Is Teach for America “Problematic”?
Milwaukee school board members have complained about the program. A TFA corps member responds.
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.
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.