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Annie Tan: My First-Year Disaster with Teach for America

May 27, 2020

On May 26, 2020, a tweet by NYC teacher Annie Tan caught my attention:

I first heard of Teach for America (TFA) in 1991. I was finishing my undergraduate degree in education, and a friend who was not an education major told me that upon graduation, he would be teaching for a couple of years via provisional certification in a city with teacher shortages, in connection with an organization called Teach for America.

At the time, in 1991, I thought, that sounds okay.

Cut to 2013, the year in which I wrote my first book, A Chronicle of Echoes, which includes a deep-dive chapter on TFA founder Wendy Kopp and her traditional-teacher-supplanting vehicle, TFA, a well-funded ed-reform organization that is definitely not okay. (Kopp and TFA are detailed in chapter 3, and abusive TFA alum, Michelle Rhee, in chapter 4).

I am intrigued by the individual stories of TFA alumni. For this reason, upon reading Tan’s tweet, I asked her if she would mind my interviewing her about her experience with TFA for this post, and she kindly agreed.

And so, I offer my readers the following interview with Annie Tan, which I conducted on May 26, 2020, using Twitter’s messaging feature. But first, a brief word by way of Tan’s bio:

annietan

Annie Tan is a special education teacher, activist, and storyteller. Previously the co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union special education committee, Annie teaches in her hometown New York City, where she’s finishing her 8th year teaching. Annie has been featured in the New York Times, The New Republic, PBS’ Asian Americans, and the Moth Radio Hour. Follow Annie at @AnnieTangent on Twitter and IG and at annietan.com.

And now, our exchange:

Me: First question: What was it about TFA that attracted you to the org?

Tan: That it would get me a job, period. I was an undergrad in 2010, two years after the recession started, and needed a job, and I knew NYC public schools was in a hiring freeze for elementary ed, which was what I was in school for at Columbia, to be an elementary ed teacher. When I found out my school didn’t have any other pathways towards a higher need specialty like special ed, I continued through my program while looking for a quick way to get into a special ed program.

I was scared and wanted a teaching job. I didn’t drive and grew up in NYC, so the only locations I put on my application were Chicago and NYC. I hoped I would be placed in a public school, but of course, two-thirds of the schools TFA placed its corps members in Chicago were charter.

I had never stepped foot in Chicago prior to applying for Chicago, only studied a little bit about it in my Urban Studies classes (I was an Urban Studies major at Columbia undergrad with a specialization in education while also in the Barnard Education Program.)

Me: Did you believe that TFA would prepare you to be a sped teacher?

Tan: I did not, as I had studied in undergrad neoliberal approaches to education reform, but I knew I would be better than some random undergrad student who might not end up being a teacher.

(A “neoliberal approach” to education reform meaning a shakeup of public education through a focus on innovation, so-called anyway, experimentation, and data driven decisions based on test scores.)

I was studying the Grassroots Education Movement in NYC and other ed activist organizations, eventually studying Teachers Unite and writing about them for my undergrad thesis while student teaching (which no one should do at the same time).

I was an undergrad in 2009, when there was a fierce debate in New York City around raising the cap for the amount of charter schools allowed in New York City. and a lot of education reformers were saying that innovation in these charter schools needed to be tried because what was not working was a public education system with unions that were not flexible. There was also a big push to tie student growth to data, including test scores with No Child Left Behind.

During that same time., I noticed a lot of Teach for America alumni were opening charter schools and leading large public school districts that were heading up these same policies that would disrupt the public education system, with experimentation, and a focus on data.

Me: Did you express to TFA your desire to be a sped teacher?

Tan: Yes.

Me: And TFA assigned you to be a sped teacher in Chicago?

Tan: Yes. So I joined a cohort of special education corps members, and accepted my teach for America membership in January of 2011. In March of 2011, April, then twice in June, Teach for America reimbursed flights so we could interview with principals. We were forced to take the first job offer that we got.

So I got a job offer as a special education teacher with a charter school in the South Side of Chicago. I was one of the earlier people to get a job offer, as I had had training as an elementary school teacher, but a number of my fellow members didn’t get a job until maybe a week before school started.

I noticed that people who got job offers later were usually in public school settings, whereas the teachers who were hired earlier were in charter school settings.

Me: What, if any, preparation in the legalities of sped did TFA offer you?

Tan: None that I know of. I eventually, I think three years after that, I became involved with and eventually became the co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union special education committee and found out during that time that only students within four chronological years of each other could be in the same classroom. But my first-period classroom every day was made up of a kindergartener, a first grader, four second graders, two third graders, and two fourth graders, all trying to learn how to read. I had a paraprofessional in that classroom with me for half an hour, and then I had that class of students for 45 minutes by myself.

I think my university classes were much better than the Teach for America professional development because my university professors had been teaching teachers for a long time and knew how to write individualized education plans and create behavior plans for students. The Teacher for America professional development was around small group teaching and having us do summer school teaching one lesson at a time, but it didn’t prepare us for the range of issues that come with special education.

Again, this was the summer of 2011. Who knows if they have gotten better on this? I doubt it.

I didn’t have a gauge yet of how much would be untenable. I didn’t realize most of my fellow teachers only had one or two grades, when I was dealing with five grade levels, teaching reading and math for each, and a remedial reading class in the morning.

Me: Is it accurate to say that all TFA did was put you in a sped position employment group?

Tan: I would say that is accurate, yes. I would also say that Teach for America had to find schools that would hire its members (Teach for America has partnerships with schools), and that two-thirds of those schools were charter schools in Chicago.

Me: Did TFA tell you that you would be expected to accept the first job offer prior to your agreeing to officially join TFA?

Tan: I do not believe so, no.

Me: Did the requirement surprise you once TFA told you?

Tan: Yes, completely. It made me worried that I wouldn’t know where I would be teaching, and that that might change if I got hired later. That also affected where I found housing, because ideally I would have wanted to live closer to school. Luckily, I was hired at a school that was near a train station, but if I had had to drive to a location, that would have been a problem for me.

It also made me worried that I would be hired in, for instance, a high school, when I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. I am glad I made clear in those interviews that I had elementary education training, but I was put in interviews for high school positions, not very many from what I remember, but that did scare me.

Me: Is it your experience that TFA exploits naivete and desperation in its corps members?

Tan: I am not sure necessarily about desperation. In my case I was desperate, that is for sure. Naivete, definitely.

I have a feeling that during recession times Teach for America recruitment spiked. I also was involved in 2014 in a #resistTFA campaign, and recruitment for Teach for America dropped 25% that year. I have a feeling that was due to the improving economy, but I am not sure. But yes, Teach for America exploiting young energy and naivete is definitely an issue.

Me: At what point in your TFA involvement did you experience the first hint of misgiving?

Tan: I will never forget the first day when we had our celebration, and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools came and made a speech to us. It felt very strange for him to be there for some reason. Yes, we were going to be 250 new teachers in Chicago, so logically it may have made sense to introduce us and do a welcome, but I also couldn’t imagine him doing that at a regular university that had education majors graduating. I couldn’t imagine him going to one of those graduations and making a speech.

There were a few moments that I still remember that were odd, as well. I remember the first day of professional development through Teach for America, when we got no talk around how segregated Chicago was, just people alluding to it, like Teach for America was not even going to approach that schools were unequal because of race and income, especially in Chicago, which really stands out since I worked in Chicago Public Schools for five years and taught there for four.

And then, the speech from some Teach for America staff members, that we might be the first teachers in some of these kids’ lives that had high expectations for them. I first thought to myself, “How can I have high expectations for my students when I don’t even know them yet? All I’ve done was graduate from a fancy college, so how am I better than someone else?” That really rubbed me the wrong way.

Me: “Rubbed you wrong” to be told you might be the first to have “high expectations”?

Tan: Yes, as if other Chicago teachers weren’t doing right by Chicago Public Schools students, with no context on what made those teachers “unsuccessful” in the first place. It made it sound like we were going to save our students because we were recruited from some of the best schools in the country, which implied that we innately would be better teachers than the teachers they had before.

Me: Was that “savior” message an integrated component of TFA teacher “prep”?

Tan: In my mind yes. It also very much irked me that the people training us were former teachers who had done Teach for America, as well, and who had taught for three to five years. As a current teacher in my eighth year of teaching, I would say that it was only around year six that I felt comfortable with my craft.

It was like young, energized, new teachers were coming in, doing short stints, then feeling like they knew everything about teaching and repeating the cycle, kind of like a pyramid scheme on our students.

Me: Via its communication to its recruits, does TFA send the blanket message that traditional teachers are lazy, incompetent, or otherwise failures in their careers?

Tan: No, I don’t think so exactly. The dangerous language is more that students’ destinies are determined by their ZIP codes, and if we experiment with education, then we can change that. It is with almost the cavalier language that by just bringing people in to public schools and creating things like charter schools that education will be better for our students. And, in order for investors to buy in, they need a metric, which is data and measurement of our students.

So, it’s the combined focus on blowing up education and the focus on data and experimentation that is very scary and not proven to work, if you actually look at anything toward the mixed results around Teach for America. They’ve had so many years, I think it’ll be 30 years next year or even this year, and I don’t think they have proven that they have tipped the scales in any real way.

That messaging and that execution ( blowing up education and the focus on data and experimentation) is what has the implied message that public education doesn’t work and that teachers on the ground are not effective.

Me: Did you finish your two-year TFA commitment?

Tan: No.

Me: One year?

Tan: I finished one year. I was put on an improvement plan with my school, and I wasn’t making enough progress with Teach for America with my manager of teacher and leadership development (MTLD). I know at the time I was very depressed, I hated my job and I was late to work at points. I didn’t make enough growth toward my students according to the data that I was given, NWEA

Me: Was the MTLD your mentor?

Tan: The MTLD was my mentor, who had taught for five years as a special education teacher. My school did not have readily available mentors for me. The other two special education teachers were even more overworked than I was. One of them was a teaching fellow. She and I both left, if I remember correctly, that same year.

My school in general was made up of newer teachers. The joke was that a veteran teacher was in their third year teaching!

Me: Was your mentor certified as a sped teacher?

Tan: The third teacher was a certified special education teacher. My mentor teacher was certified. That MTLD was that mentor teacher, but she did not work at the school nor was she teaching at the time. She was almost like a coach.

There were three special education teachers across the grades kindergarten through eighth grade. There was my MTLD, who I think came to my school maybe twice a month, but when I needed more help and was approaching an improvement plan, she came more often. And then there was my university supervisor who came to observe me a few times.

I was working with a kindergarten teacher who had come through Teach for America and was in her third year teaching. And one day, when my university supervisor came to observe me teach with her, that kindergarten teacher was irate because there were some missing snacks in her inventory. She screamed at our five-year-old students and asked who stole the snack, and no kindergarten student fessed up. The kindergarten teacher then turned off all the lights and said that she would not continue teaching unless one of the five-year-old students confessed.

The university supervisor then pulled me out of that classroom setting, since we weren’t learning anyway, and told me, “Annie, do not trust anything this teacher says. This is borderline abuse, what she is doing right now.”

This kindergarten teacher was seen as a model for other Teach for America teachers. She was incredibly organized, knew teaching pedagogy, at least from what I could see, but was very much of the “grit” mindset.

I bring the story up because the so-called mentors around me were all teachers in their second or third year teaching themselves, and so I also didn’t have guidance in the school to succeed.

Me: The mentor who was a teaching fellow was with TFA?

Tan: No, that teaching fellow was with the Chicago teaching fellows program. I would say about 75 percent of staff at my school came from an alternative certification program, either Teach for America or teaching fellows. I believe all of those had had maybe three years or less of teaching experience. We had a few veteran teachers in our building who had taught for over twenty years, but those were few.

Me: Did you ask TFA to let you go?

Tan: No, they let me go. Teach for America said that it was my fault that I didn’t meet the goals at the school and decided to let me go from the program.

Me: How about other TFA teachers in your cohort? Did others quit or otherwise leave before fulfilling the two-year commitment?

I wrote in Julian Vasquez Heilig’s blog in 2014 about this. I actually counted the number of teachers of color that I met that summer 2011, and of the twenty that I met, half didn’t even get through the summer school course, so they didn’t even start teaching. One, she got very sick and an unknown condition got very much exacerbated because of Teach for America, and think a number of other ones, they had family issues at home that they needed to take care of or they just were burnt out and couldn’t deal with Teach for America’s model of teaching. I think I heard from a few that they just thought teaching wasn’t for them.

There were a number of teachers who were fired or quit before the first year was up. One teacher in my school was my year in Teach for America and was fired in October. To my knowledge, I’m the only teacher I know of that only did one year in my corps, but I could be wrong about that.

A lot of teachers left after their second year teaching, Then a bunch more left in their third, and then in their fourth year. I think I only know of one or two teachers who are still teaching today from the 2011 Chicago corps.

Me: How long before you found your next teaching job?

Tan: I actually decided to take the year off and finish my special education degree while being a paraprofessional assistant for a student with Down syndrome in the Northwest side of Chicago. I didn’t want to put pressure on myself after that year, and I was so beaten down, depressed, and unsure of myself after both Teach for America and my school let me go.

That is the best decision I ever made for myself, to take a break and take my time learning how to be a special education teacher, because I learned to forgive myself. I learned to also be gentler and kinder to my students.

I got my master’s degree in April 2013, and got a job almost immediately, and started teaching again in May 2013.

Me: In Chicago?

Tan: Yes. I became a member of the Chicago Teachers Union then. I proceeded to continue teaching in Chicago until June 2016 when I decided to move back home to New York City to be closer to my family. I finished out four years of teaching in Chicago, one year as a paraprofessional, and am finishing out my fourth year teaching now in New York City, so nine years in education and public schools altogether.

Me: What advice would you offer to a college grad eyeing TFA for a first job?

Tan: I would say, try to know exactly why you are going for that position. Is it because you want to be a teacher? Is it because you want to be a teacher for a short period of time while figuring out something else? Do you want to look good for the future since Teach for America, like it or not, looks prestigious on applications? And then think to yourself, “Is this something I can live with?” Also, think about your future students. Do your future students deserve you, or do they deserve someone else?

I think Teach for America is a dangerous program and has done a lot of harm to public education, if you look at its wider policies. The alumni like Michelle Rhee, who have done dangerous experimentation in large public schools districts, or alumni who have opened up charter schools that won’t even allow students to use the bathroom, let alone do harmful practices like suspending students at higher rates or using models like Teach Like a Champion to focus so much on dehumanizing students rather than actually teaching students.That is something I knew before I decided to take the Teach for America offer.

I knew Teach for America’s neoliberal approach to education reform prior to joining teach for America. In college I studied different education reforms. I studied efforts that failed to provide vouchers for public school students to attend private schools. I learned about choice within the public school system, including students who had to apply to screened schools. In my undergrad research, I learned that race and income were the two biggest factors in whether or not a student would get a so-called good education, and that was based on segregation.

I do not regret doing Teach for America because now I fight back harder than ever against privatization of education policies now. I don’t think I would be the teacher I am today without Teach for America, and I am the teacher I am today despite Teach for America.

But as an individual teacher and actor in it, I thought to myself that, as long as I could teach and teach well, that I would be okay. But I got hit by the maelstrom extremely hard, and I am so sad to know that I almost left teaching because of it.

And I learned then that one individual alone cannot overcome the harsh reforms being pushed by people who are not educators.

Unfortunately that’s why so many teachers leave today, because they don’t have control over their situations and are bound by other people making reforms above them that harm students.

Me: Annie, thank you for allowing me to interview you.

no-tfa

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My latest book, A Practical Guide to Digital Research: Getting the Facts and Rejecting the Lies, is now available for purchase on Amazon and via Garn Press!

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Follow me on Twitter @deutsch29blog

 

 

6 Comments
  1. Robert Tellman permalink

    Thank you very much for this posting, Mercedes. Hearing from a former TFAer with a conscience solidifies what many good professionally trained, experienced, and dedicated teachers have seen and felt.

    Unfortunately (or maybe it’s a good thing, at least for students), once many TFAers do their required stints in the classroom and then head off to Harvard for a free masters degree in Public Administration, they wind up in state departments of education where they spread their superior knowledge and expertise in education.

    That’s where we find ourselves in Louisiana at this time. Hopefully that is going to change.

    As an aside, TFA and other reformers sure like to disparage teachers’ unions and claim the unions are the basis of all that was (and is) wrong with public school,education. Maybe that’s because many of them are from large cities up north where unions are prevalent. I’ve taught for over 25 years in Louisiana and have never belonged to a teacher’s union. They need to adopt a new narrative.

  2. Reblogged this on EDU 111.

  3. I considered TFA when I graduated from College and was looking at education as a career. I cannot remember why I didn’t apply but I am sure glad I did not.

  4. I met Annie Tan at NPE Chicago 2015. She was extremely kind to me and because of her, my experience there was greatly enhanced. Thank you for this update on the life Ms. Tan.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. This Week: On Twitter, Teaching and Creating – Annie Tan
  2. Mercedes Schneider Interviews an ex-TFA of SPED in Chicago | Diane Ravitch's blog

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