The Myth of Freedom Writers

From time to time, I’ll look at the links that Word Press puts at the bottom of my articles.   I do this because I hope to see what other bloggers are saying on similar topics.   A post I did on Guggenheim Elementary took me to this little nugget today, “In order to achieve quality education, we must educate and hire quality teachers. In this day and age however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get new teachers into the field. A majority of the educators you find in the inner city are young. This is an effective combination because the enthusiastic young teachers are driven to make a positive impression on their students.”

Now, I don’t want to pick on the writer of this blog.  The blog belongs to a student at the University of Oregon.   However, I am increasingly seeing the myth of the young teacher as educational savior and I see it championed by people who should know better.  Teach for America is built on this myth.

The Myth of Freedom Writers: A young, attractive teacher comes into a rough inner-city school where the old, physically ugly, burned out teachers have given up on teaching and the administration encourages that type of burned out behavior.   The teacher who knows nothing of the urban teaching environment has a rough few days, but then wins her students respect, which only makes the rest of the school that much more against her.  She makes huge sacrifices in her personal life and eventually her students learn. There is a terrible incident that shakes her class, but she helps them to rise above it.

Now before I continue, allow me to say that there is nothing wrong with young, energetic, attractive teachers.   However, what usually happens to a caring first year teacher is better illustrated by the character of Mister Prezbo in The Wire.  He’s been a cop in the worst part of Baltimore, but he’s not able to get control of a class of 30 8th graders until the experienced teacher from across the hall comes in and takes control of the situation.  The first half of the first year for most new teachers will be chaos.   The good ones will eventually learn what they’re doing and become excellent teachers.   The others will burn themselves out very quickly and be out of the classroom (usually in educational policy telling teachers what to do) in 2 or 3 years.

Innovation is not Dictated by Age: My mother was a more innovative teacher at 70 than I will ever be.  She had me teach her how to use a computer and she redesigned her school’s whole math curriculum when research showed multiplication and division were more effectively taught together.   At my current school, our two biggest innovators are women in the 60s who have a passion to keep up on what’s going on.

Youth and Experience Have Different Strengths: Young teachers do have more energy, but that doesn’t make them better teachers.  Unfocused energy doesn’t accomplish much of anything.  A good school should have a variety of ages in the faculty because that promising first year teacher isn’t going to alway know what to do and that’s when an experienced colleague can really make a difference.  The best new teachers I have known, have had a mentor that worked very closely with them.

At my second teaching assignment, our school was terribly overcrowded.   A brand new school was opened up and our boundaries were redrawn.  17 teachers lost their jobs and 600 students went to the new school.  Our principal called to try and get those 17 teachers jobs, but the new school would have none of it.  They were in partnership with a college and they wanted their entire faculty to come from their teacher program.   Despite having resources that my school couldn’t even dream of, the student behavior was terrible and when they got their standardized test scores back, they went into panic mode.   They called my principal to ask how we did so well and she told him, “You’ve got all new teachers.  What did you think would happen?”

We All Need Help: The easiest way to find out which new teachers will make it is to find out who is open to help and to new ideas.   Teach for America brainwashes their students into believing that all older teachers are part of the problem.   Some TFA teachers break through their programming others persist that they know everything no matter how badly they are floundering.  As a second career teacher, I have a lot of respect for people who decided later in life that they would make teaching their career.  I really don’t have much respect for 22 year olds who decided that with the job market tight, they’d teach for a couple of years. Then, after they saved the world they’d do something else and make the big money.

Older Teachers are at Risk: Opponents of tenure say that it protects bad teachers.   However, it also protects older teachers who may be a little bit more expensive.  Why pay a 50 year old $60,000 a year when you can pay a 22 year old $35,000?  Some programs like Teach for America are ushering in scores of poorly trained young teachers into the classrooms and have the contracts to guarantee spots.  I love To Sir With Love as pure entertainment and I do believe there is room for Mark Thackeray in the classroom, it is just that I also believe there is room for Charles Chipping and Glenn Holland.

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8 Comments on “The Myth of Freedom Writers”

  1. Matt Brown Says:

    Couple of points here:

    1) TFA doesn’t brainwash their teachers (not students…TFA Corps Members are full salaried professionals) into thinking that older teachers are “part of the problem”. In fact, quite the opposite, CMs are told again and again in their training to reach out to their colleagues. You are right…the Nice White Lady scenario usually only brings forth fruit in the movies.

    2) There is no guaranteed spot in the contract. A school district may sign a statement of understanding, but at the end of the day, they are welcome to take fewer CMs (or none!) than they had agreed to if they didn’t find candidates to their liking. My parish signed about 30 fewer TFA teachers than they thought they would, because they liked non-TFA candidates better.

    Almost anybody involved in TFA with the possible exception of Wendy Kopp and Michelle Rhee will tell you that TFA isn’t the silver bullet solution…it is a band-aid. But with the gaping wound of the achievement gap not being fully addressed a band aid is better than nothing.

    • Frederika Says:

      Matt: This is not the case in my school district. Spots were held open for 12 TFA CMs, even thought we have never had difficulty filling openings at any of our schools outside of a few very special positions like foreign language.

  2. thatsrightnate Says:

    Thanks for writing Matt. I guess I’ll try and do this point by point as well.

    1. The TFA brainwashing is something that I have heard from one person who left the TFA program and from another who is still in the TFA program. I don’t know how rampant and widespread this is. Maybe it was just trying to pump up their members about what a positive change they could make, but they both reported being told that the existing teachers were part of the problem.

    2. In deference to nice white ladies, To Sir with Love is about a nice black man, but the principles are the same–only in movies.

    3. New Orleans is kind of a different case and one that I am still getting my head around. I have argued with some very influential residents about what has gone on since Katrina and we’ve basically agreed to disagree though I think we all agree that what Duncan said about Katrina being the best thing to happen to New Orleans schools was pretty outrageous.

    4. My article mentions TFA a lot, but my problem with TFA is really secondary. It basically comes down to teaching being a craft. The best teachers continue to improve, but very few teachers are at their best before they’ve been at it between 4 and 6 years. People who displace career educators for education hobbyists do far more harm than good. People like Michelle Rhee who teach for a couple of year, falsify their biographies, and then suddenly are considered experts are a growing epidemic in urban school settings.

  3. E Favorite Says:

    Hey, Nate – just want to alert you to a guest column I did on GF Brandenburg’s blog. I’t called “The Six bogus beliefs of Michelle Rhee” -using her very own six core beliefs that “every adult in the system” is expected to “act in accordance with.”

    I think you’ll like them:
    http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/the-six-bogus-beliefs-of-michelle-rhee%e2%80%99s-dc-school-reform/

  4. thatsrightnate Says:

    Hey, I read it and enjoyed it very much. I am following GFBrandenburg’s blog and have posted there twice, but they haven’t made it out of moderation.

  5. Matt Brown Says:

    First, I’m really sorry if I came across as cross. I certainly didn’t mean it that way, but re-reading my comment, I can see that I might have come across that way.

    It is certainly possible that some TFA personnel might have made disparaging remarks about older teachers. I am hesitant to think that it would be too widepread of a condition, given how that would appear to be inconsistent with the core values of the organization (incoming CMs are *taught* to approach educational problems with humility and generosity of spirit). We rail against “the system” in general, rather than teachers.

    You won’t find a Rhee apologist in me, and I think most people would agree that TFA isn’t an answer to urban school staffing, or closing the achievement gap. You are also correct that New Orleans is a bit of a crazy case (I don’t agree with Duncan either. I suspect he never taught in a flooded classroom)

  6. thatsrightnate Says:

    Thanks for replying Matt. I did research you online and noticed that you contacted TFA to change the training that people were getting in order to make it more like the classroom management situation they’d face as teachers. That impressed me.

    I’ve been teaching for 10 years, which is way too much for a Broad Fellowship, but I’m not an “old teacher”. My point was not to diminish TFA as much as to point out the value of older teachers. I’ve seen it in Chicago and we are poised to see it again next Fall as experienced minority teachers are displaced for fresh faced AUSL types. In the end, it’s the kids that suffer.

    I also have a problem with TFAs like Rhee who teach for 2 or 3 years before moving on to something better. Any classroom teacher will tell you, that you don’t even hit your stride by year 3.

  7. regretTFA Says:

    i know the post is old, but I still wanted to leave a reply for others who may come across this page. i am BOTH a late-to-teaching career shifter and a TFAer (I like to think of myself as the token “non-traditional” corps member). I can verify that TFA does indeed imply that older teachers are “out of it” and that it is up to young, energetic TFAers to make real change. Just recently I was in a TFA-sponsored discussion group where I got to listen to two 22-year-old girls who had been teaching for 2 months talk about how they “felt better about themselves” because “at least” they weren’t like “those old, boring” teachers at their school. It was so offensive, especially since TFA corps members are rated about the same as any other first year teacher (which isn’t great – experience counts for A LOT in teaching). the reason TFA wants these young energetic people is because they teach you to work all night, every day, every weekend, and basically dedicate all of your life to your work. One of the biggest criticisms of TFA is that these kids leave the classroom after just a couple of years – but this is because TFA promotes a burn-out track that is more harmful than helpful, and believes that the support system that they have (other former TFAers with 2-4 years teaching experience) is better than one you could form at your school. Once I had a question about a Sped student, and I told my TFA contact I was going to work with the head of our Sped department, a veteran teacher with nearly 10 years experience and a Masters in Special Education. He advised me instead to call another corps member at a different school, who was in her second year of teaching. What?? I stuck with my original plan, obviously. TFA is very incestuous – they only hire from within, nearly everyone is under age 35, and they have a very limited view of education. There is a lot of well-meaning, but you know, the road to hell…


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