Is Virginia right to welcome Teach for America into public schools?
Bring home corps members eager to help here
Saxby, a 2005 Teach for America alumnus, teaches fifth grade at A.M. Davis Elementary, a Title 1 school in Chesterfield County. He is a member of the Virginia Education Association.
I joined Teach for America eight years ago, leaving my home in Richmond to teach fourth grade in Washington, D.C. For me, there was no clearer illustration of our country’s inequities than my ride to work. Driving down Pennsylvania Avenue, I could see the U.S. Capitol in my rearview mirror, a symbol of opportunity and hope; ahead was the housing project where most of my students lived, several boxy buildings surrounded by a heavy iron fence.
Nationally, only 8 percent of kids growing up in low-income communities graduate from college; we see this problem persisting in our home state of Virginia, as well. We now have the opportunity to partner with Teach for America to draw more of the nation’s emerging leaders toward our efforts across the commonwealth to ensure an excellent education for all students.
TFA is an organization that attracts some of our most passionate, dedicated college graduates and helps them start a career fighting alongside other committed educators for expanded educational opportunity in low-income communities.
Corps members, as they’re called, teach for at least two years and, as alumni, continue to work and advocate for educational equality. I, and others like me, have returned to Virginia to continue the mission-driven work of educational equity in our home state. Some of us work in schools; others work broadly in education or related fields; some have left education but are still impacted by their time spent teaching.
But none of us started our careers here, and hundreds of Virginians are leaving each year to join efforts in Detroit, Los Angeles, Charlotte, rural Mississippi or one of more than 40 other communities nationwide to help ensure a quality education for kids in underresourced areas.
They’re not staying in Virginia because, right now, they can’t. TFA doesn’t yet serve Virginia — making it the largest state without a TFA presence.
I’m thrilled by the prospect of TFA joining our efforts in Virginia, where every year scores of TFA teachers could work alongside other committed educators to help ensure that more kids have access to an excellent education and the life opportunities that come with it.
The commonwealth can’t afford to let so few of those living in low-income areas attain an excellent education, and Virginia stands only to benefit by creating the opportunity for school divisions to partner with Teach For America, to continue strengthening our teaching workforce and building leadership capacity in our underresourced communities.
No shortcut to excellent teachers for Virginia’s students
Gruber is president of the Virginia Education Association.
In more than 30 years of teaching in public schools, I’ve worked with hundreds of teachers and seen many newcomers launch their careers fresh out of college.
Not one was as good a teacher his first year, or his second, as he would become later in his career. Experience matters: Ask any teacher.
That’s the biggest flaw with the Teach for America idea. It’s a shortcut that brings young people into classrooms as teachers with a bare minimum of preparation and a two-year commitment to teach. About the time they would be mastering the skills and really understanding how to work with students with different learning needs — poof! — they’d be ready to move to the next phase of their career.
Most people underestimate how complex teaching is, and few understand the important role of pre-service coursework, sustained practice teaching under a watchful eye and high-quality training and mentorship programs that beginning teachers need. There may be a few “naturals”; great teachers become so through their commitment to students and their passion for honing their craft. They have mastered the content of their subject. But they also must learn how to reach students with diverse learning styles and to make decisions on the fly in the classroom based on rapidly changing conditions so that everyone “gets it.”
This is not work for the minimally trained, and to suggest otherwise sells students short.
Ask yourself: Would you visit a doctor who had been allowed to bypass a significant amount of his medical training? Of course not.
We applaud the determination of top-flight college graduates to teach in some of Virginia’s most challenging schools. But Virginia students, especially those in the poorest communities, need our best-prepared teachers.
What is the path forward? Virginia must raise up teaching as a profession and take steps to prepare, recruit and retain the best teachers. We have to boost the attractiveness of teaching as a career (note that Virginia lags $7,000 under the national average in teacher pay). We must sustain, not weaken, our standards for becoming a teacher. We need to invest in better professional development programs once teachers are in the classroom to help them keep up with the latest research and methods.
Finally, we need to redouble our efforts to put a stop to teacher turnover that hurts students. Addressing some of the on-the-job conditions teachers face — excessive class sizes, increasing amounts of paperwork, lack of support (in some instances) from administrators — could convince more good teachers to stay in the classroom.
Instead of relying on a shortcut, we need to take the steps to raise the profession of teaching in the commonwealth. Permitting TFA in Virginia is a step in the wrong direction.