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

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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