August 28, 2013 by juicefong
I hear a lot of talk about TFA teachers not staying long enough. It’s starting to get under my skin, because it’s not difficult for me to rattle off the names of TFA teachers I know who are still going strong in the classroom.
Take my old roommates Dan and Daviana, now happily married and each entering their tenth straight years in the classroom in the DC area. Or you can point to Julio Mendez, who came in as a 20-year Army veteran and taught a few doors down the hall from me in Harlem starting in 2003, in the school building he attended as a child, no less. He’s still going.
There’s also my friend Lucie, who begins her 11th year, still in a district school here in New York, or Denise who lived below me in Harlem, also in her 11th year. Or my good buddy Mike who worked on TFA staff for a few years but just moved back to Chicago and returned to teach at his original school this fall. Some other good friends from TFA staff—Erin, Maile and Amanda—have all gone back. Then I’m thinking about Julia King, with whom I was baking lasagna when she was writing what would become her winning application for DC Teacher of the Year. Does she not count?
Can I talk about my friends who are administrators? My old roommate and (Putamayo music aficionado) Madhu is an assistant principal at a district school in Manhattan after starting as a science teacher 10 years ago. I remember running into Pablo Villavicencio all the time as he taught at the school above me nine years ago. A couple years ago he opened up Bronx Bridges Academy, a district school serving a mostly immigrant population.
Owen was in my corps. We ran math workshops together for new teachers and later taught together at a charter school and now he runs his own middle school in Brooklyn. Injy was a first-year teacher when I began teaching at the same charter in my third year, and she was excellent. She’s now a principal of an Achievement First school. I had the pleasure of being on the same grade level team as Tanya Nuñez many years ago—she started teaching in 1993 and is now a school leader with Democracy Prep.
Gosh, maybe I should be asking all of my friends before I mention them in my blog. Let me switch to other TFA folks I’ve met, but whom I can’t exactly call friends: I’m thinking of a recent trip down to the Rio Grande Valley. There’s Alan Mayne who teaches elementary school in Roma, TX. He’s beginning his 20th year at the same school, and he runs an amazing music program, and his daughter has had corps members as teachers throughout her school experience. Rob Garza teaches a nationally-recognized media arts program at McAllen High School, also in the Valley, also at the school he attended growing up. Eleven years running for Rob at the same school.
I met an amazing man named Kenneth Robinson at a conference where he was honored recently, starting his 21st school year in his original placement school in DC. Then there’s I’Aisha Warfield, 14 years strong at her placement school in Oakland, a school her aunts and uncles attended. And oh-by-the-way, she is California Teacher of the Year.
I just stopped myself to do a diversity check. I’m literally rattling names off the top of my head and I just realized 13 of 20 or 65% of the people I just mentioned are people of color. I guess we can talk about everyone in TFA being all white another time.
But critics are right, many of us do leave the classroom after just a few years. Like my college roommate Krish, who went on to Stanford Medical School and is now a pediatrician, heading back to Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where he taught, to work at Indian Health Services. Or one of my close college buddies, Sam, who taught only two years but has spent the last seven working for local and state government. Or Paymon, who was part of our extended crew in the corps, who is now superintendent of Camden School District. Or Rachel, who began in 2002 but left for a couple years to start an after school program at my school, but has since returned to the classroom. Or Karla, who now recruits teachers for Oakland Unified.
I agree that we need great teachers—traditional and non-traditional—to stay longer. And yes, that includes Teach For America teachers, who have been increasingly pushed that way. We need them to continue being great educators and to provide more stability in their communities.
But getting any teacher to stay, especially in a high-needs environment, is a difficult task. It’s on the system and its structures, it’s on our principals, it’s on the community, and yes, it’s on our teachers, too. But I’m fed up with people just pointing fingers at my TFA friends as if they’re not committed to public education. That’s wrong and irresponsible. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other hardworking educators around this country. They got into it because they believe in the promise of education for all children. And most of them are probably dues-paying members of their local teachers union.
And yes, as you can see, it’s not hard for me to name so many TFA teachers who are still going strong. So stop being so divisive and let’s see what we can do together to make teaching a more sustainable profession.
On Twitter: @jgfong.