Skeptical of the Kool-Aid Already

Gary Rubinstein’s blog on TeachForUs (the independent network of TFA blogs)  is probably the best source of the counter-argument to TFA’s hype. For one thing, he simply makes very intelligent critiques of TFA’s philosophy, training institute, and implementation. For another, he’s a former TFA’er himself from 1991, much earlier on in the program’s history, and he appears to have remained “actively involved in the discussion” surrounding TFA, shall we say. He’s been through it, and seen it grow and change.

A recent post addressed to the 2011 Corps, entitled “@2011s: Can you Handle the Truth?” (check out the comment thread too) got me thinking… it gets at what across the board seem to be the major criticisms I’ve read about TFA:

  1. They encourage a revolving door of inexperienced people, further adding inconsistency to the lives of children who need it so badly. (See my previous post for a link to a good rant on the subject.)
  2. They seem to think that arming a new teacher with nothing but hope and idealistic optimism will automatically result in better teaching.
  3. They have the systems and national/local political clout to spin the numbers any way they want in spite of this.

So could I address these three in a way that would make a personal experience in TFA ok? Well, in response to #1, see my previous post. In response to #3, I’m pretty sure I’m stubborn enough of an idealist on my own that I would independently track what I think is important regardless of whether or not TFA does. It’s #2 that really worries me.

I think I know the subject matter, I think I have the personal effectiveness, I think I genuinely believe science is fun and could make it fun, I think have the personal grit and stubborn idealistic streak required…. but I really doubt I have one of the most important things it takes to be a teacher, one that apparently TFA doesn’t seem to spend a single once of energy preparing or supporting their corps with: classroom management. And seriously, considering where they are putting you, you’d think that would be really high on the list. So, I’m not surprised actually that TFA might have to spend some time massaging statistics to show that they are making Adequate Yearly Progress.

So, I emailed Gary. I intended it to be short, but like most of my emails, it ended up tangenting and much longer than I intended. Anyway, he was very kind to respond quickly. In his email, among a list of possible alternatives, was the following sentence from one of TFA’s most vocal critics:

Doing TFA isn’t a bad idea, as long as you know what to watch out for.

That is, do your own homework on observing, learning from, and reading about effective teaching methods, and take everything TFA says with a huge grain of salt.

Along those lines, check out the last comment on his blog post, from someone listed as “Ali”:

I think a huge issue with the TfA training is that they set it up as- do a+b+c and you will be successful. Set big goals, work relentlessly, believe in your students. They put the onus on you- if you are not successful, it is because you are failing to follow the directions we told you. And if you don’t get that 1.5 years of growth like you are supposed to- well that is your fault for not trying hard enough.

I have never seen a more depressed, anxious group than the TfA corps members who believed it was their fault they were not succeeding and getting the growth tfa wanted quickly.

Teaching is really hard. Teaching kids in difficult circumstances is harder. Being told that your lack of success falls squarely on your shoulders because you weren’t as good as everyone else, leads to a lot of corps members in therapy.

Yeah. Grain of salt. If you go with them, use them for your own goals (like trying to become a long-term career teacher in a needed field or district), don’t let them burn you out using you for theirs, at least not without a quid pro quo. And remember that the district is your employer, not TFA… they just facilitated the arrangement and took the middle-man’s cut. Convenient, but not really necessary in the long run / big picture?

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