Monday, September 30, 2013

Teachers; Talk To Your Students-Turned-Teachers About TFA Before It's Too Late

I have a completely unrelated Fun Fact about Breaking Bad at the end of this post if you promise to read the whole thing (but you have to promise to read it!). 

One of the greatest joys any teacher can experience is learning that one of his or her former students has grown up to be a teacher. Some teachers will pretend to not care about an event like this. Others may boast about it until the day they die (or retire). But each teacher feels a bit of pride when he or she learns that his style in classroom has inspired, or at very least to help inspire, someone to grow up and to be a teacher.

Yet one of the worst things that can happen to a teacher (who is also an edu-blogger) is to have this joyful moment dashed by learning that the student-turned-colleague is now a member of Teach for America.

What a frikin' bummer.

For those of you who don't know, TFA is the organization  (run by Wendy Kopp) that drafts some of the nation's better off college grads and convinces them to become teachers for a few years. After the two years are up, TFA-ers, as they're known,  typically move on to other things. Some edu folks give it two, even three, thumbs up for sending qualified teachers into high needs schools. Others blame it for leading the way to establish a generation of "drive-by" teachers who stay for a few years then move on. This constant shuffling of NEWB teachers creates the reality of perpetually leaving at-risk students in the hands of inexperienced teachers. It has become so commonplace, that it was recently satirized by the Onion in a brilliant manner (the article was a point-counter point. the point being entitled "My Year Volunteering as a Teacher Helped Educate a New Generation of Underprivileged Kids"  while the counterpoint was entitled "Can We Please, Just once, Have a Real Teacher?" )

As controversial as the organization is, I've never written about them on this or any blog. This has been for three reasons. 1) Smarter people than I, who are tuned into the national scene, have been calling out the group for years.2)  My concerns, really my two passions as a writer, have been the actual act of teaching (which the the greatest act of expression a human being can commit) and writing in defense of teachers here in New York City who have had to endure our district's reforms (some of which actually constitute abuses in the workplace). 3) I've never had to actually deal with the TFA Juggernaut! Their existence on this Earth has never crossed my path, so why bother?

But now they've taken this bright, happy, impressionable young student -who worked her butt off from middle school to earn a degree from one of the SUNY's best Universities- and turned her into a TFA drone. I'm so upset I can barely keep writing.

Ok, I'm ready to continue.

You see, it  happened so quickly, I could barely stop it. First,there was the Facebook status that declared she'd be a teacher starting in September. This was such an awesome kid (when she was a kid) I was so gleeful! That was followed by a flurry of phone calls and emails back and forth about how to approach it. Surprisingly, the amount of communications faded in a very rapid manner. But when I did hear from her,  there were rumblings (warning signs, in hindsight that I really should have paid attention to) about TFA seeking to take her every waking moment. Finally, the communications (in the form of emails only) faded almost altogether. The second to last time I heard from her, she was asking advice about how to "deal with" these "older teachers" who thought they knew everything. That hit my radar as an 'uh-oh', but I chalked it up to the stress of a first year teacher in her first six weeks.The last time I heard from her was deeply troubling. She sent out a short email -a reply really to one I had sent checking in on how things were going. The reply read 'It would be going great if I weren't treated like a know-nothing kid by these older adults". And the next thing I knew, she "liked" TFA on Facebook and sent a status about how older teachers don't know as much as they think and about how they should stop giving her answers that she doesn't need.

Oh, the humanity.

While the status was clearly not a message meant for me (I so don't nag or harass people, it's not even funny), it was clear that it was a message for someone. That made it clear to me that someone else was concerned about her falling to TFA.

Thank goodness someone saw the warning signs, because I surely didn't.

Perhaps the status was in response to concerns asserted by one of her other teachers. This student was taught by career teachers, not TFAers. Career teachers loathe drive-by teaching because we know what it does to this profession. That's not to say we loathe the drive-by teachers. They're just out of college and they do not fully understand the destabilizing effect the presence of so many of them has. But we, experienced teachers, know that the teaching  isn't as good. The knowledge isn't as vast or as deep. And the the presence of TFAers has the effect of costing career teachers their job (while that last assertion might sound like stretch, I'd like to remind you that laid off Chicago teachers were recently replaced with TFA recruits). This establishes a possible endless cycle of students being taught by non career teachers.

Come to think of it, this is the case with all TFA recruits, isn't it? They are taught by career teachers in well-heeled schools, both public and private (my student-turned-teacher went to schools that were on the list of 50 best public schools in the city for years at a time), yet they rob, as a matter of happenstance, that very opportunity from the same students they espouse to help. (And again the recruits themselves are certainly very well-meaning, so it brings me no pleasure to say this). Honestly, has any teacher stood on the shoulders of their *TFA* teacher and come into the profession? Ha! I laugh at the very thought.

Anyway, it's too late for my student. Kopp and the drones have her now. She doesn't know it yet, but she's become part of the 'drive-by' crowd and she'll either lose interest or just be too burned out to stick around long enough to get really good and actually be able to help to any students. I've missed my chance. I screwed up and I let one go to the dark side.

But let this serve as a cautionary tale to any teacher who has the pleasure of hearing that one his or students has decided to become a public high school teacher: Talk to your students about TFA before its' too late.

Because once it's too late, it's too late.

Ok, I promised a Breaking Bad fun fact. (And there is a spoiler alert here if you're catching up on Netflix). You know how everyone associated with Heisenberg (except Jesse of course) dies in the last episode? Pundits are starting to call this almost Shakespearean in its tragedy (see here). I think it's a little more than almost, but that's for an offline conversation. Well, guess what. The character Walter White died on his 52nd birthday.  Know who else died on their 52nd birthday? William Shakespeare. yep.

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