Tuesday, January 3, 2012


It's 8:30 AM in a middle school classroom on in the South Bronx, about 5 blocks from where I spent my teenage years. "R", a 2nd year TFA and I are in her classroom talking about her plans for the next period. We expect the kids to come up any second and get started. Suddenly, two kids push open the doors panting, trying to catch their breath. "R" and I, figuring they were just being normal unruly 13 year olds, ask why they were running. They tell us of the shooting half a block away where kids congregate before they enter the school. Then they sit and a couple of minutes later the class begins. After class "R" tells me how scared she was and how her heart was racing uncontrollably for the entire class while she is amazed at her kids calmness after the fact.
"R" is from upper middle class suburban South Florida.
“I don’t think of my students as kids. I have to remind myself everyday that they are only 12 and 13. They seem to me to be 15, 16, or maybe even 17. They keep telling me they are from the “ghetto,” the “South Side.” I am realizing more and more that they have seen more in their short lives than I have seen in twice as long and in a million more places." (M in Philly)

“One morning in the second month of school a fifth-grade girl is outside my classroom crying with family members: her big brother was shot by the police a few hours before. I was just out of “Institute” and I had no bag of tricks. How did I know what to do?” (J)

teachers (trainers) we care about "R", "M", and "J" and their kids. The TFAs I, Barbara Veltri (author of "Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher"), and other teacher trainers work with are our kids. Their students are like our grandkids. We care about them all.
Theirs are human stories that need telling. They are faced with poor working conditions that need fixing. They are being sent to "save" poor kids from bad situations but they, themselves, face school based realities that TFA never properly trains them to face. Often their schools are chaotic, old buildings led by bad supervisors and fearful teachers. They are misused, misplaced, and are under inappropriate pressures. They don't need saving. They need proper training and supervision.
They (in places like NYC) also live above their means and are dependent on TFA stipends. They commute long distances and have little time for life.
Most of them are nice upper middle class suburban white kids with no bicultural literacy. They don't speak street. TFA's diversity training is a series of talking heads. They are given TFA mantras instead of real solutions. They, and the world, are told they are the solution to the problems facing education. TFA propaganda is all people see. TFA is the Emperor with no clothes.
"And it’s summer school. So, here we were overdressed, getting on yellow school busses and going into these neighborhoods where the kids were barely dressed. How odd did we look? We had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t even connect to parents because we looked like.… They must have thought we were dumb. You know, what are you doing wearing nylons in the middle of the summer in Houston? They [TFA] put us in a bad position to begin with. We looked like little kids trying to play dress up. Really, we looked like we were out of our element." (Nan)

We need to say, "Uhhhh.. Your highness...excuse me, but!"
They are told fairy tales about their superiority. They are told to think like a "corps" member. They are sent into the trenches more like the gallant soldiers at Gallipoli than novice teachers. They are given empty slogans, not practical wisdom. They are forced into school committee work, TFA propaganda meetings, and graduate courses they have to take before they have their feet firmly planted in teaching. They have little time to properly plan, create, grade, and do all the social work teaching necessitates. Like those gallant Australians, they were recruited under false pretenses, are under heavy fire, overexposed, and overextended.
TFA mostly takes successful young college grads with no experience, and most often no desire to teach long term, who learned to succeed in their middle class suburban public or private schools. They followed the rules. They listened to authorities and practiced what their tutors gave them to do on their APs SATs. They are what we like to call our best and brightest. However, most lack the practical wisdom or street smarts to have a good chance of success where they are placed. They are taught by TFA to do exactly what they have done in their old environments. Follow. Stay in line. And specifically, to think like a corps member. Be formulaic. Do not be like those older teachers: wise, creative, independent, and spontaneous. They are taught to tell not ask. Their packaged lesson plans are "fool proof"...teacher proof.
Barbara and I propose a film to expose the public and policy makers to another inconvenient truth, this time behind TFA and it's inadequate version of teacher training.
The purpose of this film is not simply to shed light on the underside of TFA in real schools but to face real questions in education.
One of the biggest questions is teacher education and training. Teaching must be treated as a worthy profession as it is in Finland to develop an equitable education system.
This film is about how poorly we are doing in providing the kind of teaching professionals who are in teaching as a career, not a "community service project".
The purpose of this film is to show the dichotomies between TFA trained teaching and successful teaching. It is to show the error in the thought that teachers are made, not born: that any smart person can teach. Talented teachers can be better trained to be great. Untalented teachers can be trained to be mediocre or merely competent at best.
The purpose is to show how the concepts of Frederick Winslow Taylor's "Scientific Management" of the early 20th century are being used again in the 21st in a modern version of corporate control over labor. Now as then, rich and powerful leaders go to private schools and are taught by powerfully creative teachers, while the millions of poor toiling (future) workers are taught by step-by-step automatons who pass down and enforce the menial skills "needed" by the "unthinking" masses.
Its purpose is to see behind the banners and posters hung in schools. It is to see another dichotomy. Poor kids are being told they are being taught to be future leaders. The reality is that how they are being taught does no such thing.
Ultimately it is about how well we can educate all of our kids, regardless of their socioeconomic strata, if we stop following.

Please support us.


  1. This would be incredible and we need this! Non-educators do not understand why TFA isn't good for children. I will definitely support you from here in Indiana.

  2. Please include how POVERTY is public enemy #1. The hardest kids to teach are the kids you are talking about and if we don't address that NOTHING WILL WORK we as public school teachers never shy away from these children but in our heart of hearts we willingly step up to a broken plate and do our best for our students knowing they need much more.