About a month ago, a former TFA corps member named Olivia Blanchard published this superb recounting of her time in the corps in The Atlantic. Absolutely everything in the article resonated with me, and much of what she says I wish I had written myself in my first Teach for Us post . And as is the case with many things that hit the nail so perfectly on the head, her article produced a backlash.
One thing that Blanchard captured and that I have not before seen so well articulated, is the rather self-righteous attitude that pervades institute. Although I have commented in past post on the amount of time wasted in institute on unhelpful things, like organizing binders and creating five-step lesson plans without ever learning how to use district mandated curriculums, I never talked about the unsettling sessions where people went around in circles with some bursting into tears about tragic conditions faced by the children in our Watts summer school. I remember people as they lamented how people did not believe in the children in our school, the obvious implication being that we were the few and the proud who actually did. Although mildly confused by these sessions at the time, I now realize the essential purpose that they served to solidifying the TFA message. Despite anything that TFA says about working as a team with public school teachers, the message that we were asked to reinforce with each other was that we cared more about the students in our four week summer school than other people. We were capable of bringing ourselves to tears over the plight of these students who we had just met. What were other people doing?
Blanchard also nicely captures the culture of shame that surrounds quitting in TFA. When I was a corps member, I briefly threatened to quit in the month of March before deciding to finish out the year. For this, I received an email from one of the regional directors in Los Angeles admonishing me to think about how my actions affected others and to think about people besides myself. As a talked to my program director, a former corps member directly in charge of assisting and guiding me, she told me that I needed to make the choice to succeed, a choice that I had not yet made. But, as Blanchard points out, my obligation was not to Teach for America and never had been. It was to the Los Angeles Unified School District, with whom I had signed a one year contract. She quotes a fellow corps member who quit as saying: “Yes a commitment matters, but staying isn’t necessarily helpful to your kids or anybody.” For me, staying was certainly not helpful to my kids. At the end of June, the only classes available for the following school year were classes in B, C, or D track. In my year-round elementary schools, there were four tracks that followed different vacation schedules, and when one track was on vacation, the other three tracks were “on.” Whereas A track started in September, the other three tracks began their school years after an extended four day weekend. I knew that this was not enough time for me to plan and prepare an effective second school year after the hellish first year that I had endured, and in the interest of the next year’s students and my own sanity, I made the choice to leave. As a consequence, I opted to pay out of pocket for my continuing teacher education rather than endure one more year in TFA to receive their education grant that would have paid for the entirety of my teacher ed program.
Which leads me to the backlash. In response to Blanchard’s article, a fellow corps member and co-worker named Tre Tennyson wrote a response in which he specifically called out Blanchard for passing up the help that was offered to her. While I cannot comment on specifics of Blanchard and Tennyson’s performance at their schools that I was not present to witness, in Tennyson’s article I identified a number of common rhetorical tropes employed within TFA. “Despite urgings from me and others to accept the offers of help that came her way (and which we so eagerly jumped at)” he writes “, time after time, she declined. There was always a reason not to bother – the system, the kids, the parents, TFA.” Did Blanchard ever blame her students? She certainly did not ever do that in her article, although the tag line above the article, which I suspect may have been written by the Atlantic editors rather than her, refers to her fifth graders as “unruly.” I can clearly recall the implications when I was a corps member that when we admitted to forces out of our control impeding our success, we were blaming our students for our own failures. I never did that and I resented having it implied. During the last 12 weeks of school when I was a corps member, my assistant principal offered to send me to a classroom management course that happened to coincide with the night of my mandatory teacher prep courses. When I explained the schedule conflict, she wrote in my final evaluation that I had “chosen” not to attend, a statement which TFA never countered. In the end, I was the victim of the same claims that I had turned my nose up at help and blamed everyone but myself.
The fact that corps member is the same school can have different experiences comes as no shock to me, although I can see how it could convince many people that Blanchard was merely a complainer. After all, she went through the same training and worked at the same school as the more successful Tennyson. All the variables were the same, right? In fact, it’s possible that they weren’t. Like Blanchard, I worked with other corps members at my school, and all of them had more successful first years than I did. I don’t know what variables may have been different in Blanchard’s case, but I can comment on mine. While they had an administrator in charge of observing them who was fundamentally supportive, I had one who used every opportunity at her disposal to denigrate my efforts. The fact that she deceptively claimed I had chosen not to attend classroom management courses out of my own volition is ample evidence of that. Being told day after day that I was a disappointment and a failure weighed on me and made it harder to excel at my job. Teaching is hard work, and it is nearly impossible when your supervisor has already written you off.
I ultimately believe that despite the differing variables, that my three colleagues were more talented than I was, and it may well be the case that Tennyson possessed more of a natural talent for teaching than Blanchard did. This does not change the importance of the many indictments that she makes against the program in her article. Every corps member has a slightly different experience, but my experience firmly taught me that TFA inadequately trains its corps members and then shames them when events appear to spiral out of their control.
In one way though, Blanchard left the corps with a very different conclusion than my own. I internalized the shame of quitting, and made my career for the next five years a quest for redemption. Although I angrily protested when my TFA LA superior accused me of selfishness, I nevertheless internalized her accusation, and became obsessed with proving to myself and others that I was not, and that I could indeed be a good teacher. To a certain extent, I am still doing that today. Blanchard came out with a different and much more empowering lesson from her experience: “By finally showing I don’t believe that American education can be saved by youthful enthusiasm,” she writes, “I feel more like a leader than I ever did inside the corps.”
It’s a message that I wish that it hadn’t taken me six years to realize.