Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break”

tone-deaf

Here is another tell-all that does not appear in TFA’s glossy brochures or promotion materials. I realize that proponents of TFA will likely argue that these stories from TFA corp members are no different than any other poorly trained first year teacher. But that is the exactly the point isn’t it? Why is TFA perpetuating the revolving door of inexperienced teachers 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 a glowing, glossy perspective of the TFA experience? Here is another tell-all from a former Oakland TFA teacher.

I read your post tell-all and I appreciate your work. I’m sure your inbox will be flooded with responses just like mine, so I just appreciate being able to share my story and suggestions education reformers like TFA. If you do happen to post any of this, please keep it anonymous.

I joined TFA in 2011, fresh out of college, knowing nothing about education or low-income schools and children but a relatively strong awareness of social inequality and community activism. So that is my background – I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to social justice, community-building and politically-oriented service, but I didn’t do my research on what really happens to new TFA teachers.

Summer Institute was not very useful. I constantly felt guilty and isolated, feeling like my students were our guinea pigs. It’s five weeks, and you jump into playing the role of teacher after the first week, for the remaining four. (A – see footnote). I specifically failed at what many educators seem to emphasize the most, “classroom management.” My advisor kept me after class for thirty minutes to make me practice my authoritative “teacher voice,” which was demeaning for me, and ineffective (as I now know – students/people are keen on sensing this fake condescending tone and it doesn’t work). When I failed to use this tone and punishments on students when they were chewing gum or putting their head on their hands, my advisor sat in the back of the classroom holding up different colored index cards representing punishments I needed to give, like it was a game. One student was falling asleep because he had recently witnessed his neighbor (his age) get shot and killed and this student was having difficulty sleeping at night [check out http://youtu.be/2CwS60ykM8s for Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s, Oakland teacher, Ted talk on Growing Roses in Concrete]. Giving him warnings and threatening to call home is stressful at best and certainly doesn’t help anyone. Keep in mind I only know these students’ stories and a glimpse of what they were going through because I took the time to ask them and listen, something that’s not built into the program.

Okay, so many people say that once you start teaching, it’s your classroom and TFA doesn’t really watch over you or control what you do. Fine. This helped my relationship with my students, as I didn’t have to use certain classroom management methods and I didn’t have to talk down to my students. My students saved me during this time, and the 5 hours of class time were my happiest because I didn’t feel so alone. But due to lack of training, planning by myself every day was terrible. My school was for all ELL (English Language Leaners) students, all incredibly diverse cultures and languages. Which is awesome but difficult for many reasons. I had NO ELL training from TFA. I was also teaching Biology – which I know a lot about, but knew nothing about teaching biology to students who were at all different levels of English, and while keeping their attention so that they wouldn’t endanger themselves or break out into a fight.

Coming up with lessons in general was nearly impossible when you don’t have resources, like your post suggests. Everyone says “don’t reinvent the wheel,” but most resources are online or they do have some TFA network but seriously most lessons suck and count as busywork. It doesn’t fly with my ELL students, who once all collectively couldn’t answer my lab questions because nobody knew what “bubbles” were.  And it takes forever to sift through to find good material, which is why I woke up at 5 am and came back from work at 9:30 pm only to eat dinner, crash, and rinse repeat the next morning. I was so inefficient and I beat myself up for it every day, not realizing it wasn’t entirely my fault because I had not been prepared properly before I entered the classroom. I became depressed and had panic attacks at school. My family was completely far away, and I had lost all the friendships I had just started to build at the beginning of the semester because I was just such a downer and didn’t have the time to spend with anyone. Most of the teachers at my school were themselves stressed and busy, even though they were awesome people, and I just didn’t get to hang out with them and support each other when the day ended.

And, when I eventually took two months to weigh pros and cons and consult with everyone on the planet about whether to quit or not, the guilt trips and culture of shame that you mentioned in your first Tell-All post became very apparent. Mostly from people who work for TFA (my advisor told me about another corps member whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer yet the CM still trucked through the whole year, depressed and stressed— total respect, but everyone has a different circumstance. It is so not okay to USE that person’s story to guilt trip me).

Finally, I did quit at winter break. Which broke my heart for a million reasons but especially when sharing tears with students because I was NOT prepared by TFA to be a good teacher.

When I moved closer to home, I immediately began volunteering in low-income public schools to work with several teachers in a role that wasn’t quite teacher, but wasn’t just observer. Then I started substitute teaching at the request of these teachers. Oh my god, this experience was far better training than anything formalized from TFA. I was able observe veteran teachers, I built relationships with students and was able to see things from their point of view. I was supported by a veteran teacher and lead her class in exercises. I was mentored by the veteran teacher to learn how to earn students’ respect without using punitive disciplinary measures (See Footnote B). I learned SO much about teaching and the education system, way more than I ever learned in my tunnel vision, short-term stint with TFA, where everything was twisted out of perspective and I was just too poorly trained, stressed, and isolated to be a successful teacher.

Thoughts for Reform:

A: I agree with making the training much much longer. DO NOT have trainees put as a “teacher” – even if it’s 1 hour a day – after just one week of institute!!! Just as TFA preaches, teachers have a great impact on students. Everything a teacher says/does can be a bigger deal in a students’ life. For example, one of my to-be-8th grade students at Institute was expelled from summer school (actually 4 out of 20 did) and I got to know her personally and this was a huge damaging life event (to add to her life-imprisoned father and hospitalized mother’s circumstances). TFA’s lack of training dealing with discipline issues has contributed to this damage. The fact that we were not extensively trained to deal with classroom management is an important issue that needs to be explored.

B: And, make sure a LOT of observing goes on before trainees are taught to stand up there and do lessons/”classroom management” etc. Observe TFA classrooms, observe non-TFA classrooms, charter, non-charter, etc. TFA does not provide extensive training and observation. I totally agree with the suggestions you listed regarding training teachers. For example, something TFA instructors and other teachers I’ve met believe is that the best teachers are the most strict and “mean” and that students want this because it keeps the classroom under control and kids, like wild animals, need to be taught via punitive approaches to behave.

Why doesn’t TFA or its proponents introduce or even acknowledge the teacher counter-narratives detailing what is problematic about the corps into the public discussion? Will they continue to be tone deaf to suggestions for reforming their reform from their own alumni?

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: 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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  1. Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break” | Cloaking Inequity | MI Ed Policy Links - January 6, 2014

    […] via Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break” | Cloa…. […]

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

    […] Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break” […]

  3. Why are TFA and “reformers” perhaps the least interested in reform? | Cloaking Inequity - February 24, 2014

    […] Tell-All from Oakland TFA Teacher: “I didn’t do my research” “Left by Winter Break” […]

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