There are lots of people with an opinion about Teach For America (TFA). In politics, truth is a friend of convenience, and in policy people treat it the same way: something you embrace selectively when it works for you and something that you twist beyond recognition when it doesn’t. One of the most common criticisms of TFA is that corps members don’t stay in teaching for very long; they are accused of being “drive-by educators” with a two-year shelf life. Who cares about how well you teach because it’s how long you do it that really matters, right? But you no longer have to choose between a talented person with a great education and a heart for service or a long-term commitment to teaching. You can get both and, apparently, we’ve been getting both all along.
Most TFA Teachers Teach for More Than 2 Years
released a report analyzing the time served and teaching patterns of corps members from 1990 to 2010. The organization used its annual alumni survey to compile the data set. The report found that the majority of TFA corps members teach for more than two years and the longer corps members had the chance to teach, the more likely they are to be teaching.
Returning to the Classroom
The second finding, which is perhaps more telling of the challenge TFA represents to the staid markers and signposts of traditional teaching, is that corps members don’t do one job forever anymore. Teach For America alumni have non-linear careers like everyone else. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the youngest baby boomers held more than 11 jobs between ages 18 and 48. Job switching isn’t the aberration anymore—it’s the norm.
One Day magazine has a
great set of interviews with alumni who left and returned to teaching for a wide range of reasons. My favorite is Ed Kabay, a 2006 D.C. corps member who taught ninth-grade biology and then went on to be a herpetology zookeeper in Atlanta before returning to the classroom. Kabay said, “The teachers I connected with growing up were the ones who had real life experience in the sciences.” Thus, Kabay went out into the world to enhance his skills and his students have been better off for it. Corps members are not the teaching profession’s problem—the profession is the profession’s problem. It’s not that folks who choose education as their life’s sole endeavor are bad, it’s that they are increasingly rare. Pay likely isn’t the best way to keep someone from job switching. We can have a serious conversation about all of these things, and we need to. But what we can’t keep doing is pretending corps members don’t commit to their students, and to teaching, in ways that make both our classrooms and our country better.
Derrell Bradford is the executive director of NYCAN and leads the Corps Knowledge project.