I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tonight, I was watching the TFA Live Chat about “What’s Next” and the new pilot programs that will be coming up. It’s hard to watch, for me, personally. It’s hard to watch everyone passionate about an organization that I cannot help but to see flaws in. It’s even harder to be part of this organization, but not sure if I support it all the way. It’s hard to read the Tweets and see the blind enthusiasm. They are all preaching this message to me, but I just have to sit and wonder.
Don’t Back Down. That’s what they said. Don’t back down with the hard work you’re doing. Don’t back down to the criticism of Teach For America. Don’t back down to those who say the education system is doing alright right now.
I won’t back down. I won’t back down with my questions and criticisms of this organization and my personal experiences the past nine months. Mind you, this is an organization I believe in. I love TFA and the work of alleviating education inequality—an organization that I was passionate enough to join and am now passionate enough to speak up to.
Why is it that you are marketed one thing as a college senior but the reality of first year teaching is much different? TFA tries so hard to get the best and brightest from college campuses, but at what cost? Are they providing false information to us as a tactic? They make us to be passionate and to care so much about the potential transformational change we can cause, but the follow through to make the dream they promote in our minds is not present. Why was I told that I would get enough training to make significant change in a classroom, when this is a lie? Why was I told that I would be placed in a struggling school with students living in poverty, when this was not my experience? In the next several paragraphs, I will explain my unique experience with TFA and why I have to question it’s practices at this time.
To put things into perspective, I received a total of 14 hours in the classroom before my first day of teaching. Of those 14 hours, all 14 of them occurred with two other adults in the room at all times. When I was frustrated with the lack of substantial resources or solutions for classroom management and lesson planning, I was asked ‘why I didn’t look them up for myself.’ When I provided criticism of our training institute, I was told to fill out a survey. The training provided to me was lacking at best and abysmal in reality. I had amazing emotional support, don’t get me wrong. But the real, substantial training I was promised was not a reality. In fact, it almost feels as thought it was false advertising.
Furthermore, I am in what you would call a “low-needs” region. I’m in a region where schools need help, students need support, but not in the drastic way of other cities such as Memphis, Detroit, Los Angelos, DC and more. TFA exists in Nashville simply because our mayor called for it, because Tennessee has been given a chance to race to the top, because of the politics and policies involved in education right now. And it shows. Some of our Corps members do not work in Title I schools. This means we don’t work at schools where poverty is an all-encompassing and permeating problem. Isn’t this the TFA mission—to work with underprivileged kids? But still, TFA and community members, the government and benefactors pour millions into our region’s office to support our over 200 Corps members in Nashville. Is 200 Corps members TOO many? In a low-needs region, are we expanding too much and putting Corps members where they don’t necessarily need to be? It’s a question I struggle with all the time.
Another reality I face is the fact that a school in Nashville receives $1,200 for every TFA Corps member they hire. This is thanks to the Race to the Top grant money that the mayor has allocated to us. So in tonight’s chat, when Co-CEO Matt Kramer mentioned that there would be principals in Nashville who would be saddened by the lesser number of Corps members next year, I thought—go figure. And I won’t lie, the thought crossed my mind that these principals aren’t missing the teachers (they’ll be able to find those no matter what), they are missing those money bags walking around their hallways. To me, this incentive is degrading to TFA teachers. It makes me question my placement in a school—do these principals really believe in TFA’s mission and TFA teachers or are they looking for the extra funds? I don’t work in a Title I school. I don’t even work at a struggling school. I work at school that has been awarded for highest improved test scores the past TWO years. So where is my place in my school, if not for the money that came with my name?
I don’t work with students in poverty—I do, but I don’t. My children are diverse. Some of them have lake houses and iPhones and Starbucks in their hands every morning. And some of my kids come in wearing the same thing every other day. So, am I working with the population of students I was promised I would work with when I was talking to the TFA recruiter a senior in college? I would say ‘No.’ Am I working in a struggling school where my lack of experience is not noticed among other struggling teachers? No. Therefore the promise I was given—to be adequately trained to work in a struggling school with children who need my leadership—this promise was not fulfilled. And with that, THAT is the reason I am walking away from TFA at the end of this school year. I will honor my commitment to my kids—who I love—by teaching through May. But without my love and commitment to them, I would be have been gone much earlier.
To make matters worse, my lack of training could result as a dis-service to my kids when my only intention in joining TFA was to provide a service to my nation and to my students. I say this because in my school, 6th graders have the opportunity to leave and go to 7th grade at MLK High School—MLK is ranked in the top 100 high schools in the nation almost every year. My students who go there are set up for success. They will go to college. They will be college ready. They will be everything they want to be. Here’s the catch. As sixth graders, the HAVE to get Proficient/Advanced on the Tennesee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test in May for English and Math in order to be accepted into the high school. I’m a sixth grade English teacher. Therefore, it is MY sole responsibility to teach and provide my kids with the knowledge they need to pass the standardized test. Me. A first year teacher with 14 hours of experience before August. Me. A first year TFA corps member with little content support at a NON-Title I school with NO literacy coach to help me plan my lessons. This responsibility has felt like the weight of the world on my small-framed shoulders. I could not count how many nights I have fallen asleep sobbing to the what feels like imminent failure of my students because of my lack of training to get them the test scores they so desperately want in order to attend MLK. Some of my kids who don’t get into MLK will go to Pearl Cohn High School, which has the lowest rate for graduating college ready students in Nashville. This has been my life and my truth and my reality and my circumstance for the past 9 months.
High sense of responsibility + low amount of training + low content support + high school/parent/student expectations.
Now, my experience may be one of a kind. Sometimes, I feel like it is. I see other Corps members around me with less to worry about. Less of a guilt of their work in Nashville and their placement in a low-need region. The other second year Corps member in my school seems to have no qualms over her placement. But for me, as a utilitarian, I ask myself—is my placement in my classroom what’s best for everyone? I believe it’s a resounding NO. This is why I walk away. My scores show that I am not a horrible teacher. My students have grown over 10% in proficiency ratings since they came to me—I have the third highest DEA English scores in the school—behind two veteran professional teachers. My children adore me. They are so well behaved. I am not quitting because it is too hard. I am not quitting because I don’t believe in a high quality education for all students. I am quitting because my circumstance leads me to believe that by being in a classroom, I am providing a dis-service to my students. And this had been the most heartbreaking reality I have ever faced.
I get frustrated frequently. I was someone who wanted to make a difference. I was someone committed to social justice, education inequality and my ability as a leader. But because of several factors and reasons, I am in a situation where I don’t want to to even finish my two year contract with Teach for America. I believe the Nashville Corps is too big or perhaps not selective enough in which schools their Corps members can go into. I believe that TFA is expanding where it doesn’t need to expand. Yes, I DO believe that without TFA, several regions would have a teacher shortage. Send TFA teachers there. Send me there. I would have thrived if given the opportunity to work in a school with students who NEEDED me. But Teach For America needs to look at where they are spending their resources. For example, while we have Corps members here in NON-Title I schools, about 1/4 of TFA Memphis has left the Corps pre-maturely. Is it because of the schools there? Or is it because of the lack of support? Could TFA nationals be sending more support and resources to help TFA Memphis Corps members make it through their first couple years of teaching rather than expanding their numbers in low-needs regions? I don’t know enough of what goes on behind the scenes in order to say that TFA is doing it all wrong. I simply want to raise the question enough so that I can see some answers.
I Don’t Back Down from the education issue. I Don’t Back down from the problems with poverty. Just because I walk away from TFA, doesn’t mean I’m backing down. I intend to always be involved in education—I am pursuing a Masters in Higher Education with a emphasis in social justice. I want to provide college students with opportunities to work in low-income areas and provide a difference in that way. I want to continue to support TFA—monetarily and with my voice. But I’m going to need some time to process all of the things that have happened in my experience this year. I’m going to continue to have questions. And I will continue to ask them. Teach for America is a truly outstanding organization and one of my favorite parts about it, is it’s ability to self-reflect. I would love to provide some of that feedback to be reflected on because I want to see a change. I want to see TFA address some of their major criticisms and to make sure they are doing what’s best for everyone. I think the programs they announced this evening are EXTREMELY beneficial for the future Corps members. This is the direction I hope TFA continues in. I simply will not be along for the ride any longer, but I will always keep a finger on the pulse for TFA and education inequality. I will always believe in One Day.