John Merrow’s recent PBS NewsHour broadcast on staffing our nation’s most challenging schools with Teach for America (TFA) recruits is a must see. Listening to Mr. Merrow’s interview with Paul Vallas, you would think the superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District has only one of two choices: fill classrooms with young, energetic, “top talent” from competitive colleges — or with old, tired, academically and pedagogically inept teachers from wherever.
The facts revealed in Merrow’s report show how important it is for teachers to get the “right” training and support in order to teach effectively in high needs schools -- much less in an urban community like New Orleans, with a long history of school problems capped by the most devastating natural disaster in modern American history.
The issue is not the intense, five-week lockstep pedagogical training regime of TFA. Nor is it the typical, disconnected university-based teacher education program, where teaching-methods courses have little to do with preparation for high needs schools. The answer is something else, and a big piece of it can be seen in emerging urban teacher residency initiatives in Chicago and elsewhere — and the cutting-edge preparation programs at top-flight education schools like those at Stanford and UCLA.
In these pacesetter programs, education researchers work with expert K-12 teachers who develop and support new recruits over time. With high-quality residency and internship programs, we can help new teachers build the resiliency they must have to survive and prosper in schools that need them most. The smart, idealistic people who enter these programs are able to work side by side — for many weeks and months — with seasoned veterans who are able to share their successful strategies and their deep knowledge of high-needs school culture.
Pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book, Outliers, has made a compelling case that training and effort are more important than talent. Gladwell points out that the most effective individuals (including teachers, we can assume) put in at least 10,000 hours of practice on the road to proficiency and success. Compare that to the average amount of practice we give to new teachers — traditional or alternative — before we hurl them into one of the most challenging jobs in our society.
During her interview with Merrow, TFA recruit Jeylan Erman lamented that “I thought I'd come into teaching being naturally good at it, because I care so much about students. I automatically thought that, because I care so much, I [would necessarily] be really great. It's not like that.”
The New Orleans recruits needed more pedagogical tools and more seasoned veterans to help them teach effectively. They also needed to work in a redefined teaching profession, where youth is not pitted against experience, and teachers and administrators work closely with health and social service agencies (like the Harlem’s Children Zone) to connect schools and communities in serving students and their families.
Although many teachers who viewed the NewsHour report were understandably upset by any suggestion that multiple years of professional service is somehow a negative, the Merrow piece actually makes a compelling case that all new teachers, no matter their academic pedigree, need serious training and support in order to teach in high needs schools.
Watch it carefully and probe beyond the surface debate about 5-week TFA training versus the 12-week student teaching experience offered by most education schools. Let’s quit wasting all this youthful talent, energy and idealism and get serious about what it truly takes to recruit, prepare and retain teachers for the kids we all say we care about. Until we do, we’ll continue to reap the whirlwind.