An Ordinary Teacher Talks to Teach for America

Dear Teach for America,

Allow me to appreciate you for your efforts for children.  Okay.  Now that we’ve done that, let me tell you why I don’t appreciate your efforts for children.

Let me start with an instructive story of being on the other side of the desk.  This fall, I went into my 12 year old niece’s math class at parent’s night.  Her math teacher, a 20 something, young Asian woman in a pert little dress stood in front of the classroom of parents (and one aunt) talking about the year in math.  People were concerned because it was a new school with a new philosophy, one that did not believe in homogeneous grouping for math.  It was worrisome. Would the children be positioned for high school advanced placement classes if they were expected to go at a pace that would serve everyone?  Her teacher allayed our fears by saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to be like those public school teachers.”

I said, “But, you are a public school teacher.”

Her response?  “Yes, but we’re not like them.  We’re more like charters.  We work hard.”

Of course, being a public school teacher myself, I responded with, “Well, that’s offensive,” at which point my sister kicked me under the desk, and I came back to reality.  This is my niece’s math teacher.  I can’t afford to have her dislike my niece so that I can make a political or personal point.  I shut up and went home demoralized.  When a young teacher distances herself from public school teachers to let parents know that she’ll do her job, we’re in trouble.  The teachers are eating their own.

And Teach for America is one of the worst offenders because it sells itself on the self flattering notion that recent Ivy league graduates belong in positions of power where they can accomplish for the country what a nation of clearly less able, ordinary (and probably lazy) teachers could not.

Let’s call this what it is: Marketplace Hinduism. It’s privilege’s answer to everything… a caste system where privilege trumps expertise and experience.  Going to Yale or Harvard, being hired by Teach For America means you don’t need expertise.  You’re smart enough to wing it.  In the TFA paradigm, young Ivy League Brahmin are hard at work reforming an educational system destroyed by the less intelligent and less talented castes… otherwise known as ordinary teachers. And I guess it must be true, because I’m feeling pretty untouchable these days.  What could be less worth being than an ordinary teacher who labors in obscurity, is devalued across America and who can’t point to TFA credentials to lend status to their choice to teach?

Here’s my question: What’s the plan? How can the TFA paradigm be the answer when it rejects and underplays the expertise and hard work of ordinary teachers?  Will there someday be enough TFAs to save the system from those ordinary teachers?  If there were lots of TFA teachers wouldn’t that require the TFA gatekeepers to devalue the exclusivity of their brand? That can’t possibly be the plan.  TFA only works as a privilege system.  Will there be outer circles and inner circles and inner, inner circles of TFA privilege?  Or will the successful TFAs just move smoothly and quickly into positions of authority sidestepping ordinary teachers and expertise like the sons of the boss? What happens to all the ordinary teachers in the trenches?  Are they going to be fired and replaced by wave after wave of temporary TFA teachers on their way to greener, less arduous pastures?  Or will they still be there in trenches directed along paths determined by small cadres of TFA visionaries whose failures will be obscured or recast as success?

Meanwhile, who won’t be heard?  Well, I won’t, for one.  I am merely a committed, hard working, middle school English teacher without a TFA credential. I’ve had the good fortune to be excited and challenged by my students and by my work on a daily basis for 22 years, and my students have been taught well. I’ve taught in a variety of settings over those years, from private school to the NYC schools, and for the last 13 years, in the school I call home: an urban/suburban middle school in a district right outside of New York City.   My students have hailed from all economic and social classes, all races and religions.  In my classroom, they have written dictionaries, studied etymology, made Wikipedia style encyclopedias, made full 4 color magazines, analyzed advertising to the youth market, critiqued visual literacy, made video book trailers, interviewed people in various professions, wrote literary analysis. They’ve learned grammar and rhetoric, studied debate, given speeches, analyzed amendments and legal cases. They’ve learned how to parse  multiple choice questions and  respond to an essay question.

Of course, my commitment is not relevant to the greater picture except to the extent that it is anecdotal of the good work that is done by many, many ordinary teachers all over this country in classrooms everywhere. But, it may be worth noting that ordinary commitment comes with a price.  Ordinary teachers have to give up achieving many of the milestones that most people identify with success.   Up until the last five years of my career, I made less money than most of my peers and both of my siblings.  I regularly get underestimated in terms of intellect and talent the minute I confess to being a teacher.  I have none of the casual bragging rights that people take for granted because, let’s face it,  who really wants to know what goes on in the classroom? And now, I can look forward to taking a beatdown for being a teacher at all.

Up until recently, I had made my peace with all of this.  I have a job I love and a partner that supports my efforts.  I have benefits that some people think are unwarranted: a very recently livable salary, health insurance, and a pension to make up for not making enough money for most of my career.  I lack career mobility; there’s really no place to go with a teacher’s experience, but I have well deserved tenure to protect me from being tossed the minute I started making a livable wage. And I have time off for good behavior: those enviable, if unpaid summer vacations teachers have to recoup after each year of service (all afforded by membership in my union).  I’ve felt like I’d done okay. Nothing spectacular, no one admired me.  But, my work was honorable and my lifestyle was decent: I was in the middle of the middle class.

I still love my job, but I have to say,  I’m a little exhausted… not by the classroom, but by the attacks, the testing culture and the anxiety of wondering how long I can continue to teach a rich curriculum.  Some people will say that frustration with the test is just my effort to avoid accountability, but it isn’t true.  I know I teach well.  And I know what the TFA franchise does not: that privilege is only that.  It will not solve what hard work, commitment, and experience has not: the face of poverty in America. Nor will it solve the fact that there will not be enough jobs for everyone in a fin de siecle service economy.   But that’s another issue.

Dear Teach for America, I am sorry to have taken your time. I just wanted to put a single, ordinary human face on the hard work that is being thrown under the bus with the Educational Reform (read that as Rejection of the Troops in Place) movement.  Let me let you get back to the work at hand: creating opportunity with loan forgiveness for Ivy League graduates in America.

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57 Responses to An Ordinary Teacher Talks to Teach for America

    • KS says:

      I agree–well done. Unfortunately, I think some of the programs actually insult ordinary public school teachers as part of their training and recruitment.

      I am a teacher in DC public schools and at the end of last year, a 1st year teacher from the DC Teaching Fellows program said that they told her DCPS desperately needed good teachers because the problem with DCPS was lazy teachers. After teaching in the system for 1 year she realized that it wasn’t the teachers, it was the leadership, lack of resources, dysfunctional central office, etc. that was the real problem. She couldn’t understand why they would have told her that when it was so far from the truth.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if TFA did this as well.

    • Rachel Cedrez says:

      WOW! Thank you for writing what I’ve been thinking and let me also say, you are lucky you’re still working as a teacher. I have been out of work for a couple of years and you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is on an interview where the first question is: Were you in Teach for America? or another prep program … sorry, I just attended little ol’ City College. That, in itself, is a no no especially since I am not privy to any of the “new” lingo. I, like you, love teaching and have taught many children to also love reading, writing, researching, math, etc. without an ivy league education. It is very difficult to compete with these new teachers when one comes out of another interview or demo lesson and a recent Teachers College grad is sitting there waiting her turn. I am exhausted and frustrated, but, still I continue … hoping that one day someone sees my “realness” and hires me. :) Unlike these TFA teachers, I am in it for the long run; not just for the three or so years they have to “give” in an urban school for their loans to be forgiven. Again, thank you for stating what so many of us are thinking.

  1. I agree. What started out as a noble concept has evolved into opportunism. As usual, poor and minority children bear the brunt of the inequity.

    How do we successfully educate ALL of our children if teaching develops into a means of resume building, evolves into saving enough for graduate school, or becomes a pit stop on the journey of life? “I’m just here until the economy improves, or until I figure out what I really want to do,” won’t close the achievement gap.
    We need long-term answers and not interim solutions or band-aids. Teaching is an occupation that demands dedication, commitment, and constancy.

  2. Mike Reno says:

    Wow. Most parents have a fear about being honest with teachers because of the retribution factor. Every teacher I’ve ever mentioned this to has assured me that teachers are professional, and would never let their feelings about the parents impact their interaction with the children.

    Parents remain skeptical.

    To now read this is scary:, “and I came back to reality.  This is my niece’s math teacher.  I can’t afford to have her dislike my niece so that I can make a political or personal point.”

    • audhilly says:

      Don’t be scared. I don’t think that honesty generally results in retribution. I know in my own case that it would not. But, it isn’t simple honesty when you call a teacher out during a parent night presentation, is it? It borders on abuse. Why embarrass a young teacher on her first parent night in a new school to make a point, even if it wouldn’t impact my niece? My sister was correct in bringing me back to why we were there. As it turned out, my niece was among the best math students for the year. She got a A, a 4 on her NYS test and considered her math teacher to be one of her favorite teachers.

      • ilovespecialed says:

        I am a younger teacher, and I do not feel as though it bordered on abuse whatsoever. She did make disrespectful statements to an unknown audience and needed to be called out on it. The more mature individuals need to assist the less mature in learning to be thoughtful and diplomatic in their address. What she said was indeed flippant, and it was in no way inappropriate for you to let her know that you were offended.

        • GCalt says:

          Calling her out and embarrassing her in front of others is no more appropriate than her comments about teachers. A private conversation with her at another time would be appropriate.

          • KS says:

            I believe it was completely appropriate AND necessary to call out the teacher in a respectful way.

            I strongly believe that whenever someone makes stereotypical statements that insult another group–in this casew public school teachers–you must address it in front of the whole group. Otherwise, you are allowing the stereotype to be perpetuated.

          • Lewis Hall says:

            I tend to agree. Whether or not your remark embarrassed her I don’t know, but usually it’s more appropriate to bring these issues up later or even after she made her presentation.

            Also, your article would have carried the same meaning if you had left off the fact that the teacher was Asian. It carries a tinge of racism, though I know this is not what you intended.

            But all that said, I have an extreme amount of respect for teachers with experience, especially English teachers. How can you teach English without the experience?

    • CeeCee 2011 says:

      I would never allow my feelings about parents to influence my teaching, and I believe that most teachers make a serious effort to approach each child impartially. However, this young teacher was clearly *not* a professional educator; her remarks indicated a lack of training and a teaching disposition that was lacked appropriate boundaries. Therefore, how could the student’s aunt be certain that her niece wouldn’t be penalized?

      • Mary Melchior says:

        I think the honest truth is parents do affect teachers in a number of ways. Homework is sometimes a way teachers gauge how much support their students are getting at home, if it rarely gets done they know the parents engagement is limited and they have to make up for that. Teachers know that kids without engaged parents will be more of a challenge both academically and behaviorally. As reasonable human beings sometimes they try to compensate for the child and sometimes they don’t. Teachers don’t take out retribution on kids, but kids do get attention or help that they might not otherwise if their parents are engaged and helping the classroom. It is human.

  3. chris in napa says:

    I’d have told her off anyway, made her cry if I could have. Part of our problem here in the states is that we are WAY too complacent.

  4. Mea says:

    @Mike: As a teacher, I can say this–in theory it should not be an issue and those who are professional do not let annoying or combative parents color their views of the students. I’ve had some very “interesting” parents over the past 11 years who (astoundingly) had lovely children. It’s all a matter of ethics and (even more importantly) experience.

    Re: The Post
    Wonderful. I have a number of friends who are TFA alums. I cannot fully express the elitism they demonstrate (even if they are good people) in reference to this experience. It is irksome and offensive.

  5. Former TFA Teacher says:

    Why is everyone under the notion that everyone in TFA went to an ivy league? I was a TFA teacher and no one in my cohort went to an ivy league.

    • audhilly says:

      I realize that not all TFA alums come out of Ivy League schools. However, there is a reason why everyone is under the notion that they do. That’s because TFA uses exclusivity to brand itself. see here It operates from the same playbook as the Ivy League Franchise.

    • James Boutin says:

      While TFA has broadened the schools it selects recruits from, a large proportion continue to come from Ivy League schools, campuses where the vast majority of applicants have little to no understanding of the communities or cultures in which they’re be working.

      See an interested piece by a professor at Fordham and his refusal to allow TFA to recruit from his students below:

      http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/2011/06/dr-mark-naison-teach-for-america-and-me.html

      • James Boutin says:

        Apologies for the lack of proof reading.

        they’re – they’ll

        interested – interesting

      • audhilly says:

        Thanks for the link to that article… It really addressed everything that I’ve been thinking about TFA. It makes me feel hopeful to see that there are people who understand what TFA has become.

    • Charlotte says:

      TFAs are not teacher-program graduates. We found this out after my son had applied and received his “no letter.” He was so excited about the possibility of helping children learn what they need to know. My son (who has a BS in history and a minor in education with a GPA of 3.7 AND who has taken several special ed. courses in addition to what was required, and continues to take special courses) cannot land a teaching job…while TFAs fill available social studies and history positions.
      The TFA program has become a source of instability for many new college grads seeking employment as teachers.

  6. Crystal Merritt says:

    I would like to say THANK YOU! I am a teacher that was pushed aside at a school taken over by these TFA’s and eventually “trimmed” out. I worked in the hardest area of my school system, in the TOUGHEST school in the disrict and I LOVED MY JOB. Every day, without exception. I loved my students and as a math teacher, helped many of them get over the woes of the hurdles of middle school math, and a few life lessons along the way. I am sad to say, knowing from working with 17/26 in our school that yr, that while these TFA teachers APPEAR to care so deeply about their students, many stated they couldn’t wait for their 2 yrs to be up, most even having jobs lined out before the end. It’s a sad disgrace. And is costing us “ordinary teachers” jobs and crediblility.

  7. Current TFA Teacher says:

    I have recently joined the Teach For America ranks, and am getting ready to finish summer institute. Let me first state that I received my degree in Elementary and Middle School Education before coming to Teach For America…

    I think that some of your accusations about Teach For America are sound if you have not had the opportunity to really examine TFA within itself. One of my biggest qualms has been that TFA may not always practice what it preaches when it comes to creating a diverse atmosphere and trying to get people to commit to teaching for longer than 2 years. However, after spending these past 5 weeks at institute, out of the over 700 people here, I can honestly say that maybe a handful of them are “resume padders”. I have watched people spend countless hours on one lesson plan because they want to get it perfect. Go to bed at 1 a.m. having worked all night, only to wake up at 5 a.m. to teach. Tears of joy when students reach their growth goals or achieve mastery on an objective. Meeting at a gas station on the weekends so they could tutor students outside of school. Many things that any ordinary educator would do. And unfortunately, sometimes things some ordinary educators may not do.

    While I fully understand that there are a few TFA corps members who probably don’t appreciate the work that ordinary public school teachers put in, this may not be all TFA’s fault. One of the biggest things that TFA has preached over the course of institute is that ordinary teachers are working just as, if not harder, than corps members. It has been said time and time again that a lot can be learned from veteran teachers, and that corps members shouldn’t allow the success they may have had previously, prevent them from learning from someone more experienced in the field of education. I would hope that someone like yourself wouldn’t allow one or two bad experiences prevent you from a positive view of the organization as a whole.

    As far as Ivy League is concerned, I went to a very small liberal arts school in Kentucky, as well as several of my fellow corps members. From what I’ve seen, Teach For America is slowly doing a better job of making sure that more people from the groups in which TFA works are actually represented. However, the fact remains that the achievement gap does exist and as long as it does, those with privilege will be better equipped to get into highly selective organizations. From what I’ve seen, the idea is that college graduates who have shown a lot of leadership ability inside and outside of the classroom will be able to be the instructional leader of their own classroom. It isn’t that people from a variety of less privileged backgrounds apply more than Ivy Leaguers and don’t get in…many times they just don’t apply. Perhaps that is because of the message TFA is unintentionally conveying? Maybe it’s because they’re unaware of the organization? I’m not sure and that’s something TFA needs to address.

    To say that everyone in TFA went to an Ivy League school and has been privileged is unfair. Many of the corps members I’ve met grew up in poor, underprivileged families and did not in fact attend an Ivy League school. I, myself, grew up in a divorced family and have lived as lower middle class/upper lower class most of my life. Many also plan to stay in the field of education (including myself, having gone to school for education) after their commitment to Teach For America. Those who are not planning on staying in the classroom are often looking to stay connected within the realm of education. The fact remains that the achievement gap will not be closed by solid teaching alone. Although I agree that we cannot simply send wave after wave of teachers through without commitment (although almost 70% of TFA corps members stay more than their 2 year commitment), there must be people in positions of authority that understand the achievement gap and are passionate enough to make a difference.

    Your accusations are not unfounded. Like any organization, there are things that Teach For America needs to improve upon, and I believe those things are being addressed. However, the overarching mission of Teach For America that one day, all children will have an equal opportunity to receive an excellent education, is not something I would think any quality educator would be against.

    • audhilly says:

      I have nothing against individual people who choose the route of TFA to get into a classroom and do good work. But, while it is true that many do plan to stay in the field of education, few plan to stay as teachers, nor are they encouraged to do so. How many years can you tell people that you’re TFA after all? The humility of being just a teacher is hard to swallow for most and it certainly isn’t TFA’s game plan. TFA is about ambition, influence, and entrepreneurship. How many TFA grads expect to go into policy positions after their short requisite stint (2 plus 1) in the trenches? Um.. most? Already, in your comment there is an inference of that next step.

      Those who are not planning on staying in the classroom are often looking to stay connected within the realm of education. The fact remains that the achievement gap will not be closed by solid teaching alone. Although I agree that we cannot simply send wave after wave of teachers through without commitment (although almost 70% of TFA corps members stay more than their 2 year commitment), there must be people in positions of authority that understand the achievement gap and are passionate enough to make a difference.

      Perhaps you’ve been told that you will do better work changing things from the top down. In fact, I’m sure you’ve been told this. Perhaps you feel that if you teach for 2 plus 1 that you’ll understand the nature of the achievement gap and be able to transform your passion into action for the good of children and America. But, let us all be a little more real, shall we? It takes time to become accomplished in anything worth doing and time to understand the subtle issues that impact systems. After having had 22 years of experience, I can tell you with no hesitation at all that if you really want to do good work, get into a classroom and do that job. Plan on 10 years, stay at least 8. But, if your gaze is already set at the door before you even walk through it, you’re just taking someone else’s job and wasting your district’s time and energy in training you. Then again… I’m old school. I believe in sweat equity… working at something until you truly are the expert before imagining that you should tell someone else how to do it or god forbid set policy and direction.

    • E. Rat says:

      I am a TFA alumni, although one who is not particularly proud of the organization. I wish you success in your teaching endeavor, but I need to question some of your claims.

      1. The 70% figure you cite is based only on self-reported data. It stands to reason that alumni not in education are less likely to respond to a TFA survey. That skews the results. Moreover, this is a self-reported data point, and it includes “education-related” fields – textbook marketing, administration, education technology companies, etc. TFA alumni are not staying the the classroom teaching. And since we know – we unambiguously know – high-needs students need stability, TFA is harming high-needs schools.

      2. How long do you think those educators will be able to keep up those twenty-hour days? How do you think that sleep deprivation and a lack of work-life balance will impact their classroom and their mental health? And as far as those teachers who don’t put in those hours, are you suggesting that teachers have no right to a family? I am a teacher, not a missionary. This is my job. I do an excellent job – all the better because I have a life outside my classroom. I resent your judging my impact on my students based on my ability to do my job well without sacrificing myself to it.

      3. TFA is actually less diverse than it used to be. And I have to respond to your ancedata about your background by noting that TFA camp was the first time in my life that strangers felt entitled to ask me what it was like to grow up poor. I believe that TFA may try to challenge the race and class privilege of its Corps Members. I also believe it is unsuccessful, because its mission and method assume privilege.

      4. If TFA respects lifelong educators and believes in stable school communities, why is it entering districts without job shortages? TFA has caused experienced educators to lose their jobs. TFA newbies have knocked TFA alumni out of jobs in some districts – which alone suggests that long-term teachers are not part of the desired outcomes.

      I know some TFA alumni doing excellent classroom work. But as an organization, TFA is a destabilizing force that actively makes my job more difficult. I teach at a school that has a never-ending, always changing cast of TFA Corps Members. Our professional development is targeted towards them: it has to be. They need basic management training, pedagogical support, and so on. For veterans like myself, we lose the chance to develop in this way because our needs have to come second. Moreover, we cannot build a stable, reliable school staff with harried and overworked early-career teachers. TFA means I have to work harder to support my colleagues and search further (not to mention pay for) development opportunities I need.

      • Melissa Westbrook says:

        Good for you for speaking out. It must be hard because of the machine that TFA is.

    • Delia says:

      I think you proved the author’s point by separating yourself from the ‘ordinary educators’.
      Oh, and maybe if the newbie who spent “countless hours on a lesson plan’ would be open to suggestions from an experienced ‘ordinary educator’, there probably wouldn’t be this resentment.
      As a parent, I’ve seen countless TFA’s come, try to reinvent the wheel, then disappear after two years without any concern for what they leave behind.
      Coming from one pf the poorest communities in the country, I can say that TFA’s come without a clue as to what our children experience on a daily basis, but what offended me, was their arrogance and refusal to find out.

    • TFA Alum says:

      Exactly.

  8. I really appreciated your post and share many of your frustrations with the current attitude towards teachers and the profession of teaching in politics and the media.

    In response to TFA alums taking issue with the claim of elitism, I think the point is not that ALL TFA teachers are Ivy League graduates. Of course they are not (I am an “ordinary” public school teacher and graduated from Columbia many moons ago). I think it’s the rhetoric around TFA and the whole “Teach For” movement that disturbs me – the idea that TFA teachers are simply better because they are young and bright and hail (generally) from good colleges. It makes teaching sound like a skill-less profession. That and the fact that politicians, “reformers”, and the like have latched onto the whole TFA model as an answer to our education woes in America and, I fear, in other countries as well. The bottom line is that there is no simple answer to educational inequality in any country. Until policy-makers are committed to looking at the issue holistically (i.e. tackling poverty), programs like TFA will be touted as miracle solutions rather than programs with their own set of problems and successes.

    • audhilly says:

      I was fortunate enough to spend 6 weeks in India touring schools in the late 90s. I had a real love for that country. I had considered going back and teaching there myself. I just linked to your blog and I look forward to reading about life as a middle school teacher in India.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    The Teach for America rap, from the series “Treme”:

    Four years at Radcliffe, that’s all you know
    A desire to do good and a 4.0
    You’re here to save us from our plight!
    You got the answers cuz you’re rich and white!

    On a two-year sojourn, here to stay
    Teach for America all the way!
    Got no idea what you’re facing
    No clue just who you’re displacing

    Old lady taught fathers, old lady taught sons
    Old lady bought books for the little ones!
    Old lady put in thirty years!
    Sweat and toil, time and tears!

    Was that really your sad intention
    To help the state of Louisiana deny her pension?

  10. Thomas says:

    Dear Audhilly,
    Brilliant. I’m writing to suggest you revise this a bit for publication as on op-ed somewhere. I’d be happy to help, please feel free to email me.

  11. Martha Paxson says:

    SUCH an excellent and well-crafted article. Thank you! I am sure that in every profession there are people who enter the doors of the workplace with an eye to the CEO’s position, never intending to do more than “pad their resume.” That is a fact of life with the nature of human beings. I believe that the world needs driven people who inspire others to help them get things done. However, teaching is what I call a “people job.” We don’t crank out little metal widgits at the end of the work day and have someone else on the inspection table go over random ones to approve or disapprove their quality. Teaching is about working with the attitudes, lives, emotions, and intellect of PEOPLE, not widgits, and we need educators who honestly care for those people and want to help them, not teachers who simply have an eye on the next position they can attain by their “sacrificial labors” for the students in their care. I see this most often in those who apply for positions of leadership such as principals or school superintendents.

    I want to inspire my students to WANT to learn. I teach with humor, random connections to life, lessons plans, worksheets, online assignments, journals, reading, math and more. Everything is fair game to help extend a lesson or show students that learning can be fun. And the day when I finished reading a chapter in our novel to them, after having used drama and different voices to bring life to the tale, I saw that in some small way I had succeeded. As the last word left my lips, I shut my book and looked at the class. Most of them still had their heads down, the majority of students in a class no one volunteered to take, admittedly non-readers, engrossed in following along with the words on the page. When they didn’t hear my voice any more, several turned to me with an almost dazed look on their faces. “You’re not stopping NOW, are you?” they said in disbelief. I smiled and said, “Yes, we’ll read more later if we have time.” GOTCHA!

    THAT’S what teaching is about. Inspiring students to want to learn more. We can force lessons down their throats for a while, but eventually they will leave us and I sincerely hope that by that time they will have learned to love the art of learning.

  12. Woots says:

    I agree with this entire article save one point: teachers have very marketable skills if they decide to leave teaching. I know: I did it and I was hired because of those skills. I have the ability to manage 20 – 30 unwilling people; I can motivate them and explain tasks to them in a timely manner. I can preplan and be flexible when things (a fire drill, a last-minute assembly) go wrong. I can shift my communication style instantly to match the situation, from slang with the students, to authoritarian, to placating a frantic parent. I can present my ideas clearly and succinctly, able to get to the crux of the message. I am a great record-keeper and my attention to detail is spot on (I started teaching in the days before electronic grade books and had to tally all scores by hand!). I understand how people think and respond. I can get along with all types of people, even those (parents and students alike) who openly dislike me. I can maintain my professional calm in the face of irrational anger. My time management skills are superb, because with only 50 minutes to complete my day’s lesson, I am aware of the value of every second. Finally, I am compassionate and caring and want to see those around me succeed, so I will be a fantastic team player in an environment. In return, all I ask is for a little recognition–one thing that many teachers have to go without, as their students often only realize the value of a great teacher many years later.

    • audhilly says:

      Wow… thanks for summarizing the skills of our job. I have no plans to leave my profession, but it’s a pleasure to hear our skills reframed for a new audience.

  13. Good post re: TFA. It’s a shame that many of us in education don’t understand the distance between TFA’s rhetoric and what the organization and its teachers actually do. I have no doubt that when TFA started out it was all about real education reform and student success. But given its ties to corporate foundations (not to mention the Gates Foundation), it seems more like a two-year fellowship program for many who don’t plan on long careers in education. And that’s without counting the strong Ivy League bias in its recruiting efforts.

    As a parent, being direct is the best way to deal with any teacher, regardless of whether they think their TFA pedigree makes them better than an “ordinary” one. Being timid to keep the peace doesn’t benefit our kids either.

  14. Principal Dan says:

    I understand your frustration, but you are painting with an overly broad brush. You found one elitist member, but I have been the administrator for 3 TFA teachers who worked hard to integrate themselves into my school’s culture. I can no more say that all TFA teachers work well within the system any more than you can say they do not. We have to judge by the individual, not the group. Also, I found it off-putting that you described the teacher as an Asian Woman. I don’t see how that was important, and I wonder if you had described me if you would have said a Caucasian man?

    • audhilly says:

      I am not writing about an elitist member of TFA. The TFA alums that I know are very nice people, too. I’m writing about the organization, it’s methods and goals, its impact on the field, the insertion of people with practically no experience into positions of power after short stints in classrooms, the influence that they are having without practice, scholarship or expertise… these are the issues to which I am referring. Niceness is besides the point. And, as an aside, sometimes we really do have to judge people (if we’re inclined to judge at all) by the company they keep, the beliefs they hold, and the groups to which they agree to belong.

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  16. disgusted says:

    Real education is over in America.
    TFA, is like take out food.
    Quick, easy and not good for you.

    My daughter who is in
    advanced classes would
    not be where she is without
    the experience that comes
    from dedicated teachers who
    have taught for years.
    These teachers have learned
    from their experience what works
    and what does not work.
    You will not get that from a
    TFA person on the job.
    It is sad that America
    is controlled by several
    billionaires and they are controlling
    both the democrat and republican party.
    They fully control the media and in good
    part the unions. Especially, the
    UFT in NYC.
    Being a “regular” public school
    teacher is almost disgraceful
    in today’s society.
    Obama is the leading man
    behind that these days. He did
    not start it but he sure
    fueled the change. He has
    damaged the professional
    teacher’s image and
    reputation to the
    point that it is almost shameful
    to be a teacher today.
    I wonder how many TFA’s
    are in the rich people’s
    schools? Or do they use the
    dedicated, life long professionals
    that were once the only thing found
    in good public schools where
    administrators kept the crap out?
    As an American, our country
    has sunk so low, there is little
    to be proud of today.

    • audhilly says:

      I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect TFAs to go into wealthy schools since their mission is ostensibly to help in the worst ones. But, they are being used to cut costs in districts that are feeling the budget crunch. See Kansas City. It shocks me still to think that a district would do such a thing as fire an entire cohort of untenured teachers and replace them with TFAs whose salaries are partially underwritten by the TFA parent organization. Presumably, they expect to hire another set of TFAs two years from now. It’s pretty crazy, but I believe that history will judge this time period and these actions in the same way that McCarthyism was judged once the fever passed.

      These are crazy times, but I don’t believe that education is over in America. It’s just caught up in a proxy war. Business will continue to try to undermine it to create business friendly markets for investors who will naturally have less regard for the public welfare than for profit. But, they’re getting push back. Blatant power grabs encourage people to ask the important questions they might otherwise not ask: Do we serve the interests of business or do we serve the public good? Where those interests diverge (as they sometimes do), how can we insure that the public good will come first? It’s a thorny problem and not exclusive to a discussion of education. I wish us wisdom and luck.

    • TFA Alum says:

      “TFA, is like take out food.
      Quick, easy and not good for you.”

      There is absolutely nothing that is easy about the 2 years that one spends as a corps member. Most people would agree it is the most difficult two years of one’s life. Years where you are expected to learn on the job, in districts that provide zero professional and emotional support. In addition to working full-time, you are required to attend graduate school full-time as well.

      While I agree with the points that some of you have made, please do not belittle the experience and the people who have committed themselves to a career of teaching post TFA, by saying that the experience is “easy.”

      All of us are not wealthy white kids trying to network into medical and law school. Looks like you’re also riding a mighty high self righteous horse.

  17. Lisa Parisi says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for so eloquently saying what I have been thinking all year. Never before has being a teacher been so incredibly unrewarding. This was a much needed blog!

  18. Karen O'Brien says:

    I’ve taught at the elementary school level for over 30 years in both public and private schools in California. I agree completely with your article. Today, it seems that public school teachers are viciously attacked by politicians and the press. I don’t know anyone who has ever gone into the teaching profession to get rich, but we are accused of bankrupting state budgets by our supposedly high salaries and inflated pensions! And we are called lazy because we “only work 6 hours a day” for 180 days. I’ve only run into a few teachers—maybe 3 or 4— in my 30 years of teaching who walk out the door with the kids and never take any work home (where’s the administrator?). 99% of the teachers I’ve met work long hours and are dedicated to their students. While I also agree that TFA and some charter schools give the impression that our schools are lacking, I’m glad that young, smart adults are encouraged to teach for two years. While these teachers may not stay in the profession beyond their 2 years and become experienced, effective teachers, they have learned that teaching is a demanding job and without administrative and parental involvement, the best teachers in the world may not be able to change their student’s lives. I also look at the demands that some charter schools place on their teachers and wonder how long the teachers can sustain the workload and have a life outside of school? I believe that the number one reason that some charter schools and private schools have higher levels of student achievement is because of parental involvement— parents made a choice of schools and have “bought into” the program, raising expectations for success. Public schools teach all children, whether their parents are involved or not. It is a rare, self-motivated student who can rise above deplorable home conditions to achieve a high level of academic success. Teachers usually only have one year to encourage all students to be self-motivated.

  19. Sue Levine says:

    I am so sorry you had this experience as you listened to this young teacher. I wonder if part of her unedited “elitist” commentary came from her lack of experience in the world. It sounds like she was acting very “young” and made the mistakes that some young people make. Have you ever looked back on something you said years ago and thought “I just can’t believe I said that”? I don’t want to let her off the hook completely but she sounds immature and I am certain she will stumble a lot as she moves through the program!

    What I want to mention is that I taught at an inner city school (the kind where the SWAT team was breaking down doors, crack addicts were on the ground in the street possibly dead, and where we had to be out of the building at 3:00 for safety reasons). There were a few TFA teachers there and I observed them to be leading the way in finding innovative methods to teach the students effectively. They had a lot of training at the time (weekly meetings?) and had constant assignments that were related to good teaching of the content areas. I learned a lot from all of the great projects etc they did with the students. At the time, I was a pull out ESL teachers so I got to see what everyone was doing.

    On the other hand, I was kind of disturbed when the young TFA teachers told me that they were heading to law school in two years…So “you’re doing great things but you’re not planning on continuing?” But, on the other hand, they made significant contributions to the school during a big teacher shortage here in Georgia at the time.

    It’s an interesting situation. I guess it can be sort of offensive to some educators when the TFA program “drops people into schools” for a couple of years at a time because theoretically, the TFA teacher does not need the stamina for the long haul like the rest of us. Almost anyone can perform on high octane for two years. On the other hand, if there was not a real need, I doubt the TFA program would even exist.

    In summary, communicating with “immature” teachers (or teachers who lack insight as to how they are coming across) and make inappropriate comments are more frustrating to me than the selection/administration of a program like TFA.

    I just want you to know that I am proud of you for stopping yourself from making a scene because I know it had to be very hard!!!

    • audhilly says:

      Thank you so much for your feedback. I hold no animosity toward the immature teacher. If she stays in the field, she will surely learn that most public school teachers do good work and deserve her respect. My thought about her comment is only that it illustrates a common perception and that she is being schooled in this perception both by the media and by the reform movement.

    • Melissa Westbrook says:

      “On the other hand, if there was not a real need, I doubt the TFA program would even exist. ”

      Wrong. TFA is on a mission to create an army of like-minded alums (they say so themselves at their website). They are NOT there to create a teaching corps (again, Wendy Kopp, head of TFA, says this herself). TFA exists as a grooming organization with a secret handshake (“you TFA? Me, too.) for college grads from better schools.

      My school district, Seattle, has ZERO teacher shortage in any area. Guess who’s coming this fall even though the contract with have with TFA doesn’t guarantee any placement? TFA. It’s appalling.

  20. Simply wish to say your article is as surprising. The clearness in your post is just nice and i could assume you’re an expert on this subject. Well with your permission allow me to grab your RSS feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post. Thanks a million and please carry on the gratifying work.

  21. Sarah Marcos says:

    The right wing attacks on public schools and public school teachers, is based on a farcical notion: that public schools and public teachers are lazy.

    The fact is that , it’s the difference in the society today, and how troubled the society and the children are as a result, that has caused the failures in children here in the U.S., as well as other issues. For example, the attempt to save money in schools by grouping what ought to be several small schools, into one monster-sized school. There’s no possible way for teachers to know the students that way, and children suffer.

    The poster child for the sort of bullshit that leads to scapegoating teachers when in fact, the problems children face in academics originate elsewhere, is Michelle Rhee, who pounded her chest about how she brought the scores of a group of children in a low income area school, and only after she had clawed her way to Chancellor of the Washington D.C. schools and began gleefully firing school administrators and school teachers left and right, did someone bother to check her credentials, and it was found out that she had lied about her abilities as a teacher.

    This is no different than all the other right wing attacks upon public schools and public school teachers. And the TFA reminds me of that children’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The TFA is the tailors, pretend-sewing clothes made of nothing, clothes that don’t exist, and striving to convince the Emperor and the town that they did sew clothes after all.

  22. Barry Kort says:

    If the Teach For Whatever model is going global, it occurs to me that the objective should be redefined to be Teach for Functionality.

    If, as KS says above, the central office is dysfunctional, then I reckon the educational objectives of a math curriculum should be to introduce and inculcate into the next generation of students the concept of functions and functionality.

    In 1917, Warren McCulloch famously asked, “What is a number that a man may know it, and a man that he may know a number?”

    Today, a teacher of mathematics might ask, “What is a function, that an educator may know it, and an educator that he or she may know a function?”

    Let us begin to Teach For Functionality.

    • audhilly says:

      Hi. I’ve gone over to your blog to figure out what you’re talking about. I got more caught up in your story craft material… which I am really enjoying, most probably because I require a graphic novel or a Harry Potter story in order to understand what you’re talking about ;). That is to say, I simply don’t have the math to understand what you are saying as anything but metaphor. Just glancing at it, it appears that you’re trying to say that the heaviside switch function is too autocratic and punishment oriented resulting in brutish coonsequences and missed opportunities. And, that the error function is a smoother transition between desirable and undesirable events. As applied to the school system and current efforts to reform education, it may be that you are trying to say that punishment oriented high stakes testing is less effective than an approach that looks for the range of possible errors in an outcome. Trying to get my head around it… are you saying we should be mindful of the possibility of error in any endeavor and have more humility as it relates to those things we espouse or condemn? I’d be happy to hear what you mean in a plainer language. Thanks for commenting.

      • Barry Kort says:

        The key idea (and it’s an important mathematical idea) is that a graceful response function (like the Error Function) has a gradient, meaning a small change in behavior anywhere along the horizontal axis yields a corresponding change in the payoff (reward-punishment) axis.

        But the Heaviside Switch Function has no such gradient. Almost everywhere, a small change in behavior makes no difference at all. Only when one is on the hairy edge of the dividing line is there any difference in outcome, and then it’s hugely dramatic (perhaps even traumatic).

        Even a worm can follow a gradient. But for reasons that make absolutely no sense to anyone who understands the math, humans constructed the worst possible response function imaginable. That’s why we live in a profoundly dysfunctional culture.

        So how can that idea be explained to lawyers, politicians, police, and judges, all of whom have a vested interest in perpetuating Humankind’s Original Logic Error?

  23. Excellent site! much success to you

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  26. Anonymous says:

    I really liked your article. You should write more about that topic.

  27. Arkansas College says:

    Big thumbs up – thanks!

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