I have long been skeptical of Teach for America. Part of the reason was a belief that the highly competitive nature of the program means it attracts resume builders and not serious educators. After all, why would so many people who do not go to school for education suddenly decide they should enter the field, though only through this prestigious program?
A school leader I spoke to recently articulated the skepticism I have felt quite well, saying she wanted teachers that would build up her school, not stop by for two years. The Onion, somewhat famously, voiced a similar skepticism in a satirical column by a grade-school student lamenting that he, once again, would not be taught by a real teacher.
A recent conversation with my boss, however, has me rethinking my skepticism. He asked me if I was running a school, what I would look for in the teachers I hired. Surprisingly, despite almost a decade working in and around education reform, no one had ever asked me that. My answer is probably similar to what most managers would say they desire in any employee. I’d want someone smart, motivated, creative, intellectually curious, open to criticism, hard working, and a good-fit with my school culture.
Chances are, most Teach for America teachers by virtue of their backgrounds and the program’s screening process exhibit the first four characteristics. The last three? Well, that is a management problem. In case you do not read this blog regularly (what is wrong with you!), I am a big proponent of school-based management, even within a large system. Accordingly, I think it us up to the principal and staff of a school to build a unique culture that fits the unique needs of their students. Upon reflection, adding a crop of eager young Teach for America members to Milwaukee’s education talent-pool is all upside. If a school does not want to risk having a two-year and done teacher, or feels a teacher without an education degree will compromise their school culture, they are free not to not hire from Teacher for America. Or, even better, they could ask about their potential hire’s career plan prior to an appointment in their school.
I do understand why people, including many teachers I have spoken with over the years, are irritated by Teach for America. If someone just out of college with nothing but a quick training course suddenly came in to do the same job I was doing I would be irritated too. Doesn’t experience, formal training, and in many cases an intended career-long commitment to a profession mean something? Obviously yes. However, Teach for America is only threatening if people think it will become the dominant provider of Milwaukee teachers. That will not happen.
As was the case with school choice, small class sizes, and numerous other reform efforts in Wisconsin over the years, Teach for America is now too often touted as the answer for all that ails Milwaukee schools. It is not; no single program or reform is. But Teach for America is an asset for Milwaukee schools. It took me a while to come to that conclusion, and I am hopeful that, after reflection, others will end up in the same place.