What I REALLY Think About Teach For America

By Bill Henk – Recently I welcomed our newest group of Teach For America (TFA) corps members to Milwaukee.  I truly appreciated the opportunity to address these aspiring teachers along with some of TFA’s strongest local community supporters.

For the record, I didn’t mince words.  I told corps members exactly how challenging their next two years were going to be.  In fact, one of the local guests came up to me and said, “Well, Bill, you certainly kept it real.”  That comment sparked this post.

Now in our fourth year of working with the organization, I figure that the time is right to tell the the world what I REALLY think about TFA.  The short version amounts to this — there is much about the organization to applaud, but I do have some reservations.  Let me explain.

Living the Dream (or Nightmare)

TFA has been a lived experience for me, starting about five years ago when we first explored the possibility of the College of Education becoming a University Collaborator.   What does that label mean, you ask?

Well, a little known fact  is that the vast majority of the Milwaukee TFA corps members take formal Education courses — either from Marquette or Cardinal Stritch University.  We serve the elementary and secondary education majors, and our higher education partners across town serve the early childhood, bilingual, and special education majors.   The corps members’ university coursework leads to teaching licensure by the end of year one or so, and by year two, most of the corps members will have earned a Master’s degree as well.

And also for the record, I REALLY took a lot of heat  in some circles for partnering with Teach For America.  Some of my  higher education colleagues in traditional teacher preparation programs around the state criticized TFA soundly in my presence at various public forums.  Believe me, on one level, I appreciated their concerns, especially about the limits of corps members’ training before they became classroom teachers.  In fact, I shared them.   Making matters worse, early on I really didn’t know TFA well enough to defend our relationship with the organization adequately.  Although I tried, my efforts were somewhat timid and definitely clumsy.

Anyway, after working with the organization through three cohorts of corps members, I can say today in good conscience that despite the duress, I’d throw in with TFA again.

What I won’t say is that I’d do it exactly the same way!

Clearly there were aspects of mounting the program that I could have done much better.  Most of all, I should have worked more closely with my own faculty beforehand.  Some were understandably unhappy with me for forging ahead.

Plus, getting the program up and running and then sustaining it in the initial stages required a great deal of work by many of them.  Adding to the problem, I didn’t do a solid enough job of  marshaling the necessary resources.  If I had, then the implementation would have been more effective and less painful all around.  As a result, we’ve struggled somewhat administratively.

Even so, I take consolation in the fact that I owned the unpopular decision and worked extremely hard on TFA directly myself.  And I believe the results have been very worthwhile overall.

Much Closer to a Dream Than a Nightmare

Without any more of a personal back story, let me tell you what I really think about TFA in bullet form.  And so you know, I shared many of these observations with the corps members and our guests when I addressed them.

  • The genius of TFA is in how the organization is able to recruit.  Their interview process allows for the astute selection of corps members whose intelligence, personality, and tenacity give them the chance to succeed in extremely demanding circumstances.  I especially like that TFA brings some number of gifted young individuals into the profession who otherwise would almost certainly not have chosen teaching as a career.
  • Every single person I’ve met in TFA has been unusually bright, passionate, and hard working.  These characteristics enable them first to survive in very difficult urban classrooms, and hopefully flourish and excel eventually.
  • TFA seeks students exactly like we have here at Marquettesmart, driven, and steeped in social justice. Not surprisingly, our institution has been a target for TFA recruiting for several years, but until the Milwaukee region was established, MU alumni who became corps members always landed in other regions to train and work.
  • TFA is part of the solution to the problems in urban education, but it’s not THE solution.  Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, clearly has this sensible perspective.  I’ve spent time talking with  Wendy on some visits to Milwaukee, and can tell you that she’s very good at keeping it real herself especially about moving the achievement needle nationwide.  Personally, I think that her expectations are more grounded than some others in her organization as well as zealous external supporters of TFA who don’t truly know the terrain of urban education.
  • The corps members hit the classroom after an intense five-week summer training that is impressive on one hand, but not sufficient on the other.  Becoming a teacher of record for a classroom represents a serious professional milestone.  Despite the intelligence, effort, and sensitivity of the corps members, they’re simply not 100% ready except in the absolute rarest of cases or if they’re already licensed.
  • In seeking to increase its impact through expansion, TFA needs to continue to accept only the best candidates or risk dilution in quality.  A big part of the organization’s cachet has been attracting many of the best and brightest from some of the country’s most exceptional schools.  Any lowering of the bar for the sake of obtaining a greater national reach could be a misstep in my estimation.
  • TFA sometimes moves corps members into leadership positions without the benefit of extensive teaching experience.  My own belief is that teachers should have a minimum of five years in the classroom before supervising others.  Having said that, I can report that the local TFA administration and staff have impressed me, beginning with the first Executive Director, Garrett Bucks, and now his successor, Maurice Thomas.  This should not be surprising since TFA leaders all seem to be drawn from the ranks of their their own high quality corps members.
  • There is a dearth of rigorous scientific evidence on the impact of Teach For America.  Consequently, there is much we do not know about the effect the movement is having on our educational landscape.   Fact is, the organization enjoys significant popularity in the media and in the philanthropic, business, and legislative communities, yet it remains to be seen just how effectual it is on a variety of fronts.  My professional instincts tell me that TFA is doing a great deal of good, but the researcher in me requires hard data.

About the Corps Members

And finally for the record, I REALLY like the TFA corps members.  Always have.

I remember meeting the first cohort and thinking that they were just plain great young people.  Their energy, maturity, courage, and sense of mission qualified as downright contagious.  Charisma just flowed and their intellect abounded.  They were courteous and witty, and exhibited a warm sense of humor.  They were kind, caring, and engaging.  I have a word for people built this way:  winners.

Right then and there it occurred to me that I might have done something much bigger and better than I could have imagined.  Despite all of the uncertainty and fear I had in moving forward, I felt steeled to take on whatever consequences the future held for my role in the bold step of bringing TFA to Marquette and the Milwaukee region.

Teaching the Teachers

In fact, I felt so strongly about sustaining the program that I volunteered to teach a course last fall in which half the class would be TFA corps members.   Of course, I needed to take on more work like a hole in the head, but I also saw my teaching in the program as a good faith way to show my faculty that I had significant skin in the TFA game, too.

To this day, the corps members I had in class probably have no idea how empathetic I was to their plight and how much working with them meant to me.  Each Monday evening,  I quickly felt their joys and triumphs as well as their frustrations and failures.  No kidding, when they first started as the teachers of record in their schools, they’d drag themselves into class looking like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights — AFTER being flattened by the  semi-trailer!

Fact is, the corps members were learning firsthand just how REALLY hard it is to be a teacher, trying to juggle everything necessary just to make it through a day at a time.  Frankly, this is why traditionally-prepared education majors, who benefit from four years of immersion in the profession, have an easier time of acclimating to classroom leadership at the outset of their teaching careers.   Let’s face it, that only makes sense.

To the credit or the corps members, they were cognitively nimble and emotionally resilient, and eventually learned how to contend with formidable circumstances.  In class they were extremely attentive, asked thoughtful questions, and made genuinely insightful comments.  And, almost all of them stayed afterwards every night to tap my brain with the hope of picking up something that might help them at school the next day.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to think that it’s the professional scaffolding they receive at MU and Stritch, in classes and with our supervision, which gives corps members an even better chance to become legitimate master teachers.  This is not at all  to discount how they learn the TFA way of doing things from their on-staff program directors (which is particularly strong in assessment I might add).  Rather, the corps members just get held to the same standards and expectations our institutions require for every teacher we license, and that’s reassuring.

On A Mission

My final word on Teach For America at this point is that I’ve always appreciated the similarity in the mission of TFA and Marquette around educational equity as an imperative.  They believe that every child should have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.  In the College of Education at Marquette, we do, too.

That is no small aspiration, and I told the corps members that it will require a singlemindedness of will, an extraordinary intensity, and a wealth and range of skills for us to realize that audacious goal — something on the order of a mission from God.  In the end, living this mission will be a transformative journey for the corps members, and it’s my sincere hope and expectation that their destination will be teaching excellence.  REALLY.

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