Monday, March 19, 2012

Inspired, Duped and then Guilted by Teach For America

This is going to be my last post on Teach For America. I’ve had this post in my mind for months, but wanted to put some more distance behind my experience before writing this post. While the title of this post includes the word “Inspired,” I’ll not be talking much about that part of my experience, all my inspired posts can be found under the TFA tag on this blog.

I’ve always had the impression that TFA is the Marine Corps of education, they put the strong and talented into the worst possible situations and expect them to grunt out victories. One can see the military approach all through TFA; the hierarchical no-questions-asked authority structure, the enforcement of uniform, the summer boot camp and even the title “Corps Members” given to their teachers.

My last meeting with my supervisor (Sergeant) and her supervisor (Lieutenant) was a meeting I won’t soon forget. The meeting started with my supervisor pulling out all the inspirational stops. She had me watch a 3 minute video in which I was actually able to get my students to place their work in the appropriate basket and prepare to transition to their next activity. In the teaching world, it was a very small task but considering how minimal of control I had as a teacher, it was a big deal for me. I was then told how great of a teacher I was and how much better I could become (I was suppressing some laughter at the fact that clip of my kids handing in papers without punching each other was proof of my educational prowess, but it was a high point for me).

After several attempt to communicate that I believe it was possible to become a good teacher and help some kids but that my first priority is to my family and that whatever good I could do was not worth the cost to my family, my supervisor finally understood I was serious about quitting. It was at this point that she turned the page on her notes (literally) and took a different approach – taking me on a guilt trip I’ve never experienced before and doubt I ever will again. This was a guilt trip that any religious leader who uses guilt to motive people would be wise to study. This was also the time in which my supervisor’s supervisor was brought into increase the emotional pressure on me, through intense stares and tears of grief for the children I was abandoning. Allow me to share the list of things I was accused of or promised during this final guilt trip.

- My son will have trouble ever respecting me
- I lack integrity
- In leaving, I am dooming the children of my classroom to academic failure and prison, but if I stayed, they could achieve great things
- I will NEVER find a job in which I can spend ALL of my time with my son
- I am outside of God’s will- I am the greatesdt thing in these kids’ lives
- If I can’t manage time in this job, how will I ever learn to do so and how will I ever accomplish anything in my life
- I will regret the decision to leave for the rest of my life
- I will bring my family to financial ruin- I am failing my country
- I needed to consider what it would be like if I became poor and had to move to urban KC and my son’s teacher walked out on him

I wrote those down the day after that final meeting and have finally decided to come public with the accusations. I think it’s worth sharing all of that. I’ve since found out that extreme guilt is a pretty common way TFA supervisors control their Corps Members. While the decision to quit certainly had some negative connotations for the students I had off and on for 7 weeks (the principal kept changing classes on us), it was nowhere what I was accused of, it’s just not possible.

The guilt comes out of a thought process often called, “TFA Arrogance,” that is, TFA teachers are better than other teachers. Now, among the 150 KC Corps Members (a number that has now dwindled closer to 100), there are some amazing teachers. I made some close friends during my short time and all of those who are still teaching are giving more than could be expected of anyone and some are even having some positive results. I’m not exaggerating in saying I think of those Corps Members as true “heroes.” TFA really does an incredible job recruiting the best of the best from America’s graduating college students and only 10% of the applicants actually get selected. So when one considers the incredible people they put into teaching roles, TFA is going to produce some rock-star teachers. The founder of TFA, Wendy Kopp however has recently admitted that across the board, TFA teachers don’t perform any better than non TFA teachers. My supervisors, however don’t ascribe to that belief, as they explained that if I quit my teaching position after 7 weeks, I would be condemning my students to subpar teaching (not really much different than what they were currently receiving) and a prison sentence. That would be TFA arrogance.

In her book, “A Chance to Make History,” Wendy Kopp also admitted that the mission of TFA has recently undergone its third revision. TFA started in the early 90’s with the mission of filling the teaching vacancies. As those vacancies disappeared, TFA’s mission changed to the noble idea that great teachers could change the trajectory of poor students in under-resourced schools. That’s the mission I was recruited, trained, inspired and guilted under. What I didn’t realize, however was that upon realizing TFA teachers were no more transformational than their counterparts, Wendy had recently given TFA its third vision revision; that TFA would recruit leaders who would spend two years in the nation’s worst schools and then join the political movement of education reform. I’ll admit, I don’t know enough to judge whether TFA’s philosophies can reform education. I do know, however, I didn’t sign up for a political movement, as noble as that movement may be.

My supervisor told me I would need to go through an interview process before officially being released from TFA. I told her some times that would work but was then was surprised to receive my release letter without ever having gone through the exit interview. So that guilt-ridden meeting was my final experience and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. What helps counter that bad taste is the Corps Members still working for TFA and some of the notes my students gave me on my final day. Oh yeah, the opportunity to live a healthy and balance life as a husband and father isn’t a bad feeling either.

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