The Problem With Teach for America

Eight years ago, I became principal of Mastery Charter Schools’ Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, to continue a turnaround at one the most oppressed schools in the city that had been plagued by low achievement and violence. Despite having many traditionally certified and very experienced teachers, few students were receiving the quality of education and environment they needed to succeed.

Today, we send 84 percent of our students on to four-year colleges. That success is built on many factors, including the hard work of talented, dedicated teachers who connect with my students, push my students to do more, excite my students to pursue their dreams, and help my students to overcome very real obstacles in their everyday lives.

My teachers are warriors. They are charged with a common purpose: to provide excellent educational opportunities to my students. They are equipped with content knowledge, pedagogy, and instructional craft to deliver in their classrooms each and every day. They have passion, tenacity, and steadfast commitment. They don’t give up.

Our Teachers Are Warriors, They Don’t Give Up On Kids

Part of our staffing strategy includes Teach For America corps members and alumni who continue on in the classroom and in leadership positions. It’s a partnership that started when I began my principalship thirteen years ago when I had to choose between hiring seven long-term substitute teachers or seven new teachers through TFA.

Today, approximately 40 percent of my classroom teachers and 40 percent of my leadership team began their teaching careers through Teach For America, including four current corps members and two alumni who were founding members of our  Mastery Charter–Shoemaker Campus 10 years ago.

There Were No Long Lines of Teachers Signing Up to Educate These Black Children

And, while there are many criticisms of TFA, some of them founded, there was no long line of traditionally certified, veteran teachers jumping at the chance to teach Black children when I began my partnership with this organization. When I needed educators to sign up to fight oppression, these idealistic youth stood up.

Last summer, I took Teach For America’s principal survey, and when the results came out, I wasn’t surprised to see that principals reported high levels of satisfaction with corps members. I appreciate TFA’s interest in hearing from school leaders about where the organization is succeeding and what they can do better. The survey also gave me a moment to reflect on why we consistently hire TFA corps members and alumni.

At My School, I am looking for a Specific Type of Educator

At Shoemaker, we need educators who want to help move the needle for kids in communities that have been underserved for generations. Together, we do everything we can to help our students grow into young leaders and get to the day when they can come back to serve this community. I grew up in this community. I still live in this community, and many of the children who come to our school are my neighbors.  The importance of community we share with our families is why I hire teachers who are committed to live and breathe the mission of this school.

When I hire a teacher, I’m looking for someone who will work hard, collaborate with my team, listen and learn from constructive feedback, and engage my students.

TFA corps members have come to us with strong academic skills, a high level of self-efficacy, and an ability to respond quickly to coaching. Moreover, they have come to us with the passion and desire to take on the complex and challenging obstacles and are open to the self-reflection that is vital to success in our community-a community that is resisting systemic oppression and racism that can make recruitment and retention difficult. Everyone doesn’t want to teach in the context of helping students to liberate themselves. It is a different type of teaching.

We’ve found that our TFA corps members want to apply their strengths, talents, and hunger for understanding to contribute to our communities that are neglected through systemic oppression and racism. They are dedicated to teaching because they understand that access to a quality education is a social-justice issue, and they are focused on leading and building on positive changes that need to be made not only within the classroom but within the entire system.

They Invested Well Beyond Two Years

From founding teachers and TFA alums Megan Zor and Nadirah Sulayman to our newest corps members, we have found TFA teachers have this mindset and are willing to battle the obstacles for our kids. And for this reason, many stay in our school and our education system long after their initial two-year commitment is up.

On our 10th anniversary, I look at our current corps members, and I see the same drive, the same desire to connect with the community, and the same willingness to dive in wherever they are needed. Morgan Machiorlette, a second-year corps member, is now our eighth grade team lead. New corps member Chloe Brown immediately joined our social context committee, which helps make curriculum decisions and ensures we are providing culturally responsive options for students. Maryanne Hayde leads the Wise Women Read literacy program, which brings our students to the main Philadelphia library to meet respected authors. She is carrying on the legacy of Megan Zor, who launched the program two years ago to effectively help us build a Culture of Literacy and a School of Readers.

Teacher Leadership, Self-Efficacy & Freedom Fighting

Our teachers have demonstrated high levels of leadership, self-efficacy and an  unwavering propensity for the freedom fighting mindset necessary for the liberation of our community’s youth. Nadirah Sulayman is our Social Emotional Learning teacher, intensely focused on supporting students’ development of a positive racial identity and post-secondary success through her classroom instruction.

Other TFA alums leading in our school community include Deanna Giustino, who serves as our network’s Physics leader; Adebunkola Samuel, who has been a Grade Team Leader; and Amber Daniel, who is our testing coordinator. Both Daniel and Samuel are Black female teachers teach high level math-a counter narrative in some spaces. And, Kim Crandall has served as a teacher leader in both of the schools that I have led.

My school leadership team also includes Katie Ziemba and Kristina Walrath, TFA alumni originally from the Philadelphia area who are committed to resolving the injustice of educational inequity through ensuring the implementation of high-quality instruction and a robust system of supports so that all kids can succeed at high levels.

Teach For America corps members and alumni teachers have a deep impact on the culture of our school and the success of our students because they understand that their work in providing a quality education can be a catalyst of change in our students’ lives. Today, at least seven of the TFA teachers who worked in my schools over the years have become school leaders themselves, and so many others have served as teacher leaders.

Together, with our diverse staff and faculty that includes traditionally and non-traditionally prepared educators, we’re seeing signs that we’re on the right track to preparing all of our students for a life of their choosing. We are all partners in this fight for educational equity, and as warriors in education, we’ll conquer many battles together over the next 10 years.

Maybe the actual problem is something else.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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