This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It is a somewhat precarious position I have found myself in, being acknowledged primarily as a Teach For America alumna and secondarily as a District teacher.
I suppose that I should not be too surprised, as the acronym TFA jumps off the page like a flashing warning sign, but the truth is, it caught me off guard. While I am well aware (and share some) of the criticism and skepticism of Teach For America as an organization, I would encourage readers to make room in the dialogue for some good old-fashioned open-mindedness. That is, TFA is part of my story, but it isn’t the whole story.
Just like any organization of which we are a part (including, for me, the School District of Philadelphia), there is a fundamental alignment of ideals that attracts us, but there are also moments of dissonance. While I am a member of the Democratic Party, I do not always agree with everything that every Democrat says.
The most glaring moment of dissonance regarding TFA for me is that it offers a quick fix, a short-term solution to a longstanding problem. The truth is, the reason I stayed beyond my two-year TFA commitment is that two years is not enough. The learning curve for teachers is steep, but it ain’t that steep. By the end of my first two years of teaching, I had learned a tremendous amount about both education and myself but in truth, I had only just begun. It is also true that many of my colleagues did not feel that they would have the most impact by staying in the classroom and so many of them went on to explore other facets of the education field. However, many did end up staying in the classroom, which they had not anticipated. Some even left the classroom, only to return to it.
A Teach For America survey indicates that in 2007-2008, 66% of alumni continued to work in or study education. A large part of this 66% includes TFA alums leading charter schools or studying education policy. However, when examining new teachers nationwide, only 66% of them remain in the district after their first five years of teaching. In light of this, it is alarming that districts across the country are content that many of their new hires have only planned to stay in their school for a limited time. Cycling new teachers in and out of classrooms is a disservice to new teachers, veteran teachers, and students alike. Given that the TFA mission statement focuses on recruitment rather than retention, the onus is on the districts to improve teacher retention.
So again, we find ourselves asking, what is it that makes some people stay in their district and how can we encourage more to do so?
As we all know, the high school dropout rate is a critical problem District-wide. Therefore, I am forced on a daily basis to consider what would make a student want to stay in school and how I can encourage more students to do so. I try to create an environment in my classroom that is engaging, relevant, safe, fun, and welcoming. I do so not only because I think that’s what classrooms should be, but because in some ways I am in competition for my students’ attention with the hallways and the streets (both of which are pretty tough competition).
If I did not actively work to make my classroom a desirable place, I am sure that fewer students would stay. Likewise, I think it would behoove us to consider ways in which our schools could become engaging, relevant, safe, fun, and welcoming places that would make teachers want to stay.
What TFA and I do have in common is that we both see the achievement gap as a paramount problem and are trying to do something about it. Even though I was poised to enter a traditional route of certification upon my college graduation, the immediacy and passion of TFA drew me to it. Does TFA have the perfect solution? No. Does anyone? While I will continue to question and reflect on the impact that TFA has on public education, I will also proudly own my TFA roots and always remain grateful to them for giving me my start as a teacher in Philadelphia.