Almost ten years ago now (where has the time gone?) I figured out what I wanted to do after college: I wanted to join Teach For America. Eight years ago, I began teaching in the Bronx through a sister program, the NYC Teaching Fellows (one of many organizations under the umbrella of The New Teacher Project, started by a Teach For America alum)—the interviews for TFA and the three TNTP programs I applied to were almost exactly identical). While in NYC, many of my closest friends were NYCTF or TFA members and I left for grad school with a rosy picture in my mind of how we would change the world.
I think it’s precisely because these types of programs are so near and dear to my heart that I’ve grown so frustrated with TFA. For over 20 years now, they’ve done a world of good in countless ways. But I’ve always believed that their greatest impact would be the actions of their alumni. The recruitment materials I pored over my junior year in college told us that we could see how the system was failing from the inside and then go out and fix it—whether that was by remaining in the field of education or as a lawyer, politician, school board member, concerned citizen, or whatever other route we chose. The idea was that, over time, an army of active citizens with elite credentials and experience in our failing inner-city and rural schools would wield enough influence to finally fix what ails our educational system.
That’s starting to come true. Countless TFA alums have become principals, begun charter schools, and so on. One became the head of the whole DC school system. And now we’re beginning to see TFA alums entering politics (my local school board race in Nashville, for example, featured two TFA alums both vying to unseat the chair of the board).
For most of the past decade I’ve waited for this day with bated breath. Finally, I thought, we’d start to see some change. The conditions that I couldn’t believe our society would tolerate while I was teaching would finally start to be addressed. But now I’m worried.
While I don’t doubt that TFA alums will have an outsized influence on our educational policy in the coming decades, I’m no longer convinced that the results of this influence will be all good.
Why? Because too many TFA alums took the wrong lesson from their experiences in the classroom. I’ve interacted with (both personally and professionally), heard, and read countless TFA alums over the past decade, and I now generally lump them into one of two groups: the humbled and the hubristic. It’s a crass generalization, and many alums I know don’t neatly fall into one group or the other, but I still think it’s helpful in thinking through what changes we should expect as TFAers gain clout. So, without further ado, here are the two types of TFA alums:
1.) The Humbled. If I chose one word to describe my classroom experience, it would be “humbling.” (“Frustrating” would be a close second). I went in believing that I could change the world in one fell swoop, that I would surely be the world’s greatest teacher, and that we could easily fix most of our problems if only we could find more miracle workers like myself. By day two I realized that I wasn’t the world’s greatest teacher on that day. And by day five I started to think it might not happen for at least a couple more weeks. What followed was two years in which I valiantly fought losing battle after losing battle until I was utterly exhausted. During those two years, I saw the underbelly of one of the lowest performing middle schools in NYC (its closure was announced the spring of my second year), and formed quite a few opinions regarding its failure.
But one notable item missing from my list was the quality of the veteran teachers in the building. I knew I was smarter than some of them. I knew I worked harder than all of them. But I’ll be damned if most didn’t teach circles around me—and many found a way to do it for decades while I lasted all of two years before I became a statistic.
My major takeaway from that experience was that fixing the problems that look so simple from the outside is really hard.
And I know a lot of TFA and TNTP alums who will tell you something similar. Some are disillusioned. Some are frustrated. Some are neither. But all came to realize that they can’t do this on their own, and that it’s not going to be easy.
This group of humbled alums are more likely to push for educational and societal reforms and policies that change the context in which schools operate. They know that if you can address poverty at the family and neighborhood level, then school will go a lot smoother; that if you can change the attitudes and outlooks of students they’ll learn a heck of a lot more regardless of the teacher; that if teachers are treated as professionals they’ll rise to the occasion; that if teachers are given resources and support they’ll both stick around longer and teach more effectively while they’re there; and that schools, in general, need our help.
2.) The Hubristic. Many TFAers had very different experiences than I. Research on TFA generally finds that their teachers’ students make gains equivalent to or slightly higher than other teachers (sometimes even higher than veteran teachers). Which means that a lot of corps members receive results each year telling them that they are the world’s greatest teacher (or at least one of the best in their school). Some of these are flat-out better teachers than I, some simply found the right fit, landed a position at a top-performing school, or received oodles of support.
Some, though not all, of these teachers see their school—and its veteran teachers—very differently from how I saw mine (or, in the case of TFA members who teach at high-flying charters, see other schools and their veteran teachers differently). They think to themselves “this isn’t so hard; if we could find more people like me, we could lick this problem in no time.” I hear stories from them of how mind-blowingly lazy, stupid, and/or incompetent the veteran teachers at their school were. And they leave their school with a distinct sense that they could fix our schools if somebody would let them—and if everybody would listen to them.
As a result, hubristic alums are more likely to push for educational reforms and policies that aim to separate the wheat from the chaff. They know that if we can recruit better people into teaching, get rid of the dead weight (or at least get them to fall in line), stop making excuses, and give the superstars the reins that our schools will shine in no time; in short, that schools need to be shaken up.
It’s good that different people bring different perspectives and ideas to the table, but I get the distinct sense right now that the latter group is winning in a rout. And I’m not sure that’s going to be good for our schools down the road. I don’t doubt that improving teacher quality would yield positive results, but I do worry that our narrow focus on such a nebulous trait will prevent us from addressing other, more serious problems.
If we focus solely on the human capital of our teaching force, we will fail to address the home lives or emotions of our students, the competence of our school leaders, the quality of our curriculum, or any number of other challenges our system faces on any given day.
Where will that leave us? Best case scenario, we’re left with a whole bunch of superteachers who miraculously and dramatically raise achievement regardless of any outside challenges or distractions. Worst-case scenario, we’re left with a crumbling system full of disenfranchised teachers who are unable to overcome the shortcomings of their school context, school leaders, curriculum, and other factors and either give up or leave rather than take the blame (or just get fired).
I don’t doubt that TFA alums are well-intentioned, earnest, and sincere, but right now we’re closer to the latter than the former. And they’re not helping.