Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout

shame

A few years ago a UT-Austin undergraduate student sat in my office and told me that she was joining Teach For America and was going to teach in KIPP school. The essence of TFA’s pitch to her?

We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.

In 2013, The University of Texas at Austin sent more of our graduates to Teach For America than any other university. We’re #1!?! How can you not feel good about Teach For America after watching this expensive and very professional YouTube promotion video? (Happy Holidays!! btw)

Apparently, a half of a billion dollars buys some slick promotional material.

Also, how can you not fall in love with Teach For America when discussing their beliefs with their very intelligent and loquacious staff and lobbyist (Factoid: Did you know TFA has embedded paid ed policy staffers in the U.S. congress?).

A few weeks ago, after I spoke on a panel at the The National Hispanic Caucus of Hispanic State Legislators (NHCSL) conference in Orlando, I had a conversation with a Nevada State Senator about TFA and he told me:

You should visit the TFA classrooms. You will be really impressed.

Check out this Dog and Pony show featuring Spanky the Miniature Horse and Dally the Parson Russell Terrier

Back to that student that was in my office two years ago asking about TFA and KIPP. I’ll be honest, I advised her against it. But I asked her to keep in touch because I was very interested in hearing about her experience teaching for TFA and KIPP. Well, she was back in touch last week— midway through her second year. (It is anonymous to avoid retribution from you know who). Without further ado…

Graduating from college, I was energized and ready to take my place on the front line of education reform by becoming part of the Teach For America Corps.  Many entering corps members are captured by the convincing sales pitch of TFA recruiters on campus. While I did meet with one of these recruiters who reinforced my decision to join, I had also spent time in my undergraduate coursework studying parts of education reform, including charter schools and Teach For America. I knew the criticisms, but I thought I knew what I was getting into.  I was wrong about many things regarding Teach For America.

Here are 5 things I did not expect from my Teach For America experience:

Unpreparedness for the Classroom
The 5-week summer session at Rice University was a fast-paced, well-run training session, but it was not enough to prepare me to lead my own classroom in my first year.  While I learned valuable techniques and tools to become a teacher, it certainly did not equip me for creating systems in my classroom, writing unit plans, and creating valuable assessment. Five weeks was not enough to create the type of magic that Teach For America describes in its vision.  Training was like leading us to the top of a cliff before we had to jump off into the reality of our own classrooms. All I can say is the mountain was high and the fall was hard.

Lack of Focused Support
I imagined being a part of TFA would provide a network of resources. I didn’t imagine I would have to recreate 2 high school history curriculums on my own without any training. My “manager of teaching leadership and development” (MTLD), who is supposed to be my main support in my classroom, was a Teach for America alumni who had spent two years in the classroom before moving into his current position. How is a 2 year teacher (who taught middle school math, no less) going to give me the sort of advice I needed to teach high school history?

Isolation
I never thought I would feel so alone in a organization like TFA. I imagined being a part of the Corps would provide me with the support I needed, even though I would be an inexperienced first year teacher. During my first semester, I was visited two times by my TFA manager.  Afterward, we met for coffee, and he would ask questions about my vision for my students, but never offered the type of resources and support that I needed to make my teaching life more bearable. Looking back, I’m not even sure what a two-time visitor could have offered that would have really helped me.

Shame
Shame has a terrible place in this organization.  I never believed that shame would become a motivator in my Teach for America experience, but shame holds onto the necks of many Corps members.  Placing young college graduates in some of the toughest teaching situations with 5 weeks of training has negative repercussions on the mind, body, and soul of Corps members.  The message is “If only I were stronger, smarter and more capable, I could handle this. I would be able to save my students.”  Unfortunately, TFA intentionally or unintentionally preys on this shame to push Corps members to their limits to create “incredible” classrooms and “transformative” lesson plans. Would these things be good for our students? Of course.  Is shame a sustainable method for creating and keeping good teachers in the classroom? Absolutely not. It is defeating and draining.

Burnout
I never imagined not making it through 2 years of teaching, but there were so many occasions that I thought about quitting. I experienced anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns from the unrealistic expectations and workload. The immense amount of pressure that TFA places on Corps members, however, is not matched by a reciprocal amount of support and preparation.  What TFA lacks in support and preparation, they replace with “inspiration.” Will this “inspiration” and “vision” change the education system? Not without some backing, and I am afraid that TFA teachers do not last long. After my two years of experience, I have learned a lot about teaching and what works for my students, but I will not teach next year. I am burnt out. I am done.

As I enter my final semester, I have to be careful when I speak about Teach For America because TFA is more than one experience. For instance, not every Corps member has experienced a KIPP school with 3 principals in a year and a half.  There are many unique stories, so I have to analyze it in two parts. There is the effect of Teach For America on its members and the effect of Teach For America on the education system. Do I believe that young people are coming out of Teach For America with important skills and knowledge about education and the education system? Yes. Do I believe that Teach For America as an organization is solving the problem of educational inequality? No. Teach For America sets forth a plan that is creating more conversations about solutions but it is perpetuating many of the issues that already exist within the system. Teach For America is like when you shake a machine because you cannot make it work, and you think what the heck, maybe this will magically solve the problem.  Unfortunately, 5 weeks of training and throwing unprepared, young people into the classroom will not create a sustainable solution. Most of us are human and the pressure to create transformational change is too great without the proper training, resources, and preparation to do the job as it should be done.

As if on cue, Michael Zuckerman published a piece  last week in the Harvard Magazine with suggestions from Harvard TFA alums and scholars for the organization to reform its reform.

  • Many proposed that TFA extend the length of its commitment, noting that even the best teachers rarely hit their stride before year two.
  • In addition to lengthening the commitment, Katherine Merseth suggests that TFA expand the Institute from five weeks to six to nine months. She also advises them to increase support to new teachers once they are in the classroom, because new teachers learn the most from reflecting on these early teaching experiences.
  • Anthony Britt, who included constructive criticism in a column for the Guardian entitled “Teach for America isn’t perfect, but it has been a boost to education,” predicts that TFA will face issues until it clarifies its long-term plan—“especially with respect to charter schools”—and stops “having numerous corporate or controversial stakeholders and donors.”
  • Noam Hassenfeld, who wrote an article for the website PolicyMic entitled “This Former TFA Corps Member Thinks You Should Join City Year Instead,” argues for placing corps members as teaching assistants rather than teachers—“a meaningful educational experience that can only help and not hurt.” He also suggests a “Doctors Without Borders” model for TFA that would provide incentives, financial and otherwise, for teachers who have already demonstrated commitment to the profession—not novices fresh out of college—to take jobs in higher-needs districts.
  • Susan Moore Johnson, drawing on other research done with Morgaen Donaldson, thinks TFA should improve the way it matches corps members with teaching assignments.
  • Almost everyone agreed that TFA should focus less on simple growth in numbers and more on sending corps members to placements that most need them. “I do not understand why first-year corps members are placed at KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] schools, for example,” wrote Millicent Younger, alluding to KIPP’s desirability as a place to teach (its eight public charter schools in Newark and Camden alone report receiving over 3,000 teacher applications per year). “I feel that TFA should use its manpower as a way to put teachers in schools and districts that are struggling to find teachers, not to take higher-demand jobs.”

There is PLENTY of research and feedback out there for TFA. It is impossible for TFA to say that they are unaware of what is really happening in their organization.

YOU CAN HELP: Do you have documents or information about TFA? Are you a TFA teacher that wants to share your experience in a blog. It’s okay if it doesn’t read like TFA’s slick promotion materials. Send to jvh@austin.utexas.edu

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on TFA go here.

p.s. Boycott FedEx for their Hypocrisy and Support of TFA

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Categories: KIPP, Teach For America

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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27 Comments on “Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout”

  1. December 29, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    I experienced many of the same frustrations and thoughts during and after my experience in the NYC Teaching Fellows, though I think I worried more about living up to my own unrealistic expectations rather than those of the Fellows/TFA.

    My experience with TFA/TNTP alums since finishing is that some — like myself and your former student — leave the program humbled while others leave the program full of hubris. It seems to me that the latter are currently driving the programs but the former have a lot more to offer to our efforts to improve education in this country.

  2. NateNYC
    December 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Thank you for posting. Some of the best writing on TFA has been the ongoing work by one of the early Corps members in Houston in the early 90′s, Gary Rubinstein, who currently teachers at Stuyvesant HS in NYC. It is worth looking at his blog posts over the years and open letters to TFA leadership calling for reform. Here is a recent one: http://garyrubinstein.teachforus.org/2013/11/15/my-advice-to-tfa-staffers-quit-for-america/

  3. December 29, 2013 at 5:18 pm #

    Reblogged this on Texas Special Education Connection and commented:
    I have worked with well-prepared TFA teachers and less well-prepared ones. The perspective on TFA is definitely different here in Texas than in Nebraska where I previously taught. I was actually a little jealous of when a few of my classmates choose to do their student teaching with TFA, but now realize that maybe I didn’t miss out on anything.

  4. Tamara
    December 30, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    My student teaching alone minus the 300 hours of observation in a variety of classrooms was nearly 5 months in a traditional program.

  5. December 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    I re-blogged about this story and another similar one at http://t.co/T6n2D1LoFv

  6. JL
    December 30, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

    Wow, this article is full of egregious grammatical and factual mishaps. Clearly the author was never taught by a TFA teacher! Truly embarrassing to put out work product of this poor caliber attacking an educational movement.

    • December 30, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

      Dear José Luis Muños,

      What are the “factual mishaps”? As for any typos, blame Siri. This is not the Brooklyn Ink, it’s a blog.

  7. Fred
    December 30, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Having been an educator for the past 11 years, I have learned that being an effective educator doesn’t come with nor is there a quick equation that prepares you for this profession. Many times, people are quick to talk about educators, and/or believe that they can do it better than an educational program that prepares for educators for this profession. However, there is a so much that goes into teaching mentally, physically, and I would even say spirtually. You can’t go into this profession for the pay, but you have to become an educator for the “love” of being an educator, and the love for educating children. So many people become educators, because they have fell at another profession, but being an educator should not be a second choice. Those who embark on it because it is there second choice, aren’t always in it for the right reasons, and it is evident in there day to day dealings with the children. Thus, I don’t believe you can be fully prepared for any classroom setting, because I have learned that this is truly on the job training!

  8. January 1, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    At the very least, this article underscores the lack of respect TFA has for our profession, believing they can hurry up a bunch of enthusiastic college grads through a training program and produce effective teachers. Is that all it takes to be a good teacher? A lot of energy and the desire to help children? Learn a few strategies and a few tricks and you’ll be prepared to run your own classroom? But how is TFA any different than the general public’s perception that anyone can be a teacher? TFA is just the best known brand of pundits who believe you can make someone a teacher by giving them a bag of tools to pull from to get the job done. Safire tried to do the same thing, maintaining that teaching could be a learned skill rather than what we all know it to be: an art form. Like most highly skilled professions, there are those who truly have the talent to produce at a high level, and there are all the rest who merely survive by going through the motions. But the current trend is that every teacher needs to be a Da Vinci and programs like TFA perpetuate this unrealistic expectation for education. Do we run a five-week training program for kids who are passionate about basketball and then throw them into the NBA? Is that all it takes to play at that level: passion and some basic skills of shooting, dribbling and passing? If the public wants talented teachers in their children’s classrooms, then they need to apply the same logic to teaching that they do to every other career that seeks out the most talented individuals to fill their ranks.

  9. January 4, 2014 at 12:53 am #

    Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:
    As a new teacher, I empathize with the experience of the TFAer in this post. Teaching requires all of you and then some. While TFA may work for some, is not a miracle cure for education. While its mission seemed noble when it started, it now appears as a self-serving institution more interested in itself than the students it is intended to serve.

  10. Jack Covey
    January 4, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    The backers of TFA believe that teaching should not be a profession where teachers are on a par with doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. No, they believe it should be a short term job like fast food, retail, temping, etc. In order to make a profit from the ultimately privatized education industry that they eventually plan to run, they need to lower the “overhead” costs, most prominently the line item of salary, benefits, retirement. You can only do that when schools are staffed by short-term temps with no collective power—i.e. unions—fighting for decent salary, benefits, retirement, etc. In essence, the TFA organization also functions as a scab organization to bust local teachers unions one at a time.

    Indeed, when a TFA teacher is in trouble—from a harassment from an administrator; disruptive students out to the break the teacher; or whatever—they are barred by their TFA supervisors from going to the one source who could help them… that school’s teacher union representatives.

    The TFA-ers are also programmed to attack the veteran, unionized teachers with whom they work. Check out this comment from Jeff Austin, a TFA member—also a member of an astroturf teacher group called E4E—goes at veteran teacher Mike Fiorillo on the issue of lowering class size.

    NOTE: the TFA party line, as dictated by funder Bill Gates, is that class sizes should be increased… even though Gates sends his own kids to schools with small class sizes:

    http://seattletimes.com/html/dannywestneat/2014437975_danny09.html

    ALSO NOTE: Austin starts by saying, rightly, that the veteran teacher has “no idea who I am or what I’ve accomplished” as a teacher, as they are strangers from different states blogging to each other

    Fair enough.

    But then watch as he then immediately claims that he, on the other hand, possesses the power to “know” that the veteran teacher with whom he debates is a sucky teacher. Indeed, check out Austin’s Kreskin-like clairvoyance in being able to divine with absolute certainty that this veteran teacher—again, with whom Austin has ZERO first-hand knowledge or experience—

    — is a “failure”,

    — “cares less about your students so you can keep a job that you’re think entitled to… ”

    — “complains about class size because it let’s you blame someone else for your failure.”…

    — needs to realize that “anyone who knows anything about education knows that class size is hardly the biggest reason for our failing education system.”

    And then he ends with “Congratulations on your mediocrity…. find someone else to blame for your failure.”

    Note the TFA corps member’s total absence of irony—not to mention self-awareness—in blathering “you don’t know what I’ve accomplished” followed by his own bizarre belief and certainty that the veteran teacher is “a failure” and a “mediocrity” who “blames someone else for (his) failure.”

    This spiel is all word-for-word the TFA programming at the institute and throughout their tenure… DOUBLE-CLICK on the hyperlinks in his brain that says, “lower class sizes” or “how to debate unionized veteran teachers” and, with word-for-word automaticity, out spouts this drivel:

    —————————————-

    JEFF AUSTIN: “You think I’m naive simply because i don’t agree with you. You have no idea who I am or what I’ve accomplished. I guarantee its far more than what you’ve accomplished bitching on comment pages about lowering class size. If you want to take the gloves off, fine.

    “The fact of the matter is that you’re backing a failing system just so you can keep a job that you think you’re entitled to….

    “Half of the time its people like you who could really care less about our students who complain about class size because it let’s you blame someone else for your failure.

    “Anyone who knows anything about education knows that class size is hardly the biggest reason for our failing education system.”

    “… Congratulations on your mediocrity. When I’m done meeting with these policymakers and actually get them to do something to improve education you can thank me. Or find something else to blame for your failure.”

    ———————————–

    Sure Jeff…. whatever you say. I like the veteran teacher’s response:

    ———————————————-

    MIKE FIORILLO: “Wow, I’ve never realized that my sixteen years teaching in a high- poverty NYC public school, and a foot-thick file of thank you letters from current and former students, makes me a failure.

    “Thank you, Jeff, for showing me the error of my ways. I now realize that, after all these years, I don’t care about kids and am only out for myself and all the other greedy union thug teachers. After all, it’s only organizations funded by Bill Gates, unlike unions, that can give teachers a voice in their workplace.

    “Oh, how I loathe myself.”

    “Thank you for your illuminating comments. I will now download E4E’s mission statement and genuflect on how I’ve wasted my life and destroyed the lives of my students.”
    —————————————

    From Diane Ravitch’s blog—the COMMENTS section—at:

    http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/01/e4e-gets-3-million-from-gates/

  11. John Young
    January 4, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Reblogged this on Transparent Christina.

  12. January 15, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Teach For America: Truth of Crime.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ‘Five things I did not expect from my Teach For America experience’ - December 30, 2013

    […] Here is part of a post that Julian Vasquez Heilig, an award-winning researcher and associate professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote on his Cloaking Inquality blog. The piece, entitled “Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout,” is largely about a former student of Heilig’s who came to him to tell him about her experience in TFA. The student is still teaching at a KIPP school as a TFA corps member so asked not to be identified. […]

  2. Is Alternative Certification Really an Option? | Literacy Teaching and Teacher Education - December 30, 2013

    […] corps – her TFA program had 5 weeks of training. The title of the blog captured my interest: Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout. Here the link to it: […]

  3. TFA recruits continue to speak out | Reconsidering TFA - December 30, 2013

    […] America, two ex-TFA teachers talk about their experience and disillusionment with TFA.  And, in Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout another TFA teacher shares a similar tale of disillusionment.  In both articles, we hear many of […]

  4. Teach For Canada can only make things worse | No need to raise your hand - January 2, 2014

    […] alumni have raised grave concerns about the quality of their training program and (lack of a) support network, particularly with respect to TFA’s “diversity training” sessions (the majority of TFA corps […]

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    […] and alumni have raised grave concerns about the quality of their training program and (lack of a) support network, particularly with respect to TFA’s “diversity training” sessions (the majority of TFA corps […]

  6. Julian Vasquez Heilig: A TFA Alumna Tells All to Julian | Diane Ravitch's blog - January 4, 2014

    […] Two years later, Julian received a letter, which he reprints in this post. […]

  7. Teach For Canada can only make things worse | Solidarity Halifax - January 5, 2014

    […] alumni have raised grave concerns about the quality of their training program and (lack of a) support network, particularly with respect to TFA’s “diversity training” sessions (the majority of TFA corps […]

  8. Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break” | Cloaking Inequity - January 5, 2014

    […] for our nation’s poorest children? Also, another argument could be that these stories (See also Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout) are isolated examples. But ask yourself the question: Has TFA ever published a story that was not […]

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  10. First-year teacher: 4 things that prepared me for my job - January 28, 2014

    […] December 30th, I read a disturbing and evocative description of one Texas teacher’s experience who worked with two of the nation’s education organizations: […]

  11. Narrative vs. Counter-narrative: Teach For America in their own words | Cloaking Inequity - February 2, 2014

    […] Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout […]

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    […] Tell-All From A TFA and KIPP Teacher: Unprepared, Isolation, Shame, and Burnout […]

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    […] out of the system. But don’t ask me – ask the people who have done stints in TFA and regretted […]

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