify teachers who have not met minimum requirements laid out in a contract that never anticipated the possibility of a pandemic that would make actual student teaching impossible for the trainees. If principals decide to hire these trainees — I don’t know why they would — who else could possibly stop this impending disaster from happening?
Well, there is one more actor. It’s not an actor with any money or influence but it is an actor with ultimate power. The one group of people who could stop this madness is, quite simply, the members of the TFA 2020 corps. I know that it is sad that this decision must come down to them, but this is the reality. The incoming 2020 corps members have suffered their own trauma. A few weeks before graduating college, their schools were closed. All the fun senior year events, including graduation, were cancelled. Several months ago they applied to TFA because they wanted to help kids. When they got into TFA and accepted the offer, they stopped planning for any other future. They were set for the next two years. Training was going to start in July and they would be teachers, ready to make a difference, in September.
But this pandemic changed things. Now that the training has been made into remote training, I’m sure that some of them are having second thoughts. As much as TFA might tell them that TFA has it all under control — that face to face student teaching was only a small component of the full training — some 2020 corps members must be worried that this type of training will not prepare them to be effective teachers. And if they will not be effective teachers, by no fault of their own, they will then go on to harm the very students who they signed up to TFA to help. I am very glad that I am not in this dilemma. And I think it is a shame that TFA and the states that are willing to certify the under trained teachers have put the 2020 corps members into this dilemma. Had TFA and the states just said that this is one of those things that there was no choice — student teaching is essential to teacher training — then the 2020 corps would be disappointed, but also relieved. They know that this situation is unfair to them while they have to be unwitting partners in harming children. But this is the dilemma that the 2020 corps members are now facing. COVID-19 may have destroyed their immediate plans, but it does not have to destroy their lives. The correct thing for a 2020 corps member to do is to resign from TFA. Deep down they know this. Will they be brave enough to make the correct decision?