The NYTimes Magazine had a big article on Teach For America this past week. As I read it, I had a lot of responses… part of me strongly agrees with Kilian Betlach, quoted within and familiar to the education-blog world as the author of Teaching in the 408 (I think he’s pretty much been outed at this point). TFA is not agnostic on the issue of what you do after your two years are up, at least not to read the literature they send. It’s all about finding the right charter school to teach at for another two years before joining a fast-track principal program and starting your own school. But that’s if you stay in teaching – the rest is all about how TFA can jumpstart whatever you want to do next. And you know what? I’m sure it can, and if you put 100% in during your two years, and then you leave, well, who am I to judge? I’m not quite as annoyed by all this as Betlach is, but do I feel supported by or connected to TFA, 8 years into my teaching career? Um, no.
On the other hand, and I think this is mentioned in the article, one of the most impressive things about TFA has always been its capacity to respond to criticism. Starting at Summer Institute, they asked us for feedback and posted responses to it, explaining their decisions. And over the last 8 years, the organization has transformed in so many ways. Certainly they provide more materials for teachers so that their teaching job is a little simpler at the start while they’re getting on their feet. The teachers in my school have CDs full of useful stuff… long-term plans, unit plans, you name it. God, my life would have been better with something like that to use as a model and to fall back on.
But the weird thing about the article? There’s this section about a middle school student from a school in the Bronx, one of our feeder schools. And I thought to myself, I bet that Mohamed is my Mohamed. The article gives scarcely any details about the child but I just had a gut feeling. Sure enough, I asked him today and it’s him!
Later I caught up with Joseph and two of his students. Randy, whose parents came to the States several years ago from Guyana, was giggly and fidgety. His friend, Mohamed, had long eyelashes and was endearingly shy. His parents came from Africa. With Joseph’s help, Mohamed’s math score had shot up from 31 to 94 over the course of the year; Randy’s, from 36 to 76. Both boys were clearly enamored of their young teacher — tugging on his arm, shooting him sideways glances, one climbing up onto his lap as we sat in one of those cavernous school hallways built at the turn of the last century.
“I’m trying to decide between Harvard and Princeton,” Randy told me. “I like math. And I want to be a race-car driver. Or a firefighter.” Mohamed, for his part, had settled on Princeton since their momentous class visit.
This fall, the three of them will part ways, each going to different middle schools. Joseph worried that their new teachers might not put in the care or the time that he did. His worries may be at the heart of the T.F.A. conundrum: no matter how heroic the small acts of its teachers, the problems plaguing public education in America are not much closer to being solved. Randy smiled playfully as we parted: “I’ll call him when I need help with my homework. But I’m still not sure what I’ll do without Mr. Joseph.”
Well, I can certainly sympathize with Mr. Joseph’s fears. I’ve felt the same as our kids move on to high schools. But Mohamed will be okay with us, and in large part, that’s because of teachers who started out in TFA and are still teaching today (along with some new ones). I’m in my 8th year, another science teacher is in his 3rd, our literacy coach is in her 9th or 10th year, and the list goes on. We didn’t all start that way, and there are plenty of reasons for our success that have nothing to do with how we started or how long we stayed, but here we are, still doing the daily work in our classrooms.