Teachers with Training Wheels

By Levi B Cavener

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Don’t worry about the swim instructor wearing floaties around his own arms while he “teaches” students how to swim. Oh, and ignore the training wheels attached to the cyclist instructor’s bicycle. Such is the advice given in Teach For America’s (TFA) response published in Idaho Education News to an Op-ed I authored in December critical of the organization.

The response, penned by TFA’s “special education specialist” Dhathri Chunduru, offers a detailed view of how the organization supports TFAers hired as special education instructors in Georgia. In her reply, Ms. Chunduru outlines the types of supports TFA provides to these new special education “teachers.”

To TFA’s credit, it appears that they offer some training critical to any would-be special educator. However, she seems to have missed the larger point. TFAers receive this training on the job. Yes, students and parents, your TFA “highly qualified teacher” has training wheels.

As a quick reminder, TFA employees do not arrive with a degree in education or necessarily any training in the content area they are being asked to teach. Instead, they arrive with a whopping five weeks of “intensive training”  that (Blamo!) has suddenly turned them into a “highly qualified” teacher on paper, but not in practice.

That’s right. Unlike every undergraduate education major across the country, the new TFA special education instructor has had zero coursework on working with students with disabilities. Autistic students will surely understand that their teacher is learning on the job. Language impaired students will obviously be able to articulate their pride in attending a classroom led by an instructor who has only recently heard of such a disability. Yup, looks like good things are happening in this classroom.

So let’s return to Ms. Chunduru’s basic argument in response to my Op-ed: It’s ok to have TFAers leading the classroom because they will receive training.

This is faulty logic.  It’s not ok for a doctor to tell you that s/he’s qualified to do the surgery because s/he will get training later.  Nobody wants to be the one lying on a table with a doctor who has only recently held a scalpel for the first time.

It’s not ok for a lawyer to represent you because he has great ambition to attend school and pass the BAR exam down the road. Nobody wants to stand in front of a judge with an attorney whose only experience in the courtroom is from watching episodes of Law & Order.

It’s certainly not ok for an individual to be placed at the head of a classroom full of our most vulnerable students because TFA training wheels are attached at the waist. Students and parents have a right to expect a highly qualified professional leading this classroom starting on the very first day of school, and a TFA employee does not fulfill this basic expectation.

Let’s hit the brakes on Teach For America in Idaho classrooms.

9 thoughts on “Teachers with Training Wheels

  1. James

    I find your parallels regarding doctors and lawyers to be SEVERLY misguided and illogical. In fact, every surgeon must hold the scalpel to a patient for the first time, and so too must the lawyer represent her first client in the court of law. In both instances, serving the patient/client “well” may be a matter of life or death. The same is true for teachers in the classroom, yes. They hold the lives and futures of children in their hands. Is it ideal for TFA corps members to have more training before entering the classroom? YES! It’s ideal for education majors to have more practical, on-the-job training before entering the classroom too. Those three semesters of reading educational theory and one semester of sitting in the back of a teacher’s classroom grading papers (ehhh… I mean “observing” and “student teaching”) aren’t going to improve your skills either.

    How about let’s agree that everyone in education needs to improve and focus our energy on the larger picture here… ALL teachers, no matter their background, need more support in creating a productive, rigorous, and college-bound classroom.

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    1. Kevin S. Wilson

      You wrote, “Every surgeon must hold the scalpel to a patient for the first time, and so too must the lawyer represent her first client in the court of law.”

      Your claim is absolutely correct, if distracting in its obviousness. But you overlook a fundamental difference between the surgeon’s or lawyer’s loss of virginity and that of the TFA recruit: Surgeons hold a scalpel to a “patient” for the first time while working with cadavers, progressing from there to additional “first times” with living patients, in a series of carefully orchestrated, rigorously controlled, supervised practice sessions of increasing complexity and risk. Similarly, a lawyer “represents” clients throughout law school while participating in debates and mock trials, and while arguing in opinions submitted for review by experienced faculty. They also can be said to be “representing” clients while taking the bar exam, where their knowledge of and application of the law is assessed in relation to a high, established standard.

      In what way is the TFA recruit provided similar opportunity to experience this “loss of virginity” in a variety of settings and in increasingly challenging, complex ways, under the immediate and close supervision of experienced mentors?

      BTW, your argument isn’t made more persuasive by the dismissive sneer that arises from your characterization of teacher education as “three semesters of reading educational theory and one semester of sitting in the back of a teacher’s classroom grading papers.” It merely calls into question your credibility and the extent to which you are knowledgeable about the current state of teacher education.

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    2. TCliff

      Even as I bristle with all your snottiness at the end of your post, I do agree that “ALL teachers, no matter their background, need more support in creating a productive, rigorous, and college-bound classroom.” This support needs to come in terms of more time to prep for classes, more time to interact and plan with colleagues, more time to use assessments to inform teaching decisions, more time to interact with students in meaningful ways, more time to learn research proven best methods, less time spent listening to people talk who have never been in a classroom to teach, less time spent gathering useless data that does nothing to inform teaching decisions, less time spent teaching how to take a certain test….you get my point.

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      1. TCliff

        As for the snotty comments…those who have actually taken the time beforehand to become a teacher have spent months studying child psychology, have spent months studying how to teach different subject matter to children, have spent months learning how different learners learn material differently, have spent months understanding the laws about how to interact with other people’s children, have spent months observing teachers in many different educational settings, have spent months interacting with students at many different levels, have spent months learning how to plan to teach, have spent a semester preparing to take over a classroom single-handedly for close to a month. Whereas TFA “interns” (for that is really what they are) have spent a maximum of 5 weeks even contemplating all the aspects of being a teacher, with maybe one week of actual time in front of a classroom, most often not single-handedly, with a handful of handpicked students during the summer. You tell me who is more prepared!

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      2. TCliff

        Also, did you know how it is that TFA gets to call their interns “highly qualified teachers”? Is it some amazing training they have received, either at their college or through TFA? No, it was through their political friends who somehow squeezed that designation in with the new budget that was signed at the last minute to avoid default. With all that was going on around the nation….military members not receiving their pay, national parks closing, government worlers not getting paid, etc…somehow the lawmakers found time to put that in the proposal so that TFA would be ok to have its teachers hired according to NCLB legislation. hmmmm….

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  2. Mary Margaret

    The key factor is the experience and training. What other profession allows a shortcut to practice? The only one I’ve found so far is teaching. Nursing…nope. Law…could not find any evidence. Medicine…no trail there either.

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  3. Mike83651

    …and yet, you miss the entire point. Teach For America doesn’t exist to lobby. Teach For America doesn’t exist to take jobs or shortcuts. Teach For America exists in our state, because the education system isn’t set up to serve the children of the Treasure Valley equitably. Teach For America exists so that ONE DAY all children in this country will have equitable access to a quality education.

    Teach For America exists because:
    -72% of Hispanic students in the communities they serve tested Basic or Below Basic in ELA.
    -85% of migrant students in the communities they serve tested Basic or Below Basic in Math
    -There is a 37% Latino/Caucasian achievement gap in Science in the communities they serve.

    Are you so jaded that Teach For America is importing future cultural conscious and inclusive Idaho leaders? Are you so mad that they do community service on the weekends as a collective? Are you so blinded by your privilege and ignorance that you cannot see the systemic oppression that nearly half of our Treasure Valley youth are handcuffed by?

    Teach For America teachers graduate from top flight universities. They are trained using the best teacher prep methods known–most in cooperation with a major university. Upon coming back to Idaho, then engage in the same school and district PD your student’s teachers do. But, they also take Master’s classes at BSU, coach, volunteer, attend leadership retreats and conferences, and engage in rigorous Teach For America led professional development. They have the same school and district supports your student’s teacher has, but they also have a local Teach For America coach, a local Boise State University coach, and access to hundreds of coaches nationally through video observations.

    Maybe it’s time you ask, does every teacher work as hard as Teach For America corps members, for the students of the Treasure Valley?

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