Teach for America and me

Today I commented on a blog post about the sad state of education in America. I began my career as an educator in Baltimore City as a member of the Teach for America 1998 Corps. Baltimore, with a graduation rate of only 38.5% is surely one of the saddest educational systems in the nation. I fulfilled my two year commitment, worked as hard as I could to instill high expectations, and left feeling inadequate to the task.

I wrote the following post nearly a year ago on the first blog I ever tried to keep. I suspect it has never been read before, and today it felt relevant to me.

“Teacher trainers often remark that the brightest and most able students often experience considerable difficulties in their first placements as teachers. The diligence, attention seeking, and strong self-image that in the past rewarded them with teacher approval and fine grades are not traits that help others –i.e. students—to personally interact with ideas.”
– Facilitating Online Learning p.167

The quote above made me think of my first placement as a teacher. I mentioned a few posts back that I am an alumna of the Teach for America program, selected largely because of my success as a student. By the time I graduated university, I was no longer an academic attention-seeker; I preferred to sit quietly and go unnoticed in the back row of any lecture hall. Still, I was diligent with a strong self-image and had considerable difficulty in my first placement as an 8th grade physical science teacher in inner-city Baltimore. I was a much better teacher my second year than my first, but I still felt inadequate.

Linda Darling-Hammond and others have criticized TFA for placing unqualified teachers in the classrooms that need qualified teachers the most. There is some truth to this criticism; I admit that I was not “highly qualified” to teach in an inner city school. However, the uglier truth is that the certified teacher who worked in my classroom before me had stopped teaching. Every day students came to her class to watch movies, usually R rated. Unqualified though I was, I was better than the alternative, and science test scores went up both years that I taught there.

Darling-Hammond argues that teacher quality is the most important variable in the education production function and tends to define teacher quality as pedagogical content knowledge. In her studies, she uses Praxis test scores, education courses, certification or some combination of these variables to serve as proxy variables for teacher quality. I passed the Praxis, even the pedagogy section, without ever having taken an education course, which lead me to suspect that there was either a flaw in the test or that value of education courses was highly overrated. Based on my personal experience, I think both explanations have value. As soon as I started teaching, I enrolled in a graduate program in Curriculum and Instruction. Some of the courses were helpful and all of them were easy. I felt that the skills that I learned in my courses could have been taught on the job in a good professional development workshop.

One of the most pivotal moments in my teacher training came when I was being observed during my first year teaching. One of my instructors was sitting in the back of my classroom, observing my lesson when the fire alarm went off. She hurriedly packed her belongings and then stared at me aghast as I continued teaching my lesson without interruption. I really believe that she thought I was oblivious and that I would allow my students to be consumed by flames. I watched for her confused reaction when the announcement that my students and I knew would come, came,”Please disregard the fire alarm.” This scenario repeated itself, as it usually did, three or four times during the course of my 55 minute lesson. At the end of my lesson, my instructor asked if this often happened. “Almost daily,” I replied. She looked at me, horrified, and asked, “How can you teach like this?” I remember thinking, “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me?”

As you might imagine, I don’t have a lot of confidence in traditional teacher training programs.

I went on to become “Science Teacher of the Year” in the suburban school district where I next taught and I sometimes still feel guilty for having left the classroom, particularly the inner city classroom where I know I was needed so much. I am now an instructor of teacher preparation courses. I don’t know how to make a student “highly qualified” for the kind of teaching environment that I faced in Baltimore, but I’m trying to find out.


About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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