Like many English majors who have reached their senior year of college and are unsure of what kind of job they can get with that specialized B.A. in interwar period lesbian literature, five years ago I applied to both Teach for America (TFA) and the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF). I was promptly rejected by both, but applied to NYCTF again the following year, this time checking the “yes, I would be interested in teaching education” and “yes, I would be interested in teaching mathematics even though I did not major in it” boxes.
Like magic, I was accepted into NYCTF’s “math immersion program,” which provided me with a whole two weeks of extra training in math before the seven weeks of “pre-service training” that all Teaching Fellows go through before the first day of school, and in September of 2005 I began my career as a high school math teacher. As a NYC Teaching Fellow I had to earn a masters degree in math education by attending night classes two to four times a week and during the summer. The cost of this degree was automatically deducted from my pay-check every two weeks and was then partially reimbursed by a $4725 Americorp grant (which, to my knowledge, is not a given for every cohort of Teaching Fellows, but was specific to certain cohorts).
At my school, a small public high school in Brooklyn, New York, well over half of the teachers at the school are Teaching Fellows, and, at least in the three years I have been at the school, the longest any of us has stayed (yet) is three years. A few of us are starting our fourth.
And this sucks for our students. I mean, it really, really sucks. It sucks to come back to school and have to have yet another first-year-teacher as a teacher. It sucks to have six different advisory teachers in four years (the case with my old advisory). It sucks to have no continuity from year to year. It sucks for the ninth grade math teacher you really liked to disappear by the time you are in eleventh grade and wanted to ask for some extra help before the PSATs. It sucks to slowly get the impression that teaching anywhere else, or doing anything else for a job is better than staying here and working with you. It sucks to get abandoned year after year after year by young, enthusiastic teachers who saw teaching in the inner city as something great to put on that law school application.
And I know that my generation (I’m 27) is very different from my parents’ generation, where, if you could, you stayed at the same company, the same firm, the same factory, for 30 years, and when you retired you got a gold watch and a pension. We are a generation of career changers. It’s normal to jump from one job to another these days. For one, the economy sometimes forces us to. Also, a lot of professional graduate programs (law schools and medical schools) like candidates that have some work experience, that are not straight out of undergraduate programs. Besides, we pride ourselves on being ecclectic, on having a wide range of experiences. We proudly put our Peace Corp experience on our resume.
But teaching is one of those careers that doesn’t lend itself to career switching. It’s one of those careers where the longer you do it, the better you get at it (though I’m sure there are limits to this, depending on the person). And, unlike, say, a job as a copy-editor or an architect or an art dealer, when you are a teacher it really matters that you be good at what you do, since there is no one to catch and correct your mistakes before they’ve poisoned your students’ learning experiences in some way or another. If it is your job to make sure that a bunch of six year olds learn basic reading skills, and you fail, you may have just seriously fucked some six year olds. Maybe most of them will catch up in the second grade, but maybe some wont (especially if their second grade teacher is also straight out of the pre-service training…). If it is your job to make sure a bunch of 19 year olds understand basic math concepts well enough to pass a high school exit exam, and you fail, some of those students might never go back and graduate.
I’m not saying any of this to overstate the importance of teachers in the lives or their students or to freakout any first, second, third, or fourth year teachers about their individual failures (myself, obviously, included). Every new (and veteran) teacher is allowed to make mistakes. Further, I’m not saying that teachers are obligated to stay forever in shitty work environments with principals and administration that treat them badly, or in careers that they don’t find satisfying. What I’m getting at is that there is something wrong with a system that floods poorly performing schools with inexperienced teachers who leave just as they are becoming experienced teachers.
Which is why I hate Teach for America.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of the New York City Teaching Fellows either. I’m not defending NYCTF for it’s faults, which include provided precious little support and training for their new teachers as well as frightenly high turnover rates. According to a 2007 Village Voice article, by their fifth year teaching, less than fifty percent of Teaching Fellows remain from a given cohort. But at least in NYCTF the high turnover rate is seen as a failure. In TFA, the high turnover rate is designed as part of the program. TFA members are expected to leave teaching after their two-year commitment is up, those who continue to teach are seen as the exception.
TFA members are not required by Teach for America to pursue a masters in education (which, especially if you do not have an undergraduate degree in education is required to become permanently certified in most states), although some of the states where TFA has program sites require teachers to at least begin taking graduate courses as part of their alternative certification requirements. They don’t require teachers to take the steps to become permanently certified because there is no expectation that their teachers will stay in teaching once their two-year resume-building experience is over. How do I know? Because it’s on their website!
Educational inequality is our nation’s greatest injustice. You can change this.
The first three drop down tags at the top of the TFA website read, “What We Do,” “The Core Experience,” “After the Corps.” Teaching is not a career for this organization, it is an “experience.” You can write about it in your annual Christmas letter and show up your cousins who went straight to law school instead of differing for two years to work in the inner city. You now have some “cred” when talking about why No Child Left Behind sucks. Oh, and, of course, you can put it on your resume.
And TFA will help you make that resume! Just check out the “After the Corps” section of their website. It’s chock full of career services and options of what you can do after you’ve gotten tired of “closing the education gap.” They even have partnerships with various employers such as Morgan Stanley, Deloitte, JP Morgan, and Lehman Brothers, all of which allow TFA members to defer their high paying jobs as management consultants and financial analysts to teach for two years in the trenches of underachieving schools.
Still not convinced? Listen to how much those two years of teaching forever changed this TFA alumnus:
Looking back, I’m so glad I chose to teach before embarking on this next phase of my career. I developed skills that empowered me to excel beyond my peers in business school: organization, effective time management, dexterity in communication and public speaking, and the ability to think on my feet. The responsibilities I shouldered in the classroom prepared me like nothing else could for the challenges of management, communication, and intense focus that characterize my current position, where I conduct industry research, create financial models, identify industry trends, and explain their implications.
-Scott, an analyst at Lehman Brothers
Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that what teaching is all about? Becoming a better financial analyst?
Let’s hear what Mitch, an assistant professor of biology, has to say about his “corps experience”:
In addition to these professional lessons, my two years as a corps member had a deep emotional impact on me. I experienced how a group of dedicated teachers committed to the success of their students can go a long way towards closing the achievement gap.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t accept this. Remember high school? It took most of us about four years, right? My point is that two years is a short time to be a teacher, to be part of a school community, to be a part of students’ lives. And as someone who has been at the same school for three years so far, I can guarantee that two years is not enough time to “go a long way towards closing the achievement gap,” no matter how dedicated the teachers are.
(As an aside, for a really smart article about why the Freedom Writers myth that all schools need is highly motivated teachers who are willing to martyr themselves for their students, check out this January, 2007 New York Times opinion piece, “Classroom Distinctions” by Tom Moore. The crux of it is here: Every day teachers are blamed for what the system they’re just a part of doesn’t provide: safe, adequately staffed schools with the highest expectations for all students. But that’s not something one maverick teacher, no matter how idealistic, perky or self-sacrificing, can accomplish.)
I started thinking about Teach for American after reading this article in the New York Times Magazine about rebuilding the New Orleans public school system. Although the article focuses on the proposed effects of structural changes that are being made in the way the school district is governed (with a shift toward privately run charter schools instead of a more centralized, top down school system), I couldn’t help but notice this casual sentence (amid other descriptions of preparations that are underway for the new school year): Two hundred and fifty Teach for America teachers, nearly all recent college graduates, had just arrived to complete preparations for their new positions in schools in the region. What struck me was how, this article, which discusses various strategies for rebuilding a failing school system and repeatedly reminds us how nothing can be fixed overnight, fails to address the inherant contradiction implied by inviting a huge number of teachers, the overwhelming majority of whom won’t be around in two years.
Where will those teachers be? According to TFA’s website, they will be fighting for educational equality from all sectors. Maybe one of the many TFA members that go to law school will one day sue the NYC public school system for not adequately serving its special education students. Maybe one of the post-TFA financial analysts at Deloitte will sway her boss to donate 100 computers to a school with no technology program. (My school, for the record, received such a donation through a partnership with a major financial company.) This is part of TFA’s strategy, and it is an interesting one. It’s very possible that some of those 250 two-year teachers will make major changes in the realm of education from outside the field.
But, in the meantime, those New Orleans students will be left with new teachers year after year, rolling their eyes as they watch 22 year old Brown-graduates try to keep it cool in front of a classroom of suspicious adolescents.
Is an enthusiastic, idealistic teacher better than a burnt-out teacher? A teacher who reads the newspaper in the front of the classroom? (Yes, this happens.) A racist teacher? Of course. I have seen first hand what those teachers have done at my school in two or three years, the way they have contributed to make the school run better, to make the school a more positive place in different ways.
And let me be clear. I’m not ragging on people who leave the teaching profession. It’s a difficult and often underpaid profession. I’m not ragging on people who apply to Teach for America because they genuinely want to improve education in this country. It’s a very noble and challenging calling, and I have respect for all teachers who are working hard within a fucked-up system. I don’t doubt that most of them felt very conflicted about leaving their schools and their students.
What I’m ragging on is the way Teach for American sends the message that it’s perfectly acceptable to teach the neediest students for two years and then leave, just when you’re reaching your stride, just when you can really start to become more effective.
So, I’ll leave with this, if you’re thinking of applying to Teach for America because you want to be a career teacher, don’t. There are many other alternative-certification programs that will help you get a masters degree (and will help you pay for it). And if you’re thinking of applying to Teach for America because you are interested in doing a service project for two years before starting a different career, don’t. There are many other Americorp-type programs that lend themselves better to that time of time-frame.
In low-income schools, what a lot of students are lacking is consistancy in many areas of their lives (financial insecurity, eviction, incarceration of friends, neighbors, and family members, shitty medical and dental care, reliable transportation, etc.). The least they could have is the knowledge that they will see the same teachers’ faces in the hallways in September that they saw in June.
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