February 8th, 2010

The Real World of Teach for America
The Group Interview - "Last Thoughts"

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After a year in New Orleans, teaching at some of the country’s most challenging public schools, five Teach for America recruits share their thoughts and experiences in a revealing conversation with John Merrow.

This video is part of our series following the day in the life of a Teach for America recruit. Watch the entire series here and weigh in with your comments.

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Hey John and Learning Matters Crew — I was in the classroom for 25 years, and now I train teachers. I was a speaker for some TFA teachers here in the Washington, D.C. area a few years ago.
The thing I wanted to share after watching this particular clip is that very few teachers think their teacher preparation program fully equipped them to handle the realities of classroom teaching, whether it was a short, intense course such as TFA, second-career schools, or some professional development schools offer, or a 4 or 5-year program. The wisest and most effective practice is to be as comprehensive as we can during those preparation weeks/months/years, then provide three to five years direct mentoring of new teachers as they enter the field. It has to go beyond just the first year mentoring year, similar to the model used in training doctors in teaching hospitals. Every school system I’ve seen that has a beginning teacher program that, 1) continues beyond the first year, and 2) trains mentor teachers in up-to-date pedagogy as well as how to work with new teachers, which actually not a natural skill for most teachers — it takes overt training, does better with staff retention and quality instruction. I’m not sure of TFA’s procedures, but you asked these teachers what TFA could have done differently during the training to better prepare them, and while I think there are some places they can improve in that preparation period, I think it’s what TFA has in place for them in the first few years of teaching that really results in good teaching. I realize TFA teachers are not committing for a long career in teaching by going through this program, but gosh, it’s one of the best ways I’ve found to improve students’ achievement in these schools — teachers mentored over their first few years by teachers who know their stuff. Thanks, John, for providing this inside look, and wow, this group was well spoken and insightful. It bodes well for us when high caliber thinkers like this want to enter the teaching field. — Rick Wormeli

As a former school teacher - I taught in a Harlem public school in 1965-66 after graduating from Harvard and spending a full year in teacher training at a respected graduate school of education, I can say that I faced a similar challenge and exhaustion in my first and second years of teaching regardless of having had a full year of student teaching experience (mostly in private schools), and similarly my student valued my obvious caring and commitment and made great gains in reading and math. It is hard to be fully prepared for the responsibility that you face when the door closes and you are alone with 30 students who carry the weight of poverty on their shoulders. I think it’s great that TFA is recruiting highly committed young people to teaching in the toughest schools. They will never be the same, will contribute throughout their lives, and their students will benefit.

Learning to become a teacher is an ongoing process. As the previous post states, it is the continued mentoring and opportunities to participate in meaningful staff development and training which can really improve ones craft. With that said, I do think that having so-called “energy” and staying late makes a difference; if you are properly trained and have several years of experience you do not need to spend hours every day after school preparing lessons because you have learned to use your time wisely and effectively. I think that teacher retention is very important, and learning to teach while you are on the job is harmful to students particularly when those individuals typically leave after two years. As a former teacher of 5 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and now an Educational Policy student at Michigan State I can say there is merit in gaining a greater understanding for the complexities of teaching in a high-poverty, highly segregated, low-performing school; this is what lead me to pursue a career in Educational Policy. However, I did not enter the teaching profession intending to leave after two years, nor did I spend the first two years learning how to teach. As a parent, I would never consider placing my child in a class with an untrained teacher, who is learning to teach at my child’s expense. Fortunately, I have the luxury to choose where my child goes to school, while others do not. This is a question I often ask affluent parents, would you send your child to a school with teachers with little to no experience? The answer is always “no”. But it’s okay for less affluent parents and children?




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