What’s Next at Teach For America and one more thing I’d like to see


March 8, 2014 by juicefong

Teach For America’s co-CEOs, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, announced two important initiatives on Tuesday night that seek to strengthen the program. The first offers a full year of pre-service training to some junior applicants to the corps and the second seeks to extend classroom support to teachers in their third, fourth and fifth years. I will share why these are two good pieces of news, and press on one more issue that I’d like Teach For America’s regions to take on. But first, the disclosure:

I work for Teach For America, but I write this blog on my own, without permission or approval from the organization. I was also part of the team who worked on Tuesday’s “What’s Next” event for the past six weeks. Transcripts of the two speeches and video are available—I encourage you to take a look if you haven’t already. 

Though half of applicants to TFA this year are either working professionals or graduate students (more stats here), undergraduates are still the major source of prospects, with recruitment efforts reaching 850 college campuses. For a couple years now, Teach For America has piloted a junior admissions program. The new pilot offers those admitted as juniors an opportunity to gain an additional year of pre-service training.

Does this mean that the triple threat of highly selective admissions, intense summer training and ongoing professional development is inadequate? No. Teacher training and professional development are part of a constant, ongoing process. This pilot identifies an opportunity to augment the existing program in a way that is not possible for senior or professional applicants. How will it work with students presumably spread across America? What kind of training will be offered? Will they get into classrooms during that year? Will it be available to every junior admit? All of these details matter and need to be worked out, but the organization is innovating and looking to constantly improve—this pilot program is another example.

For a long time, people have been telling Teach For America that its teachers don’t stay long enough. It is validating—though not surprising—to hear that schools want our teachers to stay, and many teachers do. The problem of teacher attrition, however, is not unique to Teach For America. The entire education system is dealing with this issue, particularly schools with the highest needs. That said, I maintain my stance that I would also like more of our teachers to stay longer because I know what a great asset they can be to their schools.

Tuesday’s announcement of extending classroom support into the third, fourth and fifth years is a step in the right direction. Teach For America is sending a clear message to its teachers: We need you in the classroom. As Kramer said, “Teaching beyond two years cannot be a backup plan—it has to be the main plan.”

There are so many factors that contribute to a teacher staying or going, getting great support being just one of them, and Teach For America being just one provider of that support. So it’s hard to say what impact this pilot will have. But the important lesson here is that the organization wants to normalize the idea of corps members teaching for an extended length of time. Already, it has begun to do this with new initiatives like its annual Educators Conference, alumni teaching awards and local “Teach Beyond Two” campaigns.

With this pilot, Teach For America aims to remove the mental breakpoint of two years and instead say to its teachers, “Stay in the classroom. The organization is set up to continue to support you in the classroom for the next several years.” In speaking with so many second-year teachers, there is usually so much anxiety around the decision: Should I stay? Should I switch schools? Should I do something else? This new pilot is a calming voice that says, “Please stay, and we’re here to support you.”

So thank you, Matt and Elisa, for pushing us to be better. I know many of us look forward to hearing how these pilots evolve and what results we see from them.

Now I’d like to propose an area of improvement for all of our 48 regions: Let’s ensure we are setting up all of our teachers for permanent certification and licensure, and for those who want it, national board certification.

I am a permanently certified teacher (for life) in the State of New York, some to Teach For America’s doing, but a lot of it my own. Alternative certification laws usually require teachers to be working towards full certification as they start working in a classroom full time. In my region, New York City, we took graduate coursework towards, at minimum, the fulfillment of the next level of certification (it was called “provisional” at the time, I believe). Some of us chose to take on a full master’s degree during our two-year commitment.

Anyway, I did my homework and made sure to jump through all the paperwork hoops to obtain a permanent teaching license before my provisional license expired. There may have been another test involved and I definitely remember sending in a VHS tape of my teaching (and buying a VHS camcorder off of eBay). Now I’m set up for life (at least in New York) and am thankful to always have classroom teaching as an option, without taking on further hoops which often times don’t feel connected to quality teaching.

In my experience as a corps member and now working for the organization, thinking long-term and helping teachers obtain permanent certification has usually taken a back burner to the more important cause of ensuring teacher quality in the moment. Yes, a lot of the process seems like administrivia or at least a great deal of effort that doesn’t always seem to connect to what happens after the first bell rings in the morning. But if we’re going to get serious about ensuring our teachers stay in the classroom, we have to help them take the necessary steps to ensure they are licensed to do so.

I was recently visiting with a friend who taught for three years through TFA and has also been coaching teachers. She’s looking to move out of state and get a teaching position, but I sat there and read the rejection letter on her couch from the state certification board that said she had not meet the requirements. I have no doubt she’d be a great asset to any classroom, so it’s sad that the paperwork and the coursework requirements are not in place for her to easily continue teaching.

We have 48 different regions that all operate differently under their own set of certification laws—I’m sure there are many regions taking care of this better than others. I call upon all of us, though, to not overlook the importance of helping our teachers gain the appropriate levels of certification they’ll need to continue making a difference for their kids.

You can find me on Twitter, @jgfong.

6 thoughts on “What’s Next at Teach For America and one more thing I’d like to see

  1. Joe Nathan says:

    Thanks. Are you posting this on Gary Rubinstein’s blog?

  2. Mike Turner says:

    I’m wondering if TFA is looking at any of the Pre-Teaching organizations out there as potential partners in the pilot vs. creating a separate program. Breakthrough Collaborative trains about 900 high school and college students each summer to serve as teachers in their summer and school year programs. Seems like it might be easier to partner vs. recreate the infrastructure.

  3. […] Justin “Juice” Fong – Head of Internal Communications at TeachForAmerica (TFA) – yesterday wrote a blog describing upcoming changes at TFA and making his own suggestion for the future. […]

  4. crystal b. says:

    I think teacher licensure is one of the most interesting, important, and under-discussed policy issues in education so I’m glad you’re calling it out. In MN, as Joe knows well, we have one of the most stringent licensure laws in the country and there are a lot of things that I think are good about that. TFA teachers earn a full Minnesota license after completing two years of coursework while teaching.

    If I could go back and do it over again, I would have gotten full licensure in NC while I was teaching. When I was there, it wasn’t required and was tough to do in a rural area so I honestly just did the minimum (2 classes) and my temporary license expired after a few years. If I want to teach again, which I think about all the time, I’ll have to go back to school for a really time intensive and expensive program given MN’s requirements. At least right now, it’s not feasible for me to do that for both reasons of time & money.

    But let’s get to the main question I had while reading this: you’re certified for life in NY…with no requirements for continuing education or anything? Do you think that is good policy? Serious question.

    • juicefong says:

      Thanks for sharing, Crystal. A direct answer to your question about New York state and my lifetime certification: No, I think this is a terrible policy. Fortunately, it has since been revoked and teachers must complete some type of continuing education or professional development every so often to maintain their license. On the other hand, I am grandfathered in. Of course, I did my research and saw that the window was closing as the certification requirements were shifting, so rushed to complete under the old rules. As you would imagine, I sought the path of least resistance.

      Another huge question about teacher certification is: Who should be paying for teacher training? Teachers themselves, the government, someone else, a combination? Another blog for another time…

      Thanks for the comment.

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