Despite its recent setback in Pittsburgh, TFA continues to enjoy both success and public esteem and looks to expand their brand into Canada. This is a rotting raspberry seed in the teeth of real teachers throughout the country, but if we can put down the hate-sticks for a moment, there are things we can learn.
Before we start, let me just reassure you that this is not a defense of the spectacle of privileged youths stooping to use disadvantaged students as rungs on the ladder to success. Nor am I forgetting that TFA is an awesome display of mission creep, shifting from a vision of filling long-empty positions to one of replacing actual teaching jobs and teachers with revolving classroom doors. There are plenty of bad things to say about TFA, and I believe almost all of them, but that's not the point of today's exercise.
Look-- TFA is successful in many ways (few of them educational, but again-- not the point), and that means there are lessons to be learned.
Boost your team
Over the past few days, I watched #shinealighton roam across my twitter feed. It was TFA, just basically using twitter to shower attaboys on each other.
On the one hand, I thought, "How typical of the Stepford child chirpy pep rally groupthink mentality."
On the other hand, I thought, "Why don't we do stuff like that?" Why don't we. Why don't we post little notes, tweets, post-its, whatevers telling our colleagues "Hey, good job! Glad you're here doing your thing!"
#shinealighton took no real time or effort. Five seconds to type, a few seconds more to retweet. It would take next to nothing to create a simple local, state or national initiative in which we held up fellow teachers for fifteen seconds of appreciation. But we often lean into our classroom isolation and forget to connect with our fellow teachers.
Not all of us are wired for "unity" exercises. Plenty of us tense up every time our union or building staff create some sort of bonding exercise. But if you aren't a bonder, may I suggest an alternative-- individual appreciation. Doesn't have to be a big production. Just something short and sweet and simple that says, "Glad you're here. Good job." If TFAers can constantly tell each other they're awesome when they aren't all that special, why can't we tell people who actually ARE special that they're great?
People Want To Like Teachers
TFA's drive to brand themselves as a charity is offensively stupid. But the degree to which it has been embraced tells us something-- people want to support teachers. The spectacle of the fabulously wealthy TFA passing the hat may be bizarre, like a telethon to help Bill Gates put his kids through college, but it taps something that public school teachers have mostly failed to tap. People want to help teachers and students and schools, but they've never had some easy way to do it.
Pittsburgh shows that once people understand what TFA really is, they start to back away. So why are various corporations-that-shall-not-be-named cashing in so large on TFA-as-charity. Because people see the word's "teach" and "America" and think, "What could possibly not be right about that?"
Our anger at TFA is not helping here. TV shows people a stirring, heartwarming portrait of teachers in classrooms, and your buddy sees you and says, "Wow, that Teacher show was awesome. It made me really impressed with teachers," and you say, "Grr. Snarl. Those weren't teachers. Those were TFA plants."
What is he supposed to take away from that? Real teachers aren't enthusiastic and hopeful like that?
TFA shows us that desire to back schools and education and students is out there. TFA is tapping it. You know who should be tapping it? Actual teachers in actual public schools.
Oh, I hate to bring this up. It is true that five weeks of training to be in a classroom is a joke. But when TFA supporters are critical of teacher training programs, we know in our hearts that they have a point.
How many cooperating teachers have spent how many hours having conversations with student teachers that boil down to "The things that your ed professor told you to do are bunk." How many teacher lounges have heard conversations about how Teacher Farm State University isn't doing anything for future teachers except checking them for a pulse and making sure their check doesn't bounce.
Teacher training programs are the great soft underbelly of our profession, and TFA stabs us right in the gut. Programs in this country range from "Pretty Okay" to "Embarrassing."
How we fix it I do not know (though I do know five weeks of summer school is not the answer). One of the weaknesses of our profession is that we don't control our own entry paths. If I want to start a doctoring, nursing, lawyering, or physical therapizing program at my college, I have to convince doctors, lawyers, nurses, or physical therapists to let me. If I want to start a teaching program, I just need the permission of some bureaucrats at the state capitol.
Those of us who have the ears of college programs need to speak some harsh truth to them. When we have a student teacher, we need to tell her supervisors, "Here are the ways in which you served this future teacher poorly." And we need to be more actively involved in the first few years of our new colleagues. We can't just walk past his door and think, "Well, he's a grown up with a degree. Hope he does well, but it's on him."
We are learning what is old news to other professions-- people don't love and respect you just because X is your job.
TFA has marketed itself relentlessly. It has sold its own picture of teaching and the people it puts in it. We have not.
We have let ourselves get sucked into arguing the negative. Our response to so much of what's out there these days is some form of "No, that's not true" and "No we don't" and "No they didn't." That's a classic case of letting other folks control the argument, and TFA has had total control of this debate.
We can't market "Not TFA." We can explain why having an experienced teacher in the same classroom for years provides much-needed stability for students and programs. We can explain all the sorts of things that make extensive training and experience a plus. We should not be arguing with TFAers as if they are our equals; we should be patronizing them and patting them on the heads like the cute little junior adults they are. I keep thinking that instead of screaming, "Back to the depths of hell that spawned you, you filthy unholy Balrog-- you shall not pass!" we should do more "Well, aren't you just precious."
At any rate, when the public hears "Teach for America," they imagine some fresh-faced well-scrubbed enthusiastic (white) teacher surrounded by happy (brown) children. What do they imagine when they hear "public school teacher." Mitt Romney lost electoral traction because he let the Obama camp create the public's picture of the Mormon flipflopper. We have a similar problem.
You can't create a picture by simply erasing somebody else's. You have to present a picture to take its place. TFA is very good at that. Public school teachers, so far, are not.
I believe that in the long run, results will tell the tale. TFAers will eventually paint themselves as cut-and-run dilettantes because, marketing or not, that's what the public is going to see. But the damage that will happen in the meantime means that we can't afford to just wait for more Pittsburghs. And we clearly can't wait for our unions to lead the charge (if TFA were smart, they would offer a big fat check to cover membership for all their faux teachers-- I'm pretty sure the national union would decide TFAers were swell). As with everything else in education these days, each of us is going to have to be his own Superman.