“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
And so it ends.
What began two years ago with a brief visit to the Rosebud Reservation and a whirlwind summer Institute in Phoenix will come to a close this week as I pack up my car and drive back to the Twin Cities.
Two years of hard work, two years of struggle, two years of euphoric heights of joy and crushing, debilitating frustration.
At the end of it all, I’m still not sure how I feel about Teach for America, not entirely at least. But here are the things I know to be true (from my own perspective anyways):
- The struggle is real – Anyone who claims that education in America is just fine is either ignorant or apathetic. There is great need for change in how we approach and manage our education systems on every level.
- Teach for America is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – Folks can quibble all they want about the effectiveness of the organization, but it seems evident that TFA is, at it’s heart, a conservative organization masquerading as a bastion of youthful liberal do-goodery. Yes, yes, it claims to be politically neutral, but a quick glance at major donors and a peek into their advocacy that private > public makes it fairly clear that those CMs who do not do their research beforehand will be in for a rude awakening once the dust settles and they see TFA in the harsh light of day.
- TFA is part of the problem - If you want a rant about the evils of TFA and all the bad it does, go look at other posts on Teach for Us, there are plenty of anecdotes readily available. The truth, as with most things, is that this is not a binary situation. As with many others, I believe this organization was founded with the best of intentions, you can see the quote at the start for why that does not always equate to success. Many CMs go into their classrooms without the adequate tools to do their jobs effectively, and contrary to popular belief, passion/optimism/drive/grit/etc do not a good teacher make. While the promise of warm bodies in the classroom draws some districts in, increasingly we see examples of districts that are hiring TFAs in large numbers because they represent a lower price point than the alternative. This creates resentment and animosity among co-workers, and it contributes to keeping teacher salaries low, which leads more teachers, both TFA and non-TFA, to take their services elsewhere.
- Except for when it isn’t - I firmly believe that there are some regions where Teach for America works effectively, addressing legitimate need and creating better outcomes for the students. Unfortunately, that seems to be the exception to the norm and I fear the list of regions in that category is shrinking.
- Things are moving in the wrong direction - Remember when I said there were places TFA worked the way it was intended? If you forgot, it’s right above this bullet, go ahead, i’ll wait. Anyways, the problem with that is that Teach for America doesn’t seem to understand why it has the success it has in some areas…and in their drive to capitalize on it or replicate it elsewhere, they often fail. Our little TFA-SoDak family just celebrated 10 years of being a force in Native American education on the reservations of South Dakota. While I have mountains of admiration and respect for all the staff I have worked with, the truth is that in a decade, we have yet to achieve many of our goals. I’m of the mind that quality trumps quantity, but often it feels as if the powers that be take the opposite approach. Still no proof point schools? That’s okay, we’ll just expand to more reservations and hope we get it right eventually. To be fair, I’m sure this move was prompted by an authentic desire to reach more students in need of a quality education, but unless this expansion is greeted by a proportional increase in staff and infrastructure, resources while just be stretched thinner, to the detriment of all involved.
Of course, the onus of producing quality education does not fall solely on the shoulders of Teach for America and the young Corp Members it sends out each year.
A lack of government funding for schools often hamstrings the best efforts of teachers and administrators, forcing them to make decisions that have a detrimental impact on their students.
Uncooperative or inept school boards make decisions that seemingly defy logic, prioritizing trivial matters or personal politics and sometimes spending money recklessly when that time and money could be put to better use.
While most all of the administrators I have worked with have been rock stars that deserve all the respect and applause I can give, it can’t be denied that not all are perfect. As is common in districts rich and poor all over the nation, there is often a great schism between admin and their staff. This can be caused by a number of things and can be a real drag on creating quality schools and a harmonious work environment. Unfortunately, rumors often swirl about admin being complicit in or the driving force behind manipulation of grades come the end of the year. While I have yet to see any proof of these things, I’ve seen enough and heard enough that sadly it would not surprise me.
Finally, parents and families can be wonderful sources of support and motivation for our students, but it is erroneous to think that they are all great and that they should not be questioned. More needs to be done to help families understand the value of an education and how certain behaviors can be detrimental to that.
It takes a village to raise a child, and equal cooperation and investment from all involved to educate one! If we want to truly address the issues our nation has with education, it needs to be a campaign waged on many different fronts.
At the end of it all, I value my time spent in the classroom. The kids I got to spend time with and the experiences I had were life changing and I only hope I can do good works in the future that will contribute to a more equitable society for my former students.
As for Teach for America…I signed a contract promising two years of service and I kept my word. Our word is our bond and failing to educate yourself before accepting a position is no excuse to drop out early.
For Those Considering Joining Teach for America
Do your homework, know what you are getting yourself into. Don’t just take what TFA gives you, don’t just read the posts on this site. You have a wealth of information at your fingertips, so educate yourself about the organization, about your region, about the communities before you say yes.
If you do all that and it still seems like something you want to do, more power to you. If you can’t bring yourself to do it after learning more, there is absolutely, 100% nothing wrong with that. Don’t let anyone shame you into feeling bad about your decision, whatever it is.
For Those Considering Quitting Teach for America
When it comes down to it, you gotta do what you gotta do. There are countless legitimate reasons to withdraw from your TFA contract before it is up. Maybe it is family, maybe it is health, maybe you have a life changing job opportunity that is once in a lifetime.
However, if you are frustrated that TFA isn’t what you hoped and dreamed it would be, take some time to think about it. I’m a big fan of pros and cons lists myself. Think about yourself, your family, your colleagues and your students. Even if it isn’t perfect, is you sticking around better than the alternative?
Maybe you work in a toxic environment…if that’s the case, be sure to look into options for switching placement either within your district/region, or to another one. Nothing is guaranteed, but it doesn’t hurt to look into it.
As someone who has broken many promises, pledges and contracts in his time, do your best to break that cycle. You’ll be better for it in the long term.
Lastly, though they may never read it, I just want to say that the people I have worked with here in South Dakota over the past two years have been champions. My colleagues at work did all they could to help this young teacher out and my admin were nothing but supportive when I gave them ample reason not to be.
I missed most TFA functions, that is a simple fact. This means that I did not possess the close relationships with my fellow CMs that I sometimes wished I had. However, that does not stop me from recognizing how amazing they all were, are, and will continue to be. I was truly blessed to share a space and time with the Corp Members that I did.
PS – Watched this shortly before sitting down to write, seems fitting