Don’t offend my friends by saying TFA teachers don’t stay

13

August 28, 2013 by juicefong

Kenneth Robinson, a 21-year TFA veteran, being honored for excellence in teaching at a TFA event this summer. Hug courtesy of TFA Co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

Kenneth Robinson, a 21-year veteran, being honored for excellence in teaching at a TFA event this summer. Hug courtesy of TFA Co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

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.

13 thoughts on “Don’t offend my friends by saying TFA teachers don’t stay

  1. Joe Nahtan says:

    Thanks for sharing this. Hope you will be very active blogging as people need to hear your voice and insights. Thanks again, from a 42 year veteran of urban public school teaching, administration and advocacy.
    Joe Nathan

  2. Tori Whaley says:

    This reads like a huge red herring to me. Certainly, many corps members stay in the classroom. And on the whole, stereotypes and generalizations in all forms miss the mark. What I would actually love to see, data driven person that I am (and I credit TFA for that!) is a cost/benefit analysis. For what districts pay, what do they get? While it may be challenging to crunch numbers on the intangibles (such as people who return to the placement region after medical school) it would be nice to see some data.

    How much did a district or regional government pay Teach For America and what did they get for it? How many first year teachers, second year teachers, third year plus teachers, administrators etc. How does the overall financial investment in this organization pay out in the long run? And how does it compare with other options (Teaching Fellows, Urban Residencies, etc.)

    Opinion is opinion. Data talks.

    • Love this Tori. What I’d push on with your comment is to see this data for all teacher supply sources. There should be side-by-side analysis for all routes. Then, where does TFA stack up or fall short?

      Where TFA truly doesn’t stack up to other teacher sources then we need to shape up – however where there are places we’re doing well then let’s do what we can to share these learnings/practices more broadly. Ultimately, TFA CMs are a tiny drop-in-a-drop in the overall teacher and newly hired teacher buckets.

    • F says:

      @ Tori — as a data-driven person myself, I found myself encouraged by your plea for critical analysis. However, my worry rests on two implications:
      1) the metrics of success
      2) how we might land on the correlation “being” causation.

      By this I mean — for the cost of investment, what metric would really satisfy you for a strong ROI? (Isn’t this always the debate in education — beyond just TFA teachers?) Is it really an issue of test scores? How are we measuring literacy? Can we look at the impact TFA has in the overall teaching field if they are actively recruiting more people of color than traditional educational schools? What about where they act as a deficit – as agents of change directed by the oppressive actions by people in power meant to dictate the cultural values and educational biographies of people of color?

      How do you do the same analysis without making that story universal? My biggest problem with both support/critics of TFA is our method of making this a national story versus a regional narrative. What if test-scores were lower in Detroit, but it also increased the regional economy by increasing the pipeline of leaders/money/innovation into a city that doesn’t immediately pull those with the MOST access? What if this same economy/pipeline of ideas was in a rural region with serious vacancies like Eastern North Carolina? Additionally, on another side of the coin, test scores might be high in New Orleans, but to miss the story of how charter schools (guided by their own vision, but often staffed by TFA) have derailed veteran teachers out of their own communities, seems massively culturally irresponsible.

      I’d argue this is likely true for a lot of these organizations. Numbers can certainly give us some aspects of the impact of Teach For America (and all alternative-teaching organizations), but we shouldn’t -and can’t- forget about the qualitative impact that people have beyond them. I think we can criticize the fact that –long-term– many corps members have, by all trends, moved out of the classroom (even if they claim to stay in education or the communities they serve), but ALSO seek to not diminish the *many* stories of the alumni who remain hard at work within them.

  3. Adam says:

    But what about the other side of this coin? I genuinely appreciate your post. I also genuinely appreciate TFA’s ardent efforts to improve retention rates. It’s a Sisyphean task given little of the attention and kudos it deserves. But I also have to be honest and say that you’re still listing (even if by name) the exceptions rather than the rule: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/04/kappan_donaldson.html Kudos to your friends. I’m sure that their students are lucky to have them, and I mean that with absolute sincerity.

    But, whether it offends your friends or not is of little consequence to the truly massive number if students done an extreme disservice by not having teachers with institutional memory and necessary experience to rely on year after year. Let me be clear and honest, this isn’t even close to a TFA-only problem. TFA is to be applauded for recognizing and taking steps to address this problem. But the reality regarding the majority of TFA alumni and the schools where they are most needed must continue to be discussed openly and proactively. To stop this conversation or act like the issue doesn’t exist because it offends people is heaping more hurt on those kids who don’t have a stable classroom or school to participate in every school day (and are likely those who need it most). I could point to the number of rural and urban schools throughout the southeast and mid-Atlantic regions that I’ve personally visited while collecting data for other research projects with teacher parking lots heavily dotted with significantly out-of-state tags (i.e. Minnesotans in South Carolina) because the TFA alumni don’t even pretend that they’re going to stay. What message does this send to kids, parents, and colleagues? ‘You are but a fleeting fancy?’ Or ‘I’m building my resume?’ Or ‘I’m only here because I have to be?’ Or ‘I’m a social justice tourist.’

    Could I respectfully request (with absolutely no right to do so), that you continue to take part in helping to turn this tide and give voice to the group of TFA alumni who do stay. Help other TFA alumni understand why this is so important. Help policymakers, education leaders, funders, and even parents understand how they can help stabilize and improve our schools. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not about you; it’s not about me; it’s not about TFA. It’s about the fact that we all got into this line of work (some would say labor of love) to teach, to educate, to make better, and to help kids realize the promises made to them.

    Admittedly, for all I know, you and your friends are already helping fellow TFA alumni persevere. To those who can and do stay–my sincere professional and personal thanks, and please tell everyone you can why you stayed and how important it is. To those who can’t and don’t, please help make things better by trying to improve in lieu of tearing down.

    With respect and in peace, thanks for the forum and your voice.

  4. Mike Henderson says:

    As a Corps Member (NM ’06) who is a teacher, I have never been “offended” by the comment that “TFA teachers don’t stay.” Mostly because its true. Most TFA Corps Members are not teaching after 2-3 years. Rattling off exceptions to this does not change the statistics.

    I feel like the author has not fully considered the perspectives and experiences of people who make the comment that “TFA teachers don’t stay” in a way that expresses criticism of the entire program. I believe that many teachers, including myself, have said or felt this statement in such a way because:

    1) They’ve been affected by a TFA teacher quitting. I ask the author to put himself in the shoes of a teacher who’s only experience with TFA is the year their co-teacher quit after the first week of school and left her with managing a series of substitute teachers for the year. Imagine also that the only other TFA teacher at the school left mid-year.

    2) They’ve witnessed a positive change in their grade-level or school as the result of an influx of TFA CMs, only to experience a downfall when the cohort of teachers left the school and a new influx of (beginning) teachers came in. This was the story of many schools in my district (and others) during an expansion period of the TFA*Phoenix corps. My intuition is that this is a large reason why the statement that “TFA teachers don’t stay” is so common in my district. People don’t remember when bad teachers quit or leave (unless it was an amazingly dramatic story!). People do remember when good teachers leave, especially those that demonstrate their care for students and their school outside of their own classroom.

    My first reason is obviously frustrating for those affected (including students), but lasts for a year or a few months, and may be resolved. However, number two is incredibly frustrating (one could say “offensive”) for teachers who treat teaching as a profession and have experienced multiple waves of new teachers entering and leaving.

    It’s also frustrating to see growth in student achievement and school culture as the result of new talent becoming a true part of an organization, only to see it stagnate or reverse due to teacher attrition. I think this could be a big factor as to why TFA and similar programs are often targeted with the attrition issue. Many principals I know closely love their TFA teachers, but have stopped hiring them because it makes it very difficult to build long term and lasting change when they are a significant part of a hiring strategy.

    Finally, I know that reason number two is particularly frustrating for teachers when TFA CMs leave teaching (especially have two years of experience) to take educational coaching, administrative, or consulting jobs (in TFA or within a district/network). I did this after my two years of teaching (TFA Program Director), and I remain thankful for the teachers at my placement school who openly told me that I needed to return to the classroom. Their comments and those of other experienced educators made me understand why such a decision can “offend” professional teachers. I don’t necessarily agree that there is a minimum number of years experience before someone should take a leadership or coaching position, but I do understand and value the perspective of those that feel like there should be.

    I agree with the author that teacher attrition and retention is a much larger issue and the fault does not rely entirely on TFA. I also know that TFA takes this issue seriously as well both at the National and Regional level. However, I would appreciate a respect for the experiences of all teachers who are affected by TFA placement strategies, especially those the cluster large groups of cohorts at the same school. Although these strategies may help with TFA teacher retention, satisfaction with the Corps experience, and teacher effectiveness, they have long-lasting effects on schools and their communities that are often ignored.

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