Teach for America – growing our future leaders of education?

Teach for America (TFA) recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.  I was drawn into thinking about my own experiences with TFA by Diane Ravitch’s post The Problem with TFA and some thoughts that have long been with me, but never shared.

I worked as a clinical faculty over fieldwork at a university in Los Angeles when I was first introduced to the TFA program.  I was responsible for supporting over 200 teacher candidates in the traditional education program, a specialized Catholic School program and TFA.  The majority of those students were TFAers.  With my group of wonderful retired teachers and principles we observed, guided, coached,  and supported these fledgling teachers throughout Los Angeles.

The TFAers were top students recruited from good schools.  They were enthusiastic, idealistic and energetic.  There are a number of very good candidates who have chosen to stay in teaching, even if some eventually move away from the inner city schools.  However, I have concerns about those that leave and the over effect it has on the profession of teaching.

In a conversation with Malcom Gladwell, Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA,  stated that TFA is not a teaching organization but rather a leadership development organization.  The idea being that those that don’t stay in teaching will move on to other positions of leadership to become advocates for education.  This is the very idea that worries me.

As I continue to elaborate on my concerns, I want to state that I do understand that there are those that do not fall into these categories.  But I must ask the questions, for the sake of good teachers everywhere and the future of our children.

With only 5 weeks of initial training these teacher candidates went into schools in desperate need of good teachers.  Five weeks of initial training, no matter how smart you are, does not make you a good teacher.  In fact, it tended to be the extremely smart ones that struggled the most.  These are the teacher candidates that never really had to study, learning came easily to them.  The diversity of learning abilities in the classroom, coupled with the realities of inner city schools was a completely foreign environment, complete with culture shock for many of these teacher candidates.  This experience was the hardest thing they had eve encountered.  In their past experiences they had been able to succeed, they walked into the classrooms determined to make a difference, only to face failure head on for the first time in their lives.  This group of TFAers struggled to connect with their students.  There was no common ground to build upon and the tools from their summer of training didn’t work.  The group with this type of experience will leave and become our future leaders.  I wonder what they will bring from their experience.  Will they continue to have the “Us vs. Them” attitude, not being able to find the bridge for themselves? How will they feel about people who choose the teaching profession for life?  How will they feel about those that will always struggle to learn?  How will these attitudes play out in their leadership roles?

I understand the TFA perspective that to make a change in education we need people in a variety of leadership positions.  However, as I worked with and supported these teachers candidates it was disheartening how often I heard statements like, “I wanted to do something before I went on to law school.”  “I needed something like this to add to my experience before I go into politics.”  This was simply a step in their own personal achievement checklist.  This experience was not about the children in the classrooms.  It was not about improving education.  It was about them.  This group of TFAers were fairly competent teachers, however it was never about the students.  How will these future leaders feel about inner city schools as well as schools in general?  What other groups will they use as a stepping stone in their own personal pursuits?  Shouldn’t there also be a goal of creating future leaders of their students?  If this truly is a “leadership development organization” shouldn’t that development reach down into empowering the children they teach as well? (See also Marie Levey-Pabst: Will the Teach for America Elite Save the Poor?)

Overall the biggest problem I have is the helicopter approach.  This group swoops down to make a difference and then swoops right back out – just like a helicopter.  There are so many times when an event can have a domino effect, continuing to influence future events.  For those left in the trenches, these effects can be beneficial, but can also be detrimental.  Good leadership is not about being a good helicopter (swooping in to fix the problem and swooping out).  Good leaders understand those they lead, they understand the big picture as well as the little picture and the myriad of fragile connections.  A good leader knows which connections to strengthen and which ones need to be eliminated.  A good leader is in for the long haul.  The energy TFAers put into their 2 year commitment is high.  Many are exhausted by the efforts needed to make it through those two years.  The manner in which they teach and are taught to teach, it would be easy for them to understand a 25 year veteran teacher being equally exhausted.  Will they be able to see, understand or speak for those teachers that do commit to teaching for life without seeing them as just an old, exhausted bunch of teachers?  Will they be able to commit to the long haul as leaders?  Will they build the bridges that are needed or will they continue to be helicopters – swooping down to fix a problem, only to leave before the aftermath has settled?

So, I worry about the TFAers whose experiences fall into one of the above categories.  I worry that while very well intentioned and producing some short term positive results, TFA is also creating leaders who will do more harm to education in the long run.

Thank you Diane for prompting me to put my thoughts into “ink”.

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