Reviewed by Eileen Doherty
Book Review: Learning on Other People's Kids by Barbara Torre Veltri
I just finished reading a book about Teach for America called Learning on Other People's Kids: Becoming a Teach for America Teacher by Barbara Torre Veltri. After countless numbers of conversations about whether or not TFA is good for schools and students, I decided that I better arm myself with some factual information since I don't want to unnecessarily discredit the organization. Here are a few of my thoughts from reading this book.
One only needs a little bit of common sense to realize that placing a TFA teacher, who only has about 5 weeks of training, into an urban classroom could be a recipe for disaster. Most TFA teachers have very little to no experience working with children or being in an urban environment. The original intention of TFA was to help urban or rural districts that had a difficult time finding and placing teachers in some of the most challenging schools by taking recent college graduates, putting them through teacher training during the summer, and placing them into these classrooms for at least 2 years. I can agree that using TFA teachers is better than putting uncertified, long-term substitutes into classrooms, but TFA has transformed into what I believe is a money-making business that ultimately preys on our neediest students.
"...many core members noted that they were "teaching out-of-field" (e.g., an English major teaching eighth-grade math). More serious questions surfaced with respect to the nearly 20% of TFA novices who were assigned to teach special education with no prior training or clinical exposure to special education classrooms."The fact that TFA teachers were being placed in special education classrooms was a shock to me. Isn't this illegal? I figure that the only way schools would get away with this "crime" is if parents of special education students were not aware of their rights or that the teacher did not hold a special education license. This is just unconscionable.
Much of the book looks at how TFA teachers learn to be teachers. Unlike traditionally trained teachers who can refer to their combined practicum and student teaching experiences when they need to figure out what and how to teach, TFA novices can only rely on their limited group teaching experience from Summer Institute and their own experiences as students. When a TFA teacher enters the classroom, they have had no experience with running a classroom by themselves. The number of mistakes and mismanagement errors will be high and the students will be the ones waiting for their "teacher" to get things figured out. They are learning on other people's children.
Personally, I don't think poorly of the individual TFA teachers. The organization put them in an unfair situation in which they do not fully understand the true difficulty of the job or how they are ultimately giving children less than what they deserve. They also have to live up to some insanely demanding expectations. Corp members are expected to take on additional leadership responsibilities in schools like sponsoring clubs and writing grants. They also are required to attend corp meetings and attend university classes. Then there is the pressure to create results and make TFA look good. They have a certain type of allegiance to the organization that has to be maintained.
"It troubles me that, regardless of my good intentions, I am contributing to the cycle of inconsistency present in my school....But, as I try to accomplish these goals, however, I am learning to be a teacher. Herein lies the struggle. My students need experienced teachers who know what works and can implement it effectively. Instead, they have me, and though I am learning quickly, I am still learning on them, experimenting on them, working on their time.""I went through 4 years at Harvard and nothing was as hard as this."The most troubling part of Teach for America is that there have been many corp members who have tried to speak up about problems and suggest ways to strengthen the educational foundations and provide better support to their members, but very little has changed. "Teach for America, Inc. spends three times as much on marketing and expansion, as it does on training." Any organization that does not address educational issues cannot claim to be putting students or schools first.
Some corp members have described TFA as acting like a cult. If you are not all for it, then you are made to feel that you are a bad person. There is a strange parallel between this organization mentality and the large charter school chains like Imagine Schools. I'll save that comparison for another blog post.
Overall, this book is worth reading to really understand how TFA harms schools and children. Veltri does a nice job of weaving research and anecdotes throughout the book. I also found it quite fascinating to look at TFA's tax forms and the example of their contract with a particular school district. My only criticism is that it gets a little repetitive with some of the ideas.