Oops. I Used My Outside Voice.


oops-i-used-my-outside-voiceI woke up this morning with a void in my heart and I wasn’t sure why, until just this moment.  I haven’t really irritated anyone in quite some time.

At least deliberately.

So, read at your own risk and have your blood pressure medication nearby.  I’m about to defend Teach For America.

Deep breath.  Breathe.  Now the pill.  Good.  See?  You’re still alive.

First my disclaimers.  TFA is not a panacea for the world’s woes, as some would suggest.  It doesn’t cure cancer, feed hungry children, nor eliminate the need for the Jerry Lewis Telethon.  I don’t think it could even distract me from my unhealthy addiction to Miracle Whip. Actually, there is a lot about the program – and the thinking behind it – that is flat out misguided.  However…

Still breathing?  Great.  Don’t look down.  Eyes on me.  That’s good.  One foot in front of the other.

I can speak from experience on this issue; my ideology is being shelved for the next 200 words.  I’m an NBCT who values the profession and values “classically” trained and supported teachers. However, I’ve also been an administrator at a poverty school, several days away from putting kids in desks with no teacher to actually teach.  And, my problem had nothing to do with my high standards. It’s a reality that is faced across the nation, every day:  We have a talent crisis.  It doesn’t matter how I feel about it either, or whether it insults the profession to bring in a TFA candidate.  What I do know is that those teachers bailed my school out, time and again.  Further, they typically did so admirably.

Some argue that teaching isn’t a charitable profession, that teachers aren’t do-gooders in the Peace Corps.  Really?  Have you looked at the paychecks?  If that’s not charity work, I don’t know what is.  We all agree that education cannot consistently attract an abundance of top-flight talent because the pay is, in my opinion, unethical.  Hence, some students end up with teachers who should have been counseled out of their university programs, not being responsible for the success of our next generation.

In spite of my concerns about TFA, many of those kids did bring something that was hard to find.  Marzano calls it “withitness;” that undefinable attribute when teachers just get “it.”

I preferred a more easily understandable descriptor.  I called it “intelligence wrapped in sweet interpersonal bacon.”

(I chose this expression, not because it made sense, but because everything is better wrapped in bacon.  And, I’m a guy. I don’t have to make sense.)

These were kids with ambition.  They were convinced they could change the world.  They had survived rigorous university coursework.  They had withitness.  Were they clinically great teachers out of the box?  No. However, their growth rate was typically astronomical.  Professional development seemed to simply stick to them.

The bigger question surrounding TFA isn’t what is wrong with it, it’s how do we keep the talent that emerges? How do we leverage what they bring to the table and turn them into professional educators, over time?   How do we recruit the same sort of talent; kids that could become anything – but choose education.  Kids that can change the world. Because, quite bluntly, our university system is cheating us.  Ask any administrator; there simply isn’t enough talent available.  I don’t mean “good enough” talent, I mean exemplary talent.

Talent that can change the world.

I say we stop wasting energy defending or ripping TFA.  Let’s part it out and find the value embedded within the flawed model.   Let’s actually propose a counter-solution that is doable.

In the process, let’s also see if we can’t irk everyone.  That’s usually a sign that we’re on to something worthwhile.

Still breathing?  Don’t get too excited.  You’ll have to go through this again in two weeks when I write my follow-up.


Mike Lee

Mike Lee

Phoenix, Arizona

I am the Director of Outreach and Engagement for The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and certified as a Middle Childhood Generalist in 2004. In 2012, I received my doctorate in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, however, I began my work in education serving as a para-educator in a special education program while still an undergraduate. My passions in the field include assessment and reporting strategies, the evolving role of technology, teacher leadership, and effective professional development that permanently impacts instruction. I consider myself a professional teacher first, as well as a professionally evolving lifelong learner, who is incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to impact the lives of children.

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