Blogger Owen Davis recently wrote a piece on Teach for America alumni resistance, and in his piece included the voice of a New Orleans public school student reacting to the influx of Teach for America teachers to her district. After pointing out that nearly half of New Orleans’ teachers were in their first three years of teaching in 2007 and that today about one in three New Orleans students are taught by a TFA corps member or alum, he quotes a student named Brianna as saying that the novice teachers did not focus on building relationships and focused instead “numbers, numbers, numbers.” Their relationships with the students were often adversarial, and students responded with disrespect and misbehavior of their own.
This section of Davis’s article resonated with me strongly. During my year with TFA in the 07-08 school year, I felt same problem festering in my classroom that he describes: I was inexperienced at building relationships, and although I tried to foster respect between myself and the students, I became adversarial with them as the classroom management situation became worse and worse. Part of that tension was related to the obsession with numbers and data that TFA inculcated within me as early as induction. My mission was to lead the students to significant gains in their test scores, and as I saw that becoming harder and harder to achieve, my stress and anger began to boil over into increasingly contentious behavior with the students. It is entirely unsurprising to me that this is a common situation for other corps members, but it is fascinating to hear it from a student’s perspective.
For the record, I do not believe that TFA corps members are trained to shun relationship building in favor of a cold focus on numbers. In fact I think that when it comes to relationships the opposite is true. At institute we actually had many discussions about building strong rapport with our students, and we were encouraged to get to know our students as individuals. What I do believe is that novice teachers, no matter where they are trained, are inexperienced at confronting the dynamics of interpersonal relations that present themselves in a classroom. This can often lead to adversarial relations with the students as a power struggle ensues- between the unconfident novice battling to assert authority, and the resisting students.
This problem affects most new teachers, so it is not a problem unique to TFA. However, here is Teach for America’s unique problem: in a school district with a lot of experienced teachers they can absorb the newbies without too many students being affected by their lack of experience. In a district like New Orleans where around 50% of the teachers are in their first three years of teaching they cannot. Inexperience and the problems common to inexperience become pervasive. Couple that with Teach for America’s focus on data, and you suddenly have tons of teachers struggling for control and becoming increasingly frustrated and adversarial if the data gains don’t materialize. In our discussions about whether TFA is helping or hurting school districts, we often forget to listen to the voices of students. Brianna’s description of what it looks like from her perspective to have waves and waves of novice, data-focused teachers who lack experience in relationship building should not be too surprising.
In previous posts I’ve said that I think TFA has a role to play in districts facing teacher shortages and in districts where they are few in number and can provide small scale support to efforts that are already underway. I think it is evident though that overwhelming a city with inexperienced teachers who have weak ties to the community and who leave after several years is not beneficial to a school district. School needs to be a place of stability for students, and this kind of extreme revolving door is the opposite of stable. Whatever test score gains New Orleans is showing , I question its ability to turn that data into long term success for its students in the absence of a school system staffed heavily by experienced teachers.