Open Letter to Anti-TFA Folks at Free Minds Free People Conference


July 13, 2013 by juicefong

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Dear anti-TFA folks at the Free Minds Free People conference,

I work for Teach For America out of New York and was in Chicago for work this last week. I was delighted when it became clear that I was available to come to your conference, and so I had the pleasure of attending part of yesterday’s program alongside all of you. (In case you are wondering, no one sent me to the conference; I came on my own accord.) I listened to Jitu Brown’s inspiring keynote and attended an insightful presentation by Grow Your Own, then did some mingling before having to leave in the early afternoon. My tweets from the day are here.

Knowing that you have an anti-TFA assembly tomorrow morning, here is my advice to you: Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon, so work with us to make the organization better.

But before we talk about Teach For America and changing it, let’s talk about you. With complete sincerity, you are a remarkable group, and I walked back to the Wilson subway station yesterday with true admiration for what I just experienced. You are true champions of progressive values, true champions for the marginalized brown and black people of this country who continue to be screwed over. Even small things stood out to me: the fact that it was a bilingual conference—your program translated into Spanish and the wireless headsets provided for live translation during the keynote. The welcoming authenticity of the whole environment (something that I lament is lacking in many TFA events)—from the high school and church settings, to the meals and a how warm and inviting all the organizers were. One of your post-workshop survey questions asked if culturally marginalized voices were fairly represented. Thank you for all of that.

You’re also full of great ideas. I wish Teach For America offered to its teachers the kind of workshops that you’re offering to participants. Helping undocumented students access higher education, emotionally responsive teaching, language rights, art for urban community awareness, the foster care to prison pipeline, and the list goes on.

Beyond that, you have a mindset about social justice and equality and fairness from which many in my camp could learn a thing or two. I, too, shudder when TFA people use the rhetoric “social justice movement of our generation” but are too blind to see where some of our work has sacked the progress of justice (e.g. the displacement of the black teaching force in New Orleans). You are young and old, you are diverse in many respects. You’re good people with great values who care especially about helping those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised. I’m grateful to have gone even for just the half day; I learned so much from you in that short time.

Now let’s talk about TFA. Teach For America isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s not. For me personally, I can’t wait for the day that TFA closes its doors and is no longer relevant. That is a day when our education system finally works for everyone, not just for those with privilege and power. The ultimate victory for the organization is to become obsolete, to become no longer necessary. Until then, though, there will still be droves of corps members entering the classroom each year, and thousands of alumni working inside and outside the education field towards the realization of TFA’s mission. Whether you like it or not, the organization is well supported and its staff is full of many hard-working, sharp individuals who are fired up about what they do.

I know some of you are thinking, “No, no, no! I just want TFA to go away!” Seeing that happen anytime soon is just not realistic. Teach For America has financial and political support because many people understand the value that it brings in creating a force for change of an education system that’s not working. It’s not spin. There’s a great deal of good that comes out of Teach For America—you have to settle with that. And yes, there are also some negative unintended consequences of our program, too, which is unfortunate but not incorrigible. Many of you are probably thinking of well-known alumni whose policies or efforts you disagree with. All of that is fair.

What’s also fair, and I can tell you this as an insider, is that there are many conscientious people at Teach For America who are also thinking about the concerns you have. We need more teachers of color. We want more and more people to teach well beyond two years. Should we be placing so many of our corps members in charter schools? What can we do to improve our teacher preparation and support? How do we get our teachers to create more culturally responsive classrooms? These are not foreign thoughts to our organization, and they aren’t new either. It is absolutely an organization that cares about people and wants to constantly improve.

Heck, that’s the way I feel. In my role running TFA’s internal communications team, I see an organization with great people, working hard to deliver on its promise. And when I see us struggle, I don’t abandon ship—I dig in and challenge people and try to surface the issues with hopes that our good people will find the right solutions. Join me in that effort.

Rather than trying to dismantle TFA, your energy is better spent trying to steer the big, powerful organization in a better direction. Challenge the organization. Raise the issues that you see. Teach For America will continue to evolve, and you have the opportunity to influence that direction—and I hope you do, because you have strong values and good ideas.

But we won’t accomplish anything together if we stand on other sides of the wall, continuing to hurl grenades at each other and refusing any kind of dialogue. The sarcastic hashtags and personal attacks don’t make the other side eager to sit down and talk. And this applies to both camps (if there are indeed “camps.”) If all you do is scream and shout, you will be ignored as an entrenched enemy combatant rather than sought out as a respectful and influential critic. I’m ready to call out our own people, too, who aren’t doing enough to be the bigger man or woman and reach out to you. So then this is a message for all of us.

From the half day I spent at your conference, I gather that the truth is somewhere in between your camp and mine. No one is 100% right. May be hard for you to stomach, but I believe we are fighting for the same ultimate cause, though we have divergent hypotheses on how to get there, and we don’t know yet how to best handle all of the consequences of how this work is playing out.

As you gather tomorrow to decide how to proceed, will you light the torches in an attempt to incinerate the organization, or will you realize that your energy is better spent making inroads and gaining influence in an organization that needs your good ideas? Personally, I’m happy that you’re getting together, because all things need to be questioned. And I don’t lose any sleep over the fact that your principal organizers are TFA alumni. Passionate people who want to fix our education system because they’ve seen its inadequacies first hand? That’s exactly why Wendy started Teach For America. Questioning TFA’s value, even by our own alumni, will help to disrupt the group think that limits the organization.

You are some good people. And there are good people at TFA, too. An African proverb says: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Imagine a world where we we peacefully coexist, and actually work together.

With all my respect,

Justin Fong (@jgfong) heads the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America. Like the rest of his tweeting and blogging, this piece represents his own opinions and wasn’t even reviewed or previewed by any other Teach For America staff.

29 thoughts on “Open Letter to Anti-TFA Folks at Free Minds Free People Conference

  1. meganbhanley says:

    Hi Justin,

    Thanks for your response. But did not get much clarity re: you hope that one day TFA does not exist, yet continue to work for the organization. How does this align with your passion for the work TFA does? Very confusing to me. Please shed some light so I can better understand as you are not the first TFA staff or CM that I have heard make this statement.

    My point in asking this question is that perhaps if TFA re-focused its mission, you could be a part of an organization that could serve a purpose many years into the future.


    • juicefong says:

      Sorry for such a slow reply, Megan…just catching up on comments. Fast forward 20 or 30 or 50 years. Let’s say we do get to a point where we’ve fixed policy, we’ve vastly improved teacher preparation across the United States. We’ve figured out how to create schools that both support a student with high needs in all the ways he needs and also deliver a fantastic education. We’ve arrived at the day where it doesn’t matter what neighborhood of Chicago you grow up in, you have a great public school that you can attend. That’s the vision of “One Day.”

      When that is achieved, and feels sustainable, I think, I hope Teach For America would close up shop. TFA isn’t a teacher placement agency (although I think some district and principals use us like that, which is problematic). We are trying to fuel the movement towards education equality. Unless the mission changes dramatically, you’d see Teach For America as an organization slowly phase out until that vision is achieved. I’d like to think that TFA alumni would be playing a role (amongst many others) all along towards that end.

      So to answer your question, I’m passionate about our work, and I think accomplishing “One Day” also means that it makes TFA’s work unnecessary. Does that make sense?

      • Megan Hanley says:

        Hi Justin,

        The difference between our thinking is that you seem to believe that we need changes to policy whereas I believe there are fundamental shifts in consciousness that must occur before we will achieve education equity. I don’t think we need better ed policy to make the system better, we need to change mindsets which allow institutionalized racism to persevere. Maybe you see a connection here to ed policy but from what I have seen, current ed policy is destroying schools and the teaching profession by being so focused on standardized tests.

        Also, I’m not sure if TFA is aware of the distinction, but educational equality means that every child has the “same” education, whereas educational equity means that every child has the education he or she needs. It would make sense to me that TFA would push “equality” because of their rampant support of charter schools which notoriously counsel out special needs students. Like I said in my last comment (also sorry for the double post I didn’t realize it took a minute for the response to be posted), please, please, PLEASE consider halting placements in Special Education, it is just so, so wrong.

        To return to the issue of consciousness versus policy, TFA does little to improve the American rhetoric of a meritocracy, i.e. the belief that if you just work hard enough you can make it. TFA is quick to say “Poverty is not destiny” which really negates the fact that Poverty IS destiny for so many in this country. And then I am called a “Defender of the Status Quo” because I believe that systemic racial-based oppression is a larger issue than teacher preparation programs. Though, for the record, I do think that teacher prep in this country (alternative or traditional, as I have now experienced both) is atrocious and is another place to analyze the impacts of systemic racism.

        Overall, I appreciate your willingness to have a conversation. It sets you apart from so many other TFA staff I have met.


  2. questions says:

    I almost joined TFA when I got out of college a (sort of) long time ago and decided against it. I’ve worked off and on in education since then, so I’m somewhat familiar with the issues. I’m not here to criticize but to ask a few questions. Why is TFA’s core mission to put brand new fresh teachers with a mere 2-year hitch in the most difficult classrooms instead of providing support and further training for teachers who are already in those classrooms and have proven they’re in it for the long haul? The reason I decided not to join TFA is because my experience working with kids at the time taught me (and my later experience as a teaching assistant during graduate school confirmed) that becoming an excellent teacher requires a lot of trial and error and a longsuffering commitment to grappling with “the issues,” which means it requires real investment in teaching and education. I’ve known TFA alumni who went on to continue teaching, but I know many more who slapped it on their resumes and kept on climbing up the professional ladder. How does that contribute to educational reform or do anything to fundamentally alter struggling schools and help them become healthy environments?

    • Jas says:

      That’s not TFA’s core mission: the mission is to ensure every child has access to a quality education. And research has shown that novice TFA teachers are just as effective as novice traditionally trained teachers. Almost all of my summer institute roommates (8 of us) all are still teaching or moved to an area that directly impacts schools (educ research, psychology, social work, union). I heard an executive direct of a data company comment that TFA alumni pre-2007 are different than post-2007. I think that speaks to how the organization has evolved with educational practices and training its teachers. However, it still has a ways to go to do that VERY well! But it needs to voice and movement of alumni to do make those improvements.

  3. […] days. I’m not losing any sleep over it. I’m no stranger to the critiques, and I even welcome many of them that will help create a stronger organization. The other day I began reading this one on Slate, but […]

  4. […] • It was a tense summer in Chicago. In a controversial move that infuriated many, Chicago Public Schools continued with its plans to close dozens of schools and cut hundreds of jobs. TFA Chicago’s large presence in the city met criticism and resistance against this backdrop. Free Minds Free People hosted its second biennial conference in Chicago, which included a summit organizing resistance to TFA. (I attended part of the conference and wrote about it here.) […]

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