In previous posts, I have danced around possibilities of what a service-oriented TFA might look like. My complaints at this point are:
- TFA is no longer addressing teaching shortages as initially envisioned.
- Parachuting mostly white 22-year-olds into communities they don’t know working a job they are not adequately prepared for is not the best way to achieve transformational change in low-income neighborhoods.
- Congruent with its Americorps affiliation, TFA needs to get into the service game.
So, rather than be a total Debbie Downer, I’ve thought about what my version of TFA might look like if I transported myself into Wendy Kopp, Malkovich-style, and wrote my senior thesis at Princeton to create Teach for America. To avoid any confusion, I will refer to this dream organization as Bizarro TFA. I would hate for some poor Googler to find this page and believe every word of it.
- What is Bizarro TFA and what does Bizarro Teach for America do? It is a service organization dedicated to offering resources and support to low-income neighborhoods seeking to ameliorate the challenges facing children before, during, and after they progress through Pre K-12th grade public education. Bizarro TFA recruits corps members for three-year commitments as either teaching corps members (veterans and novices) or community corps members.
- Who are Bizarro TFA corps members? They are citizens of a city or region seeking the resources to redress the social ills which perpetuate poverty and deny children in low-income neighborhoods pathways to the middle class. They may be veteran teachers, new teachers, or non-teaching professionals committed to a cause which affects our kids and their education.
- Does Bizarro TFA create new teachers? There are some, but that is not our primary focus. TFA believes the problem facing low-income neighborhoods is not a shortage of dedicated teachers. Our experience tells us otherwise. What we have noticed, however, is that many traditionally-certified teachers prefer to work in middle and upper-income neighborhoods. It is our mission to find talented educators who dedicate their lives to teaching and offer them resources(1) that will empower them to commit to schools in low-income neighborhoods. Our goal is not just to get teachers to commit temporarily to low-income neighborhood schools; we want more teachers to commit their careers in service of these schools. We can use our philanthropic largesse to equalize salaries so that teachers have greater incentives to teach in urban and rural school districts, and we can relay the lessons we have learned from our experience working in our neighborhoods to ensure that our teaching corps members are approaching their students and families with the humility our kids need from their teachers.
- So, Bizarro TFA doesn’t train teachers? Corps members who are on a new teacher track join their senior year of college. They go through a one-year Institute on top of their undergraduate coursework and also serve a student teaching commitment before teaching full-time. During this one-year Institute, corps members also volunteer in the community for service projects related to school improvement. Our Institutes are run in conjunction with our host universities’ departments of education around the country. We do provide continuous mentoring for teachers in their first 3 years and ongoing professional development for teachers of all levels of experience.
- Why would a veteran teacher join Bizarro TFA? Who better to lead the way for positive change for students than the teachers who have stuck by them for years and years? Their experience in our schools and in our neighborhoods gives them a more detailed perspective of what is needed in their specific communities. And, these teachers could use the resources that TFA has at its disposal to become master teachers, school administrators, department chairs, counselors, social workers, school psychologists, or any position of leadership necessary for a well-functioning school.
- Does Bizarro TFA partner with charter schools? No. Due to the pull of resources away from neighborhood schools that charter schools represent and due to their selectivity of students, we believe the best way forward to eliminating educational inequity is to ensure that each child may succeed in a school where their parents and their teachers have a voice in the direction of their schools. We believe education is a true public good and a social responsibility that should not be abdicated to private, monied interests and we also believe a school has a moral and legal obligation to serve students with a full range of disabilities and language skills.
- What do the non-teaching corps members of Bizarro TFA do? We have had so many talented young people apply to our program with a limited educational background and a limited interest in teaching as a career. That’s okay. Not everyone is cut out for this work. But there is no sense in pouring thousands of dollars per year into developing a teacher who doesn’t want to teach and then repeating the process thousands of times over per year. But, we recognize that if the educational system is to be truly equitable, the scourge of poverty must be fought from every angle. So, for those who are working in policy or law, or those who work for non-profits, or whatever, their three-year commitment requires an extensive internship on behalf of their schools and linkage institutes(2). For example, say you are placed as a community organizer at Sample HS. You might be in charge of coordinating a college night, establishing work-study programs with local employers, working with public transportation officials to make bus lines run more frequently and to more stops, or partnering with a local non-profit combating teen pregnancy to provide community education.
- Does Bizarro TFA do a big summer Institute? No. Children in summer school do not need to be experimented on by total novices and the necessary skills of teaching cannot possibly be passed down in a single month. New teachers must either be traditionally-certified before joining TFA or complete the one-year Institute with student teaching and observations.
- Where do you recruit corps members for Bizarro TFA? We do continue to recruit at universities, but we have concentrated more of our efforts in our partner districts. Each application round, we look for teachers with a record of accomplishment and a dedication to social justice. This record of accomplishment is not limited to test scores and can include notable service projects completed with the school, or starting and sponsoring student organizations. We need to find teachers who have already made their careers about the lives of their children and equip them with the resources to multiply their efforts.
- Does Bizarro TFA pursue big-money philanthropic donations? Sure! If any obscenely wealthy group of individuals wants to cut us a check, who are we to complain? They should just be forewarned that we will listen to absolutely nothing they have to say on education just like they would absolutely not listen to a word we would have to say about managing a hedge fund, monopolizing a market for the better part of a decade, or stifling labor movements. Your donation to Bizarro TFA is your special free-speech way of saying, “I like what your organization is doing for kids; please keep doing that.” Nothing more.
- Does Bizarro TFA place new teachers in regions with no shortages? Nope.
- Does Bizarro TFA champion its alumni who champion privatization efforts? When we see these people in the hall, we avoid eye contact and walk very briskly past them. They are pariahs and they don’t get invited to our parties.
- Since all of this is true, we are clearly on an alien planet. How much do you weigh with this altered gravitational pull? I don’t know, I haven’t checked. But I can finally dunk on a 10-foot hoop, if that helps any.
(1) Americorps award, ongoing professional development and mentorships.
(2) To be frank, this is my least developed idea, but the one with the most room to grow. I feel like there are so many really talented people in TFA who are just not that interested in teaching as a job that could be afforded some opportunity to serve the community in a way that better suits their talents and interests. Maybe internship is the wrong tack, or maybe that’s an incomplete picture. Perhaps some measure of job placement in the non-profit world. I just the get the impression that we are operating with the vestiges of TFA’s original plan which was to address teacher shortages. We aren’t doing that anymore. We don’t need so many of these corps members to be teaching. So why are we trying to fit square pegs into round holes? Why are we holding corps members accountable for two years as a classroom teacher and then letting loose the reins once the non-teachers have fled the field? The whole enterprise lacks a sense of deliberateness and most of the investment dollars put into these two-and-done teachers is sunk.