My Experience With Teach for America

This one is for you Alexander Nazaryan.

I am not a Teach for America alum.

A friend of mine texted me the other day: “My friend says he wants to join Teach for America. He wants to be a writer.”

I responded: “If he wants to be a writer he should write and stay out of teaching.”

This has been my usual experience with people coming out of the Teach for America program. I suppose it cannot be helped owing to how the program is designed. TFA “grads” are under contract for a few short years, get 5 weeks of training and then thrown into the classroom jungle. They are set up for failure like the rest of the teaching force.

The turnover rates reflect this. They are atrocious across the board, whether they are TFA alum or accredited from college education programs. But TFA rates are extra-atrocious:

“More than 50 percent of Teach for America teachers leave after two years and more than 80 percent leave after three years. [About half of all teachers nationwide quit after five years, according to the National Education Association.”

Any experienced teacher knows that it takes many years to reach proficiency. You have to learn how to construct lessons and design activities. You have to learn your content area(s). You have to learn how to think on your feet and develop that teacher instinct that only comes with experience. Any one of these aspects alone would take a few years to learn. Having to internalize all of them and integrate them into a teaching style takes many long years.

80% of TFA alum leave after three years. Three years is not enough time to become proficient. This means that TFA is sticking children with a revolving door of sub-par teachers.

This is a curious phenomenon. All we ever hear about are dead wood teachers who are riding their tenure to retirement. Because their jobs are guaranteed (a laughable proposition), they sit at their desks, read the newspapers, drink their coffees and neglect the education of their students. TFA promised to inject life and vitality into the profession.

Throughout my 12 years in the system, I have taught alongside my fair share of TFA alum. The first few years of my career were spent as a dean, one of the school disciplinarians. We were the people that pulled troubled kids out of the classroom, broke up fights, confiscated weapons and suspended kids.

This means I got an inside look of many teachers’ classrooms.

A dean gets used to being called to the same teachers’ classrooms over and over again. When the phone in the office would ring, we could almost predict which teacher was calling to have us remove a student. We had our usual suspects. One or two were older teachers who just did not have the fuse to deal with teenage tomfoolery. The vast majority were the youngsters from Columbia and NYU, the TFA crew:

“Jeremy refuses to take out a pen.”

“Jose keeps whistling while I am trying to teach.”

“Kelly told me to go f**k myself.”

“This entire class is out of control and I need you to yell at them!”

“These two boys keep play fighting.”

I would remove the offending students and they would vegetate in the office until the end of the period. We would speak to the student about the incident and then follow up with the teacher when they became available. The students had their side of the story, obviously, and then the teacher had another side. This would be our routine with literally hundreds of cases. It was a constant stream of he-saids and she-saids.

After the 15th or so such incident I had a revelation: NONE of this stuff was anything more than petty nonsense. Sure, the students were not angels by any means. Some students were repeatedly being kicked out of class by a few different teachers. However, it rarely went beyond the pale of normal teenage behavior in NYC in the 2000s. Many kids were doing the same types of things I did when I was their age.

This was the point. While I saw their behavior as relatively normal because I had grown up with it, many of these young TFA teachers were aghast. There was a cultural barrier here.

There is a certain tone that teenagers in NYC respond to. The teenagers themselves usually refer to it as “respect”. When a teacher talks all slow in a tone of voice one would reserve for toddlers, as in “now class, we’re going to color in our cell diagrams today”, kids shut down. They do not like to be spoken to like babies about things they care very little about as it is. When they start acting up because of it, they certainly will not respond to “now George, if you don’t stop talking I am going to write your name on the naughty list.”

It’s corny, it’s hackneyed and it’s not what the students need. These kids don’t have lawns or friendly neighbors or parents that ask about their day. They come from a rough and broken world and respond to confidence, competence, calmness and understatement. These are usually the missing pieces of their home life that need to be provided to them.

This brings us to another point. Oftentimes I would wonder “where is little Katherine finding the opening to get out of her seat and slap another student?” No matter what motivation level a student has, if it is clear that they are supposed to be engaged in a certain activity, they will be engaged or at least pretend to be so.

So many behavior problems were the products of poor lesson planning. There should be absolutely zero downtime in a lesson. Transitions should be smooth and there should be a clear task at all times. This is what “classroom management” is all about. If you give students, any student, even a small window, they are going to climb right through it.

We all have issues with planning and classroom management when we start our careers. But what I saw year after year were the same young teachers leaving the same openings for bad behavior from their students.  This is why many young teachers work extra hard. They are spending their evenings writing lessons in order to close the gaps.

The school in which I had these experiences was located in a neighborhood full of bars and lounges. It would be a regular thing for some teachers to hit these bars on the weekends in order to vent and unwind. Indeed, Friday evening beers with colleagues is a staple of the teaching profession.

What about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday beers? Many of the older teachers had to get home to their families. Many of the younger teachers, recently graduated from college and TFA, seemed to still be stuck in college life. It would be a regular thing to see many of them leave school together to go get some wings, or take in a movie or just generally gallivant around town. They had money in their pockets from their first real job (teaching) and it would burn a hole in their pockets. Experienced teachers, again with families to worry about, could not blow through money quite as easily.

I am not saying all of the TFA teachers I worked with did this. It was really a young teacher thing. It just so happened that most of these young teachers were TFA kids. Indeed, I used to go to clubs every Thursday and Friday evening myself, but it was to go to my night job as a bouncer. The other bouncers would inform me of all the young teachers from my school that had come into the club over the previous few days: “oh, that cute teacher from your school came by here Wednesday.”


As I got to know many of the TFA alum, and I got to know many of them very well, there was a reason for their seemingly carefree attitude that went beyond just youthful energy. It was the fact that, in the back of their minds, teaching was a temporary gig. There was a lot of “I don’t want to be perfect” talk or “I’m just doing this until I go back to (California, Massachusetts, Michigan) to work in (finance, business, fashion, acting).

This was the part that really irked me. I did want to be perfect. I was not using teaching as some sort of life lesson for myself. I was doing this job because I wanted to help kids love history and maybe even teach them about the world they live in. The job was not about me. So many TFA teachers spoke in terms of “me”: my goals, my dreams, my experience. They did not see teaching as a craft or an art. They did not care enough about their subject areas to read books to broaden their content knowledge. They were decidedly anti-intellectual.

Yes, this is a generalization. There are a few TFA teachers who stayed on and proved themselves to be great at what they did. But those teachers are remarkable because they are the exceptions.

And that is why I shuddered when I received the text message I mentioned at the start of this post. You want to write, so you are going to teach? It shouldn’t work that way. Children are not subjects for your next book or an excuse for you to say “I taught poor kids for a few years”. To be honest, when I was that young, I did not yet realize that there were people in this country that saw poor children as something to be investigated or a problem for dilettantes to tinker with. I assumed that teachers wanted to do their job.

Finally, I realized that all of the stereotypes about old lazy tenured teachers is a just a subterfuge for the actual young lazy untenured teachers. Their jobs are more secure because they are cheaper for the principal to keep on staff. Here is a fact: in my time as teacher, dean and chapter leader, I have never once seen a TFA teacher get rubber roomed.

Teaching is a career. Children are human beings. These are the central tenants for real education reform.

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14 responses to “My Experience With Teach for America

  1. Thank you for this. I’m currently applying to Teach for America, but as someone who’s committed to the teaching profession and is majoring in Early Childhood Education. This opened my eyes a little bit and showed me that maybe the best way to help these children is to go directly to the source instead of through this program.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Let’s not also forget that TFA has two other functions: as an integral part of the corporate/foundation/ advocacy complex that is privatizing the schools (take a look at New Orleans, where after Katrina the public school teachers were fired and TFA brought in as scabs to staff newly-opened charter schools), and as a training academy where future managers of privatization (Michelle Rhee, Kaya Henderson, John White, et. al.) are identified, groomed and trained to destabilize the public schools.

    The organization was perhaps not born in sin, in that Wendy Kopp did not start it with that purpose in mind, but it has certainly evolved into a very very wealthy, devious and destructive institution.

    • Absolutely. Wendy Kopp continues to rake in money from deformers to expand, despite the fact that TFA has left its original purpose in the dust. I bet Michelle Rhee sucked as a teacher. I would love to read testimonials from her former students.

  3. Thanks for your post (all of them, really). Two things to add:

    1. I’m also irked by the general philosophy that in order to teach the poor (and black), we must insert the rich (and white) into inner city schools for 1-3 years to teach them how to “rise above.” What’s worse, some TFA alums are actually using that placement for their own ends and nothing more. Nobody wants to pay attention to the successful schools in urban areas that embrace the culture and the norms instead of implementing some sort of militaristic program. Our shallow education is what leads us to believe that all the poor need is some discipline or some enlightenment by someone born on third base. Either that or too many people watch Fox news.

    2. Regarding classroom management — I interview a lot of people for teaching positions (K-8) and always ask several questions about classroom management. It’s sad, because the answer is so simply “effective, engaging, immersing pedagogy and the reflectiveness to notice what’s not working in the lesson or in the teacher.” Instead, they talk to me about rewards systems, punishment systems, and every other simplistic tactic they read about in a classroom management book. Students who are raised on a healthy dose of basic behaviorist methods are becoming student teachers and teachers; they have no desire nor ability to help their students be autonomous learners or partners in the room. Their success, rather, is built upon their ability to control a kid’s every move. Sad.

    Anyone ever read Haberman’s article from a while ago: “Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching”? I imagine if you’re reading this blog, you have.

  4. Pingback: Jada Williams: Lightning in the Night | assailedteacher

  5. 1) When TFA alums leave after 2 years, it’s not necessarily out of education. 67% of its alumni are working in education. And just because they leave education, it doesn’t mean they are no longer fighting for social justice. For the record, I am a TFA alum and this is my 7th year of teaching.

    2) Michelle Rhee’s students (the ones she taught) had scores from the 13th to the 90th percentile. Stop making inflammatory statements unsubstantiated by facts.

    William L – Classroom Resources For All

    • 1) Yes, that was pointed out earlier by another commenter. Some of them go on to be Michelle Rhees, Kaya Henderson or members of E4E who work for the destruction of public education from the policy level. The question is how many experienced, veteran educators get the opportunity to shape policy on the same level as those people?

      2) It’s simply unbelievable that you would repeat that ridiculous claim that Michelle Rhee raised her students’ scores to the “90th percentile.” I thought everyone knew that it was a bloated lie at this point.

      Maybe this will clear things up: click here.

      Did she raise her students’ scores by putting tape over her students’ mouths?

      • 1) You seem to think that experience and number of years actually makes a better teacher. In my opinion and from my experience, it’s almost the opposite of that statement that is true. A lot of “veteran” teachers think they know it all and don’t approach teaching with a spirit of learning. In other words, at some point, they figure that they’re so good that they stop trying to refine their craft.

        As for educators that are getting their voice into influencing policy, you should look at the work of Teach Plus. They’re doing a lot of thoughtful work in this area. Just a few months ago, I was at a forum where a group of experienced teachers was able to share some policy ideas with John Deasey, current superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District.

        2) What is unbelievable is that you continue to criticize without really looking at the facts. You continue to spread rumors. Read this statement that was published just last month from StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee’s organization: “This was not a study of Michelle’s students. It was a study of the school’s entire grade level, which had four teachers. There is no way to know if any of Michelle’s students were even included in this study. The study included only certain students at the school, and excluded large numbers from their sample.” You can’t take a grade level of select students and attribute the results to Michelle Rhee.

        William – Classroom Resources For All

      • 1) Right. Well, it is a well-researched fact that teacher experience is directly linked to student achievement. In fact, it is one of the only things (besides small class size) that has been consistently shown to have positive results:


        Of the measurable characteristics isolated for study, teaching experience has consistently been linked to student scores. On average, beginning teachers produce smaller learning gains in their students compared with more seasoned teachers. Most of the studies show that teachers grow in effectiveness over at least the first five years on the job, though the benefits of experience are less clear after that point (Nye, et al, 2004; Clotfelter, et al, March 2007, October 2007; Harris and Sass 2007).

        Deep content-area knowledge is also an attribute of teachers that seems to have a positive impact on student achievement. This appears especially true for mathematics teachers. A variety of studies have found that factors such as math-licensure test scores, math certification, a math undergraduate or graduate degree, and math-focused professional development for secondary educators bear a relationship to student scores (Hill, et al, 2005; Harris and Sass, 2007; Goldhaber and Brewer 1999; Clotfelter, et al, March 2007, October 2007).

        You are reciting the TFA cant to a tee that celebrates the young vibrant teacher. It takes more than good intentions and enthusiasm to run a classroom. I was very enthusiastic when I started teaching, but I also sucked. Only after years of refining my craft did I see any impact on my students. I had to master my content area, take into better consideration factors outside of the classroom and know exactly how to respond in unexpected situations. None of that comes with enthusiasm. It all comes from experience.

        2) Right. Again, any study that has been done on Rhee’s outrageous claim (and I cite Brandenberg’s because his was the most thorough and picked out the kids who only had Ms. Rhee as a teacher. Read his comments in the comments section of the link.) has shown that Rhee did not even come close to bringing her students up to the 90th percentile. The only source we have is Rhee herself who has never bothered to provide documentation of her claim.

        You can uncritically accept the words of a millionaire lobbyist all you want. I need a little more evidence. We do know that Rhee and other reformers sends her kids to elite private schools where teachers have decades of experience and students are not subjected to a constant battery of exams. Her kids’ teacher don’t even tape their students’ mouths shut. A person who wants to educate other people’s children in a different manner than they educate their own is not worthy of trust.

      • 1. Your quote doesn’t substantiate your claim. Your claim is that teacher quality is linked to years of experience. What you quoted basically says that that’s not the case after 5 years. I don’t know how you can make an unqualified claim and then support it with a contingent claim. Furthermore, the quote says MOST studies and on AVERAGE, meaning it’s not a statement that you can just claim as truth across the board. You can’t take what is true in a specific situation (maybe a second year teacher is better than a first year teacher) and just apply it to any situation (that means a 10 year veteran is better than a 9 year veteran)

        2. In the article I linked, it says Michelle Rhee’s PRINCIPAL for the school at that time verified the claim. I would hardly consider him a million dollar lobbyist. Also, here is a thorough rebuttal of Brandenberg’s study and why it was so horribly flawed:

        1) First, the reported results weren’t actually for Rhee’s students. They were test results for a third grade cohort, for which Rhee was one of several assigned teachers. Rhee apparently team-taught second- and third-graders, and was one of four third grade teachers. No individual results, positive or negative, can be fairly linked to Rhee.

        2) Second, the tests were apparently not administered to all students in the school (remember, this was well before the NCLB era), and it’s not clear which students might have been included or omitted. Moreover, it appears that no clear teacher-of-record information is included in the reported data, so it appears impossible to even determine what portion of the tested kids were taught by Rhee.

        3) Third, given the grief Rhee took from those claiming that DC’s sophisticated, pioneering value-added approach wasn’t nuanced enough, it’s laughable to see Brandenburg using crude cohort comparisons (e.g. essentially eyeballing end-of-grade performance from different years) to judge student gains. Even those who may wonder whether Rhee has placed too much weight on value-added metrics ought to acknowledge that she has been unequivocal in championing value-added measures that fairly reflect what individual teachers bring to the table. This makes it doubly bizarre to see her slammed using a calculation that neither Rhee nor any reputable scholar would think a fair or meaningful way to evaluate teachers.

        4) Finally, the study’s authors report substantial unexplained fluctuations in the tested population–a huge problem if one is going to attempt to compare a cohort’s scores in one year to that age group’s performance the next. In 1993-94, Harlem Park had test scores reported for 376 of the 493 enrolled students (or 76%). The next year, Harlem Park had scores for 280 out of 440 students (64%). That kind of attrition can easily play havoc with any results. Brandenburg implies that the attrition is due to nefarious behavior, but provides no evidence. Moreover, the researchers note in the study that they excluded some students who were enrolled, and it’s unclear from the report whether this is due to special needs status, mobility, absence on testing day, or what-have-you. Might’ve been nice if Mathews had tried to contact the report authors and ask about this, no?

        William L – Classroom Resources For All

      • 1) The study says that after 5 years, the improvements plateau. What this means is that a teacher of 5, 6, 7 and 10 years is better than the the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year teacher. Is this a justification for the wholesale slaughter of experienced teachers in favor of young teachers? Quite the opposite. Does this mean the first year newbies are better than the 20 year burnouts that you have caricatured? Quite the opposite as well.

        If the improvements in scores plateau after the 5th year, is this because the teacher gets lazy, or that the teacher has brought the students as far as they will go on standardized exams?

        None of this even touches on the intangibles, which is the most important part of teaching. It does not touch on the connections that someone with a deep content knowledge can convey to their students.

        2) Yes, I have seen all of the criticisms about Brandenberg’s study. Even by your own sources, Brandenberg hits pretty darn close to Rhee’s kids, which is more than what any statistical study has done.

        But, remember, you put forth the assertion that Rhee raised student scores to the 90th percentile. There is enough non-evidence and research on this claim as to cast doubt on it.

        Nowhere in the link you posted does it say anything about Rhee’s principal. You linked to a press release from Student’s First. Again, the only evidence you have to back up your assertion are the words of Rhee herself.

  6. 1) You noticeably omitted my statement that you can rarely make with accuracy the blanket types of statements that you make. The study you quoted says that on average, a beginning teacher’s outcomes aren’t as strong as a veteran ones. That’s understandable. That would be like saying Kobe Bryant got better as he played more years in the NBA. True. He didn’t win a championship his first year, nor was he the MVP of the league. However, that’s not necessarily an argument that can be made all the time. When LeBron came into the NBA, he was already better than many of the “veteran” players.

    I think there’s bodies of research that definitely support the effectiveness of TFA teachers versus their more “experienced counterparts” in the same schools or district. In a study published by the Urban Institute and the Calder Center in March 2008 and forthcoming in the Journal of Public Policy and Management, for example, the authors found “TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers, including those who are certified in-field. Such effects exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in math and science.” Furthermore, in an INDEPENDENT study by Policy Studies Associates (in 2009) 94 percent of principals who work with Teach For America teachers contend that Teach For America corps members make a significant and positive impact in their classrooms. 91% of principals expressed that Teach For America teachers are as well-prepared to teach as other beginning teachers.

    I agree with you that TFA teachers have a lot to learn. However, I think having an Institute, support structures, Resource Exchange (lesson plans made by others and an organized database of information), an alumni network, a proven track record of grit and success, etc. is better than the teacher that finished education school, got a piece of paper, and has no support or experience entering an urban, inner-city classroom.

    2) You wrote, “Even by your own sources, Brandenberg hits pretty darn close to Rhee’s kids.” HUH? Are we reading the same article? Quoting the article:

    “First, the reported results weren’t actually for Rhee’s students. They were test results for a third grade cohort, for which Rhee was one of SEVERAL assigned teachers.”

    Brandenburg himself says that his understanding of statistics is only of a very ELEMENTARY nature. He is hardly an authority to do an analysis of Michelle Rhee’s value-added during her time as a teacher.

    The support by the principal was backed in one of the links I sent. Furthermore, you can read Richard Whitmire’s biography on Michelle Rhee called “The Bee Eater.” Rhee’s principal, according to Whitmire, backed up Rhee. She said the students’ achievement level climbed impressively.

    William L – Classroom Resources For All

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