Monday, January 2, 2012

Thoughts on TFA

As I am sure you are aware by now, this blog is more a diary where I share my thoughts, feelings, and personal experiences. I usually use anecdotes to get a point across. I do that with my students too. When the information is humanized and personal, they are more likely to make their own connections to it and remember it later.  That being said, the TFA  program has been on my mind a lot lately, for a multitude of reasons. The main reason is because I feel very conflicted about it.

Just recently I was reading a column written by Andrew Hartman posted in the Washington Post under Valerie Straus about TFA.

"After twenty years of sending academically gifted but untrained college graduates into the nation’s toughest schools, the evidence regarding TFA corps member effectiveness is in, and it is decidedly mixed. Professors of education Julian Vasquez Heilig and Su Jin Jez, in the most thorough survey of such research yet, found that TFA corps members tend to perform equal to teachers in similar situations —that is, they do as well as new teachers lacking formal training assigned to impoverished schools. Sometimes they do better, particularly in math instruction.

Yet “the students of novice TFA teachers perform significantly less well,” Vasquez Heilig and Jin Jez discovered, “than those of credentialed beginning teachers.”  It seems clear that TFA’s vaunted thirty-day summer institute—TFA “boot camp”—is no replacement for the preparation given future teachers at traditional colleges of education."

I take this to mean that TFA is as effective as any novice teacher entering the classroom as any alternate route candidate. They are NOT better than novice teachers who have studied education, served in the classroom as a teaching intern, and earned a degree. I can believe that. After reading countless blogs, articles, and comments written by TFA corps and former corps members, it has been said time and time again, the training is inadequate and it just puts a band-aide on the larger problem.

One commenter talialynn80 said it best, though sometimes reading comments can be dangerous, "Any profession is debased when temporary workers with on the job training are considered equivalent to those with degrees in the field and long term commitments. Imagine the up roar that would ensue if a similar program were created for nursing or police work. Or better yet, imagine if TFA had a matching program, where for every inner city school, a prestigious private or well functioning suburban school was required to take in an inexperienced TFA trainee who will leave in two years. TFA smacks of a program that is great "for other people's" children."

Yes, I feel that way too. It is a smack in the face to have inexperienced people, good motives, or bad ones (the resume padders) placed in a building when there are now literally hundreds of qualified applicants for the jobs.

I teach in NJ. Here it is very difficult for an alternate route teacher to find employment. I have a friend with a science degree who has been trying for three years now. She wants to work close to home to be accessible to her 2 children, one who is autistic, so working in one of the cities is a no for her. In NJ, I presume it is similar in other states as well, teachers with alternate route degrees will most likely be hired in urban areas, and for positions like math, science, and special education. Those are the hard to fill jobs. Alternate route teachers, like my friend, are usually starting a career change and do the course work upon hire to keep their jobs permanently.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am an alternate route teacher for special education. There is one big difference though. I had my standard certificate in elementary education and had three years of teaching experience before switching to special education; therefore, I am not considered alternate route credentialed. Now that I have been teaching for 10 years it doesn't matter anyway. I don't think it is a stretch to ask people to be qualified for the job they have or want. Would you go to  lawyer in training? or a doctor who may have a medical degree but never did any internships? I know some people don't like the analogies, but why should teaching be any less important?

I can also say that my first year, even with all of the training, fieldwork, and internships, I stunk out loud.  Hard to admit that, but hind-sight being 20/20 and all. In 10 years of teaching I can say I know 10 times more than I did that first year. Yes, experienced teachers cost more, but they are definitely worth more. Are there people I wish would be fired? Few and far between, but yes they are there.

Yes, I think ALL children, even those attending private, charter, and parochial schools, should have a certified teacher in their classroom. As of now only public schools require certified teachers. How sad is that? Don't hate me for saying this, but in NJ it is said that if you're teaching in a private or charter school you more than likely didn't pass the praxis or couldn't get hired elsewhere. Yeah, I know that's not true for everyone, or even the majority of people outside the public school system, but it's what people say.

Ok, I don't really believe in the Teach for America Program. After teaching in the inner city for  what is now 7 years, I can say wholeheartedly, our poorest students need our BEST teachers. I taught in the suburbs for three years before coming to the city. Frankly, it doesn't take much to teach suburban kids who don't have learning or language difficulties. Little did I know then. Once I came to the city, I realized I never worked so hard in my life. Now I am in a working-class neighborhood in the same city, and even there I don't feel I work half as hard as I did in the "ghetto". If you want to see fundamental change in education give the hard jobs to the "good teachers" in the suburbs instead of rewarding them by sending them to the easy schools. So how can I in good conscience support a program that puts the least prepared instructors, because they aren't teachers just yet, in front of these kids? I can't! I am conflicted because saying that makes me feel disloyal to family.

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a relative who is a TFA teacher in a rural area.  She was a psychology major hired to teach middle school science. She went into it thinking, "Hey I want to teach at the college level, so why not teach for real before graduate school." Seemed like a good idea. I looked at the program myself when I was in grad school because of the loan forgiveness, which I should have gotten anyway teaching in the inner city. Missed it by "that" much. Whole other argument there.

For three years now I have been saying, "Yeah, but my cousin is in TFA and she does a great job." She announced she is quitting this year. If there's one thing I hate, it's someone living up to a stereotype. TFA again stands for Teach for a While. I shouldn't hold it against her because she never intended it to be forever. I think that's the biggest problem of all. These corps members never intend for it to be forever. It truly bothers those of us who have dedicated our lives and livelihoods to education to hear these folks receive accolades for "teaching for a while." Also, why do districts have to pay a head-hunters fee when there are 100's of free applicants out there. As a parent, I know I would rather have a certified and experienced teacher leading my child.

My cousin would complain that the other staff members treated them like garbage, second class citizens. I encouraged her to see it from their perspective. She would also tell me how many of the staff members themselves were not certified because the school/county had a very hard time retaining certified staff.  To that I say, Pay them more and treat them better for starters. She also commented on how the staff didn't go to very good schools and didn't seem nearly as knowledgeable as say myself or her sister. (She said the state university functioned at about a 7th grade reading level, and hated the idea of doing any kind of graduate work there. I think the negative attitude swung both ways there.)

Anyway, she earned a good reputation and seemed to enjoy her work and seemed successful at it. However, now that I think back on it, there are startling differences between her and myself. She thinks about success in terms of classroom management and higher test scores. She has been made to believe that the all mighty test score is the actual goal of education. I rate success as increased reading levels and joy of watching a child's face light up when a new skill is mastered or concept understood. I HATE what testing has done to education.  I teach for understanding and joy, not for regurgitation.

My scores look good, but I don't feel pride in them. In the burbs I was at 95% passing as a first year teacher. I always say they did that despite me, not because of me. The other  5% bug me because those were the kids that walked in as basic skills students and I feel I didn't help them one lick that year. My co-teacher and I were praised last year because we had the best scores in the first grade on the Terra Nova in our building. I accepted my accolades and kept it moving. My reward was a transfer to a building that already has passing scores. Go figure.

Long story short, My cousin is leaving her teaching post and is now being considered for a management post with TFA. If she gets the position she will be overseeing about 30 corps members in her area. Really?!! They think that after 3 years she has enough experience to be a supervisor? I had my first student teacher this year. She was kind of sprung on me the third day of school. I always said I wanted one, but I was unprepared for her. Frankly I never felt ready to oversee another teacher until now. Does my cousin and her company really think that after a mere three years she's ready to oversee 30 new teachers without any kind of teaching experience behind them. Also, if the veterans in their schools are that adverse to having them on staff, who will really mentor them. I keep seeing problems and not many solutions.

So I guess the question is, am I being disloyal, because FAMILY IS EVERYTHING, or should I stop biting my tongue and say what  I really think?

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