This semester, I’m taking two grad classes in the education school for my education policy degree. One of them is about assessment, and I really enjoy it. Several of my classmates are current teachers; many have years of teaching experience. Besides having mad respect for anyone who is studying for a grad degree while teaching full-time while I am just a full-time student with no real responsibility anymore, I felt a little self-conscious when we all introduced ourselves, having taught only for two years. There are certainly people in the class who have never taught, and I certainly don’t feel like anyone is judging anyone else’s experience, but in my own head, I feel like I have less to contribute than the people who have taught or are teaching because I left the classroom (or that what I do have to contribute is so narrow in scope and not worthwhile). Still, people are open to the diverse perspectives offered by everyone in the course, and at least I don’t feel like my experience is being attacked as I do in my other class.
Granted, the other course, on schools and society, lends itself much more to actual debate about the teaching profession and the innumerable issues that arise when studying schools. And people are understandably more passionate about teachers than they are about assessments, so I get why Teach For America would get brought up in this class over the other. But not a week has gone by where TFA isn’t mentioned (usually by the same person, but I can’t remember for sure) as something negative that undermines public education. Our professor is pretty diplomatic and tries to push back or opens up the discussion to anyone who wants to respond, and I wanted to yesterday, except we ran out of time.
The person who spoke yesterday painted corps members in very broad strokes, insinuating that everyone who does TFA is just using it as a “stepping stone” to law school and that corps members view themselves as better than traditionally-trained teachers. She was responding to our professor’s query about the professionalization of teachers in other societies versus American society, and how the teaching profession is perceived. She suggested that TFA goes against the idea of teachers as professionals. “We wouldn’t allow it for doctors,” she said, which is pretty valid. But let’s also think about how society perceives medical professionals and insists that they be trained: undergrad, med school, residency, etc., whereas anyone with a 4-year degree is considered at least capable of being in front of a classroom of children full-time. Does TFA perpetuate that idea? Probably, but ultimately the impact of TFA (so far?) is too small to be changing that conversation about teaching preparation. Whether TFA exists or not, there are going to be schools (like the one I taught at) that fail to support teachers, fail to retain teachers, and fail to even hire teachers, forcing students to have a “permanent” substitute for extended periods of time, who is probably even further from the ideal that TFA detractors have in their minds of who should be in a classroom. I don’t know my classmate’s personal experience with TFA or corps members, but it irked me that 1) other students in the class unfamiliar with TFA were getting only this negative picture, 2) she was so unoriginal in her criticisms (I mean, really, the law school thing is the first thing people harp on, right?), and 3) there is some actual truth to what she said.
I know TFA is imperfect, and pretty far from perfect, in fact. I drank the Kool-Aid for a while, both pre- and during my corps experience, but I am not so naive anymore, and the only way TFA is going to get better and do better for both students and corps members is for those inside – and outside – the organization to address faults instead of covering and making excuses for them. I don’t believe TFA is going to solve the inequities in education on its own, certainly, and not soon, even if in tandem with other organizations and policymakers. But because I had such a positive experience teaching – a job I never would have gotten without TFA, which some could argue is an obvious example of what’s wrong with TFA – of course I get defensive about it. I’m less defensive when I read pieces by people who have left the corps, like the piece yesterday in The Atlantic, because hey, at least they know firsthand what they’re talking about and have (hopefully) thought critically about their experience. When people with seemingly no connection to TFA or its corps members make blanket statements like the stepping stone comment, though, it makes me want to say, “Hey! You don’t know me. Back off.”
Are there corps members who do see TFA as a stepping stone to law school? Sure, I’d bet money on it. But I do find it hard to believe that there are people who would go through two years (at least) of one of the most, if not most, challenging experiences of their lives just to get some nebulous boost on a law school application. (Don’t law school applicants know that GPA/LSAT is pretty much all admissions is about? If I wanted to get into a better law school, I’d forego the TFA application process and the two years of emotional expense and just focus on getting better undergrad grades.) The passion’s still gotta be there, and I truly believe that it is for the vast majority of corps members.
Does TFA look good on a resume? Hell yes, at least in my experience. Having just gone through interviewing season for law firms (yes, I’m in law school, and no, being a corps member did not help me get in, because I applied before I joined the corps), I can say that many of my interviewers asked about Memphis, asked about teaching, even asked about TFA criticisms, and believed the skills built in the classroom to be positive assets to a legal career. I feel like I over-performed my grades for interviewing season for several reasons, and having been a teacher was definitely one of them. But is getting my next job after teaching why I taught in the first place? No.
Do corps members feel like they are superior to traditionally-trained teachers? At least some do. And that’s bothersome to me, because instead of an us-them divide, which helps no one, teachers across the board should be sharing best practices and learning from each other, regardless of who got what job when. There are good teachers and bad teachers everywhere, traditionally-trained or not, and being a corps member doesn’t mean much except that one’s grades were high enough or a test score high enough to get them certified. So those with this mentality of saving the children from bad teachers with education degrees need to step back and think about how that mindset damages not only their relationships with non-TFA teachers at their schools but also how it damages the conversation surrounding TFA for everyone else.
I’m still trying to figure out why it is that I feel I need to prove anything to my classmates in either of my classes. It comes down to wanting to feel valued, I guess, and among the class of mostly teachers, I want my two years to count in the conversation, and it’s the length of time that I feel inferior about, while among the other class (mostly of people who haven’t taught, actually), I want my two years to count in the conversation, and it’s the way I got there that others feel is inferior. I’m proud to have been a teacher, certainly, and proud to have been a corps member, but I’m definitely less vocal about the latter because of the backlash TFA has faced in recent years.
I mean, I’d just rather not have people lump me in with this stereotype of elitist, social-climbing would-be lawyers. Is that really a surprise? I’d also rather not have my teaching experience diminished or dismissed simply because I didn’t get in the classroom the same way as someone with an education degree. Talk to me. Listen to what I have to say about what I taught, whom I taught, where I taught, how I taught, why I taught, before assuming I stole someone else’s job, drilled and killed for a test, and couldn’t hack it so I went to law school. If we want to talk about holding the teaching profession in high regard, let’s talk about why TFA exists in the first place, and why teachers aren’t valued in our society, and why so many high-achieving college students opt to go into other industries that not only pay more and are more prestigious, but that also don’t make them feel like scapegoats every time there’s a staff meeting, town hall, or a conference with a client (aka parent).
For those of you out there in my shoes or who once were, I’m curious to know what your experiences have been and how you handle(d) situations like these.