Last weekend in D.C, 15,000 alums, including myself, celebrated Teach For America's 25th anniversary. A quarter-century's a long time for any organization to be around. It's something to celebrate, but it's also a time to reflect on and evaluate its practice. This is certainly true for this a non-profit regularly targeted for heavy criticism. However, some of these critiques, often based on false assumptions or faulty data, need to be discredited with reality.
Something I've always admired about TFA is its reception to feedback. Beyond surveys and focus groups, they consistently solicit and listen to constructive criticism. Though I'm a proud alum, I consider myself a critical friend more than someone who's "drunk the Kool-Aid." I'm the type of friend that loves you but will call you out on your inconsistencies in a minute. I commend the work the organization is doing, but I also recognize some areas of growth. The wonderful thing is TFA also acknowledges those areas. In her speech during the 25th Anniversary Summit, Elisa Villanueva Beard, the organization's CEO, was honest about those struggles. They consistently strive to improve, the same way Corps Members are asked to in the classroom.
First, can we please stop bringing up the 2-year commitment? That's usually the first issue anti-TFA folks have. Naturally, a number of alums do move on to other fields such as Law and Medicine. In those two years, they realize teaching isn't for them and go to a career that they were more passionate about. Good for them. Better than having comfortable, detached teachers stay in the classroom because they don't know what else to do with their lives.
Nonetheless, though critics love to focus on those who leave the classroom, that's not the whole story. The fact of the matter is over 60% of alums stay beyond the agreed upon two years. Let's keep in mind that the vast majority of TFAers weren't originally planning on becoming educators after college. I sure wasn't. Now, I'm eight years in and still going strong. The 2-year agreement is an enticing trial of the profession, but many of us end of staying in the field long after that.
TFA is not a teacher employment agency. It was never meant to be. It's a movement. Better yet, it's a revolution. In warfare, you need individuals at various levels. Soldiers, generals, commanders are all important to the movement. Likewise, effective teachers, principals, district leaders and chancellors are essential to creating real change in Education. Several alums go on to become school leaders or assume other roles in K-12 education or education non-profits. The 25th Anniversary Summit was a testament to that fact. It was wonderful to be surrounded by thousands of alums in the conference that were still serving our students.
Let's get something else straight: TFA's also not in the business of training teachers. The fives weeks of training Corps Members receive the summer before they begin teaching is admittedly inadequate. I did not feel prepared the first day I walked into my Spanish classroom. In fact, I cried in the second week of school, because I felt completely overwhelmed. That's kind of part of the process (Feeling overwhelmed. Not the crying. Well, maybe both.). I'd briefly considered quitting but became determined to figure it out. I think I turned out alright.
TFA could hold Corps Members' hands for years before letting them leave the nest but they will never truly get good at teaching until they're in front of their own students. Many first-year teachers coming out of traditional training programs have also proven ill-prepared for the job. Considering how effective many TFA Corps Members and alums turn out, it appears teaching is just one of those gigs you learn by doing.
Ultimately. it's about the kids. TFA is a non-profit committed to improving the quality of education in America. Like any entity run by human beings, they make mistakes and gets some things wrong. But it also gets a lot right. If you're going to criticize TFA for what it gets wrong, be fair and also recognize what they do well. TFA hears you. People often criticize them as if they're uniquely responsible for solving the problems in Education. The truth is the organization is only part of the solution. We actually do a disservice to our students when educators clash over how to best serve them. Instead, we should put aside our differences and focus on how we can combine our efforts and help bridge the achievement gap. Let's continue to challenge TFA, but do it for the sake of making her better. This 25-year old hasn't yet reached her full potential. She's just getting started.