Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Left Wing of Teach for America

Updated Thurs Dec. 4, 8PM:

Chancellors New Clothes has an excellent post on Teach for America (and not because she mentions me favorably a few times) on how some TFA's really do get it.

Two weeks ago I attended a Teachers Unite (check out the new web site) social at a bar in downtown Brooklyn. I've been working with TUs' director Sally Lee for a few years and am on the steering committee of TU. A 5th year TFA alum still in a NYC classroom is also on the steering committee.

At the social (it was wonderful to see how many teachers are interested in the work TU is doing) Sally introduced the TFA alum to another TFA alum. "The left wing of TFA," said my fellow steering committee member.

Many TFA's really do get it.

Note: We are currently working with others in the UFT and TU to develop a series of workshops on the UFT and teacher union activism that goes beyond a narrow definition. It will be aimed at the recently arrived teacher corps with a focus on those who have decided to stay and make teaching a career. We expect a number of TFA's to be involved.

They see beyond the single-minded phrase "the achievement gap" and will look to be active in the union in a way to promote true ed reform and not to attack career teachers as being ineffective. You know the mantra. The system has failed so many students. Teacher effectiveness is the single most important factor. Ergo, the failures must be due to these teachers. Like a geometric theorem to the official TFA world.


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. What's interesting to me, is that as a TFA alum, I can tell you that the corps members and alumni I know predominantly identify themselves as liberal and/or democrats and are in large favor of worker's rights.

    The teacher's union stuff gets tricky. I'm generally supportive of unions and organized labor, but when I had the opportunity to join the teacher's union here I decided not to join. Why?

    At my school the three most active and vocal union members on campus were also three of the worst teachers. They would spend lots of time talking about the union to the staff and get really passionate about their work with the union, all of which I think is great.

    The catch for me was that when it came to teaching and their students, these three would sit behind their desks and hand out worksheets. I observed all of them at different times, and I was disgusted each time. The one who taught next to me would also verbally berate her students with inexcusable profanity in front of the entire class and then continue to talk trash about students behind their backs.

    These three were not teachers I wanted to align myself with, and they represent the worst kind of evidence for for union critics. I think there is a valid place for teachers' unions and that teachers desperately need higher pay, the utmost respect and protection from arbitrary hiring and firing. However, when these three are what the "union" looks like on the "ground level," I didn't want to be any part of that.

    There are incredible teachers active in unions across the country, but when traditional tenure policies advocated by unions secure long-term employment for crappy teachers it's really unfortunate. Granted it is also the school's and district's responsibility to professionally develop the previously mentioned trio and hold them accountable, but sadly in my situation, that never happened.

  3. Amy
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I have also seen union school-based officials who couldn't give a rat's ass about teaching and it galled me too. They used to use the union position to do less teaching. But there are many who do. That is why you have to look beyond what you see in the school and make the union what you want it to be. However, it is true that (read the Gary Imhoff post above this) that with the perspective of experience you do get a broader view.

    Here in NYC most of the activists I work with in the union (we oppose the union leadership) seem to be extremely good teachers (you can never tell until you see someone teach.) Uniting union activity with good teaching is a goal but we also see that defense of teacher rights must go along with it.

  4. "The job of a teacher is to ensure academic achievement of all students."

    Which in your world means you step over a child bleeding to death because stopping to help will interfere with the primary mission. In fact many teachers in high poverty areas see way beyond you- like keeping kids safe and many other things too.



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