I am white. I am female. I was educated at a prestigious university, which included a minor in education. In essence, I am riddled with privilege. Do I belong in a classroom in a community of color to which I have no connection and of which I have no knowledge? Absolutely not. Especially not after minimal training and no commitment to being there long term. And neither should the countless Teach For America (TFA) corps members ‘teaching’ across the country, some of whom are my friends and peers. I have tried broaching this subject with various people in the past, and am almost always met with resistance and anger, and for those who are close with someone who has done TFA, an edge of defensiveness. How could I dare purport that all of these altruistic college graduates who are “giving up” two years of their precious time to teach low-income majority black and brown students need to stop what they’re doing immediately? In response, I challenge you to look more closely.
Can you think of any skilled professions in which it would be safe to employ individuals with only a handful of weeks of training? Would you want a nurse who had been hastily trained to be caring for your health and well being? Would you want a lawyer with such little experience to defend you? Would you want a poorly trained mechanic working on your car? Even if any of these people had been college-educated? So why do so many people think it is okay to entrust the education of our nation’s children to college graduates with so little training and experience? Do we believe fundamentally that teaching requires very little skill and commitment? I do not care where you received your degree, if you don’t have any real training in the realm of teaching, and no commitment to sticking around in order to become a good teacher, you simply do not belong in a classroom. It is not safe.
But, you say, aren’t these educated recent grads better than nothing? Probably not, but that’s another conversation because we’re not dealing with nothing. TFA is systematically pushing out certified teachers with years of experience in order to place their own recruits. In listening to a story from a student who experienced the intense educational changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, I wanted to close my ears, to unlisten. The teachers she had known for years before Katrina, before undergoing a deeply traumatic experience, were gone when she returned, and not by choice. New Orleans teachers recently won a law suit against the school district that had gone back on their promise to place teachers back into their former classrooms. Many of these veteran teachers were from New Orleans and had close relationships with their students and their families and their communities. Instead of returning to those schools and communities, they were replaced with (mostly) white TFA recruits, some of whom openly admitted to the fact that they were just doing it for their resume and did not care at all about their students. Worse, they were at times overtly racist. By the end of the first school year back nearly half of the students originally in the class had been removed for small infractions and quite often ended up in the juvenile justice system.
Still, there seems to be this argument that TFA is filling a much needed gap in teachers. That statement is false. It may have been true when Wendy Kopp created the organization, but it is no longer true today. That is not to say that there are no districts that have a hard time staffing schools. But picture this. Instead of spending millions to recruit, train and place privileged college graduates into classrooms where there is little to no cultural overlap between them and their students, why don’t we spend that money on a) properly funding schools, b) recruiting folks from within communities in need of future teachers and providing the financial and educational support necessary for them to become members of the profession, and c) attracting teachers by offering a good work environment and adequate pay? Where is that organization?
To those that would suggest we combine our efforts to make a better TFA, I’d like to stop you there. A better TFA is not possible. And we are not working towards the same goals. The basic premise is in and of itself deeply problematic. Why would I want to spend time and energy restructuring a poorly imagined poorly operated organization that is entrenched in white saviorism and is currently at the forefront of the privatization of education? Why on earth would I want to do that? Tear. It. Down. No amount of good intention can make up for the damage TFA is doing to the public education system.
And I, unlike other folks who have written on the topic, will not give recruits and corps members an easy way out. For those considering TFA, if you have no intention of teaching after your two years are up, then you should never start in the first place. These students do not exist to pad your resume. To those who are currently working for TFA, regardless of whether or not you feel you can make a difference, you are still exercising your privilege and contributing to the deprofessionalization of teaching. Worse, you are keeping experienced, fully certified teachers from your students. I will never tell you not to teach. In fact, I will encourage it. I will simply ask that you learn how to teach first. I will ask that you respect your students enough to be as prepared as humanly possible before you take their education into your hands. Because it is precious. And they deserve more. Period. Undertrained teacher after undertrained teacher in an underfunded school will only lead to further educational inequity. Don’t argue that because you plan to be a teacher long term it is okay for you to do TFA. You are still acting as a part of an organization that is trying to destroy the very profession. Either way, I am asking you to quit.
* Yes, this is partially directed towards recruits and corps members. With any luck, they are the ones that I can reach, that I can talk to. They are my peers. So please, message me, comment, etc. I do ask that you try to do so in a way that is constructive and respectful. I understand you may be angry. I am angry, too, and these conversations are hard. But I will try my best to really hear and respond to everything that is said.