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Letters to Wendy: Pre-Service Teachers React to Teach for America

03/08/2011 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the face of prevailing education reforms, is what I do important? Seriously. As a teacher educator, pre-service teachers spend their entire senior year with me. In addition to classes, they do two full days in an elementary school in the fall and then transition to five days, essentially full time, in another elementary school in the spring. They get roughly six official weeks of full-time teacher experience over the course of nine months. Schools of education throughout the country prepare teachers in a similar fashion, albeit with slight variations.

My students and I recently discussed Teach for America (TFA), the alternative darling of the mainstream education reform movement. My personal views of the program are conflicted. On the one hand, it kind of makes what we do in so-called "traditional" teacher preparation look foolish. How do extensive and time-consuming clinical experiences stack up against much briefer trainings in pedagogy and immediate employment in extremely difficult settings, redolent of TFA? On the other hand, if we consider the education marketplace, would TFA even exist if they were not fulfilling a need that those of us in "traditional" teacher prep are not? Honestly, I cannot say that many pre-service teachers with whom I worked end up in high-needs schools.

With all due fairness, however, my pre-service teachers in elementary education work harder than many undergraduates in other majors. They certainly work harder than I did my senior year in psychology. For many in more elite circles, education is not considered a serious major. What is more, despite teacher bashing, which is our new national pastime, TFA members appear to be insulated from the same criticism, as if they're taking one for good old Team USA. I could be wrong, but I have not heard much defense of the profession that TFA members apparently love for 24 months.

But after discussing TFA with my students, we participated in an activity called Letters to Wendy. After reading about the history and mission of the program, students in small groups wrote fake letters to TFA founder Wendy Kopp. Here are a few choice quotes:

Supposedly you want to cure the ills of urban schools, yet you are a large contributor to its greatest problem--the revolving door. Students in these low-performing schools need stability more than anything else and you undermine the preparation of high quality teachers in programs across the country.

The thought that people with "higher" degrees can aimlessly teach the most at risk children without proper preparation and training is false and cruel.

Just because someone went to an expensive college doesn't qualify him or her to teach and actually make a different in just two years.

And this one just sort of made me smile a bit:

It's bologna. They have no idea how to teach!

Needless to say, their feelings were somewhat strong, and they needed little prompting from me, although I was very up front with them about my own intellectual struggles with the program. Yet I can't say that I blame them for their strong reactions. They are working extremely hard to enter a profession that is reaching a nadir of negative public scrutiny. Then we have the TFA folks who are viewed as heroes in all of this, supposedly doing what run-of-the-mill teachers can't or won't. I'll admit as I did above that TFA is a notable stopgap measure in high-needs schools. But I won't join in valorizing corps members at the expense of dedicated educators who plan to make a career out of teaching.