Laney Keeshin

Is Teach for America “Problematic”?

Milwaukee school board members have complained about the program. A TFA corps member responds.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Jun 23rd, 2015 09:42 am
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Laney Keeshin

Laney Keeshin, who teaches high school Spanish as a Teach for America corps member, shares her thoughts about “teacher appreciation.”

As my first year of teaching comes to a close, I know for certain that it’s not about Teach For America, and it never was.

About a month ago we celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week, and while I felt appreciated by my colleagues and students, I keep going back to a phrase I heard before appreciation week, at a school board meeting.

“TFA is problematic in Milwaukee,” a board member said. “I do not support a school that will have those ‘Teach Americas’ teaching,” another remarked.

It was hard for me to hear these words immediately following appreciation week. These school board members simply do not understand the key point. It’s not about the organization, the name, the label or the news.

I am teaching my kids to think critically. I am teaching them to look below the surface and not make immediate judgments about people or things. To me, it is about understanding the whole story. In my opinion, board members should be asking, “What actually is this organization, and why are so many people talking about it? What can I learn from this group of people?”

There are so many reasons that the school board members’ comments were troubling and hurtful, and they prompted me to try to address some of the accusations wrongly directed at TFA.

(1) Many of our teachers quit

We have had teachers leave the corps in various regions this year due to different factors, including medical problems brought on by impossibly difficult situations and lack of support from our schools.

But if you looked at how many non-TFA teachers quit due to the same systematic problems facing teachers, you might not blame TFA anymore. Many new teachers leave the profession after their first few years. Many walk out because the job is just that tough. There were many moments during my first few months of teaching where I wanted to walk out. You see, hear and feel the injustice everyday and you feel trapped and overwhelmed. You don’t know how to help solve problems so big.

I think many urban teachers have moments of wanting to leave and find something else, whether it is their first or tenth year.

Teachers quitting is not about TFA. Instead, it reveals some truths about our country and district’s priorities surrounding education. Education in this country is in trouble, and we don’t have many people fighting for us to make it better.

(2) We are unprepared

You are right. As a TFA teacher, I did not feel very prepared the first day I stepped into class, nor the first two months. But I’d encourage you to talk to a colleague of mine who teaches right down the hall. He graduated from college last year with an education degree.

Guess what? Our first few months didn’t look so different. We complained about the same things: we feel wildly unprepared; we don’t know how to get through to children; they won’t stop talking; why is the Xerox machine always out of paper, etc.

Does an education degree ensure you will be a good teacher or prepared in the classroom? Most definitely not. Does an education degree ensure you’ll be hopeful, a positive leader for your students, and committed to their future success? Does the lack of one mean that you won’t be? These are tough questions that I can’t fully answer yet.  What I know is this: good teachers are master relationship builders. I’ll leave it to you decide whether one needs an education degree to possess this skill.

(3) We leave the classroom after two years so we can’t be real mentors

This is wrong.

In a guest post on the TFA website, Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri explains, “The majority of corps members teach for a third year, and 84 percent of our more than 37,000 alumni—going back to our charter corps in 1990—remain in education; 11,000-plus are classroom teachers, more than 900 are school leaders, and nearly 250 lead school systems.”

Those who go on to different paths will forever remember their students’ names and faces, because they change you and make you think about the world so differently — especially the kids who are your biggest challenges, and who hopefully become your greatest breakthroughs.

These students teach you so much, but the most important lesson is to show love when it seems impossible.

What I know after one year is that the corps members who go on to different things will keep education a priority. They will stay in the fight from wherever they are, and that is powerful.

I am not sure when I will leave the classroom. But I know that when I do, I will keep in touch with as many students as I can. I will have taught about 250 students from 14-18 years old in my two years. Some of them see me as a mentor. They know that we come from different backgrounds, but they see themselves in me.

(4) TFA is “making education worse”

It is tough to take this accusation seriously.

TFA Milwaukee is adding more motivated, energetic teachers to the game, which this city is desperate for right now. The less you pay teachers and the more education problems that arise, the more experienced and smart teachers walk away.

In most cities, we fill voids rather than compete for jobs. But, if worse comes to worst and competition happens, what is so terrible about that? Shouldn’t the best and brightest (TFA or not) teach urban youth who are learning critical reading and writing skills?

It is not about Teach For America; it’s about coming together despite differences to educate our youth.

(5) TFA teachers aren’t joining for the RIGHT reasons

I joined this organization in March of my senior year of college and I was flooded with questions: Why? Why would you do that? Will you be safe? Do you even want to teach? You’re moving to Milwaukee? Are you crazy?What are your motives? Are they good ones? Why are you joining such a controversial organization? Why are you doing something that I hear such bad things about?

The questions came, from friends and family. The truth is, I had these questions, too. And I didn’t have many answers. I saw that the young people I admired most were joining this organization, and had meaningful life experiences to share. They seemed like better people because of their experience. My short answer was,I’m doing this because it seems like I can make an impact.”

The real answer now is that “joining TFA” is not really relevant to my identity as a teacher. TFA is the channel that got me here, to this classroom, to these kids, and for that I am forever grateful. TFA is the people who support and love me, and the community of which I am a contributing member.

“TFA” is not relevant to my teaching for a few reasons. First, in my everyday teacher life, I do not interact with any corps members. I teach at a school with veteran teachers, and I was the first and only TFA teacher hired this year. Second, every corps member is having a different experience.

It is unfair to say that joining TFA means you are part of the public education problem in Milwaukee. We may have flaws as an organization, but we are transparent and working to fix those problems. The problems stem from the education system —  not the organization trying to help.

To address the idea that graduates have joined because they want a resume builder: You can’t continue this work because you want a good resume – it’s too hard, too exhausting, and if the passion isn’t there, you won’t stand it.

Tell me that my friends are not making a difference in this city, and I will tell you that you are terribly wrong.

A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson surrounding the Ted Talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” One writing prompt was, “What assumptions or stereotypes do you have of your teachers? What is your single story of Ms. Keeshin?” I saw that one girl had written something longer than the others and asked what it was on her way out of the class. She said, “This is my single story of you,” and handed it to me:

The single story I see when I look at Ms. Keeshin, I see patience. Her patience is her strongest quality. Her second best is that she cares. She tries so hard to help her students learn even though they make it so hard to do. Ms. Keeshin is caring and considerate of her students’ future. I see the frustration in her face, eyes and body language, but she goes through each day trying to do what she’s supposed to do. She just wants a change, for the better; and I respect her greatly for what she’s doing.

You heard it here first — the students of those “Teach Americas” are appreciative of their teachers and all that they do.

As a final note, I want to thank all of my teachers, in and out of the classroom. I am forever indebted to you for the doors you have opened for me.

Laney Keeshin is a Teach for America corps member who teaches Spanish at a high school in Milwaukee.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

13 thoughts on “Is Teach for America “Problematic”?”

  1. Ms Keeshin, anecdotal evidence isn’t proof of anything except your own personal biases. Enthusiasm and energy aren’t valid indicators of anything in education. Competition does not work in learning, which you would know if you had an actual degree in education (Alfie Kohn: Punished by Rewards). Comparing your complaints with another teacher’s complaints, again, isn’t proof of anything. TFA was dead on arrival because the problem with education is America has to do with the fact that any moron can run a school and they do.

  2. Kyle says:

    Michael, would MPS be better off with TFA teachers in classrooms, or no teachers filling those spots? TFA isn’t forced on anyone, and I’d love to see someone make that case that MPS school board or administration are run by conservatives trying to destroy education.

  3. PMD says:

    I could be wrong, but I thought I read that one of the biggest problems critics have with TFA is that the teachers tend to only stick around for a year or two before moving on. Whether they come from TFA or elsewhere, urban classrooms need qualified, dedicated teachers who stick around. And enthusiasm and energy are nice.

  4. Liza says:

    I think the biggest problem facing MPS teachers is the lack of respect that most of the rest of government and the public has for the work they do under very difficult conditions.

    However, I think it is also a symbol of that disrespect that leads to discounting the backgrounds *in education* that traditional teacher education provides. If we think that you should have studied math or science in order to teach math or science,doesn’t it also follow that you should study how children develop and learn before we give you responsibility for helping children develop and learn?

    Maybe some people have a natural gift for teaching, but that’s a hard thing to evaluate on a system-wide basis. That’s why I think we need to maintain strong licensing standards. And I think it is legitimate to question how effective TFA teachers are. Education researchers? Surely there are some studies that can be done on this, rather than everyone just trotting out anecdotal evidence that supports their opinions.

  5. David Nelson says:

    Michael: How are we supposed to take your comments seriously? They appear narrow minded and not well developed. I too have heard of systemic problems related to TFA, yet I do not automatically reject what Ms. Keeshin has written above. The problems with education in the US is largely structural (political, economic and societal). Too little value is placed on teachers in general.

    Before this thread devolves into a screed on making teachers more effective, consider this: We have to value a good education and a rewarding educational experience before we can expect superior results. Taking money away from public education is not a solution. If TFA instructors are often a stop gap measure, well… that’s the product of emphasizing overly simplified, test oriented, educational policy. If Ms. Keeshin is producing a positive effect in her school, she should be complimented.

    I will add that teaching is more than knowing a subject and having good intentions. It is also understanding how kids learn, producing lesson plans which are logical and creative, and knowing how to get the most from limited resources. If Ms. Keeshin’s understanding of pedagogy and learning styles is limited, hopefully she makes progress in that area while she remains a teacher.

    There are many who criticize education and teachers, yet know relatively little about the subject or of the political forces which seek to dismantle public education. They jump on one side or another of the hot button issues and whack on the knuckles anyone trying to scrabble through the ineffective political landscape. Teachers of any stripe are among the easiest targets.

    I’ll offer one suggestion to Ms. Keeshin. Look into the general criticism that TFA is part of a dumbed down system producing unsophisticated educational philosophy and mediocre instruction. How is that true or not true? What can be done to improve it? I applaud your defense of self and colleagues, however, some of the criticism directed at TFA is fair and needs addressing.

  6. PMD says:

    “I will add that teaching is more than knowing a subject and having good intentions. It is also understanding how kids learn, producing lesson plans which are logical and creative, and knowing how to get the most from limited resources.”

    Extremely well-said and true David.

  7. SteveM says:

    Wait, I thought that lifting the residency law would solve the shortage of teachers needed in the city. Or was that another political move to garner votes, too?

    I have a niece who was in TFA for one year, in the Delta region of Mississippi. Same complaints, but she bailed and can now say that she was teacher…nice resume builder. Maybe someday she can even run for office with that little gem, i.e. Roberta Darling. The kids will still be there.

    PMD, that second study is interesting. I’d like to see a longitudinal study that shows where those TFA and traditional Math/Science teachers make their real money…teaching or in industry.

  8. I would like to address several comments made to myself. First, if schools needs to use TFA teachers because no one else wants the job, then there is a fundamental problem with how that school is run that has nothing to do with teachers. Second, Ms. Keeshin makes a lot of false assertions that are based on nothing but biased anecdotal evidence. Now she could be correct in her assertions, but she didn’t prove them. The burden of proof is on her to prove them and not on me to disprove them.

    The education studies cited in Time and the Atlantic are not valid because they are not true experiments. They are known as quasi-experimental. In a real experiment, subjects are randomly selected from the general population and neither the subjects nor those administering the treatment (TFA teacher) can know who is getting the treatment. The reality is that everyone knows, possibly leading to a placebo effect. This is the same effect we see with new technology. It seems to get results and then those results fade over time. The study should compare new non TFA teachers to new TFA teachers, but they don’t.

    Also, student test scores do not measure teacher effectiveness. They measure student knowledge. To infer that a test a student takes indicates the effectiveness of a teacher has no basis in science. We don’t blame lawyers for the criminal acts of their clients. We don’t blame doctors if an obese patient dies of a heart attack, but we blame teachers for the ignorance of students. So, we can hold teachers accountable for children who are not theirs but not the parents? This is about as absurd as it gets.

    According to the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance there are seven limitations of expertise. About half deal with the scientific fact that experts do not understand how the transfer of knowledge works.

  9. Virginia Small says:

    Laney:
    You made some good points and challenged some assertions. However, your quoting of someone’s statistics about TFA members staying in education needs further explanation to validate your argument.

    “In a guest post on the TFA website, Dr. Barbara Torre Veltri explains, “The majority of corps members teach for a third year, and 84 percent of our more than 37,000 alumni—going back to our charter corps in 1990—remain in education; 11,000-plus are classroom teachers, more than 900 are school leaders, and nearly 250 lead school systems.”

    Your source accounts for only 12,150 of 37,000 alumni. That’s about one third of alumni in the education jobs listed, not 84 percent. The total percentage could include people in other education-related jobs, but those jobs need to be specified or the “84 percent” stat is meaningless.

  10. Chad Sommer says:

    I did TFA from 2011-2013, and have come out as a very vocal critic of the program. Here are 5 articles I have written covering various issues and problems:

    Salon.com
    Teach For America’s pro-corporate, union-busting agenda
    http://www.salon.com/2014/01/13/teach_for_americas_pro_corporate_union_busting_agenda_partner/

    Reboot Illinois
    TEACHING IS A PROFESSION, NOT A 2-YEAR SERVICE PROJECT
    http://www.rebootillinois.com/2014/01/01/uncategorized/chad-sommer/teaching-profession-2-year-service-project/2899/

    Cloaking Inequity
    A Primer for Engaging Teach For America Supporters
    http://cloakinginequity.com/2014/03/16/a-primer-for-engaging-teach-for-america-supporters/

    TFA alum Critiques Co-CEO’s “Slick Willie” Interview
    http://cloakinginequity.com/2014/02/06/its-sommer-time-tfa-alum-critiques-co-ceos-slick-willie-interview/

    Edushyster
    Internal Documents Reveal Charter Expansion, TFA Go Hand in Hand
    http://edushyster.com/?p=4369

  11. Mel says:

    She is upset because she doesn’t know how to handle Urban children. She signed up for the job she knows the risk. Suck it up you got your degree, understand the students and teach. If you have to go to Walmart and help those students with school supplies to learn do it! So what the Suburbs don’t its a different environment Help those who need it.

  12. Noelle says:

    This article was self-serving and unenlightening. I considered shredding it line by line but it is not worth devoting an hour of my life to the exercise. I agree with the comments by Michael. LIke him, I was also unimpressed by the author’s assertions that her colleague down the hall was as ill prepared as she was despite a traditional preparation for teaching. If somebody is not more prepared for something after one or two years of full time study than another person is after 5 weeks, that is not a testament to 5 weeks being sufficient so much as it is to the inadequacy of the individual who had more preparation. As to whether it is true or not that he was as poorly prepared as she, we have only her word for it. How does she know the subtleties of what happened in his classroom since she was mainly occupied in hers? Even if he commiserated with her, was it genuine? I often nod my head and say, “Oh, me, too” to people even though I may barely or not at all agree with them to be an agreeable person because part of being socially astute is not hurting people’s feelings or offending them by disagreeing with them or one upping them when there is little to be gained by it for you or them or the world at large. For example, when my neighbor tells me that she feels tired, do I say, “Not me. I have lots of energy! You feel tired so much because you are grossly obese and excessively sedentary in your habits.” Of course I don’t! She would not change her bad habits by my statement of truth. All I would accomplish is to hurt her feelings and earn her enmity. So my response is along the lines of, “Oh, I know what you mean. It always seems like no matter how many chores you do, there are always more waiting!” If this teacher’s coworker was not a better teacher than her from the outset after one or two years of teacher preparation that in most (all?) states includes a mandatory teacher practicum in which he does actual teaching with supervision and mentoring, none of which she had excluding 5 weeks of summer training without real teaching experience, then her colleague must be some sort of near idiot. Sorry, but it just doesn’t pass the smell test. What is more likely…that one or two years of education with actual experience compared to 5 weeks of training with no experience means nothing or that he was blowing smoke up her rear to make her feel good? Do I believe he had first year teacher difficulties? Of course. Do I believe he was as unprepared as she was? Highly, highly unlikely.

    As I said, her entire biased piece could be torn apart with fact and logic, but it is mostly not worth the time aside from one important point I would like to make.

    In this piece, the TFA teacher writes that TFA provides teachers to students who otherwise would not have one. That is not true at all. In the first place, in my experience and research, traditionally credentialed teachers are available but passed over and TFA is hired in their stead for a variety of reasons not including the inadequacy of the traditionally certified teachers. Second, TFA and similar programs are creating a teacher shortage. As traditionally certified teachers encountered the job market of recent years in which they could not find employment or they were laid off because of budget cuts, many of them passed the word–Don’t go into teaching. I have myself discouraged people from entering the teaching profession. Many other teachers have done the same. Why go into a profession that will hire a person with 5 weeks experience while people with an expensive teaching degree and extensive schooling plus actual experience are passed over without being even considered?

    Now school districts across America are starting to reap the harvest of their years of both abuse of teachers and the unavailability of jobs for traditionally certified teachers. At the same time, job prospects have brightened for college graduates so TFA has recently announced it will have to cut the number of TFA interns because it has markedly fewer applicants to its program. Frankly, school districts are getting exactly what they deserve. They turned their noses up at traditionally certified teachers as though our years of training meant nothing, now they are crying, “teacher shortage!”. Well, you can only cry wolf so many times before people stop listening.

    They spent the last 10 years passing over traditionally certified teachers to get their little TFA stars…now they want us back? Hah! They wanted TFA, they got it. Now they better learn to be content with the bed they made. I think a corner has been turned in education but there is no going back. It has become very clear that teachers are reviled. Their professionalism is not respected even when they are highly trained and skilled. Such a profession is not going to attract quality workers when those workers are treated as though they are so expendable that even a trained with a mere 5 weeks of training can be their replacement.

    If you think that a TFA teacher can replace me and teachers like me, congratulations, I hope you get your wish. Now let’s see how much parents and society loves having classrooms across America stocked with minimally trained teachers with no experience. The TFA picture is painted as though it is very pretty, this silly piece is a prime example of typical TFA propaganda. But the reality is ugly. TFA and other societal trends that have removed the traditionally certified classroom teacher have been sowing their fouled seeds for over a decade. The harvest is in. Do you all like what you planted so eagerly? If the results have not reached you yet, just wait. It is only a matter of time. Like a bad fungus, the dismantling of traditional teaching is spreading from the inner city to the suburbs year by year. Soon it will be even the high achieving schools in more affluent areas that get a taste of this disease.

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