Have you run into an increasing number of young 20-somethings in your favorite restaurants or bars around New Orleans? Every year, around 400 recent college graduates move to New Orleans to “Teach for America.” Teach For America (TFA) sends the “best and brightest” recent college graduates into low-income schools for two years at a time; however, many people are questioning the need for TFA.
Critics claim that TFA is a leader of the educational neo-liberal reform movement because it replaces veteran teachers (many of whom are union members), staffs newly created charter schools and trains its teachers to focus on standardized test results. Many TFA alumni members, such as Louisiana’s State Superintendent John White, enter into political and leadership positions and shape educational policy.
Knowing that teachers are usually required to take four years of courses in undergraduate school, which includes a semester of student teaching, I was curious about the training that TFA’s Summer Institute provides to these young college graduates, as well as other workings of this popular program. Some ex-TFA’ers, such as “Paula” and “Michelle” (names changed in order to protect their employment), have questioned their experiences with the organization. I sat down to talk with them about their experience with TFA, from its teacher “boot camp” to the reality of inexperience in the classroom.
Could you first tell me a little bit about yourselves and what enticed you to apply to TFA?
Paula: I wasn’t recruited for TFA because I went to a state school and not an Ivy League school. I was really interested in education, but my major was in Humanities, and I didn’t want to go to graduate school.
Michelle: First of all, I grew up in New England, in a 98% white town. It was pretty affluent. Most of the people that I knew—my parents’ friends and my friends’ parents—were people with terminal degrees. So I had pressure to go to an elite institution for college (which I did); and at that school, I got involved with a number of campus organizations and I was a leader in a few of them. So when my senior year came around, I guess TFA recruiters reached out to the professors and staff members and asked them to recommend student leaders.
So because you attended an elite institution, Michelle, TFA recruited you rather than someone who attended UNO, Xavier, Loyola University or LSU?
Michelle: That’s right. TFA was basically stationed on the campus. There were people there all the time. So starting in the fall of my senior year, I was getting emails from people asking me to come meet them for coffee to learn more about TFA; and I ignored a lot of those emails. I didn’t know much about it, but I had seen fliers around campus and recognized that it was a racist, elitist organization. There were pictures of white teachers and black students.
As if the TFA teachers are some great paternalistic saviors?
Michelle: It was like, “We need you to close the ‘achievement gap!’” And, I was like, that is fucked up—why would you think that the people already at that school didn’t know how to close the achievement gap? I studied sociology, took a lot of classes about race and considered myself to be pretty radical. The summer before, I had done prison abolition work in New York City, so I had some analysis. I knew TFA was built on a premise that really didn’t sit right with me, but I also didn’t have a lot of experience—like I was saying, I grew up in a 98% white elitist community. So I ignored these emails, but they were really persistent and my parents were starting to get on my case about what was I doing. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so it was hard to find jobs that looked appealing and paid money. I knew I was going to need benefits, and here was this job, and they were recruiting me.
Did they tell you how much money you would make?
Michelle: All of that is up front in their recruiting stuff. You will make a livable salary with benefits, all those kinds of things. They tell you right away. I eventually met with somebody, basically, just because I told my mom I would. I met with [the TFA recruiter] and said: “Honestly, this seems really racist to me.”
She was calm and interested in my analysis, and she said a lot of things to reassure me: “You know, these kids in most of these districts… there is just a teacher shortage in urban districts and low income communities of teachers who are really dedicated. You have gotten a great education; you should give back in this way, and you are needed. These kids, otherwise, have strings of substitute teachers.” So that made me feel like—okay, maybe I’m needed. Once I got in, I was still on the fence, but they had me talk to [TFA] people from New Orleans. They were like, “You are needed so badly!” They flat out told me that there were not enough teachers!
When you came to New Orleans, was that the case?
Michelle: It appeared that way because, again, we were never told. Nobody let on that, actually, all the teachers had been fired. So they told us that there were schools that were understaffed, and we got jobs pretty easily.
Paula: We didn’t learn about the firing of the teachers, I don’t think, until after we finished our two year commitments.
Can you tell me a little about what preparation you received at that training and what it was like?
Michelle: It was 5 weeks of classes and 4 of those weeks were spent teaching, so it’s pretty commonly described as “Boot Camp.” It is a very intense, generally sleep-deprived experience for everyone where you’re constantly being watched and critiqued. You’re constantly being reviewed. We were sent to Phoenix, Arizona, even though we knew we’d be placed here in New Orleans. But we were a part of an enormous training. I think people were going to be teaching in places as different as Indianapolis, rural New Mexico, Phoenix, New Orleans, Rio Grande (Texas), and we’re are all there together. We went to pep rallies. It was a very intense environment where you were pushed constantly farther than you wanted to be pushed.
Paula: There was a real social pressure to wear a cold, professional mask.
Michelle: We had these mentor advisors—Corps Member Advisors or “CMAs”—who, in my case, was someone who had taught three years. Most CMAs had just finished their corps requirements, so they had only taught two years.
Paula: Which was confusing.
Michelle: They were the experts, and they were teaching us how to teach.
Paula: And you kind of wondered, what were they doing there?
Michelle: We were all based at our school sites getting these classes each day from these people that had not really taught for that long, who were kind of our drill sergeants—which was the main way that I felt about them.
Paula: But there was a “happy-lovey-clubby” kind of feel, like when we got introduced to our CMAs. They were like team leaders, and you got to come up with a different cheer for your team, with your CMA, and so it was supposed to seem really fun and stuff. But also, it was mixed with kind of an austerity.
Michelle: I remember feeling really down. I had not been feeling good about my teaching, and I was meeting with my CMA, who “proudly didn’t cry.” She said that she could not remember the last time in her lifetime that she had cried. She talked about it as boot camp, and the military was a big inspiration for her. She was starting a charter school and it had some “military-esque” like reference in the name even. Anyway, I cried because I was so exhausted, overwhelmed, and sad and felt so alienated. We talked about how many hours of sleep a night should be expected, and she said, “I just want you to know, don’t sleep less than 4 hours. You’re not being responsible if you’re getting less than 4 hours a night. But if you’re getting more than 6, you’re doing something wrong.”
How did y’all finally find out that the teachers in New Orleans had been fired en masse?
Paula: I think at the Teacher’s Union [United Teachers of New Orleans]. I was a member when I taught in the RSD [Recovery School District], which was awesome. I had a veteran co-teacher who was an amazing, great mentor. The principal was really critical in our interview, and they were trying to get two teachers in every one of their classrooms.
They weren’t going to put you in there by yourself ?
Paula: Yeah, and they had a few new teachers at that school, but everyone else there were veteran teachers and they told me that they weren’t sure about all this [TFA] stuff, but they felt that I was sincere, and I wanted to work and they were going to have me in this classroom with a veteran teacher. Anyway, I was surplussed (reassigned) from there, and I taught at another RSD elementary school, which was the exact opposite. It was crazy. It was all new teachers except for one who was from the 9th ward, so that was rare. She maybe had 10 years of experience, and I remember the relationship was tense between her and some of the other new teachers.
Michelle, what did you experience when you first started teaching ?
Michelle: I taught at a charter school with a really beautiful mission. It had inspiring things to say about believing in all children. When I started, I was assigned to teach 6th grade self- contained, meaning I was going to be the one teacher in the school teaching them all subjects, and I did that until December, when that changed. I started being the middle school language arts teacher, and I taught language arts to all the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. It was incredibly challenging. I had been teaching just high school writing for 4 weeks at Institute.
At Summer Institute, how many students were in the classroom?
Michelle: I think I only had 16 students.
How many were in your actual class in New Orleans?
Michelle: 30. And I was learning how to teach science, social studies, math, and English, too, but just the amount of preparation work that I had for all those students. Plus, I also had an enormous reading level range. That first year, in the beginning of the year, I had five students who were at the zero-one, zero-two level of the English Language Learner test, so they didn’t really speak any English at all… There were no services for them. We had no professional development on how to teach them.
Were there any Spanish speaking teachers?
Michelle: A lot of us actually did speak some Spanish, but there was no actual English Language Learner program. So there was nothing. The guy they got that year who was in that job, who taught something else the year before, was figuring out that year what it meant to be the coordinator for the English Language Learner specialist for the entire school.
Tell me more about that charter school.
Michelle: The first year we started with no principal and then a few weeks in the social worker, who a social worker for two years and before that had been a kindergarten aide, was hired as the principal. She had no administrative experience and no real teaching experience, except for as a kindergarten aide. There was one veteran teacher in my building who taught four years. She was the person who we considered the veteran teacher. And then there were some older women who had taught in Catholic schools. There was a huge staff turnover between my first and second years; it was over 50%.
Who were the people running that charter?
Michelle: It was a charter management organization based in Chicago.
Was it for-profit or non-profit?
Michelle: Well, it was non-profit, but they actually just were… There was a big lawsuit where they were found guilty for mismanaging their funds. When I worked in the building, the only books that we had, had been donated by Catholic schools. There was no science equipment. We didn’t have a nurse. We didn’t have a social worker—because she was the principal.
What kind of support did TFA offer you guys through your first year of teaching and did they continue the training ?
Michelle: We were assigned an adviser, a Program Director. I had three Program Directors in my two years.
Paula: I thought, personally, that my Program Director was going to be a veteran teacher. I was under the impression they would be a master teacher. Because a Program Director is somebody who is in charge of 20 or 30 Corps Members; and so I was like, that person has got to be a master teacher, a veteran teacher. And, as far as I could tell, all of them have two, maybe three years of experience.
You think they also came from TFA? Or were they traditionally trained?
Paula: Oh, they were all TFA.
Michelle: Yeah, they were all TFA.
So, they had five weeks of training, as well. No actual degree in education, and they were training you?
Paula: They were not really training us. They were kind of like your big brother or big sister. Like, my Program Director taught two or three years in the Mississippi Delta. She did not teach in New Orleans, and she taught a different grade level from what I taught. She was from Michigan. The first time I met her, she really made a big show of being tough. I thought that would mean that she was going to really challenge me, but what I realized at a certain point, she just didn’t know what she was doing, and she was over-extended and that meant she wasn’t going to support me really, and she wasn’t going to be in my way. Also, at Institute I taught a very different thing: I taught elementary math and then in New Orleans, I taught middle school, almost every subject.
What made you start to become really critical about TFA?
Michelle: Well, I was increasingly disillusioned, starting with Institute, but then throughout my teaching experience with TFA, I felt totally unsupported by them. And the more I taught, the more I realized that I disagreed with their philosophy. I was really frustrated with the lack of transparency about their pedagogy and theory with us, and this idea they told us: “Here is how you teach!” As if there was just one way. But I did my own reading and research. I decided that I wanted to continue teaching, but I just couldn’t continue doing it because I had only been taught this way of teaching that I felt was really dehumanizing to both them and to me, and the whole culture was just incredibly militant and about standardized test scores and not about teaching, not about children, not about communities— God no! We just started learning. I stopped teaching, and I knew I had to educate myself: I read Linda Darling-Hammond; I read Diane Ravitch; and I went to hear Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit and Kristen Buras at a conference at UNO.
Paula: I similarly was disillusioned, and I wanted to teach, too. I really cared about my students but I knew… The school that I taught at was so fragmented. It was so out of control from the way the district was treating the school and the way the culture of the school itself was. It was so crazy, and I never had a consistent position at the school, so I didn’t feel like I could learn, and I didn’t feel like I could grow as a teacher in that position. TFA was not supporting me, whatsoever. They would say that they would come and observe me, but they would often miss those dates. I think they were afraid to come visit my school because it was a dangerous school to go to, and we had police. I think they were scared to go there, but I had to go there every day and develop relationships with my students who I cared about. But I didn’t know how to teach in that environment, and I knew that there was so much that I had to learn. And, I knew that if I actually wanted to be a teacher, staying in that school and staying with the totally incompetent training that I got from TFA was not the way I was going to become the educator that I wanted to be. So, if I was going to do that, I knew I needed to quit and find that training elsewhere.