Thoughts on TFA
Not that anyone asked, in particular, but here's . . . .
Why I don’t like Teach for America
#1) As a professional teacher/educator, I find it denigrating to the Profession of Teaching to say that people can be prepared to teach in 5 to 6 weeks. Simply b/c people have attended Brown or Yale or wherever may mean they are intelligent, it does not mean they have some innate understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning that genuine teacher preparation programs instill in their candidates. It is offensive and pretentious to think otherwise.
#2) Equally denigrating to the profession is the notion that teaching is something you can “dabble in.” Oh, do it for a couple of years, assuage your (usually white/suburban/privileged) guilt and then get on with your “real life” in law school or business school or wherever. Teaching, you see, isn’t all that important and anybody can do it for a couple of years (which, by the way, their own statistics don’t particularly bear out --- check out what their attrition rate is in the first year – and consider it’s their statistics, so adjust for reality). How do we feel about “Nurses for America?” Or, better, “Doctors for America?” The lack of respect for teaching as a profession is historic --- based on seeing it as a “feminine” profession and one that does not pay what “real” jobs pay. Teach for America continues to support that historic disrespect for the profession by treating it as something one can do until something “better” (read high paying, more prestigious, etc.) comes along.
#3) I find TFA patronizing, patriarchal, and colonialist. It continues a “wonderful” tradition of upper class noblesse oblige which says, essentially, “Well, we will take a little time out of our (important) lives to help you poor children of color (briefly) and then we’ll leave (because we can!).”
#4) Little or no decent support is supplied to the Novice Teachers who go out into some of the most difficult and stressful schools in our cities. Anyone who knows teaching will tell you that support and genuine mentoring are essential in the first few years of teaching.
#5) Many districts see TFA “volunteers” as fodder (there’s a wonderful piece in The Onion, online, about this) and shift them around willy-nilly to “fill in” gaps they have in staffing. How does that help anyone --- and, particularly, how does it help the students these “volunteers” are supposed to be serving?
#6) TFA perpetuates the miserable conditions in urban schools. It allows politicians to claim, “Look, something’s being done” when, in fact, no significant change is occurring. In all its time in existence TFA has NEVER made a policy statement that their real goal is to improve urban schools to the point of making TFA unnecessary. Their motto, if they were sincere in improving schools, should be “Put us out of business.” But that’s not their goal. TFA has become a cottage industry, and a self-perpetuating one at that, which allows the mass of society to look the other way and essentially say, “See, there’s really no hope for those urban schools (and those children who are, clearly, “unteachable”). Teach for America keeps trying and there’s no progress.” TFA is, at best, a medicated band-aid but a band-aid nonetheless. Our urban schools are hemorrhaging and TFA is a band-aid --- and that’s fine because in the world of Fox News, that looks as if an effort is being made. It’s clearly the fault of the children and their families if there’s no decrease in the “achievement gap.”
#7) For those who survive TFA and then join their ranks as recruiters or “Executive Directors” or whatever, their allegiance to the organization is cult-like. It is not a Learning Organization whose goal is to better the schools. Like some evangelical sect, their goal is to recruit more members, receive more recognition (usually from right-wing “do away with public schools” types), and continue to sing their own praises as saviors of some sort (“If we weren’t there, who would be?” Which begs the deeper questions about “How can we actually fix the system instead of putting our TFA finger in the dyke?”).
Please feel free to share this with anyone who expresses an interest in joining Teach for America.
Here's THE ONION's take on it . . .
Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic-Studies Major
February 16, 2005 | Issue 41•07
NEW YORK—Teach For America, a national program that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low income ural and urban communities, has devoured another ethnic-studies major, 24-year-old Andy Cuellen reported Tuesday.
"Look, the world is a miserable place," said Cuellen, a Dartmouth graduate who quit the TFA program Monday morning. "All people—even children—are just nasty animals trying to secure their share of the food supply. I don't care how poor or how rich you are, that's just a fact. I'm sorry, but I have better things to do than zoo-keep for peanuts."
Just one of the 12,000 young people TFA has burned through since1990, Cuellen was given five weeks of training the summer before he took over a classroom at P.S. 83 in the South Bronx last September.
"I walked into that school actually thinking I could make a difference," said Cuellen, who taught an overflowing class of disadvantaged 8-year-olds. "It was trial by fire. But after five months spent in a stuffy, dark room where the chalkboard fell off the wall every two days, corralling screaming kids into broken desks, I'm burnt to a crisp."
Cuellen said his TFA experience "taught him a lot about hopelessness."
"The cities are fucked. The suburbs are fucked. The whole country is fucked," Cuellen said. "And there's not a goddamned thing you or anyone can do about it. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Or trying to get you to teach kids math."
According to Dartmouth literature, as a member of the ethnic-studies department, Cuellen learned "to empower students of color to move beyond being objects of study toward being subjects of their own social realities, with
voices of their own."
Teach For America executive director Theo Anderson called ethnic-studies departments "a prime source of fodder."
"Oh, I'd say we burn through a hundred or so ethnic-studies majors each year," said Anderson, pointing to a series of charts showing the college-major breakdown of TFA corps members. "They tend to last a little longer than of charts showing the college-major breakdown of TFA corps members. "They tend to last a little longer than women's studies majors and art-therapy students, but Cuellen got mashed to a pulp pretty quickly. It usually takes ethnic-studies majors another year to realize that they're wasting their precious youth on a Sisyphean endeavor."
Continued Anderson: "Of course, we don't worry about it too much. Every year, there's a fresh crop to throw in the grinder. As we speak, scores of apple-cheeked students are hearing about TFA for the first time."
According to Anderson, a small portion of these students will lose interest after hearing horror stories from program alumni.
"But the majority of them will march on like cattle to the slaughter, thinking that pure determination and hope can change young lives," Anderson said. "I can hear their footsteps now, marching toward our offices like lemmings to a cliff. And believe me, we're ready for 'em."
Cuellen said he applied to TFA in search of a "character-building experience."
"I knew that teaching in a severely under-funded inner-city school would be challenging, but I wanted to get out into the real world," Cuellen said. "Well, breaking up fistfights between 8-year-olds all day long, I got a real ugly view of reality. Do you want to know reality? Look at a dog lying dead in the gutter. That's reality."
Although Cuellen quit the program early, his mother said he was with TFA long enough for it "to crack open his bones and suck out the marrow inside."
"Andy is a ghost," Beverly Cuellen said. "Those [TFA] people beat the idealism out of him, then they stomped on him while he lay there gasping for air."
TFA regional coordinator Sandra Richman said it is common to blame the TFA employees for the organization's high plow-through rate.
"Should I have said something to wake those kids up sooner?" Richman said, crushing out her seventh cigarette. "Probably. But listen, no one can tell you that you can't make a difference. It's something you have to figure out for yourself."
"You can only do so much," Richman added. "After a couple years of trying to teach our applicants about how difficult and depressing their lives will inevitably be—no matter what they choose to do for money—I just got burnt out. In the end, you've gotta resign yourself to failure and move on with your life."
© Copyright 2006, Onion, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Onion is not intended for readers under 18 years of age.
Please remember what I said earlier about Herndon and keeping your sense of humor!