Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 22 2012

Until it’s training model is improved, TFA should avoid elementary school placements

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.


4 Responses

  1. wonderlandkc

    I agree in the sense that one needs more–much more–than 5 weeks/20 hours of real training before becoming an elementary teacher. Something that’s pretty worrisome to me (an incoming CM) is that elementary ed. placements get little-to-no actual pedagogical or methods training specifically for elementary teaching. This is insane. A huge part of being an elementary teacher–and what I think a lot of incoming CMs struggle with–is figuring out what’s developmentally appropriate instruction for the age level you’re teaching, and how to deliver content in a “kid-friendly” way. Many of these incoming elementary teachers are fresh out of college and are used to college-level instructional methods, and college-level “key points” (this is no fault of their own, mind you.) But these, obviously, don’t bode well with kindergarteners. Teaching elementary school involves special skills and strategies for making content super accessible to such young minds, while still actually TEACHING something.

  2. BallerinaMathematician

    This is an interesting post, because in most of the discussions I had with other second-year CMs this last year, the opposite sentiment was brought up. Most CMs I’ve spoken to think that TFA should ONLY place in elementary, possibly middle as well, because once you hit high school the gap is too wide to close. In elementary school, there’s still hope, but when you teach seniors who read at second-grade levels, you can’t possibly make up for all those years.

    I’m not sure how I feel about the subject (I teach 8th grade and still feel like there’s a chance to make a difference there) but I do think training overall could be improved. Perhaps if TFA shifted it’s focus to only ECE – 8, they could dedicate all their resources towards helping those teachers be solid in their content area in their first year.

  3. eminnm

    Well, except that “we’re no worse than the other guys” first year teachers can turn into “hey, we’re actually pretty good” second year teachers, and “my kids are narrowing the gap” third year teachers. Not everybody stays that long, but many do. And there are some who stay long-term and have an even bigger impact. As a first year elementary CM, “I’m at least better than what would be here without me” was often my mantra. If I can pull off “pretty good” next year and “really good” the year after, I think it’s worth it that I’m here. Even though I would have liked to be better this year.

    • Emmanuel Parello

      At my school I couldn’t be confident that I was better than what would have been there without me. There are definitely elementary schools that could benefit from a TFA corps member, and yours could be one of them. In general though, I think since TFA wants to be better than what is in place, they should steer clear of placing corps members in elementary school. The junior high and high school structure can better absorb mediocre first year teachers, and when those teachers go on to become pretty good and even great in their second year and beyond, the net gain is more clearly positive.

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