Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Teach For America Alumni - Return to Teaching! (Or Just Stay)

Something that I wonder about is why so many teachers - good teachers - leave the classroom so soon into their teaching career.  I see great classroom teachers who feel the only next step is to move on to something else, and I wrote briefly about how Teach For America recruits its outgoing corps members extensively and what some studies have indicated about teacher attrition.  Many of the successful teachers in programs like Teach For America or various teaching fellows programs actually join the staff of those programs after teaching for two years.  I was fortunate enough to have interviews with a number of well-known charter schools in New York after I decided I wanted to return home and teach.  All of the recruitment team members I met were Teach For America alumni who taught for two years, were successful, and obviously feel enough passion for education that they continue working for schools.  But they left the classroom for non-teaching positions.  Why?

Part of the reason must be that that teaching is hard.  I haven't worked as in recruitment, but without weekend grading, early evening phone calls to parents, lessons plans, observations, and everything else that comes with teaching, I suspect it's less hectic that working in a classroom.  There aren't chronic misbehavior problems to deal with, and I don't think it's a job where you get cursed out with any regularity.

Teach For America also doesn't set up alumni to stay in teaching as well as they could.  Understandably, their focus is on placing their incoming corps members.  But Teach For America teachers are at their most effective just as the majority of them are looking to leave teaching, and the national movement of Teach For America would be positively impacted by having more experienced TFA teachers in the classroom.  Students would be hugely better off.  Maybe keeping 10% more rising third year teachers in the classroom would mean Teach For America has to reduce the size of the incoming corps by 8-9%, but such a move would put better teachers in front of students, increase the impact corps members have on children, and better prepare teachers for an eventual transition into non-teaching positions in education.  Surely the teaching force in cities with corps members would be strengthened by such a move.

When I first met my program director, we talked about what our relationship would look like.  They explained to me that they chose to work as a PD because they felt that doing so would allow them to have a greater impact because they would be affecting many more children.  I feel like that overstates the impact PDs have on students, and sounds more like a post-hoc justification than a driving factor for leaving teaching.  We need great teachers in the classroom and in schools (some schools brilliantly have members of their administration teach a class) where they directly touch the lives of students.

Finally, it seems a little disingenuous to hear a recruiter discuss how much they love teaching, their students, and the work their school is doing when they so recently left that role.  I'm in no position to make somebody else's life plans, but I found it a bit off-putting to be told how great teaching at a particular school was was by someone who just jumped ship.  I almost feel like having a group of people say "You know, I left the classroom because it was so difficult/tiring/frustrating..." would open up a useful conversation about what it takes to make turning into a lengthy and fruitful career.  Part of that useful conversation could very well be a study of how effectiveness would be impacted by having greater support for corps members from mentors, staff, and veteran teachers or through changing the institute framework to better prepare teachers for their placements.  And keeping great people in the classroom with our students would make it all a worthwhile endeavor.  (I don't mean to suggest everyone who leaves the classroom thinks those things or feels that way.  I'm speaking for a decently-sized sample of people, the exact size of which I can't determine.  Majority?  Plurality?  Minority? Not sure - but perhaps others can weigh in.)

I can't be alone in thinking along those lines, am I?  I'm interested in hearing from teachers, especially Teach For America alumni and staff and veteran teachers, who have seen this sort of thing firsthand.  And, of course, sometimes we need an outsider to tell us what we're missing.

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