Posted by Barnett Berry on Friday, 04/29/2011
“In school time, two years is a blip on the screen."
Anna L. Martin’s recent series of short essays on The Answer Sheet do highlight problems with the Teach For America (TFA) model. But Anna’s pieces also offer an astute perspective on how the teaching profession can better fulfill the hopes of the students and families she serves.
A TFA alum and bright young teacher working with our New Millennium Initiative, Anna is now in her seventh year of teaching at the school where she was initially placed. While her essays touch on the need for better preparation for TFA recruits, Anna focuses instead on a central point: any model that imagines a two-year life cycle for teachers is problematic.
Anna rightfully acknowledges that she might never have entered the classroom without TFA, while offering several observations about the weaknesses of the two-year cycle. What schools really need, Anna argues, are teachers who have truly mastered their craft—and who are deeply embedded in and committed to their school communities.
She points out, “Building relationships and creating a collaborative environment conducive to the kind of educational outcomes achieved by high-performing districts and countries outside the United States takes time… In a weird way, TFA seems almost to be supporting, rather than dismantling, the idea that excellent teachers are widgets — easily replaceable, easily replicable.”
Rich lessons abound in Anna’s firsthand account of what it’s like to work in a school with high turnaround—about 30% of her school’s employee base is dedicated to TFA placement. We learn about the promising young people—like Anna—who are attracted to teaching by TFA’s recruitment strategies. We learn about missed opportunities—for teachers to learn from their more experienced peers, for students and families to be served by teachers who know their communities well, and for bright, hard-working TFA alumni to develop as teacher leaders within their placement schools.
I am proud to have gotten to know Anna thanks to her involvement in our virtual Teacher Leaders Network as well as our New Millennium Initiative — powerful groups of young teachers in sites nationwide who are developing solutions for some of the most vexing problems of the teaching profession.
Here’s what is impressive to me about Anna’s essays. She provides an informed critique that emphasizes the factors that matter for students’ success. She sees that neither TFA or education schools (at least as they are designed today) has adequately addressed the needs of all students. Moving past this false dichotomy (teacher education schools vs. alternative routes) is essential to improving teaching effectiveness.
Anna and other Bay Area New Millennium Initiative team members will soon release a potent policy paper on the future of teaching. Their concrete suggestions (generated after extensive research and debate and grounded in classroom experience) address many of the key issues Anna highlights in her short essays: preparing teachers for long-term success, providing high-quality professional development on the job, and reshaping the career paths available to talented teachers.
Wise policymakers—those who recognize the importance of developing and keeping extraordinary teachers—should listen carefully to the ideas of teacher leaders like Anna. She is not alone. We are in touch with thousands of teachers across the United States who are deeply committed to their profession but recognize that bold changes will be necessary to meet the needs of 21st-century learners.