If you have read enough of my blog, you must know by now that I am an advocate for children. What you may not know, however, is that right out of college I taught Elementary Special Education for two years in South Los Angeles. I was a member of Teach For America. While I didn’t continue to teach after my two years, I assure you that I was required to pass the same teaching exams and pursue the same teaching certification as those who were not affiliated with Teach For America. In fact, I took it a step further than most and pursued a Master’s Degree in Special Education.
Before arriving at my school, my students had not had a permanent teacher in years. After two years looping with many of the same students, I was able to exit many of them out of Special Education and back into the General Education classroom. Most of my students achieved several grade levels of education in just one year. I don’t give you this information to brag. I was not an exceptional teacher by Teach For America standards – I achieved what was expected for the organization. I wasn’t only able to do this because I was highly educated. I achieved results because I was passionate about children, and I was supported by one of the best organizations this country has to offer.
Just past week, as I came across this blog post on my Facebook newsfeed. The post is titled, “I am, I’m asking you to quit.” This blog is written by a woman named Molly who describes herself as a “white female who was educated at a prestigious university.” She also mentions that she is “riddled with privilege.” For this reason, she believes that people like herself don’t belong in classrooms teaching children of color who don’t come from the same privilege. She then goes on a rant about how terrible she believes Teach For America is for our nation’s children. This week, I will explain in detail why I respectfully disagree with her.
1) Children Need Good Teachers – Race Be Damned: One of the arguments in the above linked blog article is that someone who is not a minority or someone who hasn’t experienced being “under privileged” has no business teaching students of color. Does that mean that if you are not white you shouldn’t be teaching white children? Should children only be subjected to teachers who have shared their exact experience? This sound like an argument right out of the Jim Crow south. Children need good teachers. Good teachers come in all different colors. If these schools housing TFA teachers waited around until they had qualified teachers, who all happened to be the same race and socio-economic status as the students, they would have a school in serious need of teachers.
2) Training: This blogger throws out a popular misconception about TFA (which leads me to believe she has no actual experience with the organization). She argues that TFA throws inexperienced young adults in the classroom with only a few weeks of training. First of all, before a TFA teacher even steps foot in a classroom, he/she must pass the statewide exam to ensure that they have enough knowledge to step foot in a classroom. Next, TFA teachers go through a rigorous month long training before stepping foot into their classroom. During this training, the teachers are mentored by senior teachers who assist in lesson planning, co-teach, and help prepare these teachers to take on their own classrooms. Finally, as do ALL teachers, TFA teachers are required to pursue their certifications. In the school where I taught, there were several non-TFA teachers who were pursuing their teaching certification while teaching. TFA teachers often times go above and beyond pursuing just their teaching certification. In fact, many of us got our Masters Degrees in Education in addition to our teaching certificate. Along with going through all the same things non-TFA teachers do, TFA also provides its teachers with ongoing support throughout their years teaching. To say that TFA teachers are not prepared to do their jobs is simply not true.
3) Two Year Commitment: It is true that TFA has a two year commitment requirement. This might seem like no time for those who do not understand what is actually happening in the most under performing schools in our country. At the end of my first year, I became one of the most senior teachers at the school where I was teaching – and this was NOT because there were too many TFA teachers at the school. This was because I taught in South Los Angeles in a school that had an extremely high burn out rate. That said, most of the people I came into TFA with are still teaching to this day. Some of them are principals at schools, and all of them showed tremendous achievement in the classrooms where they taught. Those of us who are not teaching, remain advocates for education equality. I remain in contact with several of my students who I am now trying to help get into college. My commitment to them didn’t end after my two years with the corp was finished.
4) Resume Pad: It is no secret that Teach For America looks good on a resume. It is also no secret that TFA has become so highly competitive that many people want to be able to say they have gotten into the program. That said, there is so much more to be gained than what is evident on a resume. If someone enters the organization just looking for a notch on their resume, they will soon be weeded out when they realize how much the organization expects out of its corp members. There are experiences I have gained from my two years teaching that I will never be able to capture in words let alone on my resume. I learned a lot from my students in the years I spent in the classroom, and I truly believe they learned a lot from me. I highly doubt that my students would mind that I proudly put Teach For America on my resume.
5) TFA Teachers Push Out Certified Teachers: The schools where TFA sends its corp members are not the schools where teachers are standing in line to teach. Students often come to you at least three grade levels behind where they should be, and many of them come to school hoping to receive the only meals they will get the entire day. The certified teachers at the school, while there are many good ones, are a mixed bag. One of the first grade teachers where I taught, who was certified and had been teaching for over ten years, would come in every day and read the newspaper while her students copied the alphabet from the board. Every one of her students went on to the second grade without a shred of information from first grade. She should have been pushed out of that school.
I remember my last day teaching like it was yesterday. One of my students, who I fondly called President Hernandez, came to sit beside me on the playground. I had been his teacher for two years. I taught him how to read, and the next year he would be headed to a General Education classroom due to the significant gains he had made while in my class. He looked up at me and asked, “Ms. McLeod…who is coming next?” I wasn’t sure who would be coming next for President Hernandez, but I sincerely hoped it would be a Teach For America teacher.