Confessions of a (Ssshhh!) Teach For American

Tolstoy wrote that people are like rivers. No one is all shallow or all deep, all rocky or all pure. Maybe it’s the same with programs. Teach For America has done so much good. Teach For America has done so much harm. When I talk about my two years in TFA, I feel like the Batman villain Two-Face.

When I talk about my two years in Teach For America (P.S. 192, West Harlem), I feel like the Batman villain Two-Face.

My impulse in most situations is to try to get everyone to like me. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stranger on the street. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t like you. I want you to like me.

But when Teach For America comes up, I get combative.

To pro-TFA people, my diatribe goes something like this: “So, if someone went to a really good college, and they really like kids, could they be a pediatrician after five weeks training? How about a surgeon? No? Why, then, should they be able to teach?”

To the anti-TFA crowd, including many of the colleagues I most respect at CTQ, I flip sides. “Criticizing TFA for the poor quality of its teachers is like criticizing a soup kitchen for their low-grade soup. Why do you think inner-city schools are letting in teachers with emergency credentials? Because they can’t fill their positions.”

And so on.

Every time Teach For America comes up, I experience cognitive dissonance. In my head is a prototype modeled on Michelle Rhee: a type-A climber with multiple Blackberrys, ready after two years teaching to be a superintendent for awhile, too arrogant to know what he/she doesn’t know.

And yet.

In my head, too, are the actual Teach For America corps members I know. Yasmin Gutierrez, who grew up in the projects a stone’s throw from the school she attended as a child, where Teach For America corps members inspired her to become a teacher 20 years later at that same school.

The young Yankee teacher whose name I forget, a classic Northeasterner with thick-rimmed glasses and metro hair, who had just deferred Harvard Law to continue teaching in the Mississippi Delta where he had found a home.

Steve Evangelista, who displayed a constant patience and gentleness with every one of his 3rd graders, even when they shouted and knocked over desks. After teaching for five years at the school where he was placed, he became principal of a school down the road in Central Harlem. In my first struggling year, I overheard an African-American parent telling him, “We love you, Mr. E. We are so grateful.”

And on. And on.

Tolstoy wrote that people are like rivers. No one is all shallow or all deep, all rocky or all pure. Maybe it’s the same with programs.

Teach For America has done so much good. Teach For America has done so much harm.

The program has grown, and grown—500 corps members in 1990, 5,800 in the Class of 2012— like a tropical jungle, like the Blob. The word “growth” has a positive connotation, for the most part. But what about the stories of experienced teachers being dismissed to make way for bright-eyed, more pliable new recruits, freshly minted by TFA? What about stories of sneaky maneuvering, if not outright chicanery, gutted by Kris Kohl in “TFA: Reeking of Pork, Again?” Or the hard, cold numbers unveiled by Jon Eckert in “Do Not Operate Unless Trained?” Turns out TFA teachers are about like any other teacher in terms of quantifiable academic gains with low-income minority students.

There are signs of positive growth, too, including the recent announcement that TFA will begin exploring a one-year (rather than five-week) prep program and will focus on retention beyond the current two-year commitment. There are people like Jared Henderson, Vice President of TFA’s Regional Operations in Arkansas, who have shifted the focus toward retention and depth of pedagogical skill rather than quantity of new recruits. Jared has begun building partnerships with organizations that have a deep bench of experienced teachers who can help TFA corps members become better teachers.

We are the blind men, TFA is the elephant. The blind men grabbed the elephant’s tail and claimed the whole beast was thin and stringy, touched the trunk and declared the entire animal to be moist and flexible, pricked a finger on a tusk and said, “Man, this elephant’s sharp.”

For my own part, I will keep starting arguments on both sides. Teaching is a profession, and five weeks is sparse preparation for the complexity of the craft. (Flip!) TFA teachers aren’t the only ones leaving the profession in droves. And there aren’t a lot of other candidates lining up to teach in tougher conditions for lower pay. TFA does a better job of recruiting teachers of color, too.

Whatever your take, Teach For America is too complex for sound bytes. Read the research. Talk to some former corps members. And before you clench the fist, offer the hand.

What can CTQ teach TFA? What can TFA teach us?