Miss Bennett in the Bay

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 04 2009


One of the biggest criticisms of Teach for America corps members is that they “aren’t dedicated enough.” They cut-and-run after only two years of service, leaving their school worse off than before. They couldn’t possibly make a lasting impact in that amount of time, so why would we want to have them around?

I am sure I am going to catch some flak for this as I prepare to leave my placement school to… what? Oh, that’s right, continue teaching.

I have been given an opportunity to work at a supportive school which will help me rapidly develop as an educator and possibly put me on a track to school leadership. I’m ready for the challenge of working in a school that actually has high expectations for both teachers and students, and actually helps teachers and students meet those expectations. I’m ready to feel valued as a professional. I’m ready to make an impact in educational reform.

And so, I have to ask, why wouldn’t I want these things? I graduated from college with highest honors. I was the president of my honors fraternity. And as an educator, I have made significant academic gains with my students.

So, why on Earth would I ever want to stay in a place that simply wants me to uphold the status quo? As I’ve been talking with friends and family about my decision, one person said to me, “They hired you to teach, not to lead.” This sentence has stuck with me as the main reason in making this decision. It’s not in my blood to simply do my own job, let everybody else do theirs, and watch nothing change. I’m a leader, and I can’t give that part of myself up. To keep my sanity, I need to be in a place that will nurture that part of me. Right now, that’s not where I am. Not that I haven’t tried to take leadership roles at my placement school; it’s just that every time a task gets “delegated” to me by my principal, she ends up just doing it herself anyway, without any communication.

Furthermore, I’m not willing to spend the next 10 years of my life killing myself fighting mediocrity. Every day, I know I make an impact in my own classroom, but beyond that door, I see nothing change. The district is too big, overwhelmed, and powerful to respond to one teacher. As I see it now, it would literally take an entire cohort of teachers who agree on what the changes should be working in tandem for years and years to flood the district office with a new staff. The sheer enormity of that task makes it nearly impossible. Not to mention that the people in power over there wouldn’t give up without a fight.

On the other hand, the charter school where I will be working is already quite successful, after only 2 years, teaching the exact same population that I currently teach. The difference is not the students nor the families at this school (which is a silly argument I hear a lot.) The difference is in philosophy of education, and that is what effects educational reform.

So I guess the question of dedication depends on your point of view. If you’re my principal, or somebody working at the district office, you probably will think I’m not a dedicated teacher because I’m not willing to accept that education has to be this way. But I think if you step back and really look at the bigger picture, you might see the situation differently.

2 Responses

  1. Eleonor

    I find this blog post inspiring. Many of us feel that our leadership qualities, and a desire to influence change, was part of the reason we wanted to teach in the first place. There is no shame in acknowledging this.

  2. JesseAlred

    I am seeking a dialogue with current and past Teach for America teachers. I have taught for 14 years in inner-city Houston. When I started teaching, I saw myself as a reformer, as some of Teach for America teachers do. I had some pretty serious success with AP students, and some serious frustration with our regular students. So my experience, to be honest, has been mixed. I want a dialogue about the political behaviors of the Teach For America elite.

    In our city, a former TFA official, now a school board member, has led the charge for beginning to fire teachers based on student test scores. She also opposed allowing teachers to select a single major union representative. After a little research I found this appeared to be a pattern with TFA”s leaders. There seems to be a close relationship between conservatives and the TFA elite.

    This goes back to its origins, when Union Carbide sponsored Wendy Kopp’s original efforts to create Teach For America. A few years before, Union Carbide’s negligence had caused the worst industrial accident in history, in Bhopal, India. The number of casualties was as large as 100,000, and Union Carbide did everything it could to avoid and minimize responsibility after the event.

    A few years later, when TFA faced severe financial difficulties, Ms. Kopp wrote in her book she nearly went to work for the Edison Project, and was all but saved by their financial assistance. The Edison Project, founded by a Tennessee entrepreneur, was an effort to replace public schools with corporate schools. Two brilliant TFA alumni, the founders of KIPP Academy, then joined the Bush’s at the Republican National Convention in 2000. This was vital to Bush, since as Governor he did not really have any genuine education achievements, and he was trying to prove he was a different kind of Republican. I then read the popular magazine articles about Michelle Rhee’s firing of teachers and closing of schools, and then her admission she had gone to far too fast.

    I think you do great work. Ironically, my former mentor works for Ms. Rhee. He saved me in my first year as a teacher in Houston. He was a terrific teacher. I respect and honor your work, as I do my own.

    But your leaders seem to attack the public sector and blame teachers for student failure in order to curry favor with rich conservatives. To be up front, I grew up in a low-income housing project in Mississippi and eventually became a good student, and I am a social democrat. I believe school reform must include better schools, but also health care, stable employment, long-term unemployment benefits, a revitalized union movement, a higher minimum wage, freedom for alternative lifestyles, and affirmative action. Stable families are more able to be ambitious for their kids than economically or emotionally unstable families. Better schools are part of this, but only one part of it. Your leaders seem to have gotten in bed with people who believe the market solves all issues—and that makes the money flow faster. Yet your hard work gives them credibility with the media.

    Ms. Kopp claims to be in the tradition of the civil rights movement, but Martin Luther King would take principled positions—against the Vietnam War and for the Poor Peoples March—even if they alienated powerful people. I would like a dialogue about what I have written here. My e-mail is JesseAlred@yahoo.com.

Post a comment

About this Blog

"All that is gold does not glitter, not all who wander are lost." -J. R. R. Tolkien

Bay Area
Elementary School
Elementary Education

Subscribe to this blog (feed)