I did it. I survived Houston Institute and I am cheerfully enjoying a few days in Austin before heading to the Valley to continue with certification sessions. After taking a couple days to decompress from the stress that was Institute, and after catching up on many of the posts going around about TFA and the Free Minds, Free People conference, I have been doing some thinking.
As a note that shouldn’t be necessary, but I feel like it is, these are my opinions. Feel free to disagree, and to argue with them, or to agree and lend your support. Also, sometimes when I have so much to process (as I do right now), my thoughts get jumbled. If any section of this needs clarification, or I get off topic, please tell me so I can edit.
The issue I have with the controversy going on is that I support parts of each side. I agree that the 5 weeks I just had at Institute did not fully prepare me for teaching – how could they? I have never taught before (unless you count water skiing at my summer camp, and I would understand if you didn’t!). I was thrown into a classroom and had to figure it all out. Luckily I had an amazing CMA with lots of teaching experience to guide me. The 5 weeks were intense, but I really wish we had more time. There is so much more to learn! The comfort for me is, after talking with my many friends who were education majors and are also preparing for their first year of teaching, we are on the same level with some things. Sure, they had many classes over the past few years that taught them how to do pretty much everything. They had student teaching experience, where they not only observed classes but led a few as well. But they also are lacking confidence heading into their new classrooms. So do I think I am prepared as well as I could be for teaching this Fall? No way. But I feel way more prepared than had I done an alternative certification program on my own, as I was planning had TFA fallen through. I wish Institute had been the entire summer – not just 5 weeks, but the whole 3 months. We could have a month of just lots of classes and sessions, and the next two months working with the students. In Houston we started teaching after students had been in classes for two weeks already! Not only did that make things difficult because they were used to a different teacher, but we also did not get more than a few weeks in the classroom with them. I’m proud of the work my students did this summer, but with even one or two more weeks it could have helped even more! Especially since the first week was a lot of us figuring out that, “hey, lecturing at high school kids doesn’t work as well as it does in a college classroom.” Had we been taught for longer before entering the classroom, maybe we would have figured that out before being in front of our kids.
I’ve decided to pursue my MSEd in an online program over the next two years. For me, teaching is what I want to do for a long time. I’ve pretty much always known I wanted to end up in teaching, but even knowing I was heading towards this profession didn’t make the decision to join TFA any easier. Committing to two years far away from home, in a school that would provide an even greater challenge than in a more affluent community made the choice tough. But these lower income communities need teachers. I know there is a huge controversy over TFA in Chicago and other areas where veteran teachers are being laid off by the hundreds, while TFA CM’s are being hired in abundance. I don’t agree with that. TFA is not here to work in every single society and to push veteran teachers out of jobs. TFA is supposed to work in communities where there is a high need for teachers. That is the organization I joined, and it hurts my heart to see this issue come up because it has such a simple solution.
I honestly think I can be a “transformational teacher” in my school, because I know what to take from TFA and what I need to learn on my own. I plan on seeking outside help from veteran teachers at my school, and from friends of mine who have been in education for 10+ years. I know that I am limited in my abilities at this current moment, and will do whatever I can to make sure my students receive the best education they can have. So many CM’s I’ve met over the past few weeks don’t seem to understand this. They went to top universities and were told they could do anything, and they took that cocky mindset to Institute. Many of them left with that same attitude, though a few did seem humbled by this experience. The overwhelming majority of CM’s I’ve met jumped right in and drank the TFA Kool-Aid by the gallon. And that frustrates me. I do agree with a lot of TFA’s goals, and I know that some of the methods we’re taught have been proven to work in classrooms. But I also think every one of us has an obligation to make our own choices about what our district, school and classroom needs. Some things we are taught will hinder, rather than help, the success of our students. It’s our responsibility to identify these methods and speak out against them. This summer, my FA group got into a huge discussion about grading curves. For our midterm assessments, we were given a grading scale that made 60% the lowest score a student could receive. For the final exam, my co-teacher and I decided to create our own grading scale. I know this is an issue that is debated in other schools, not just TFA, but it is important to me that my high schoolers start to take responsibility for their actions, and that they get the education they need. I had a couple students who honestly did not understand the concepts we learned in class. I would hold them after, add in modifications, and re-teach to them individually when needed. But when this happens for every single objective, and they still don’t understand after individual instruction, I think it is in the student’s best interest to stay in that grade level class. Sometimes I felt like TFA was pushing us to get each student to pass no matter what, but I did not feel comfortable sending some students on to a more challenging level before they master the basics. I discussed this with the students who would not pass, and I feel better knowing they will not get to the next class and already be way behind. That won’t help them be college ready, which is the TFA (and my personal) goal for my students.
This post seems like a pretty big ramble at this point. So because I kind of mixed in my own reflections and my view of some of the controversy, here is what I think needs to happen for TFA to get on track for its goal of giving a quality education to all students:
- Get out of areas that do not need teachers. TFA teachers are not as qualified as those who went through a full education degree or who have years of teaching experience. (A few exceptions being the CM’s who have gone through ed. programs) Place CM’s only where there is a need for teachers, even if it means not expanding into more areas of the country.
- Focus on placing CM’s where they are qualified. I know a few people who are teaching math or science or special education when they have very little, if any, experience with the topic. Having many family members who work in special education, I know how difficult it is and how much extra training it takes. CM’s who have not focused in special education in undergrad or grad should not be near these students who need even more specialized attention and help
- Funding. Let’s figure this out. I don’t have any big ideas for it, but it needs to change. Let’s see if I can be more vague about this…
- Longer training. I would gladly commit to 3 months of Institute to be better prepared to teach my students. I’m not some big savior, riding in on my white horse to save the poor children. I’m here to be a leader in the community and school, and I need to be prepared for it. Honestly, I would be willing to commit to an entire year of certification training. Of course, I would need to find a way to have money to survive while this happened, but imagine how great our teachers would be if they could spend a whole year studying education, observing classes, and getting certified? I could only dream…
- Time commitment. I see a lot of people arguing that we need to be committed to more than 2 years of education. The problem I see with this is that at my age it is terrifying to commit to anything for more than a week! I think it is a problem of my generation, but we are severely anti-commitment. That being said, I agree that hiring CM’s who are here for two years and then plan to peace out have no business in the program. I don’t expect to be a perfect teacher after my first year, I know that every single year I will have to make changes and grow as an educator. I plan on being in education past my two year commitment, but I know many who are not. I could see a few solutions. Raise the commitment to three years – for some reason, I feel like that would do one of two things: Either scare off some potential CM’s who are only here for a resume builder, or it could encourage more teachers to stay in education longer. Two years is not enough time to learn everything we need, but it is short enough to tempt many who only want something to pass the time until grad school.
- Perhaps more than changing the time commitment, there should be a program put in place that motivates CM’s to stay in education longer. I don’t know what this will look like, but I think it is necessary. We really can’t be an effective program if we are constantly re-starting with a fresh batch of CM’s. Get a few who will commit to the long-run, rather than a bunch who will be here for a short blip of time.
I don’t agree that CM’s have a responsibility to completely quit TFA if they are assigned to a region like Chicago, or if they are placed in a content they are not really qualified for. It is TFA’s responsibility to not place CM’s in these locations and contents, and it is our obligation as CM’s to demand relocation when necessary. I do believe there are some simple solutions to some of the big issues with TFA. There are also some very complicated, albeit not impossible, solutions as well. But we need to start implementing them to fix what is broken and strengthen what works. I also encourage all my fellow CM’s to take everything we’re told with a grain of salt. Your responsibility as a citizen of world is to not blindly accept everything thrown at you. Find your truth, find your stance, and take action when necessary and possible.
And, because I love quotes, here are a few over-used quotes that I think appropriately wrap-up this rant:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Ghandi
If we don’t step up to change the problems we see, nobody will. You can’t just stand around and complain and wish something would change.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” -Margaret Mead
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela
This is not just true for our students. It is true for us as members of society. Educate yourself on the issue before taking a stance (as I told my students this summer, you can have your own opinion, but you need to be able to support it!). Act with thought.
I am proud to be working with Teach For America. Not only is it helping me get to where I want to be in life, but I do believe the mission of TFA is a noble and important one. Sure, some things fell off track and there are many bumps in the road ahead, but I think once the organization becomes more comfortable with change (which it must do!), we really can get students everywhere the education they deserve. But the key to this is change.