Tag Archives: Teacher for America

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.