Reality Check for TFA

A meditation on respect for the Teaching Profession
I’ve talked a lot about respect for students in some of my recent blog posts, but today I’d like to address one aspect of respect for TEACHERS that I think needs to be examined.
McCoy Elementary in the KCMO School District was closed in 2010.
I recently talked with a friend who is one of the few remaining veteran teachers in a Kansas City, MO elementary school. Such seasoned veterans are actually somewhat rare, because of recent moves by the district to close approximately half of their schools, and to lay off hundreds of  teachers.
I asked my friend how things were going.  She sighed deeply, and said that this year much of the staff in her school is drawn from the ranks of Teach For America
TFA is the darling of the hour, but if you look closely you may not like what you see.
We both knew what that meant–much of the staff is recruited from college graduates who plan careers in other fields, but have taken an intensive course in one summer, and committed to working as a teacher for a couple of years, before they get on with their “real” careers.  
This also means that they are much cheaper to hire than fully certified teachers–but also that they are less thoroughly prepared. I know that’s a controversial statement in the current political climate. And I also know that schools of education are not doing an overly awesome job of preparing new graduates for the rigors of urban teaching, either.  
But my friend’s report genuinely shocked me.  She said that the “TFA kids” in her school have been given basically no support or mentoring, now that they actually are assigned to classrooms. That’s insane, I thought: Once a person is actually in the classroom, that’s when MOST of the practical questions arise.
Wendy S. Kopp, founder of  TFA,
frequently speaks about its benefits.
According to my friend’s report of what the TFA group has told her, they did their practice workshop in a private school in California that was nothing like the urban elementary where they are now. As one of the very few veterans left in her school, she finds herself not only struggling to keep her own “head above water” with an overlarge class of boisterous second-graders, but she is the go-to “wiser head” for all of the TFA kids who, in her words, have been “thrown to the wolves” with no mentoring or support.
As someone who has taught in urban schools myself, I know very well how it can devour someone alive, if one is not properly prepared and supported. Urban teaching offers rich rewards, but it is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared. What my friend described is unconscionable. If this is truly the TFA approach, then it deserves NONE of the kudos it so frequently receives!
Actual, certified teachers with urban experience were let go again this year to make room for the new TFA group. This serves neither the children of the district, nor the idealistic kids who signed up for TFA and now come to my friend in tears on a daily basis. It is a classic case of the bureaucracy serving its own interests before those of the students in the district, because of budget cuts that force wrenching decisions.
And it is precisely this kind of situation that we must avoid if we are serious about an ascendant future for the United States.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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