At the discussion, panelist James Campbell from the Africana Studies Dept. read a few excerpts from Bil Johnson’s sharply critical opinion piece “Why I Don’t Like TFA.” Professor Johnson was a professor in the Education Department at Brown, and now he’s at Yale. We invited him to come down to see the panel, but he had to attend another conference that night (although he did say that he heard about how the discussion went, and was sorry to have missed it. But I digress). However, below I’ve pasted the entirety of “Why I Don’t Like Teach for America.” It’s funny, but it’s also very incisive. He raises some excellent points and asks very important questions.
#1) As a professional teacher/educator, I find it denigrating to the Profession of Teaching to say that people can be prepared to teach in 5 to 6 weeks. Simply b/c people have attended Brown or Yale or wherever may mean they are intelligent, it does not mean they have some innate understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning that genuine teacher preparation programs instill in their candidates. It is offensive and pretentious to think otherwise.
#2) Equally denigrating to the profession is the notion that teaching is something you can “dabble in.” Oh, do it for a couple of years, assuage your (usually white/suburban/privileged) guilt and then get on with your “real life” in law school or business school or wherever. Teaching, you see, isn’t all that important and anybody can do it for a couple of years (which, by the way, their own statistics don’t particularly bear out — check out what their attrition rate is in the first year – and consider it’s their statistics, so adjust for reality). How do we feel about “Nurses for America?” Or, better, “Doctors for America?” The lack of respect for teaching as a profession is historic — based on seeing it as a “feminine” profession and one that does not pay what “real” jobs pay. Teach for America continues to support that historic disrespect for the profession by treating it as something one can do until something “better” (read high paying, more prestigious, etc.) comes along.
#3) I find TFA patronizing, patriarchal, and colonialist. It continues a “wonderful” tradition of upper class noblesse oblige which says, essentially, “Well, we will take a little time out of our (important) lives to help you poor children of color (briefly) and then we’ll leave (because we can!).”
#4) Little or no decent support is supplied to the Novice Teachers who go out into some of the most difficult and stressful schools in our cities. Anyone who knows teaching will tell you that support and genuine mentoring are essential in the first few years of teaching.
#5) Many districts see TFA “volunteers” as fodder (there’s a wonderful piece in The Onion, online, about this) and shift them around willy-nilly to “fill in” gaps they have in staffing. How does that help anyone — and, particularly, how does it help the students these “volunteers” are supposed to be serving?
#6) TFA perpetuates the miserable conditions in urban schools. It allows politicians to claim, “Look, something’s being done” when, in fact, no significant change is occurring. In all its time in existence TFA has NEVER made a policy statement that their real goal is to improve urban schools to the point of making TFA unnecessary. Their motto, if they were sincere in improving schools, should be “Put us out of business.” But that’s not their goal. TFA has become a cottage industry, and a self-perpetuating one at that, which allows the mass of society to look the other way and essentially say, “See, there’s really no hope for those urban schools (and those children who are, clearly, “unteachable”). Teach for America keeps trying and there’s no progress.” TFA is, at best, a medicated band-aid but a band-aid nonetheless. Our urban schools are hemorrhaging and TFA is a band-aid — and that’s fine because in the world of Fox News, that looks as if an effort is being made. It’s clearly the fault of the children and their families if there’s no decrease in the “achievement gap.”
#7) For those who survive TFA and then join their ranks as recruiters or “Executive Directors” or whatever, their allegiance to the organization is cult-like. It is not a Learning Organization whose goal is to better the schools. Like some evangelical sect, their goal is to recruit more members, receive more recognition (usually from right-wing “do away with public schools” types), and continue to sing their own praises as saviors of some sort (“If we weren’t there, who would be?” Which begs the deeper questions about “How can we actually fix the system instead of putting our TFA finger in the dyke?”).
Can you really “dabble” in teaching? Is TFA denigrating to the teaching profession? Has TFA become a cult-like non-profit whose goal is self-perpetuation rather than the eradication of those structural equality it claims to address?