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Bilby & Greene: TFA Interns Need Better Preparation

In February I shared a conversation between a veteran teacher, David Greene, and his mentee, a former Teach For America intern named John Bilby. Today, we have a continuation of that dialogue, once again focused on how we ought to prepare teachers to work in our schools.

John: Here we are again. This time, I want to steer the conversation towards teacher training. I was inspired by a petition recently put forward by Joe Rogers, Jr., to Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America. Joe Rogers wants Wendy Kopp to instate a pre-service year of training for TFA teachers because, as the system stands, the kids who need the best teachers are getting the most unprepared ones. This was true in my TFA experience, when I did 16 hours of teaching in a summer school class of 10 kids and I was drowning once the school year began and I had no idea how to manage a classroom of 30.

I always like to point to my military experience as a means of comparison - there, I had to go through 4 years of ROTC and 6 months of officer training before I could tell people what to do. To me, pretending that a lack of proper preparation for one of the hardest jobs in the country is somehow part of your "corps experience" is not only stressful for both the kids and the teachers but unnecessary.

But the traditional teacher prep program that I am in now offers some lessons for what a TFA pre-service year would look like. For example, I have to do 100 classroom observation hours prior to student teaching; I am in the middle of these right now, and it has struck me that we never observed anyone during our TFA training, nor did I have time to once the school year began. I had no idea what a successful urban classroom looked like. Dave, what do you think? Are there lessons to be applied from the extensive observation model?

David: John, yesterday I was an observer in a Fordham University run Lesson Study Group. In it three Fordham Professors, another teacher, and I observed what happened when a team of Fordham MAT student/teachers collegially prepared a math lesson one of my mentees (S.) was to teach. We had a pre-observation meeting, observed the class, and had a post class meeting to provide feedback. Immediately following that the group revised the lesson and S. went back to teach the new and improved version.

Now that kind of group think may not be right for everyone. I myself offered the caveat that "a camel is a horse created by committee." I pointed out that the lesson needed to be less complex and that it's imperative to throw out the less good ideas in a group plan, because the goal has to remain what the kids can successfully accomplish, not what would be cool to do.

Over the years I have been part of Critical Friends Groups which follows much of the same protocol, but with the teacher as sole planner. Either way, these sessions along with at least a semester's worth of observations of other teachers (plural) and supervised practice in an internship setting similar to where the prospective teacher will end up are the only ways one can learn enough about how to teach before being given one's own room. In fact, they must be judged there first, before being allowed to be licensed and able to find a job. John, do you think prospective TFAmericans would be willing to add that extra (post graduation) time to their "commitment" to teaching, or are too many not really interested in teaching as a career enough to sacrifice that extra semester or year of training?

John: I'm a big fan of group work, if only because my time in TFA was so isolating. We had "Learning Teams" that ended up simply being another way for the organization to get data from us. And the kind of work that multiple minds can do in the critical thinking sessions you are advocating for would not only relieve some of the stress and loneliness that young teachers encounter, but it would also feed a sense of professionalism. I think that would go beautifully with a pre-service year.

My observations now have given me a much better concept of the "art" of teaching (as opposed to the science, which I think TFA stresses to its own detriment). I think a quote from one of my observees, an 8th grade Humanities teacher in Harlem, summed up some big concepts nicely: "You have to find the balance between giving the kids enough structure to do the work and treating them like babies...if you give them too much, then they'll get offended, and you're back where you started." And that tipping point will vary from class to class and, ultimately, kid to kid; knowing where to find it is a function of time, training, and teaching (well!)

I've thought about whether or not TFA candidates would be turned off by a pre-service year, and I think it's to the organization's benefit if they are. If the organization sees its numbers drop because it is getting serious about sending well-trained teachers into the neediest communities, then so be it; if they reduce their annual numbers because their funding model restricts the number of well-trained and qualified teachers that they can send into districts, then so be it; the kids will benefit from having teachers who know what success looks like for them beyond test scores.

But will the organization ally with the traditional programs to do it? Looking back, I think that our isolation was designed to be part of our "corps experience." Dave, you're closer to it right now - is there the will to incorporate observations, student teaching, and lesson study groups, all of which require a commitment of time and senior teachers, whom TFA has been wary of?

David: Oh boy, that's the killer question. Unfortunately, I think not. TFA ( the organization) has become more and more like an Empress with no clothes. As it gains more and more corporate and political supporters and funding, it is less inclined to do the kind of self and/or peer evaluation good teachers in good schools do. Good teachers work as hard at getting better as they did to become good. Great teachers work even harder. Who was known as the hardest worker in the NBA? Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest to ever play. Who among the TFA courtiers will tell the Empress the truth? Duncan? No. Obama? No. Who will be so bold as to say, "Wendy, you did a good thing getting so many new and able people to be at least interested in teaching. But now, what are you going to do to make things better? How will you do each of the following?

1. Decrease the number of resume builders who join the corps and leave after two years for the Ivy League grad school or Goldman Sachs.

2. Decrease the number of TFAmericans who idealistically want to do 2 years of Peace Corps but are afraid to go to Africa.

3. Decrease the number of "teacherpreneurs" who enter the corps to do their two years and go on to the new for-profit educational world.

4. Decrease the number of TFAmericans who see the administrative or business end of TFA as their life's work, not teaching.

5. Decrease the number of hardworking and sincere TFAmericans who drop out because they find themselves unprepared to start and undersupervised for their two year stint.

6. Increase the number of well prepared, well supervised professional teachers for whom this career is an avocation as well as a vocation, who seek advice, constructive criticism, peer review, and cooperation from experienced people outside the of the "Chosen."

Will TFA join with teaching professionals as well as other professional organizations and institutions to improve the quality of teaching and teacher training or will it continue to "believe its own hype"? Right now I am not optimistic. Of course new and experienced TFAmericans must have better training before and during their two year experience. Yesterday I observed a young woman who was having a terrible time "managing" her middle school ELA class. After class I pointed out to her the three times when they stopped misbehaving and actually were engaged and learning. Then I listed the "activities" when they misbehaved. Her response regarding the latter was, "Those are the things TFA and my supervisors want me to do. They tell me to keep giving the kids these things to do so they stay in their seats and stay quiet." You know how that feels. She can be good. Will she stay in teaching? Maybe. John, isn't that the shame of it all? While the Empress Kopp parades around in her new clothes, her serfs in the field are being sacrificed. Will she listen to reason? Will she ally with others in education for the benefit of all? Who will give her the mirror?

What do you think of the advice offered here? Does this connect with your experiences with Teach For America?

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