GUEST BLOG: No TFA for me

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Melissa Katz
Melissa Katz

By Melissa Katz

My name is Melissa Katz and I am 18 years old. I am a freshman at The College of New Jersey studying urban education. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Why do you want to go into education? Why do you want to be a teacher? Don’t you know how much more money you could be making in another profession?”

The answer to all of these questions is simple: I have an undeniable belief in and love for our public schools, because public education is the great equalizer among us.

As an urban education major, many people have asked me about my plans for joining Teach for America (TFA), and my answer is always the same – I will never join Teach for America because it is fundamentally flawed in its ideals. Imagine your teachers – those who have dedicated their lives to children, to the profession, and to educating the next generation of thinkers and creators –replaced by someone with only five weeks of training, and who is only obligated to stay for two years. Teach for America brings in some of the most inexperienced teachers and puts them into low-income schools and communities, the same places that need the most experienced and dedicated teachers.

They will never understand that these are the community’s schools, the livelihood of the community. Our schools are places where real learning happens. Our schools are places where students get involved in all different activities that they are interested in – student council to develop leadership skills; mock trial to develop both leadership and debate skills; and art and music clubs to develop and express creativity. There was nothing like going to art club after school and being surrounded by amazing teachers and incredibly talented students all sharing their love for art. Art club may have not prepared me to be “college and career ready”, but it prepared me for life. Creativity, original thinking, and leadership skills – I promise you that none of these will ever be found on a standardized test. But I can also promise you that these skills will better prepare me for my future than anything I can do on a Scantron.

We are up against a lot locally, statewide, and nationwide. Between CCSS, PARCC, unfunded mandates and budget cuts, increased standardized testing, the new teacher evaluation system, and everything else that impacts education today, the list is endless. Despite all of this, I want to make a few things clear:

My teachers are not common. They are one-of-a-kind educators who put their all into making sure that their students experience true learning. My teachers went above and beyond for me – they stayed after class and talked with me about anything and everything, from politics and English to my worries and life questions. My teachers answered my emails after midnight without question if I was concerned about something. They provided me with support and guidance when I felt lost or worried. My teachers not only taught me in the classroom but they taught me about the bigger picture and the world as a whole. My teachers played a huge role in shaping me into the person I am today – they developed personal relationships with me. And I can guarantee you that none these things will be found in a teacher evaluation or on any standardized test.

I am not common. I am a creative person who loves expressing myself through art and writing, which was instilled in me by my art and English teachers. I am an original thinker who takes the initiative to do independent research and studying outside of the classroom, which was instilled in me by my parents and my teachers. I am not afraid of failure because my parents and teachers taught me that I could learn, grow, and become a better person through my struggles and setbacks. And once again I can guarantee you that none these things will be found on any standardized test.

I read an article by Allan Golston on the Bill and Melinda Gates website in which he stated “businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools today.” I take many issues with this article and his statement. First of all, I am not an ‘output;’ I am a person with thoughts and dreams and goals, and I can promise you that my goal is not to work for a giant money-making corporation like the ones  trying to take over education today by making money off of student’s backs. I didn’t love school because I cared about what big business I would end up working for – I loved school because I LOVE learning more than words can express. I loved school because it allowed me to go to a place where I could be among professionals who are experts in their field teaching me all that they know. I loved school because my teachers helped me discover my passion for education, the news, and journalism. I loved school because I could explore, discover, and express my creativity.

I’m only 18, and because of that, I was always under the impression that I am ‘only a student.’ But I am not just a student – I’m a person with a voice. I’m a member of this state and these communities. I am a product of our schools that taught me how to think, not how to fill in a bubble on a standardized test. I stand behind our schools. I stand behind our educators. I stand behind our communities. And I stand in front of you to tell you that I will do whatever it takes to protect my schools for corporate takeover in any shape or form.

Stop closing neighborhood schools. Stop attacking and scapegoating our educators. Stop the high-stakes testing madness. And fully fund our schools according to the law.

Let’s stand FOR our children, FOR our democracy, FOR great schools, FOR our dedicated teachers, and FOR local control.

Ms. Katz delivered a shortened version of these remarks as a speaker at the March 27 Trenton rally in support of public education.  She can be reached at katzm5@tcnj.edu.

 

18 comments

  1. Joseph Krenetsky

    You are far older than your years and you will be one of those wonderful teachers who will motivate beyond what is expected. I only hope that our legislators wake up and see the value of people like you or education in America will be doomed.

  2. Anne Tenaglia

    Most who are still teaching in urban public schools feel the same way you do and are dismayed at the recent (10-year) series of reforms that are making all that we know works, disappear. I applaud your realistic attitude and especially your reasons for not joining TFA. We need young teachers with the sort of history that you have. Keep up the great job of learning all you can. And then continue it after graduation. I know you will be a great teacher. But expect that your first three years will be very hard, until you get into a groove. Accept help from teachers you trust. Ask for it if it’s not offered. Good luck and happy teaching from a 37-year survivor of urban public schools, recently retired. God bless.

  3. Pingback: Brava, Sister: A Future Likely Exemplary Educator | Blind Noise
  4. Kate

    What a lovely, inspiring piece, Melissa! I wish you well in the coming years as you work toward your goals. You have chosen an important (but often under-appreciated) profession, and it sounds like you have had some great models to emulate.

  5. Andres

    I respect your opinion, although I disagree with it. I also think it’s great that you’re putting your opinion out there at such a young age. I love your leadership. But as a leader, I wonder how this sentence:

    “They will never understand that these are the community’s schools, the livelihood of the community.”

    could affect the mindsets of people getting into education. Will things ever get better for our kids if we live in a world where we believe our “opponents” are forever absent of the ability to empathize? How do absolutes help and hurt the discussion? Just a thought.

  6. Bill Wolfe

    Thank you for your commitment and integrity.

    I know a friend of the family who graduated from an elite university with a math degree, but no commitments, and entered Newark school system as a TFA teacher.

    She lated 1 year, and is now gone.

    Keep on pursuing your dreams and speaking out!

  7. P. Grunther

    Andres, I’m sorry to have to say it, but I think Melissa “gets it” and you don’t. You are right of course that we should seek not to dehumanize our opponents in a debate or discussion, but the fact is the people behind the education reform movement are not debating or discussing ANYTHING. They either believe they know what is best for others or, more likely, really don’t care one little bit about our opinions, no matter how well educated or informed we may be. Look at the history and the present of the education reform movement: from Walmart to the Gates Foundation to the CEO of Netflix and Eli Broad and so on down the line…did or do any of these powers funding the dismantling of public education ever reach out to experienced educators? I believe that Melissa has every right to make the assumptions she does and if we all don’t open our eyes to the real goals of these “reformers” and act accordingly, there won’t be a profession for Melissa to enter…seriously!

    Bob Braun: It’s a little subtler than dehumanizing. It is dismissal based on perceived interests. The wealth and power elites behind the destruction of traditional public education work from the same assumption of self-interest that drives them. They do not believe supporters of traditional education can support any sort of change because they see our self-interest in the maintenance only of union protections. These elites are motivated by their own self-interested drives–cheaper labor through the elimination of unions, increased profits by shifting school expenditures from salaries to charter rentals, management organizations, testing, and electronics materials like Amplify’s tablets. It will be a struggle that can only be resolved politically–we just saw that in NYC with the humiliation of Bill DeBlasio by Eva Moskowitz and Andrew Cuomo. The struggle is asymmetrical, with the elites backed by money, owned politicians and childishly naïve mainstream media. The supporters of public education only have the streets. Sometimes, the streets win-but it will take more than 300 at the steps of the Statehouse. Candidates like Ras Baraka have to win and win big–and poodles like Joe DiVincenzo have to be targeted for retirement. That will be hard work. not for the faint-hearted.

    • Teacher

      I think the fact that TFA members are offended when people state that they “receive their 2-year contract after 5 weeks of training and begin teaching before they are certified” is strange. That is not an attack or an accusation, it’s a fact. That they are “bought” into education with the promise of student loan payoff or deductions is true, not an attempt to demean.

      Education is a Bachelors of Science, and, even more, it’s a Bachelors that incorporates ALL sciences.

      Many TFA members feel as though they are being slighted, or that their intelligence (I mean, come on, ANYone can teach, right?) is being questioned.

      To that, I ask you to ponder this: I’ve been a math teacher for 11 years. Would you hire me to be your accountant? If you needed to predict the weather, would a science teacher be where you turned?

      Obviously not. So why, then, do we believe (ex)lawyers, doctors, or business graduates, of high intelligence or not, are capable of walking into a classroom and teaching with NO experience, training, or coursework related to: pedagogy, child development, special education laws and practices, STEM processes, DYFS procedures, Child Find laws, curriculum and content standards, or methodologies?

      Teaching is a skill. It’s not something you “learn as you go”. College courses will never fully prepare anyone for all the million instances that happens in a school building in one day, but having the foundation that 4 years of University, which incorporated 3 semester long field apprenticeships and a semester long, unpaid, full time student teaching experience, provided for me the ability balance my foundational skills while learning to handle the unknown. In other words, I wasn’t walking in to the school as a blank slate. (Not to mention that pesky requirement of passing the Praxis–teacher certification test–PRIOR to becoming certified—unlike TFA, who can take it after they start teaching and can continue to take it a many times as they want until they pass- while they are teaching!!….).

      If you want kids to acquire standards, you need to hire teachers that know what those standards are, how they are used, how to best present those skills, and how to assess them (let’s not forget the 5 year spread of ability levels within some homerooms)…Why don’t people make the connection that the neediest schools don’t need inexperienced accountants. We need trained, certified, highly qualified educators. We need to stop pretending that treating the inner city schools like businesses is working. Having taught in both suburban and city schools the differences are STARK…most recently notably is I can’t name one TFA trained teacher who has or is working in a suburban district…

  8. Amy

    Bob’s last comment attached to P. Grunther’s post really says it best, in the most succinct way possible. That is one of the problems here-the charters appear to be winning the public debate, especially in New York. The general public is obsessed with the idea of “choice”, and that unions are bad and teachers have too many benefits. The public doesn’t understand the deep connections of charters to the big money interests and what their true intentions are. Hopefully people will wake up before it’s too late to undo the damage. Not enough in depth coverage in the mainstream media. Thank you again to Bob for complete and accurate reporting.

    Bob Braun: Thanks, Amy. What’s also working here is a stark question of individual versus social good. Charter schools are viewed as escapes by individual families but represent a resegregation of schools for those left behind. Instead of all parents insisting that all schools be safe and effective, many–and who can blame them?–are satisfied if only the schools their children attend appear safe and effective. Ayn Rand’s way.

  9. P. Grunther

    Yes, yes, yes to everything both Bob and Amy posted. The problem is getting people to wake up and realize what is happening. I am old enough (alas) to remember how the consequences of Reagan’s deregulation agenda were not fully understood or battled fiercely enough at the time and only 30 years later do people (well, some people) understand the full implications of a lack of government regulation of industry (gee, duh, I wonder why Wall Street imploded in 2008 and why the gap between the haves and have-not’s has precipitously widened and spiraled out of control, for example). Newark’s children will feel the full brunt now (and the reformers count on nobody caring about or defending urban children of color) but only 20 or 30 years down the line, if this movement isn’t stopped, will the full effects of privatization, corporate governance and the dismantling of public schools be felt throughout the U.S. This is keeping me up nights…

  10. Bill Wolfe

    Bob – your last 2 replies to comments are so good and on point that you should break those ideas out in a separate post!!! Or posts.

    Bob Braun–Thanks, Bill. I’m working on it. I posted versions on FB.

  11. Risa DeSilva

    SO refreshing to read a perspective that is as fresh as the reforms that legislators consistently insist are for the benefit of our scholars! I applaud this young lady for her perspective, and I sincerely hope she holds fast to her pride in her public school education. We definitely need more educators like this, that are invested through and through into the improvement of society as a whole, as it always starts at home. (or in this case, in your local community)

  12. Andrew Gonzalez

    Ms. Katz, I applaud your passion and outspokenness in the name of improving urban education for underprivileged students, a cause we both share. However, some of your claims and comments are very problematic. My name is Andrew Gonzalez, I am former public school district board of education president and a current TFA corps member in Newark. When I was elected to the board of education I was only a year older than you are, and just as outspoken, so I genuinely admire your ambition and drive in reference to urban education. Being young and civically active is a wonderful thing and throughout my involvement I have always made sure to keep an open mind, weigh all opinions and seek all available facts before staking a claim in my position. In reference to your claim regarding TFA corps member turnover, I just want to make you aware of the fact that turnover for non TFA teachers in urban schools is almost identical While it is unfortunate that TFA attrition rates beyond the first two years of teaching are slightly higher, both rates are far too high and demand attention. My main point in all of this is that there are greater issues plaguing urban education and if you were to take a closer look at TFA you might see that they are partners rather than enemies in the same fight for education equity. Perhaps the causes for the turnover rates need to be more closely examined. Just as you said teachers are being vilified and are not given sufficient support to be able to succeed or remain in the profession. A more productive discussion might be to try and come up with solutions to the issues that cause teachers to leave in the first place. One last example to really illustrate my point involves my personal experience here in Newark thus far. I was hired as an ESL teacher through TFA but I now currently teach ESL and Bilingual History because at the end of October this year, the public school where I teach did not have enough Bilingual teachers and my students had a substitute teacher who did not instruct them or even speak their native language. If TFA did not exist to train and place a Latino political science graduate from Rutgers University in a classroom then my students, 150 of them, may not have had access to a teacher who shared their background. So again, if you give them a second look you might be surprised at how many diverse, devoted teachers come to classrooms through Teach For America, and what an influence they have on their students. If you would like to arrange a time to talk in person or via email about education policy, I’d welcome that. You can reach me at aegonzo13@gmail.com

    • Stressed

      However… TFAs can leave with… it’s $20K in scholarship money correct? People who go into teaching through college education CAREER programs might leave urban education and go to suburban schools or maybe they find that teaching isn’t for them – but they aren’t going to get $20K to go to law or medical school. When I go to my school, I see many teachers who have lasted longer than two years and we’re the ones worried that Anderson-Christie are going to pull some pension-benefit rug out from under us. I have 20+ years so I’m one of those. What I don’t see, though, are people who came in as TFAs lasting very long. Of the TFAs that’s I’ve known personally, two lasted longer than two years. One is a VP; she used the scholarship money to get her MA in Ed Administration. She taught a total of four years. The other tried but also left after five; she initially left for a company producing educational products.

      Most seasoned teachers will tell you it took about five years to feel comfortable; feel like they got it. They will also tell you that it takes more than two years to establish themselves in communities, making connections with outside organizations for more opportunities for their students. It takes longer than two years to get to know families – if you stay in a school long enough, you get to know parents and siblings – you become a part of that community, too. I mean part of the community outside of the school walls.

      TFAs take the positions that graduates of education programs took four years to prepare. Looking at Newark, there are four nearby NJ universities graduating career educators: Rutgers Newark, Montclair, New Jersey City University, and Kean. These might be graduates who are actually certified to teach the positions they’d be hired to teach, if they could get a job – a position that maybe YOU are occupying.

      The thing you’re missing, Mr. Gonzalez, is that NPS is counting on TFAs to leave. Knowing that the majority of TFAs will leave, like Ms. Anderson did herself, you will always have a changing staff of temporary teachers getting paid at the lower end of the pay scale. It’s part of the plan to save money. Reduce the number of career teachers; reduce salaries above $50K. The cost of TFA recruitment: $200,000 which equals salaries in excess of $50K for four to five teachers with 16+ years.

      As for your school not having enough bi-lingual teachers. If you were around longer in the district, you’d know that the bilingual student population is a demographic that is almost impossible to predict. If you’re in a high school, it gets even more complicated. Magnet and charter schools don’t have to take bilingual students if the neighborhood high school has ESL programs; if you have an influx of new arrivals, they will go to the neighborhood schools. Even in the elementary schools, ESL numbers can change drastically from one year to the next.

      Both TFA and newly graduated educators come in idealistic, energetic, and wanting to effect change – it’s what being young, independent, and ‘on your way’ is all about. Those are the characteristics of youth that propel us into adulthood. Those of who have passed that stage have probably learned that the ‘answers’ are more complicated than we once thought. We may have even learned that the longer we’re there, the less we know – I mean that in the sense that the simplistic answers we promoted in our youth were incomplete.

      What this young woman in the article was talking about is the school as a center of a community, made up of people not corporations. Closing schools and busing kids out of their neighborhoods isn’t going to help stabilize communities and neither will constantly changing fledgling teachers on an annual basis.

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