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Opinion

Experience prepares teachers, not training

By Bonnie Wertheim '14

April 3, 2014

During the fall semester, I received a handful of emails from a Derek Lombardi, urging me to meet in Opus 1 to talk about Teach for America (TFA). TFA, a nonprofit organization that selects recent college graduates to teach at schools in low-income areas, seeks to recruit students who have demonstrated leadership on their campuses. Despite Mr. Lombardi’s inclusion of personal details, like my name and a nod to my involvement with The Spectator, the emails set off my form letter detectors. I knew I wasn’t unique in receiving his outreach notes.

Since entering college, I’d heard my fair share of criticism about TFA. Friends and news websites had criticized the program for placing ill-prepared graduates into public school classrooms that, in truth, need increased funding more than anything. Additionally, I’d heard people argue that by the time corps members learned how to navigate their classrooms, their two-year contracts were close to ending. And most decide to pursue other opportunities after their two years of teaching. A 2011 study by Education Week revealed that 56.4 percent of corps members opt to leave the schools where they were placed after their two years are complete.

For many, dissatisfaction with the program stems from the fact that it offers only the most basic training to new teachers. TFA provides its corps members with five weeks of preparation through what the organization calls its Summer Institute. Foxfire Buck ’12 explained that the five-week Institute is a “crash course,” providing people who have never created lesson plans or led entire class sessions how to command the attention of a room of young students.

“It’s impossible to be prepared for teaching after a five-week program,” Buck explained. “That being said, no one I know who went through a traditional teacher training program fared any better than I did. I think the bottom line is: teaching is something you can only learn by doing so authentically. You learn from real mistakes you make in a real classroom when there are real things at stake.”

Joe Harmon ’12 attested to Buck’s affirmation that no schools quite prepare recent college graduates to teach. Harmon, who is in his second year of teaching at Cheshire Academy, a co-educational boarding school in Connecticut, got his job through a connection he made working at Exeter’s summer school in 2012, after months of searching for opportunities on Carney, Sandoe & Associates.

“Until the first or second week of August, I had no plan for the fall,” he said. “I had just about come to terms with moving back home when this teacher did me one of the biggest favors I have ever received; she told me the school she worked for was looking for a last-minute English hire, and asked if I’d like to apply.”

Like Buck, Harmon felt less than fully prepared for his first day. “They hired me two weeks before classes started, so there wasn’t time to send me to a conference or anything.” Though Hamilton students teach all the time, delivering oral presentations in their own courses on the Hill, providing literacy tutoring to Utica-area students and refugees and even leading classrooms in nearby districts through education courses, they do so with close guidance. The Institute, similarly, has “huge safety nets,” Buck said, such as a seasoned teacher observing simulated classes and a co-facilitator working with each corps member at all times.

Because of this lack of preparation, Harmon had trouble adapting to his new role. Private schools, he explained, have no mandatory curricula, which presented him with the challenge of designing lessons from scratch. “Most public schools hand their teachers a mandatory curriculum ‘in a box’ and the teachers just dish it out, regardless of how they (and the students) feel about it,” he said. “The flip-side of the license I have at Cheshire is that I spend hours each week mapping out unit plans, lesson plans, activities, assessments, etc. Last year all the planning overwhelmed me. It was trial by fire, easily the most difficult nine months of my life. In comparison, my second year has flown by.”

The first-year struggle seems common to all teachers, even those who have master’s degrees. For this reason, as Buck suggested, reform may be necessary for teacher training programs at schools across the board. However, as is true of many professions, teaching requires knowledge and qualities that people can only gain through experience.

“Yes, there are degrees of readiness (Do you have your lesson plans internalized? Do you know your students’ names? Do you have a system for behavior management? Is your classroom decorated with anchor charts?), but the majority of these things are largely irrelevant when you step into the classroom that first day,” Buck said. “You kind of forget everything you learned, and you adapt. The fact is, every classroom is different because every student is different. The chemical makeup of the room is determined by the students sitting in those desks, and you will learn and grow with them throughout the year, not independent of them before the year starts. This is where the real learning happens in the first few years of teaching—alongside the students you teach every day.”

So, while placement programs like TFA might not spell out exactly how to be a teacher, without them, many schools would not have the kind of talent they need to motivate their students and bridge what TFA calls the “achievement gap” that students raised in poverty face. The benefits are two sided, as many students would not have the opportunity to pursue teaching opportunities immediately after graduation were it not for TFA and similar placement programs. Moreover, the program reinforces the value of teachers, which is culturally underestimated.

“I had always wanted to be a teacher but never pursued it seriously because I was told numerous times, ‘you could do so much more’ or ‘why settle for that when you could be a lawyer?’” Buck said. “I love teaching, I love my students. I don’t love New York, I don’t love charter schools, though I do credit much of my growth as a teacher to my placement. It’s shaped completely who I want to be as an educator.”

Though TFA is not without flaws, it is undeniably a learning experience for students and teachers alike.

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