We Should Welcome Teach For America, Not Bash Them

I have never quite understood TFA-bashing. Though I am familiar with the challenges posed by a revolving door of two-year Teach For America (aka TFA) recruits, I feel they deserve credit for taking on the hardest jobs in public school systems— if only for two years. Schools with large numbers of African-American, Latino and low-income students often lack the resources they need to effectively serve these youth. TFA teachers work with students in special education, students who are traumatized, and students who attend underserved neighborhood schools. I’m a school board member for the Oakland Unified School District, so I see these recruitment challenges first hand. And that’s why I’m relieved to see that my colleagues across the Bay, San Francisco Unified School District, decided this week to preserve their contract with TFA after a heated debate. The district wanted to expand the program to meet a teaching shortage in the highest-need neighborhood schools, but the board responded to the criticism with a compromise vote to hire 15 Teach for America teachers for the next school year, the same number as last year.

Taking on the Criticisms

TFA corps members willingly sign-up to work in schools that many other teachers flee. The criticisms often thrown their way—they exacerbate high staff turnover rates or that they are merely slumming in urban education—obscure the program’s success in getting highly sought-after graduates to work in classrooms that need their energy and expertise. Critics raise an important concern about TFA teachers’ awareness on issues of race, class, power and privilege when they commit to working in urban environments. But given the paucity of diverse teacher candidates in school systems that are becoming increasingly more diverse every year, this concern should extend to our traditional pipelines, especially since TFA is such a small fraction of the overall teaching force. Moreover, TFA recruits are far more diverse—both racially and economically—than the teaching profession as a whole. Some criticize TFA teachers for “showing up” while many of their peers will not even give the idea of teaching a second thought.

Part of the Solution, Not the Problem

In light of teacher shortages in many districts and signs that educators are devoting fewer years to the profession, I am puzzled as to why these young educators are automatically considered part of the problem. I question why more veteran educators, teachers unions and others do not make them part of the solution. The time spent on anti-TFA rhetoric could be better put towards nurturing smart teachers with promise. Just as traditional teacher education schools work to enhance the real-world teaching experience of their future educators, so has TFA worked to improve its training model. I believe this will help to address the concerns from recruits, and school systems alike, about adequate preparation and classroom management skills. In the meantime, we should look more closely at the value that TFA recruits bring.

The Facts: They’re Staying in the Bay

In the Bay Area, about 60 percent of TFA teachers are people of color and/or Oakland natives. I am excited to see young teachers invest in Oakland schools and re-establish roots in the Bay Area. It is an indescribable feeling to see products of Oakland Unified School District—whether they are from TFA or somewhere else—come back to teach in the very schools where they were educated. I know from my conversations with TFA recruits that the organization gives them a sense of belonging within their cohort. This is a positive shift. TFA Bay Area has evolved in their practice, intentionally and with integrity, to shift outcomes in urban schools. The organization has racked up impressive numbers in its 25 years of collaboration with the Oakland community:
  • The percentage of TFA teachers of color in Oakland schools has almost doubled from 2011 to 2015.
  • TFA alumni average 6.7 years of teaching experience in Oakland schools.
  • Among the 197 TFA alumni still working in Oakland schools, more than 70 percent are teachers.
  • In Oakland and nationwide, roughly 2 out of 3 teachers continue teaching beyond their two-year commitment.
I encourage human resources and talent development offices in urban school systems to learn from TFA’s recruitment practices and increase efforts to retain and nurture new teachers. And most importantly, welcome them into your school system.
Jumoke Hinton is a board member of the Oakland Unified School District and a co-founder of the Parent Leadership and Engagement Academy Initiative, which serves parents and families in West Oakland.
Jumoke Hinton is a board member of the Oakland Unified School District and a co-founder of the Parent Leadership and Engagement Academy Initiative, which serves parents and families in West Oakland. For the past two decades, she has been a community and youth development consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. She collaborated with California Tomorrow to create programs to help parents ...

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