#ResistTFA and the Teaching Profession

What are the real questions we should be asking about what we expect of the teaching profession in 2014?


Last week, #ResistTFA trended on Twitter thanks to a group of public education supporters who wanted to call attention to their issues with Teach for America, a national organization that recruits and trains recent graduates and professionals to change their career path and teach for at least two years in a community that needs them… and hopefully make a lifelong commitment to education.

Timed to coincide with the final deadline for anyone applying to the 2014 corps, advocates launched a campaign where supporters could tweet about their issues with Teach for America, including the following (excerpted from their press release):

- TFA’s five week training program deemed insufficient to prepare novice teachers to teach in some of America’s most challenging schools
- The lack of commitment TFA teachers have to the communities they are assigned to (the majority leave teaching within 2-3 years)
- The concern that TFA teachers may see their teaching experience as just a stepping stone to other careers
… For much of the evening [of February 17], #ResistTFA was more popular on Twitter than “Olympics”, #JimmyFallon, and #TheTonightShow on the night of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show debut…

I don’t disagree with everything folks behind #ResistTFA are saying (and way to go on getting your cause to trend). Why shouldn’t we have trained teachers who love their jobs in every school? But I disagree with their underlying assumptions about the teaching profession and the problems we face finding and keeping good teachers for our nation’s students. Making this about TFA reduces a complex conversation about who should be teaching in our schools into a fight where you must take a false side, and reduces people who have opinions and a role to play into stereotypes that are also misleading.

I’ve recruited teachers for almost 15 years as a recruiter for the New York City Public Schools, including as Director of the office that was responsible for recruiting experienced teachers and graduates from traditional educational schools, and as a private consultant the last 3+ years. And I can tell you after working with thousands of principals and tens of thousands of teachers that if Teach for America disappeared tomorrow, the problems of finding teachers that #ResistTFA lists would not be solved.

And full disclosure, I am writing this because I care about this issue as someone who works with teachers of all backgrounds… and because I also care as an alumna of Teach for America (I have also done some one-off pro-bono and paid projects for TFA over the past 17 years, but not currently). If it wasn’t for TFA, I doubt I’d be doing anything in education and I am glad for that… even though there were years where they were unfocused on the point of what they were trying to accomplish. Despite any issues I have as an alumna, I want TFA to succeed because in 2014, we still need them to.

So here are my thoughts on #ResistTFA through my perspective as someone who talks with traditionally trained teachers for hours a day during recruiting season, and as a TFA alumna…

1. It would help to understand why Teach for America corps members get hired quickly.. and replicate the parts that work in ed schools.

The reality is that there is truth to the the issues #ResistTFA has with Teach for America- the training is short and corps members don’t stay very long in teaching (more on my thoughts on retention later on). Then why do principals and schools still line up to hire TFA corps members when they have the chance? Until I was on the other side of recruiting, I had no idea, but now that I’ve been involved in the recruitment of teachers in six states (and counting), I can attest that in every state or district in where I’ve worked, pretty much every TFA corps members was hired quickly and if there had been more available for placement, some schools could have used them to fill critical vacancies in shortage areas.

Some of the reasons why TFA is in demand are just logical. First, TFA corps members are likely to be certified in an area that a traditional education teacher is not, simply because alternative certification makes it easier to certify someone who has majored in a content area. Many TFA corps members in shortage areas are not competing with anyone else in the market. Second, in every market I’ve worked in except one, corps members have been more diverse than traditional education graduates, at least those who apply to and get hired in district schools. That was certainly true in NYC when I was Director (2007-2010) where about 40-45% of the incoming TFA corps identified themselves as people of color, but only about 30-35% of traditional grads did… and of those who did, almost all attended one college that had a reputation in some circles as a diploma mill. One large university that constantly talks about social justice gave us about 125 teachers one year and only 4 hires identified themselves as Black or Latino.

Four total, not four percent.

I used to have an ongoing debate with a local NYC ed blogger about this where he advised we should focus more on the teacher preparation programs at the six public City of University of New York campuses (CUNY) to increase diversity. We had dedicated recruiters for those, but those teacher preparation programs, with the exception of two, were actually primarily attended by white women. So I am not sure why the #ResistTFA movement has picked diversity as an argument for TFA vs traditional ed schools… and why no one has asked them for data about the traditional population to back up their claim.

Beyond the subject match and the diversity advantage, Teach for America corps members also present themselves well during the hiring process, which for better worse makes them desirable. I can tell you when I call in a TFA corps member to an interview in-person or on the phone, these things won’t happen… but they have happened frequently enough when I’ve recruited the traditional ed graduate that they’re not just one-off occasions.

  • They won’t ask me the name and the address of the school they scheduled an interview for or complain extensively about the commute for a job they don’t even have yet.
  • They won’t make racially insensitive comments or tell me they can teach anywhere, “even the ghetto.”
  • They don’t cry during interviews.
  • If I check them out on Twitter, they’re not tweeting about loving beer or about how they want to be rescued by Prince Charming instead of having to get a job after graduation.
  • Their parents don’t show up in my office yelling at me that their daughter is not teaching “those kids” at “that school” she just signed a commitment at.

And while it’s true many traditional grads have had student teaching (not all, depends on the state) I’ve found less than half have had the type of experience that allows them to describe pedagogy or classroom management much better than TFA, outside of a few platitudes they picked up from that time they skimmed Harry Wong. If I am selecting a traditional ed grad for a vacancy, it’s because he or she is the whole package of smart, resilient, dedicated, and inquisitive and not because his or her student teaching gave him or her expertise.

Ambition is not a bad thing and we need to see more of it from people who want to aspire to be teachers, not just a focus on time-in-seat in classes and student teaching. I’d like to see the folks behind #ResistTFA develop a manifesto for teacher preparation programs that asks them to ensure every one of their graduates is also well-prepared and that more are qualified for a diverse set of subjects. If you want good teachers in the classroom, demand it from every organization that prepares them… and that will eliminate some of the need for TFA.

2. Think more about some of the questions and points you’re raising about hiring teachers, the profession and expectations of new teachers.

The following is just a list of random things I’ve learned as a recruiter and talent development consultant that I’d like #ResistTFA to consider as they work through their movement and I believe will contribute to their success.

  • You can’t pick on TFA for the fee that they charge a district for recruiting teachers… without other information about what it costs to actually recruit teachers. The TFA per-teacher-fee is actually affordable, especially based on subject certification and the mentoring piece. Your local districts spend about the same per non-TFA teacher- and probably more- to advertise, attend college fairs, screen applications, and help match candidates with principals. Talent acquisition is expensive anywhere- that’s why corporate recruiters in other industries get to charge 20% of a new hire’s salary. Districts do not have a “tree of teachers” they shake from when they need new hires- they do what TFA does which is spend money and time to find good people.
  • Anyone that thinks that most of new teachers get their first jobs based on student teaching placements is wrong. This is a common argument I hear from people when they question why any recruiting is needed in education. It certainly happens, but not often. If that was the case, your university would not throw a fair and charge districts to attend…. and students would not pack it and stand in line to talk to recruiters and principals.
  • TFA retention problem needs to be delved into from new perspectives. I think most people perceive that TFA is selecting corps members who have made career plans during college to leave education after two years and go to law school immediately. Say what you want about them, but why would TFA do that? It doesn’t make sense. Instead, TFA corps members are choosing to do something else after their corps experience. While the result is the same, I think the distinction is important if we want to think about solutions for the teaching profession’s retention issues. Here are “sub-rants” on this.

——- There are very few people who should pick a career at 22 and stick to it for their entire life, no matter what it is, never mind can. Of all the criticisms of TFA here and elsewhere, this makes batty! Expecting something different of teachers than what we expect of marketers or computer programmers or others seems silly and illogical. We live in an era where sticking to one career is rare. Today’s college graduates have all sorts of opportunities they didn’t have 20 years ago (um, the internet), increasing student loan debts they have to find creative ways to pay off, and the desire to start families that might require them to move and make different career decisions based on who they meet. If someone has the ability to try something new that might use their talents better, good for them… and no one should feel that they have the right to judge because they were the 1% of the population blessed to figure everything out at an early age. Teaching, or any career, should not be about martyrdom or the lowest common denominator of how long you can stick to it. The most important concern should be that someone does an excellent job when they are in it.

——- The above statement is made fully knowing that it can take up to 5 years to be a good teacher, but… to me, that is a bigger question about how we work with new teachers on the job than demanding a solution that every teacher must work a minimum five years. Framing this as an if-then or forced-alternative problem does all teachers a disservice.

——- And a final remark on retention… while it’s true that TFA corps members leave more quickly, data still shows that less than half of traditionally trained teachers last more than five years. TFA should not get all the attention for this. Again, it’s probably as much about the external world as what is happening at the school.

There is so much more I have on my mind… but that’s a start.

My last advice to the #ResistTFA movement is to think critically about your tactics. The rhetoric- and false statements- I read on the hashtag today from your supporters reminds me of the Tea Party’s attack on the Affordable Care Act. It caused a lot of noise… but people like me (self-employed) had to enroll in an ACA plan whether it was great or not, in part because there were no other solutions posed by the opposition except that we should #ResistACA.

If we want to make a difference in the debate on the teacher profession, we should all think about the questions, assumptions and solutions broadly and in the context of the economic realities of 2014.

I’m optimistic we can.

Tracy Brisson is a career & business coach and recruitment & talent development consultant as well as the author of Confessions of a Teacher Recruiter: How to Create an Extraordinary Resume and Hook Your Dream Job. You can learn more about her work at http://confessionsofateacherrecruiter.com.