Ever since its formation, Teach for America has been embroiled in controversy. It has brought thousands of young, talented non-teachers into some of the toughest classrooms in the country, many of whom have chosen to remain in education in some capacity. But if its detractors are to be believed, the organization steals jobs from deserving teachers, cheapens the teaching profession, and serves as merely a career stepping stone for many purely self-interested college graduates. Yet it continues to expand, with 9000 corps members across the country teaching around 600,000 students.
I’m not going to insert myself into the omnipresent debate concerning the problems with TFA corps members leaving teaching, or how effective they are compared to “traditional” teachers. All I can say is that, as a corps member myself, I have been consistently awed by the drive of my colleagues to improve and become exceptional teachers. The students of the city are fortunate to have many great teachers in the classroom that wouldn’t have been there without TFA.
But TFA’s most important impact, in my view, is beyond these individual classrooms. It has questioned the unnecessarily lengthy, expensive, and bureaucratic traditional path to certification.
Before starting teaching, I was forced to go through the arduous process of becoming “highly qualified,” which I somehow managed before I actually started teaching. (To be honest, despite my credential, the only areas in which I could have definitely called myself “highly qualified” in the realm of education were sending checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, signing forms, completing checklists, and not having a criminal record.) The extent of the bureaucracy was comical.
Yet I was lucky: without TFA to help guide me down the rabbit-hole, I would have never been able to secure that certification, and so wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach in a high-needs school. I have some incredibly smart, talented, and compassionate friends that wanted to start teaching after graduation but were unable to because they weren’t accepted into TFA or similar programs. In this country, if you want to teach, you basically need to major in education in college or be lucky enough to grab a slot in a fast-track cert program. This is a huge disservice to our students.
Now, I’m not saying that TFA’s teacher training system–centered on a 5 week summer crash course called “institute”–is perfect. I did learn an incredible amount about teaching in that amount of time, but my first few months were arduous, to say the least. (I consider it a blessing for my long-term mental health that my brain decided to erase September through November of that year from my memory.) But there is no amount of training that would have totally prepared me for that first year. Indeed, in teaching you learn primarily from experience. I made (and continue to make) many mistakes when I teach, and I continue to learn from them. The intangibles possessed by great teachers–presence in the classroom, effective communication with students–are built with experience.
Yet the traditional system of teacher education and certification doesn’t recognize that fact. Undergraduate education programs, besides being widely regarded as one of the easiest college majors, require way too much sitting in classrooms and not enough standing in front of them. Their length and cost only serve to restrict and insulate the teaching profession, and for no good reason: Teach for America corps members are at least as effective as teachers coming from traditional certification programs.
Considering the educational crisis in this country, we should be trying to encourage as many people into the teaching profession as possible–a task made impossible by a certification system that is heavy on bureaucracy and light on helping kids. Teach for America has forced us to question the wisdom of that vestigial limb of the educational status quo.