During my year teaching with TFA, I taught my group of about twenty-five students for the entire day. I taught them every subject. For the duration of their fifth grade year, my ability to teach those subjects determined how well my students would learn them. If I was an incompetent teacher, my incompetence would affect nearly every aspect of their time as fifth graders.
I often dreamed of teaching high school during that year, because at least that way I would have been relieved in the knowledge that no matter how many times I failed to teach good lessons and properly manage classroom discipline, they would have had five other chances during the day to have good learning experiences. In elementary school that was simply not the case. An elementary teacher needs to be competent in teaching all subjects and have a strong mastery of pedagogy in each subject, because they are responsible for everything. I certainly did not have that competency, and my students suffered for it. When I was teaching, I felt that I was perpetuating the achievement gap rather than solving it by having such a massive responsibility in my first year. I know that if I had stayed on for a second year I would have been a better teacher, but those students only got one shot at a fifth grade year, and it was urgent for them that that year be valuable. They could not afford to be anyone’s guinea pigs. In short, they could not afford the risk of having a teacher who had only taught for an hour a day during a one month institute.
Is it fair to criticize Teach for America for placing first year corps members in elementary schools? First year elementary teachers from traditional programs typically do not fare much better than TFA corps members (I’ll leave the data wars on this to other people), and I personally know some corps members who were solid elementary teachers during their first year. TFA doesn’t appear to be causing many problems that don’t already exist in traditional programs.
But TFA claims to exist to combat the inadequacies in our educational system, not to be no worse than what’s already in place. “One day, all children in this nation will have an opportunity to attain an excellent eduction” is a much more inspiring slogan than, “We’re no worse than the other guys.” Until TFA vastly improves their training model, they should not place new corps members in elementary schools. Unlike in secondary schools, in elementary there is no one to pick up the slack for the corps members who have unsuccessful first years. TFA’s stated mission of ensuring an excellent education for all students is better served at the moment by placing its corps members exclusively in secondary schools.