Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teach For America placement

Teach For America rightfully earns mediocre marks for its ability to place first year corps members into schools in a timely manner.  Every year thousands of young people (and some not-so-young people) accept their Teach For America offers and wait eagerly for either a school assignment or interview opportunities.  And each year, a sizable percentage of corps members go to induction unplaced and are reassured that they will have jobs and will likely leave institute with a school assignment.  Many people fall into one of the following categories:  placed in a position during institute, placed in a position between the end of institute and the beginning of the school year, placed in a position after the start of the school year, and not placed in a position at all.  All four are problematic.

People who are placed during institute aren't in a particularly bad spot.  However, a placement before institute begins would allow for alignment between summer and fall placements.  And while good teaching is good teaching, and one can be successful without such alignment, it seems obvious that an elementary school teacher is best served with an elementary school institute experience.  It builds familiarity with content, with students, and allows teachers to try out strategies and receive immediate feedback from faculty advisors, CMAs, and others in a way that's just not possible during the year.

People placed after institute but before the school year suffer because they often have little time to plan - I know several teachers who were placed in schools within two or three days of classes beginning.  The challenges here are numerous: there's often little time for planning, you can't fully utilize your PD to get feedback (since you have so little time), and you have few opportunities to build a relationship with your school staff.  They may be unable to set up their classroom or find out the details of what they're teaching.  This stress and these challenges surely have a non-negligible effect on corps member satisfaction and effectiveness.  TFA tells corps members that Round 0 is an integral foundation for success during the academic year, and people placed in this timeframe by and large miss that boat.

One of the biggest challenges is being placed in a school after the year begins.  I was in this situation as a first year teacher.  I had to learn everything on the fly:  school procedures, teacher's names, what and to whom I'd be teaching.  I couldn't plan effectively for the first month because I struggled to identify my role in my school, and my PD had to deal with 35 beginning teachers and couldn't give me the attention I needed.  I also had to teach an entire course in a shortened timeframe, and obviously my not teaching on Day One meant I didn't have the impact I could have otherwise had.

Finally, there are some people who aren't placed at all.  Don't panic - it is not common.  When staff members say that they're confident you'll get placed, you should generally trust them.  They'll place 95%+ of corps members, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that people are not placed.  While there's not a lot you can do to get yourself placed, there are a few things that will maximize your chances of getting put in a school.  First, be a presence at your regional office.  If the school year's already started, visit the office daily to get some face time with your placement person.  I did this because I was scared our office would be okay with placing 96% of our corps, and I wanted to convey my enthusiasm and invest them in getting the last few people placed.  Was this necessary?  Probably not, but at least I felt like I was doing something.  I also wanted them to think of me and not somebody else when they found an opening.  Self-serving, I know, but I wanted to maximize my impact on my students, and I can only do that if I have a teaching job.  I also talked to placed corps members in my region and asked them to identify their school's needs.  Schools can be slow in communicating their needs to HR, but I knew two high schools that needed math teachers, and I brought those positions to the attention of the right TFA staff member.  Finally, I reached out to institute staff members, asking for advice and looking for tips.  Most staff members are involved in their region and have worked on staff before (there are many staff returnees each year), and they're valuable thought partners.

If you're not placed, don't panic!  Odds are you will be (placed, that is, not panicked).  I'll also say that because I didn't start teaching until well into the school year, I had no time to be nervous.  I also really appreciated my students and placement, and because I entered a classroom without a teacher, I knew I was at a school that truly needed me.  I am rarely a person who says that everything happens for a reason, but I think my late placement helped me have a better year.

The goal of this post is twofold.  First, I want corps members who are currently unplaced to know that their situation isn't uncommon and will likely work out.  I want them to know from my experience that it's possible to be late placed and still have a great year.  My second purpose is to address the fourth scenario I described above:  teachers who aren't placed.  This happens more than it should, because in my mind it shouldn't happen at all.  It's wrong to bring a person to a new city, tell them to lease an apartment, enroll in graduate classes, and start training without being certain they'll have a job.  An inability to count job openings doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.  And while the organization says that these corps members can defer for a year and rejoin the next year's corps, few people in TFA's age bracket can put their lives on hold without employment only to go through the same process next year.

If I were a higher-up in TFA I would suggest the following:  avoid aggressively increasing the corps size.  This would reduce instances of unplaced corps members and would allow for a reallocation of resources to training and support.  A slightly smaller corps of more effective teachers would help improve thousands of corps member classrooms and truly build a group of teachers who are well-suited for success on their first day.  It would also reduce the number of corps members who struggle by giving PDs smaller cohorts to work with and giving each corps member substantially more classroom time with their PD.  And TFA really ought to be focused on increasing teacher effectiveness rather than the size of the corps.

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