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Confession: I, Too, Did an Emergency Certification Program (But Not TFA)

In last week's blog, I discussed some statistics that Teach for America (TFA) was promoting as evidence of its program's success, which I found to be dubious indicators of--well--anything really, good or bad. Yet, as I posted the link to my blog on Facebook and other social media sites, I found myself wanting to apologize to former TFA cohort members for any implicit offense (indeed, these possibly maligned TFA alums include a family member, an ex-boyfriend, and several close friends); moreover, some of my commenters felt that I was being unfair to TFA, noting that it seemed I had "already formed my opinion" of the program.

It was a fair point--I definitely have. So now I'm going to talk about my experience with TFA, my experience with New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF), and some thoughts I have about emergency certification programs like these ones and others that exist through The New Teacher Project (TNTP), the umbrella organization for programs similar to NYCTF in other cities across America.

Back in 2003 (when I was 22, and a senior at Barnard College) I applied to both TFA and NYCTF. The application process was similar for the two programs; it involved a first round written application, and then a second round, an "interview day." For both of the programs, I made it to the interview.

I went through the TFA application process first. We were supposed to come to the interview prepared to discuss a bunch of articles, all of which seemed to me to be some sort of TFA propaganda--various accounts of TFA corps members valiantly driving to school through the Mississippi Delta mud, and how all the community members were so grateful to have them there. The recurring mantra in these articles was how TFA was single-handedly "closing the achievement gap"--a cliché I was unfamiliar with at the time, though I've since learned to be suspicious of anyone who uses these buzzwords self-referentially.

At any rate, I thought two things: The first was that I didn't see why TFA was trying to "sell me" on its own program, when clearly (since I was already in the second stage of the application) I wanted to be there. The second thing was that I didn't understand specifically how TFA proposed to close the achievement gap in both the Mississippi Delta and New York City in the same fashion; how could there be one cure-all approach when the problems of each area served were, though perhaps similar in severity, different in nature?

But when I raised the second issue in the fishbowl discussion (we had to sit around in a circle and discuss the pro-TFA articles while the recruiters jotted notes on clipboards), I knew instantly that I'd made an error. The recruiters shot sideways looks at each other, and scribbled furiously on their clipboards. Sure enough, when I was called in for my one-on-one interview with a recruiter, the first question she asked me was whether or not I believed TFA could close the achievement gap. When I said I didn't think there was one single panacea for the achievement gap in every part of the country, and that if there were, I didn't think anyone (let alone TFA) had figured it out yet, the recruiter told me, "The essence of being a TFA corps member is having idealism, and it doesn't sound like you have the right attitude."

The thing is, I really was idealistic, despite this TFA recruiter's assertion to the contrary. With the confidence of a nearly 22-year-old soon-to-be-northeastern-liberal-arts-college-grad, I genuinely believed that poor kids' lives could be changed through education, and that I wanted to be the one doing it. (And in mentioning this belief, you will now understand why, when I ultimately did end up teaching in the Bronx, the senior teachers found me to be the most uppity little up-start who ever up-started. God, I was annoying! But I digress.) However, despite my youthful idealism (read: naïveté) and the fact that I really wanted to do the work that TFA would supposedly have enabled me to do, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I was being made to drink the Kool-Aid, so to speak. And I just couldn't stomach it.

Fast-forward to my NYCTF interview, a month later, which was in almost all procedural respects extremely similar--but not in tone. The articles we read beforehand (there were always articles!), instead of touting NYCTF's glory, were about the specific problems endemic to New York City public schools, and about the difficulties being faced by both students and teachers in high-needs urban areas. When I got to my one-on-one interview, instead of evaluating me on the strength of my idealism, the recruiter asked me one question: "If it got really bad, would you quit?"

I was slightly taken aback but said, no, I wouldn't quit. I was accepted to the program a week later.

Once I entered my summer of training, in parallel to various college friends who had apparently given the correct answers in the fishbowl discussion and been accepted to TFA, I realized several more crucial differences between the two programs. An obvious one was that I was nearly the youngest participant in mine. I think there were maybe five recent college graduates out of the 30 or so people in our "class," all aspiring Secondary English Education teachers who had been placed at the same college in upper Manhattan to do our Fellows Training, as well as the M.A. in Education that was mandated for permanent certification in NYC. We had people old enough to be my parents in my group, unlike TFA, which only recruited recent college grads. The range of ages of my cohort participants reinforced for me that I wasn't in some post-college summer camp; most of these people had already been in the workforce for as many as forty years, and were now undergoing a career change.

Moreover, our training was very specific to the areas in which we'd be teaching. During my summer internship (a useful process, though woefully short), I taught summer school in the exact high school where I'd be teaching that fall, under the tutelage of a teacher from that school. I worked with teachers who would be teaching in the same system that I was, encountering the same challenges, and we prepared as best we could for the issues specific to our region, age group, and discipline: High school English in New York City. This contrasted with the experiences of TFA participants I knew, who were trained in rural Arizona to teach school in New Orleans, or who were teaching a small number of elementary school students in the summertime only to find they were placed in a high school come fall.

Another difference I noted between the two programs was that TFA seemed to expect that you would leave after two years (albeit with more knowledge of inner-city education issues), whereas NYCTF had the idea that you might become a career teacher. The statistics seem to support this: Some 50% of TFA participants leave after the two-year commitment ends, and 80% after three years, while in NYCTF, over half the participants go on to teach at least five years. And, in my experience, this has also borne true: While not a single person I know who did TFA has stayed longer than three years in the classroom, the majority of my 2003 NYCTF cohorts are either still classroom teachers (like yours truly) in the NYCDOE, or still work in the system as guidance counselors, assistant principals, principals, or master teacher/instructional coaches of some sort. If you believe--as I do--that teachers improve with experience, than NYCTF has undeniably been a more successful program than TFA.

An excellent article went up today in The Atlantic, in which a former TFA participant explains with honesty and clarity why she left the program after a year. I thought the article brought up a lot of important issues with TFA, some of which are germane to all emergency certification programs (NYCTF included)--specifically, the expectation that these new teachers who have had five weeks of training will somehow be equipped to succeed where seasoned veterans cannot, which understandably offends the veterans, and creates animosity between them and the new teachers who are in fact very much in need of their help. Of course, five weeks is nowhere near enough preparation for anyone who is to be dropped into a classroom full of high-needs students. TFA compounds this problem, I believe, by taking fewer pains to prepare its participants for the specific challenges they'll face, pumping them full of idealism and rhetoric instead, thus creating a situation in which its teachers will inevitably flee within a couple of years. And that's OK with TFA--two years is the stated goal. But the damage of constant teacher turnover is not insignificant, and I'll discuss that in a future post.

My own program, NYCTF--while at times unsupportive to my needs, confusing with its requirements, and (as I suspect is true of all emergency certification programs) providing only superficial preparation for the real task of teaching inner-city kids--at the very least instilled the value of teaching as a career, instead of as a stop-over before graduate school. I spent my first two years, and perhaps even two years after that, making mistakes, feeling confused, and generally feeling my way through teaching like a person stuck in a dark room (albeit with the companionship of several fellow NYCTF members, who were similarly clueless). But I kept my promise to the recruiter ten years ago: I didn't quit. And to whatever extent (possibly, a lot) that NYCTF is responsible for my tenacity in the profession, I don't think I'd be writing this column if I had done TFA instead.

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