By Kelly Dwyer
For the past few years I was trying to get to the place I am now, working on our non-profit to promote better teaching in Peru, raising organic fruits and vegetables, and helping my partner build a sustainable restaurant and inn. I am finally on my way to being here full-time to work on all of these worthwhile and meaningful projects.
I blew off the eloquent resignation letter so many fine professionals were writing and publishing as of late (in defense of their professions and against the war on education) and went instead for the bonus my district was offering if we resigned early. The district reneged on a technicality (which was never mentioned in their list of requirements for eligibility) and I was appropriately shamed by one of the many “kindergartner,” HR officers and former Teach for America (TFA) recruits when I called to question the decision.
I have been back in Peru for over three months and many times have thought how I need to get back to the blog. Mac has done a great job, but, as the educator in the family, I really have more of the material. Today, spurred on by The Atlantic article, I Quit Teach for America by Olivia Blanchard, I break my silence and vow to continue to update this blog more often.
In 2008, after 9 years, my stint as an international educator in Huaraz, Peru dried up. We had already decided that we were going to do something that would give back to Peru and its public education system. Teach a Teacher plans were being made but not without the sacrifice of returning to work in the states for a few years to fund our projects here and attempt to finish my doctoral program. I was hired over the phone for my returning post in DC and had only remotely heard of the “great” transformations happening in my former school district. From a distance, it all sounded too good to be true.
My first thought on my new colleagues (mostly TFA recruits) was of their energy, enthusiasm and can-do spirit. Most of them were great people with good intentions. This was from the bottom all the way up, the same. My first sense of the unpreparedness of my NLNS (New Leaders for New Schools) trained administration was my mentioning to my new vice-principal many of the techniques and programs I had worked with over the years and how I might be able to help the inexperienced staff. Her answer was, “As long as it fits with balanced literacy that is fine.” Shortly thereafter I had heard the term balanced literacy from her so many times that I began to ascertain it was the only literacy buzz word she knew. The students of that school ran her as well as the principal and not at all the other way around. The place was a circus.
I was never allowed to help. To the contrary, was given a low rating on my first teaching observation, despite the fact that I had one of the chronic “hall-walkers” attention and a two middle-school students commented to me afterwards, how much they enjoyed the lesson and how they now understood the difference in writing a news article and other writing. I was asked to teach the journalism elective in addition to my duties as an English Language Teacher. I was also threatened by DC’s certification board as not being highly qualified for teaching that class; although I ran my own bilingual newspaper for 4 years in Peru, received my first BA in communications and grew up in journalism with my first job at the local newspaper). Please explain to me again about alternative certification!
The TFA’s on the subject of testing, data based instruction and teacher evaluations were great head-nodding believers and some of the second year TFA teachers were downright smug. This was during and right after the infamous Michelle Rhee had fired 266 teachers without due process from the teaching staff of DC public schools.
If I so much as mentioned the ruthlessness of the firings, I was told, “Well, something had to be done!” The TFA teachers were there to save the day, until they started struggling with their incredibly difficult-to-manage classes.
Another observation I had upon returning, after having taught in the pre-TFA, pre-Testing, pre-Rhee DC; was by the massive TFA hiring, the district had gone back to predominantly white teachers. I thought,
“Where were these minority students going to get the idea that they too could become professionals, when they were confirming on a daily basis that their familial adults didn’t work or worked a menial or several menial jobs and all their teachers were mostly Caucasians and Asians?” The first thought I had as a back-up plan was to go teach in a community college and make certain more African American and Hispanic young adults became teachers. But that isn’t how it works, oh yeah; they are actually being replaced with these young 5-week TFA prepped teachers!
This is more than likely unique to a few cities in the U.S. such as DC and Atlanta where the populations are predominantly black and therefore in the 70’s and 80’s began to have a population of minority teachers. Please tell me again how the motivation to learn and achieve comes from a naïve graduate of a top university (whose four years are quite possibly already paid for) who hasn’t the slightest understanding of the lives of their new students, to the point that they buy into the fact that all of the students in DC can and will go to university, just like themselves. Perhaps they should have a look at this Atlantic articlefor a little reality check.
I and most all the professional teachers I know are fans of good professional development opportunities. It is the kind of useful knowledge and techniques that were perhaps missed or have since been developed in the education world that one can learn from and take something back the following week to utilize in their classroom or educational setting. One of the reasons I was motivated to return to DC as an English Language Learning teacher was the amount that was being spent on education in the district during Rhee’s reign.
I looked at the calendar full of PD (professional development) dates and was thrilled to return to a District with such bountiful opportunities promised. Unfortunately in my first two years I can count three events as the number of meaningful professional development sessions attended:
• One weekend well spent was presented by my marvelous and gracious coach and mentor, Dara Feldman. Her dedication to the Virtues Project is testament of an understanding that we cannot truly educate until we once again instill humanity and respect in our students.
• The second PD that I found educational and useful was again on the subject of character and violence prevention, called Second Step. The presenter was dynamic and convincing on the value the program. And she also gave us an education on the points of working with each of the generational groups in our staff. But alas, we were never supported to continue the use of the materials we spent the money on. I didn’t know of one classroom teacher who was to carry out and continue with the Second Step curriculum.
• The third was one I sought out sponsored by the Bilingual Education Office, which in my tenure of the last four years, continued to offer the best opportunities for true professional development in the entire District of Columbia Public Schools.
The scheduled professional development days were long drawn out and extremely mind numbing sessions mandated and created by the central office which concentrated on how we would be evaluated when the master teacher or administrator came to observe us and not at all about providing us with more tools to meet those benchmarks. The first week of preparation were spent learning about this Teaching and Learning Framework when every teacher should have been prepping entirely for the year to come.
There were 9 points on the rubric and each session throughout the year centered on one of those and what that meant. They truly expected to observe all nine points during each of their 30 minute observations even if you were possibly conferencing, tutoring or actually allowing the students to take charge or project based learning style, which would throw negate and contradict most of their rubric!
The structure and demands of the Framework worked in contradiction of any sort of integrated style but instead took instruction back to the process of one skill at a time instruction, which often led to disjointed lack of engaging materials. As a second language teacher, I am a big believer in themes, project based learning and continuity which allows the language learner access to the material through interest, exposure and scaffolding the material.
My point being that if these TFA and other teachers were to become Super Teachers, turning the tides of the achievement gap, why wouldn’t DCPS not at least make its own quarterly lesson plans to teach the teachers highly engaging and why would you not give them something to take away from the session to use? Instead the heavy thumb of the mighty handed central office just wanted you to know on what points you would be judged, but offered no actual techniques and tools one could use to work towards highly effective in their mandated evaluation system.
The turn-over that TFA creates is a problem as well for achievement and motivation. Most TFA teachers are on a two-year contract and can’t wait to move on to bigger and better things once they have finished their short-term commitment. Did you, at school age, watch the teaching staff change so abruptly every year that you did not recognize over half the school staff every new school year? I doubt many of you can answer yes to that question. And yet, most of the students in the schools I taught in these last few years were well accustomed to the massive exodus each year. It reaffirms their expectations of the absence of caring adults. I applaud the few TFA teachers I have had the privilege of knowing, who have decided to actually hone their craft and continue teaching.
This last year in the last school I taught, a teacher announced she was leaving a month and a half into the school year. Her third graders sat in tears and bewilderment, while their thoughtless “professional,” packed up and left. It threw a wrench in the year for many classes and teachers that were affected by her departure and a position for which a replacement was not found.
Many years ago, when I taught my most effective years of teaching in DC, I requested Looping the years 4th and 5th with the same group of children. From those two years I could easily draw the conclusion that we not only need to get teachers to commit to a longer stay, but that the same teacher or group of teachers stay with the same group of students for at least 2 years. In the Waldorf system the same teacher, ideally, stays with a group of students for 8 years. I guarantee you would be able to legitimately evaluate teacher effectiveness.
One criticism of this is the fact that students would be failed by having an ineffective teacher for several years. But I believe that human nature would take hold and require most adults to step up their game or get out. And they wouldn’t need the draconian chant from the omniscient voice of a fraud like Michelle Rhee of, “Go hard or go home!”
Also, if it were a group of teachers, the team itself could evaluate each other and provide peer pressure to work harder or possibly smarter. As an alternative to making the absurd demand of raising test scores of a class that a teacher has inherited from a long string of possible sorted histories like the year of the third graders just mentioned; we could allow teachers to actually follow through with the same group and we could demand results with some authority (not entirely based on standardized tests)!
In his post, Why I did TFA and Why you Shouldn’t; and TFA’s Three Biggest Lies, Gary Rubenstein points out the major defects of the organization and how a once good organization with noble intent went bad. And Katie Osgood’s An Open Letter to New Teach For America Recruits is the most thorough and hard-hitting description of why the organization has lost its way. It seems we are catching on to what was reported by Great Schools for America in May of 2012, linking ALEC, Stand for Children and Teach For America. Perhaps they should change the name to to Teach for Corporate America (This is yet another example of not reading the subtext or fine print on Education Reform, who want’s it and why.) Salon.com offers some more recent trends in Minnesota and more underling information.
As for me, I am no longer teaching for (The U.S. of) America and its corporate agenda. It isn’t just TFA that is to blame and it certainly isn’t the well-meaning, albeit naïve and uninformed, recruits. I often rail against the test drivers who forever have been claiming that we didn’t do as well in math and science as many Asian countries. But until just a few years ago, there was no such test that was even similar!
Bottom line is that the corporate agenda is to no longer produce critical thinkers for which U.S. schools were better known. They want the uninformed drones that can fill their low-paying jobs. Why else would Walmart be one of the top supporters of TFA? On the upside, with the publishing of Diane Ravitch’s recent book, Reign of Error the voices against the current, reform are growing louder. There is still hope.
In the meantime, I am hoping many of you fine professionals whom have enjoyed a long list of professional development opportunities feel that you have something to share with teachers in Peru. Give us a holler! We welcome retired teachers with time on your hands, as well. We value experience! The knowledge you have is valuable.
Teach a Teacher and our Volunteers provide Professional Development and help teach basic teaching skills to Teachers in some of the poorest areas in Peru. Please visit us at www.teachateacher.org and www.teachateacher.wordpress.com and at teachateacher on Facebook.
Kelly Dwyer is Executive Director of Teach a Teacher nonprofit. She is a former teacher both in the U.S. and Internationally. A native of Great Falls, Montana.