My Interview with a TFA Corps Member

Update from late 2013:  Elsa recently finished her 2 year commitment and wrote more about her thoughts on TFA.

This is an interview I conducted with current TFA corps member Elsa Stanley.  For more on her experience, check out her blog at http://stiruptheworld.teachforus.org/.

Could you tell me a bit about your background and what led you to apply to TFA?

I heard about TFA through a friend.  I was finishing college and wanted to get into teaching right away (I want to be a career teacher), but I didn’t have the money to continue for the additional 2 years that my university’s teaching program required. TFA provided me a way to get into teaching faster and with less expense to myself (or so I thought).

Can you tell me about the training you received?  How much real world practice did you get?  Did you feel ready to start teaching after the training?

The TFA training started with the Pre-Institute Work last March.  It was basically a book of articles to reflect on, with questions to answer in written form.  That was not very helpful or meaningful.  Summer Institute consisted of teaching summer school for 1 hour a day for 5 weeks (20-25 hours in the classroom, usually with at least one other adult in the room).  I taught a class of 10-15 8th graders.  We also had classes on classroom management, diversity competencies, etc.  This prepared me for about 5% of teaching.  It was helpful to get a feel for the classroom, but my summer school class was nothing like my class in the fall.  I taught summer school in MS; I am placed in AR, and my school has a completely different set of problems than those of MS schools. I did not feel prepared to teach after the training.

How does the placement process work?  Did you get much say in where you were placed (in terms of location, grade, subject, special ed or not)?

During the application process, TFA asked about my placement preferences, and I tried to be as flexible as possible so I would get in.  TFA informed me that I was accepted and basically made me an offer:  teach secondary math in the MS Delta.  I wanted to do TFA so badly that I accepted, even though math is not in my background.

Did you get any preparation for your specific placement?

All of the summer training was geared towards the MS Delta, and the town I am in in southern AR is not in the Delta, so I was not prepared for my location.  I did teach math in summer school, and did attend Math Pilot Orientation (for TFA math teachers), but I did not feel that those effectively prepared me.

Could you tell me about your first year teaching?  Looking back, did the TFA training adequately prepare you?

My first year really hasn’t been as bad as I expected.  TFA training did not prepare me well, but I read several teaching books in preparation for my first year, and those were much more help to me than any training TFA had.  For the first semester, we had a weekly support group which was somewhat helpful.  My MTLD (a TFA program director) was also incredibly helpful.  I credit my success as a first-year teacher to my own personal preparation rather than TFA’s training.

In what ways was the support TFA provided helpful during your training?  In what ways was it not helpful and how could it be improved?

The training itself needs to be changed.  The Institute staff was amazing and very helpful, but we NEED more time in the classroom before our first years.  The Institute schedule itself is very inefficient; the school I taught at was over an hour away from where we were staying, so I spent 2 1/2 hours on a bus each day, which was not an effective use of my time. You’re welcome to look back over my blogs from last summer, which critiqued Institute in detail.

I’ve heard some stories that TFA recruits are a burden on other teachers due to their lack of training.   Do you feel like this was the case?

This is not true for my district or for any of the districts in southern AR that I’ve heard of.  Our districts are very impressed with us.  My school district is clamoring to get more TFA teachers next year.  They are impressed with how hard we work and how willing we are to help, among other things.  I can’t speak for other regions, but I know this is true in the MS Delta region.

Did the TFA training encourage you to learn from the experienced teachers you might work with?  Or does TFA have a system or approach you’re encouraged or required to use?  More specifically, do you feel TFA training is too focused on improving test scores as opposed to other more comprehensive learning goals (critical thinking, creativity, and whole child development)?

The TFA training didn’t really encourage us to learn from the teachers we worked with, but they did train us to interact and work with people from a culture different than ours, and how to present ourselves as humble and teachable.  TFA doesn’t have a specific system or approach we’re supposed to use in our teaching, but they do provide plenty of ideas for us to use.  TFA is focused on test score, but it is also focused on more holistic education as well.  For example, in the TFA Math Pilot, we are encouraged to teach math conceptually instead of just “teaching to the test”.  However, we are faced with the pressure that most educators face: to raise test scores as a barometer for student achievement.

What changes would you recommend to TFA’s training and support?   Should six months or a year of student teaching be required?

TFA should definitely require more training; a summer is not enough.  I would support at least 6 months of student teaching — I think less people would quit TFA if we were better prepared for our assignments.

For a district with no real teacher shortages to speak of, like Seattle, what requirements might help ensure TFA recruits are successful?

TFA recruits should have much more differentiated training; special education, for example, should have an entirely different training program than, say, elementary school.

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If you’re a TFA recruit or alum and are interested in speaking out about your experience and/or against TFA, feel free to contact me at dgodon at juno dot com.

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