From the Mouths of TFAers

When Eduflack was a very green Capitol Hill staffer, a wise veteran imparted some basic advice that I have not forgotten now going on almost two decades.  Never talk in an elevator.  Capitol Hill is one of those places where people (the unelected, of course) like to make themselves seem far more important than they really are.  They brag to friends and strangers alike about the legislation they’ve “written” their “access” to leadership, and other attributes that make working on the Hill so appealing.

The advice was offered as we were listening to a legislative assistant talk about the counsel they were providing a particular senator.  As we were both intimately familiar with the issue and the senators involved, we knew the story was hogwash.  The lesson to me was simple.  Don’t talk in an elevator.  You never know who is listening, and you never know what life such elevator tales will take on.  And all of this was before the regular use of the Internet and our happy go lucky blogs and tweets.
After a recent flight from Charlotte to Washington, DC, I would add never talk on an airplane to the list.  Typically, I want to be ignored on a plane.  Introvert that I am, I don’t want to engage in conversation, and I don’t want people to engage with me.  I want to be left alone with my readings and perhaps a quick game of Book Worm on my iPhone, using the confines of that flying tube to gain a few free moments where I don’t have to focus exclusively on work and the outlying issues that surround it.  But this flight just wouldn’t let me bury my head in a few newspapers and start thinking about the next day.
For this flight, I was seated directly in front of a regional manager from Teach for America.  As luck would have it, he was a chatter, as was the businessman seated next to him.  TFA was asked what he did for living. He stated he worked for an education non-profit called Teach for America.  The businessman clearly had never heard of the organization, so he inquired as to whether it was a new group and if it was surviving in the current economy.  I think Mr. TFA (who was part of the very first teacher cohort) was surprised that there was someone who had not heard of Teach for America.  So he went on to provide a wealth of interesting tidbits and bragging points to demonstrate that Teach for America was not your average bear education not-profit.
Of course, Eduflack’s ears perked up, interested to hear how this Teach for America executive (I believe he was a regional manager for sites in a number of states in the south and southwest) would begin describing an organization so well known in education circles to someone so unfamiliar with it.  Some of the highlights:
* Teach for America recently embarked on a $142 million fundraising drive, and has already raised more than $149 million
* Teach for America’s new strategy is to reach out to more and more charter schools, seeing them as a quicker point to help close the achievement gap.  “There are a lot of good charter schools and a lot of bad charter schools,” he explained.  The key was to find schools that would buy Teach for America whole cloth.  And in his eyes, KIPP can do no wrong.
* Teach for America is beloved and has never run into any opposition.  In fact, Boston is the first and only school district where any teachers have ever had any problems whatsoever with Teach for America coming in.  And isn’t that just short-sighted of them.
* Teach for America is becoming so selective that it recently determined a student who “wrote” the new University of Virginia financial aid policy was a questionable candidate.  (As an alum of Mr. Jefferson’s alma mater, I won’t get into the number of underlying issues here)
* The ranks of devout Christians joining Teach for America is growing by the day, in large part because the work of a Teach for America teacher is so demanding  that they need the supports that their beliefs provide them to do their secular work well.
What I found most interesting, though, was that the notion of recruiting and placing teachers didn’t come up until nearly 10 minutes into the conversation. Teach for America was about school improvement.  It was about closing the achievement gap.  It was about partnering with schools who couldn’t fix themselves.  It was about the organization serving poor communities and black communities and such.  But the notion of teachers (and teaching for that matter) didn’t come up until deep in the conversation, when Mr. TFA wanted to demonstrate how exclusive and competitive Teach for America slots were.  Then he began discussing how they place only the best college graduates in schools that need their help, making clear they did not want students who attended education schools or formally studied education.
Now I’m not naive, I realize that Mr. TFA was trying to play to his audience (and certainly had no idea that Eduflack was sitting two feet in front of him).  He read his seatmate as a good southern Christian who believed in school choice, so he tried to play up those issues.  But listening to the whole conversation (which ran for almost half of the flight), I was struck by how “off message” Mr. TFA was.  Don’t get me wrong, Eduflack is a Teach for America fan.  I believe that TFA plays an important role in school improvement, both literally and rhetorically.  But this certainly isn’t the way that Wendy Kopp talks about her organization.  This isn’t the way TFA has been positioned in education improvement discussions.  And it certainly isn’t how the org is depicted as it moves into countries like India and Australia.  
Teach for America is an organization that prides its good press (and moves heaven and earth to deal with any media that is just the tiniest bit critical).  It is a group that has an incredible network of alumni and advocates who would do anything and everything to protect the TFA brand and promote the TFA mission.  But as a fly on the wall, it seems that a little message discipline may be in the works for Teach for America.  A cynical listener, unfamiliar with Teach for America, could have listened to this conversation and heard that TFA had just raised $150 million to move smart, motivated devout Christians into public charter schools across the country.  Does that sound like the Teach for America we have all grown to know and love?  
I’d willing to chalk the experience up to a green TFAer excited about the program, but I know he has been part of the TFA family since the beginning, an original corps member who moved into a leadership position (at least this current one) years ago.  If this is what we’re hearing from seasoned TFA vets, what else is being said out there?  Perhaps it is time for Kopp and company to warn their staff about speaking on elevators and airplanes … or at least to only do so once they have the corporate messaging and stump speech down.

103 thoughts on “From the Mouths of TFAers

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