To what extent is classroom teaching a skill? How long does it take to learn those skills, and is there a best way to learn them?
These are important questions at any time, but I submit they are of particular importance today, with Teach for America (and other alternative routes into the classroom) growing in popularity.
No doubt about Teach for America’s ascendancy. During the presidential campaign both candidates spoke favorably about the program, and President Obama often speaks highly of it. Here’s one example: when he signed the Serve America Act last April he went out of his way to cite the growing popularity of TFA as evidence of young America’s commitment to public service, saying in part, “I’ve seen a rising generation of young people work and volunteer and turn out in record numbers…they have become a generation of activists possessed with that most American of ideas – that people who love their country can change it…they are why 35,000 young people applied for only 4,000 slots in Teach For America.” (That’s a 42 percent increase over the previous year.)
Many of those young people come straight out of our finest colleges and universities. Thirteen percent of Harvard’s class of 2009 applied, and TFA is more popular than top Ivies. ‘Only’ 69 percent of those accepted into Princeton choose to attend, but 77 percent of those selected for TFA choose to join.
And when I linked President Obama and TFA in a Google search, it produced nearly 9 million citations.
At his Senate confirmation hearing in January 2009, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, had high praise for Teach for America and Kopp herself.
Teach for America has become a household word in its short history. I suspect everyone knows that Wendy Kopp developed the idea as her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989 and then founded the program in 1990. As it prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, TFA has put more than 14,000 teachers into hard-to-staff classrooms, usually for two-year stints. Less than a quarter remain in the classroom beyond two years, but over 60 percent of TFA ‘graduates’ stay connected to public education. Prominent alumni include KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin and Washington, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
In a funny way, I was ‘in’ Teach for America long before Wendy Kopp came up with the idea. I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was scheduled to teach English in East Africa, but then I failed the physical just a few months before my Dartmouth graduation in 1964. Even though I had taken only one education course at Dartmouth, I was determined to teach. And so, two months after my spinal fusion and still in a brace, I began teaching at a high school just outside New York City.
I worked long hours, spent most weekends grading papers, made a lot of mistakes, tried to bring imagination and creativity into my lessons. There were four other rookies on the staff that year. We supported each other, and, to be truthful, we shared a certain smug attitude toward many of the veteran teachers, who, we felt, were just putting in the hours and didn’t care as much about the kids as we did.
By the end of my second year, I hit my stride and was doing a pretty good job. That’s when I left to go to graduate school.
As a reporter I have been in a fair number of classrooms with TFA corps members. They are almost always fun to be around, because they are bright, energetic and outgoing. Their idealism and goodness virtually ooze out of every pore. What’s not to like?
Well, to be honest, sometimes their teaching is not to like. After all, they are first-year teachers who have had just five weeks of summer training and a 1-week orientation in their assigned city. They make all sorts of rookie mistakes. Occasionally I recognized in them that smug attitude I once exhibited toward veterans.
This week we are releasing the first two of a series of video profiles of Teach for America teachers at work, scenes from their classrooms in high schools in New Orleans.
I think you will end up liking all of these young men and women. We certainly did. And you would be thrilled to have some of them teaching your children. But probably not all of them.