An Education Activist’s Dirty Little Secret

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What I am most proud of is that this Blog has earned a sense of trust from educators. I am not a professional educator nor do I play one on TV. I’m just a parent that talks to a lot of educators and tries to convey their stories along with my observations as a parent. Every once in a while I get someone who asks if I would be willing to share something they wrote. I invariably say yes. The below was sent to me by an experienced teacher and it further explores the theme of not getting blinded by ideology.  The issues are seldom as simple as we like to paint them. Thank you Mary Jo Cramb.

 

I first got inspired to get involved in education advocacy and activism when I read Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, then saw her speak here in Nashville. I stated attending meetings of the Badass Teachers, Coalition Advocating for Public Education, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, and other groups, and I’ve made some good friends through these organizations. Since having my second kid, this work comprises a good portion of the adult socializing I get to do outside of my job and family. But there’s one thing I haven’t been very open about with my fellow advocates. I’ve been hiding a dirty little secret, and it’s time I came clean.

I got into teaching through the Nashville Teaching Fellows program (NTF), which is a local chapter of The New Teacher Project (TNTP). Education advocates and teacher activists don’t like this program, or its better-known, more insidious sister, Teach for America (TFA). I know their criticisms now, and agree with them. These programs devalue the teaching profession and throw newbies into the classroom with little training or hope of success. In exposing my past involvement with this organization, I hope to explain why I made the choices I did, and what these programs expose about larger problems in teacher education.

NTF, and its national organization, TNTP, are less objectionable than TFA for several reasons. The goal of TNTP is to recruit and train people who will make teaching their career, while TFA aims at selecting people who will move on to “bigger and better things” after completing their two-year commitment. I’ve heard that expressing enthusiasm for teaching as a long-term career counts against candidates at TFA interviews. Teachers are understandably offended at the idea of their profession as a temp gig. TFA also has an alumni network full of people working to pass bad education laws, create new charter schools, advance the goals of the corporate education “reform” movement, and give each other jobs doing more of the same. TNTP does not have the same broad ideological objectives. However, TNTP certainly shares the obsession with data and accountability that characterizes TFA, as well as its reliance on “no excuses” classroom environments, and blind belief in total teacher control over student outcomes, which, of course, are narrowly understood to mean standardized test scores. Now that I understand all of this, I regret and am embarrassed by my association with NTF. But when I first entered the profession, I didn’t understand these issues to the extent that I do now, and most prospective teachers would say the same, especially back in 2009, when I joined up. Most critics of TFA, I’ve found, don’t personally dislike the individual teachers who began to teach with this program, finding them well-meaning pawns who genuinely care for their students and do their best despite little preparation and difficult classroom challenges. They save their criticisms for the program itself and its leaders. So maybe there was never any reason for my reticence about my background.

The existence of TFA and TNTP points to a larger problem in teacher training that I still do not see being addressed, not even by TFA’s critics. How was I supposed to get into teaching? Or, what is the way that opponents of TFA suggest that teachers begin their careers? By majoring in education in college, or getting a Masters degree, before taking charge of a classroom. However, this route to teaching was not feasible for me at the time. What’s more, I believe that if I had taken that path, my own education would have been poorer, and my students would have suffered for it.

When I was in college I wanted to be a writer and a college professor, not a high school teacher. So I majored in English, and picked up a second major, Spanish, because I had room in my schedule and wanted to study abroad. After college, I went to graduate school for English, then taught as an adjunct for a year. I was incredibly poor, and knew that lifestyle was unsustainable and I needed to get out of academia. At that point, I realized that moving to teach at the high school level was the best way I could think of to use the skills I had to get better-paying, more secure work. But I could not just pause my life and take two years to get a second Masters degree: I needed an income immediately. I applied directly with the school district at the same time that I put in applications with NTF and TFA, but those applications went nowhere. NTF and TFA had contracts with the district that stipulated that the district would not hire any new teachers until all the teachers trained with these programs had been placed in schools. So really, this program was the only way I could get a position teaching in a public school at the time when I needed a job. I guess you could say that I made a selfish decision and put my own financial needs above the educational needs of my students, and I’ll agree with that criticism. But I’d respond that the school system allowed me to do that because it also undervalued my students, by offering poor pay, benefits, and working conditions, so that they were unable to fill teaching positions without contracting with NTF and TFA to recruit underqualified, undertrained new teachers.

We were given five weeks training. Of course, it wasn’t enough. But I was coming from academia, where I’d been tossed in to teach first-year English composition classes to people only 4 years younger than me, with only one week of preparation. Teaching is a skill that must be learned on-the-job; I don’t think any kind of training is fully sufficient. My first year was a disaster, and I’m convinced it would have been a disaster regardless of any training I had or didn’t have. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d had a whole semester to student-teach alongside a seasoned professional, who knows. While I am skeptical of the ideological aims of “teacher residency” programs I’ve heard about recently, that model might be closer to the kind of training teachers need to succeed early in their career.

I did take classes in the evenings for my first two years of teaching, earning a Masters of Arts in Teaching. I found these classes mostly a useless waste of time. The material was simple, boring, lacking in intellectual stimulation, and unconnected to the work we were doing in the classroom. If I had taken similar classes while I was an undergraduate, dropping one of my majors in favor of education, I would have had much less depth and breadth of the subject-specific content knowledge I need to be able to teach well, in addition to the impoverishment of my own inner life. Even if I had known at 18 or 20 that I would end up teaching in a high school classroom, majoring in education as an undergraduate would have cost me the opportunity to take other classes that truly opened my mind and contributed to my personal development, something that never happened to me in my MAT classes. I’m convinced that I’m a better teacher because of attending rigorous classes developing my skills and understanding of my disciplines, and that trading these classes for educational psychology and teaching methods would have given my students a weaker, less knowledgeable teacher. Telling me I should have picked a different major seems particularly wrong-headed and puzzling, because disparaging my broad liberal arts education and recommending narrow vocational training instead is the last thing progressive education advocates should do. Besides, in my teaching career I have taught both English and Spanish, and have taken jobs where I could not have been hired without the ability to teach both subjects. It would have been impossible for me to fit three majors into four years in college, especially since the education major requires a semester of student teaching, in which it’s impossible to take any other classes.

I have a friend who recently switched careers to teaching, after almost a decade in marketing. She took classes for her MAT in the evening while working her old job, then she had to quit and live without any income for a semester while she did her student teaching (and still paid tuition). I admire her dedication and I am sure she will be a wonderful teacher, though she is struggling in her first year, as all teachers do, mostly because she feels the school where she is teaching is a poor cultural fit for her, and she has an onerous commute. But I feel the expectation that she should be able to live with no income while training for a teaching job to be absurd. In most other professions, training is provided by companies when employees are hired, rather than bankrolled by employees themselves before they even have a job prospect. In professions that do require unpaid internships, the pool of candidates is limited to those who can afford to live without paid work for a time. Could this be one possible explanation for the scarcity of teachers of color and teachers from low-income communities? And it’s not like teaching is known for paying all that well either–the investment seems unlikely to pay off, except in warm fuzzies. No wonder teaching has a recruitment problem, and no wonder one of the most popular avenues to the profession is the one that eliminates a costly obstacle to employment.

One problem that I have with critics of TFA is that they have not yet sufficiently grappled with these problems with the way we currently prepare teachers. They don’t acknowledge that classes in education are not rigorous, or useful, or even interesting. They pretend that traditional teacher education programs prepare teachers completely for their first year of work in the classroom, when this is laughably false. They act like a semester of student-teaching with no income is a reasonable demand to make of students and career-changers, instead of the unfair barrier to entry that it is. TFA is a poor answer to these problems, but progressive education advocates have not yet proposed their own solution either. I wish I’d been able to join the teaching profession without associating with a group steeped in an ideology I now oppose, but I’ll always be grateful they gave me an opportunity that only they were able to provide.

 

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4 comments on “An Education Activist’s Dirty Little Secret

  1. Fellow NTF'er says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and your thoughts about the lack of diversity in education. I agree that teaching is a hard field to break into without a financially supportive family background. Several years ago, I entered teaching as a second career, thanks to NTF, which allowed me to pay my mortgage while completing my certification. Sadly, I learned that many of the things I was told by the program were not, in fact, true. Fortunately, I discovered a love for our teaching! If the district is going to continue to run off amazing teachers, I hope they have a plan to replace us with suitably ready candidates.

  2. […] posted it and hopefully it will get the conversation going about teacher training. Here’s a permanent link. I’m super excited that Diane Ravitch retweeted […]

  3. jcgrim says:

    Thank-you for sharing your valuable experiences. The tragedy of your story is that due to financial desperation you were forced to make unwanted choices. Free public college education for all is the only solution to this problem. I’m old enough to remember when many states in the US had free public college for all. The US and states have the money but not the political will to support college students.

  4. Ashleigh says:

    Thank you for your post. I greatly enjoyed reading it! You articulate feelings I think many educators share. As a poorer student who is considering entering the teaching profession, I appreciate your insights.

    I agree with many of your criticisms regarding teacher preparation. Though, it seems the preparation problem is shared by many U.S. teacher training programs, not just TFA and NTF. As is intuitive to you and to other educators, there are two key components to teachers’ preparedness: knowledge of the subject and knowledge of how to teach the subject (NCATE, n.d.). The problem you express with teacher training does not seem to be with teachers’ subject knowledge, but with teachers’ pedagogical knowledge—with lack of practical experience, among other things. Not surprisingly, research strongly supports the importance of field experience. The reason being, field experience bridges the gap between theory and practice. It allows pre-service teachers to deepen their understanding of skills learned in education courses, reflect on teaching processes and philosophies, gain experience in classroom management, and strengthen their confidence (Anderson & Graebell, 1990; Howey & Zimpher, 1996; Kragler & Nierenberg, 1996; Hughes & McCartney, 2015). It makes concepts from Masters of Arts in Teaching courses more classroom applicable. Furthermore, pre-service teachers seem more receptive to feedback in their field placements than in their college classrooms (Liakoupolou, 2012). This could, perhaps, be attributed to good relations between field teachers and teaching candidates. Field experience allows for pre-service teachers to foster relationships with veteran teachers, with mentors (Hughs & McCartney, 2015). These relationships (ideally) result in shared knowledge, cooperative teaching, and increased professional opportunities (Liliane and Colette, 2009 as cited in Hughes & McCartney, 2015; Baeton & Simons, 2016). Most importantly, however, teacher experience is positively correlated with student achievement and academic success (Greenwald, Hedges & Laine, 1996; Rowan, 2002 as cited in Whitehurst, 2002). Although teaching is certainly a skill that must be learned on-the-job, field training benefits both teachers and students, and should therefore be accessible to all aspiring teachers.
    The critical role field experience plays is also evident in annual teacher attrition. Interestingly, college, degree, and training route are not strongly related to teacher attrition, but pedagogy is (Ingersoll, Merris & May, 2014). According to Ingersoll, Merril, and May (2015), teachers who underwent little or no pedagogical preparation are significantly more likely to leave the profession than those who underwent comprehensive pedagogical preparation (preparation mandating classroom observation and field experience). Field experience, then, affects not only teacher quality, but also longevity. Longevity is particularly important in this profession where teacher effectiveness is intertwined with experience (CALDER, 2010).

    Still, how is an aspiring teacher supposed to acquire this valuable experience if he or she experiences significant financial barriers—not only entering the profession, but also working in the profession? As you indicate, it is unlikely the teacher’s hefty investments will pay off. TFA, NTF, and other such organizations become the only options. However, the teacher does not reap the research-supported benefits of field experience and mentorship while working within these programs. He or she, then, is further disadvantaged. Additionally, you may be correct in implicating the teaching certification process in the scarcity of teachers of color and teachers from low-income communities. Indeed, even the U.S. Department of Education (2016) in its brief The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce acknowledges the proportion of teaching candidates of color progressively decreases throughout the teacher certification process. The same could likely be inferred about candidates of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Still, some scholars, such as Dr. Richard Ingersoll (2004), acknowledge financial and other barriers but nevertheless assert the teaching profession is no more restrictive than other professions. Furthermore, Ingersoll claims, modifying restrictions may lead to the certification of many unqualified candidates as well as qualified candidates. This is a reasonable concern, and it should be weighed against concerns for diversity and access. That being said, it seems to me the teacher training programs are restrictive, not the professional requirements. That’s a big difference. Education—for any profession—should not be restrictive.

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