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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 29 2011

Would Like the Truth From Past TFAers

There is something that has been on my mind for a solid month that I have almost felt too nervous or prideful to ask because of the answers that may be given. But I’m at the point where I need to know because it’s driving me to the point of insanity.

Over and over you read about how TFA has not successfully prepared its Corps members to go into the situations they are in. Okay great, we are past that. But I want to know the truth about first year Corps members.

In the midst of trying to figure out how to be a teacher, let alone in the environments we are put in, is it normal for your kids to not do well your first year? We just finished first quarter, and to be honest the majority of my kids are not doing well and it is affecting me emotionally, mentally, and physically, Emotionally because all I want is for them to do better, mentally because it’s ALL I think about, and physically because I am working my BUTT off and it seems no results are producing.

But I’ve been scared to ask. And I’m sure TFA is glad I feel like this and why they hired me because it is pushing me to be better. But I want the truth. Because all we watch are the same videos over and over of the amazing first year transformational teachers. So we’re convinced that if we are not doing that our first year, that we should not feel good about ourselves because we were hired to be transformational teachers.

Okay honestly, right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to be a TEACHER.

I want to know the truth from people who have been in the Corps, what they have experienced, and what it is really like for the majority of first year Corps members. And if the answer to my question is “no, students are usually doing well by this time,” then please tell me. Because I need to know what I’m going through isn’t normal, then I guess I need to keep making my body at the point to where it feels like this. But if there is some hidden truth where it is actually somewhat the norm for the kids to not be doing that well by this time, please tell me.

The pressure from TFA and our district has made my mind feel brainwashed and it has gotten me to the point where I am unhealthy because of how much I am working. Let alone how it is on my mind every.second.of.the.day.


10 Responses

  1. Kayla,

    What you are experiencing is absolutely and unfortunately normal. While I was never a CM, I have spoken with many former TFAers. I wish more people in TFA, especially current CMS and TFA alums, had to courage to ask this question.

    You were not prepared for the immense job that is teaching. It is not you personally. CMs need to put pressure on the organization to stop the “brainwashing” as you so aptly put it. You are struggling because TFA did not give you the tools you needed to succeed.

    Deep down, I believe most CMs realize quickly that they are not accomplishing what the organization says: creating educational equality. In fact, I think you understand the disservice that under-prepared inexperienced teachers actually provides the children under their care.

    Start speaking out against the organization. Stop suffering in isolation, kicking yourself for your “failures”. It is the unspoken experience of many if not most 1st yr CMs. Pressure TFA to properly train its CMs. Let your voices be heard in opposition when TFA makes outrageous claims about the success of its corp members.

    There are more, many more people like you out there. Find each other and start CHANGING TFA to make it actually work for children.

    Also, consider, getting in touch with Gary Rubinstein, who is a former CM and vocal critic about what TFA has become.

    And thank you for your courage.


  2. Wess

    This is the center of my complaint about TFA and mental health. Everyone pretends that everyone t makes significant gains all the time, and it’s just NOT TRUE. My kids did only a little better my first year than they would have with a long-term sub. About 80% of them improved on their state tests, but the others did worse after a year with me than they did before. A whole bunch of corps members I talked to at the end of last year seemed to have similar middle-of-the-road to low-end results. Some were rock stars, of course, but many were not.

    It was the hardest realization to make my first year–that I wasn’t way better than the teachers around me, even though I felt TFA told me I would be and, worse, expected me to be. I don’t feel like it’s anyone’s priority to make it clear to first year corps members that they’re probably going to suck for a really long time. They say it’s hard, yes, but they don’t tell you you’ll be awful at your job.

    I know it’s hard to come to terms with–but once you deal with it in whatever way you will, things will start looking more doable just because you realize you’re not the worst TFA teacher that ever existed.

    Thanks for articulating this! HUGELY important realization to make.

  3. parus

    Here’s my experience, and take it with a grain of salt:

    In terms of realistically assessing how you’re doing, it’d be a good idea to look at how other teachers in your building, preferably in your own department and/or grade level, are doing at this point. There are ideals, of course, and absolutely you should be working toward them, but if you want to get a sense of what’s reasonable right now right at this second, go observe in other rooms at your own school on your prep or lunch, since these people are working with the same constraints and the same group of students you are. And if they are doing better than you, then it’s a great chance to figure out what they’re doing differently. Don’t just compare yourself against TFA’s notions of what a classroom should look like – consider the actual situation on the ground.

    Also remember that’s it’s early in the year, and it’s the end of godforsaken October. What your situation looks like now is not necessarily indicative of long-term progress.

    I don’t want to add to your stress, but honestly, my students did do reasonably well my first year with TFA – they actually made greater average advancement than my school site as a whole. I can’t really take credit for that, since certainly most of it was that I was fortunate to have kids who really bought in to schooling. But I do think a lot of the success came from me realizing at some point that I needed to do what just WORKED with my students in my classroom, rather than sticking to TFA’s dos and don’ts or – if we’re being totally honest – following my school’s administrative directives.

  4. BallerinaMathematician

    I’m a second year, and in no way did my students make the Big Goal at the end of my first year. They were definitely doing miserable at this time last year, and honestly it didn’t really get better. There were a handful of success stories, and I held on to those and used them to make me feel better. The only teacher I know who WAS successful graded her tests very leniently, so I’m not sure how to trust the data. Just think about that–we create our own goal, create the assessment for it (for a lot of us anyway) and grade it ourselves. How many CMs who are “successful” truly are? Do not stress out too much about this. Focus more on your own mental health!

  5. Yep. You’re normal. Do not fear. Have solidarity in knowing you’re not the only one that fails, but find motivation and desire to be one of the ones that DOES find those significant gains. Ask your M,TLD for statistics of your fellow first-year group, and you will notice a trend. TFA pushes you, but is not surprised when you are not remarkable in your first year. Keep on keeping on, and remember that your mere existence in the classroom is having a massive influence on these students.

    • Caroline, I appreciate that you are trying to help Kayla. But don’t you ever question the notion that no one is surprised when “you are not remarkable in your first year”? Doesn’t it bother you to know that by having TFA in a school you are condemning children to an unremarkable 1st year teacher nearly every year?? How is the existence of underprepared teachers in a classroom a “massive influence”?

      I’m not trying to be mean or petty, but I’m trying to understand why, if all CMs are experiencing the same thing, no one every speaks up. Surely you see that all these failures, which are so taboo to talk about in the organization, add up to a massive inequality to the children you serve.

      I believe it is this nagging thought, the realization that you are not and cannot be the “solution” for these kids, that causes such anguish.

      • Katie! Yes and no. Yes, it’s awful to “codemn” children to an unremarkable first year teacher… but a popular argument is what would they be getting otherwise? In my district, it is not uncommon to hear a teacher screaming at a student from the hallway. It is not uncommon for children to be paddled. It is not uncommon for students to be quietly sitting and literally doing nothing… in classrooms in which the teachers have been teaching anywhere from 5-35 years.

        Not to say that’s the norm, but to argue that while we may be “unremarkable” I do not believe we’re doing more harm than good. Not in the Delta, at least. If I believed that I would have quit.

        Also, we do speak up, at least in my region (and that’s another argument in itself– that the TFA experience changes HUGELY depending on geography, M,TLD, professional development, personal attitude, etc.). The reason why I know so many of us are unremarkable is because I talk to and share stories with everyone I meet in TFA. I know what they’re going through, in general.

        The nagging sucks. And is perpetual. But the BIGGER nagging is the fact that poverty is also perpetual, that my view of the world and education was incredibly limited before this experience. The anguish, for me, stopped when I realized that the longer I do this the BETTER I will get; that my commitment to TFA has changed to a commitment to the betterment of education as a whole, instead of just one classroom for two years. I need this experience for perspective.

        and yes, I know how selfish that is. But I believe you have to have a degree of selfishness to be happy. I also believe that selfishness will ultimately benefit way more people than it hurts, and those are odds and risks you have to take in ANY job in ANY field. Very few people are good at ANYTHING fresh out of college, be it teaching, nursing, writing, programming, whatever career path you pick. TFA is just under a (much needed and useful) magnifying glass all the time. We are unremarkable because we are being held to incredibly standards.

        Also, we were put in these schools because THEY WERE ALREADY FAILING. We did not cause the failure, and we know we are not a solution. TFA tells us repeatedly we are not a solution. We are tiny bandaids to help a gaping infected hole. BUT WE ARE SOMETHING. We are not ignoring the hole, we are not waiting for amputation. We cannot take ALL responsibility or ALL blame (unless “we” refers to the general population of the united states), but we are doing SOMETHING, and I think that counts for something.

        Sorry, huge tangent. It took me a year to figure out this much of how I feel… and I’m not done. I don’t know entirely how I feel about TFA, or this post, but I do know I feel completely okay with my point in life and my decision to join TFA and teach. Even if it is only for two years.

  6. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been featured on the Teach For Us homepage.

  7. Ms. Math

    You are normal! Read the first year of math lover grows up if you have any doubt.
    Someone wrote a dissertation with three case studies of TFA teachers, all who struggled their first year.

  8. Ms. Math

    oh, and, my second year was better, and TFA helped me find my passion which is educational research. I am very happy now and never would have know. Give it your best shot(including sleeping, eating, exercising) and then accept whatever that is as okay.
    It’s okay if you don’t fix everything your first year-given the system it is not possible.

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