April 30, 2014

Teacher Bashing - a Two-Sided Coin

It seems that the low hanging fruit in the education discourse these days is Teach for America.  An organization which was founded to help reduce the teacher shortages in the 1990s and has persisted through the last two decades as a controversial alternative certification program.

What I find problematic is not Teach for America in and of itself, but rather the discourse surrounding Teach for America, or rather Teach for A minute as some have dubbed the organization.  Rethinking Schools has devoted a significant amount of ink its latest issue to the subject of “Resisting Teach for America.”  Let me be clear, I am not a proponent nor opponent of TFA.  I am a proponent of being able to utter the name of an organization that is in the business of educating educators who enter hundreds, if not thousands of classrooms annually, in a respectful manner.  While I agree that TFA is problematic (more on that in a moment), I find the discourse surrounding its existence and practices even more disconcerting.

One of the articles in RS highlights the type of ironic, hypocritical discourse I am speaking of.  A quote, which is highlighted in bold print in the text, argues that “we are all victims – the students, the parents, the communities and the TFA teachers themselves…”  This type of deficit thinking (e.g. we are all victims) is exactly the opposite of my experiences with TFA teachers. As a Small Schools Coordinator in a persistently dangerous and underperforming high school in South Central LA, our school was inundated with TFA teachers each fall.  Rather than be embraced by the general faculty, they were dismissed outright as “only being there for a moment” or “not knowing anything about anything” and worse. [For a better articulation of TFA experiences at my former school see Donna Foote’s excellent book Relentless Pursuit

Rookie pitcher carrying Hello Kitty Backpack
Sorry to go here again, but to use a sports analogy, you do not ride the rookies so much that they want to leave as soon as their first contract is up.  You want to make sure that they become an integral part of the team.  Thus, we can do two things at once - criticize TFA as an organization, and uplift those new teachers who are our colleagues in our buildings.  What is even more egregious, when I have made this statement in other forums, the response of too many veteran teachers is that Teach for America corps members are “not teachers to begin with.”  My how quickly the crabs in the barrel try to pull others down, and how quickly people forget their own first few years in the classroom.

My personal journey towards the classroom began around 1999 or so. I went into the Chicago Public Schools district office to get a form to become a substitute teacher.  Remember back then, there was no NCLB and one did not have to be “highly qualified.” Rather than being treated with respect and encouragement, I was summarily dismissed by the staff and handed a form.  I left with a bad taste in my mouth, but still a desire to teach.

Fast forward a few years, after years in politics, public relations and working with students outside the classroom and occasionally substitute teaching, I applied to Teach for America.  In the early months of 2003, after submitting a written application, I was called into an office building in downtown Chicago for an interview which consisted of a focus group discussion, a one-on-one interview and a 5 minute classroom presentation of a lesson.  At the same time I was going through the application process with TFA, I also applied to another alternative certification program, The New Teacher Project, specifically the Los Angeles Teaching Fellows (LATF).  I was also called into LATF to perform a similar job presentation, this time in Los Angeles.  I flew out with what few funds I had, with visions of entering the classroom as a history teacher. 

I was subsequently rejected from TFA and was hired into the 6-week induction program for LATF.  While I cannot concretely point to the reasons I was rejected from TFA, yet hired by a similar program, I believe that I was too “old” having been 33 years old when I interviewed rather than the norm of around 23 for Teach for America corps members and, according to a new article, perhaps too Black – see: A Racio-Economic Analysis of Teach for America.  Nonetheless, what is problematic a decade later is not that both organizations are still around (not LATF, but NTTP), but rather why does Teach for America bear the brunt of the criticism while The New Teacher Project (TNTP) gets off scot free?  It is because it is easier to critique “neophyte” young people who are straight out of college, even if they are graduating from top institutions and at or near the top of their classes , versus second or third career “veterans” who have experience in the professional world, albeit not in the formal classroom?

Many of my peers from LATF are still in the classroom a decade later.  The six-week training we experienced was as intense, perhaps more so, than any teacher education program I have encountered.  The question is, it a matter of paying “dues” through years accrued in an undergraduate teacher program, or learning the skills necessary to perform well in the classroom?  I argue, as does Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, that teacher education programs are not doing as good of a job as they can in training teachers either. 

Perhaps we need to reevaluate the “we are all victims” mantra that has permeated the discourse in public education and flip the script to we are all heroes.  Or maybe we are all learners.  Or we are all in this together.  If we do not begin to become proactive towards a positive goal, as opposed to simply being “against” an organization, educational policy, specific politician, etc…then we are going to be doomed to a continued level of educational inequity and lack of social justice we all wish to achieve.  The time for band-aid’s passing as policy reform has long since passed.  It is now time to begin to marshal our forces towards positive change by being more positive.

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