Teach for America has altered the landscape of teacher preparation across the country. Typically TFA recruits, as they are commonly known, are given provisional certifications and put into classrooms after taking a short training course. They then take university courses to learn to be a teacher. Learning to be a teacher while already being one poses unique challenges.

My guest today is Matthew Thomas, a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Education and Sociology of Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. He has taught TFA teachers in the past and currently researches the topic. Together with Elisabeth Lefebvre, Matthew has a forthcoming co-written article in Teachers College Record that examines the phenomenon of what they call synchronous-service teacher training.

Citation: Thomas, Matthew A.M., interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 163, podcast audio, July 15, 2019.https://www.freshedpodcast.com/thomas/

Transcript, Translation, Resources:


Will Brehm  2:03
Matthew Thomas, welcome to FreshEd.

Matthew Thomas  2:05
Thanks so much for having me.

Will Brehm  2:07
So, can you give me a sense of the number of Teach for America teachers across the United States?

Matthew Thomas  2:12
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, there are a lot of teachers and alumni of the Teach for America program. Just as a bit of background, the program started in 1990 with about 500 new teachers and the number of new teachers joining the program grew considerably since then. In 2013-14, that was actually a banner year and there were more than 11,000 new teachers who were entering the profession through the program. And the recruitment has dropped off a little bit since then. But according to the TFA website, there’s about 60,000, TFA teachers and alumni of the program that have gone through since 1990 but not all of them are still working as teachers, obviously. So, in reality is probably more like 14,000 teachers and about an additional 4,000 educational administrators and leaders and that type of thing. In terms of the overall percentage, nationwide in the States, we have about 3 million public school teachers. So, the percentage of TFA teachers is somewhat small but I would argue that they have an increasingly prominent role in education in the US.

Will Brehm  3:22
Is the Teach for American model common across the world? Is it found in other countries?

Matthew Thomas  3:29
Yeah, absolutely. And rapidly growing and expanding, I would say. So, essentially, what happened, a woman named Wendy Kopp started Teach for America, as part of her senior thesis at Princeton that she wrote in 1989, then started the program in the US in 1990. A man named Brett Wigdortz then launched Teach First in the United Kingdom in 2002 and he basically used a very similar model as Teach for America. And then they joined together to launch, a kind of parent organization known as Teach for All. And Teach for All was started in 2007, as this larger global network or constellation of programs that are basically based on the Teach for America model. And they’ve expanded quite rapidly, so now there are programs based on Teach for America in approximately 50 countries around the world, across six different continents. Where I’m based in Australia, we have Teach for Australia, where you’re based in Japan, there’s Teach for Japan, Qatar, Ukraine, Uganda, and on and on.

Will Brehm  4:36
And how would you define the model of Teach for America?

Matthew Thomas  4:41
Yeah, good question. So, it’s often couched within this broader body of programs that we call alternative teacher education. And alternative obviously, is often defined in terms of what is not. And so, the opposite of that can sometimes be understood or described as traditional teacher education. We tend to think of that generally, as a four year college recommending program where pre-service teachers would complete a series of coursework, take some courses in their content area, in pedagogy, do some student teaching experiences, those types of things, and then go on to graduate and, hopefully find a job and become a teacher. In contrast to that, then alternative teacher education programs function somewhat differently. And there are a range of models within that broader bucket or category of alternative teacher education. Teach for America would be one of them. And so, it has a very condensed period of teacher preparation that generally occurs over the summer, and then the graduates or recruits would go on to become full-time classroom teachers. So, it is quite a different model.

Will Brehm  5:53
So, does the teacher actually get certified in the state in which she or he ends up teaching?

Matthew Thomas  6:00
Not necessarily, potentially. So oftentimes, they’ll get something like a provisional license or a temporary license. And, as you may know, in the US, much of the educational system is based at the state level. So, there’s wide variance across states and how they handle this. In all instances, they are officially able to teach as full-time classroom teachers in those different state contexts, but they may not have a traditional license or accreditation that would be an ongoing license.

Will Brehm  6:37
Wouldn’t that be illegal?

Matthew Thomas  6:39
That’s a really good question. So, in many states, there are teacher shortages. And so many states therefore have other programs that enable people who have not gone through a traditional college recommending teacher education program to become a teacher. And we see teacher shortages in a variety of areas including special education, ESL, some STEM programs, those types of things. So, it’s possible to get a provisional license or a temporary license in many different states, as long as you meet certain qualifications, pass certain exams, maybe take certain coursework, and then you’re able to do it. So, these particular TFA teachers are certainly not working illegally by any means but they may not have a standard full-time continuing accreditation or license.

Will Brehm  7:33
How many go on to getting that accreditation? Or that permanent license?

Matthew Thomas  7:40
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I know the numbers on that. I know for many of them, it’s, again, dependent on the state or the region that they’re teaching in. And it would depend on what other coursework they’re interested in taking. In many instances, they would have to pay additional tuition to complete a certification program. In some of the Teach for America, some of the Teach for America teachers that I’ve worked with and taught, have gone on to be fully certified, and in some instances, even to complete a master’s degree in education and master’s degree in teaching. But others have not. So, I would say it varies quite widely.

Will Brehm  8:21
So, you have been a trainer of Teach for America teachers, can you tell me a little bit about that experience? Where did you do that? You know, in what context? How did that even come about?

Matthew Thomas  8:33
Yeah, absolutely. So, in many states, again, there’s some variation across them. But in many states, there’s a university partner that Teach for America partners with and this university provides a series of coursework and other activities to help certify and maintain adequate progress towards licensure or certification. For these Teach for America teachers when they are on temporary or provisional licenses. And so, I started working as a teacher educator, with Teach for America teachers to teach some of the courses that they were required to take. And as someone who went through a traditional teacher education program, to be quite honest, I had relatively little familiarity with the program until I started teaching them and kind of learning from their experiences, then I became curious and started reading more about the program, starting to understand some of the challenges that some of the teachers were facing, and that helped me understand my students a lot better as well. And so, I taught at least one graduate course per semester. Sometimes I taught two that were comprised of Teach for America teachers. These were master’s level graduate courses, they typically ran between three and four hours long. So, they would meet once a week for three or four hours in the evenings. So, the teachers in the program were already working full time. So, they were in their schools teaching all day, and then coming to these graduate courses in the evening. So, as an instructor, a little bit challenging to work for three or four hours long with graduate students who had already put in a full day.

Will Brehm  10:17
Yeah. Okay, so you are teaching in a graduate school of education. And these Teach for America teachers that you end up teaching, they aren’t mixing with your other graduate classes. It’s sort of separate from the other classes that you’re teaching. It’s an individual Teach for America graduate class?

Matthew Thomas  10:41
Yeah, so it’s quite interesting. In some instances, they were self-contained TFA teachers, and I think that was probably more common. In other instances, they were combined with other graduate students. And as an instructor, as a teacher educator, it was generally a little bit easier to work with the Teach for America teachers, when they were self-contained because they had unique needs and experiences that were quite different than some of the other graduate students because of the program that these other students were in. So, for example, the Teach for America teachers, were teaching full-time, all day, every day in elementary schools or secondary schools, whereas many of my other graduate students were not yet teaching full-time. They were in a program, preparing them to be teachers and that program was more akin to what we would consider a pre-service teacher education program, whereas the Teach for America teachers, they were already doing the job that a pre service teacher education program would prepare them to do.

Will Brehm  11:42
So, did this course that you were teaching to these TFA teachers? Did it match their needs? Like were you able to respond and actually help them, in a sense, manage the challenges that they’re facing inside the classrooms during their working hours?

Matthew Thomas  12:02
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I guess my answer would be yes, and no. In some ways, I think we were able to accomplish some things, in others, maybe less so. And perhaps I’ll back up a little bit to talk about some of the previous preparation that the Teach for America teachers have had. So, as part of the program, generally, Teach for America teachers have not studied education previously. So, they’ve generally not completed a pre-service teacher education at a university. They’re recruited, they would be accepted and then join Teach for America. And then over the summer, they would go to something called, Summer Institute, which is a five-week teacher-training program, generally five week it varies somewhat, and at that program, they would engage in a series of different activities where they would have some sessions or workshops on pedagogy or on lesson planning, or those types of things and then they would be teaching at summer schools, receive feedback on their teaching, those types of things. But all of that is condensed into five weeks. So, it’s an immensely intense experience, notorious, I would say, even infamous, in many ways amongst core members and Teach for America teachers, for that experience. And there was actually a recent PhD study done by someone who worked for Teach for America and they studied the stress of this Summer Institute, that the Teach for America teachers were going through, and basically found that they had this immense amount of stresses, they were trying to process all of this new information and trying to learn and be comfortable and confident as a future teacher. So, the preparation that they receive is really quite condensed. And then after the Summer Institute program, they would arrive in their region, maybe do a short induction program, and then begin working full time as a classroom teacher at the end of August, or beginning of September, whenever the school year begins in that particular area. And in some instances, the very first week of the school year, where they were teaching at the elementary or secondary level, they also started these graduate courses that I was involved in teaching. So, you know, imagine a first year teacher showing up and just trying to get a feel for the names of their students and kind of the levels of learning and all of those types of things, having only had a five or so week, program in the summer, and then all of a sudden, you’re stuck, for lack of a better word, in a three hour or four hour graduate level course. And so needless to say, many of them were not super eager to be there initially. And so, I had to, you know, spend some emotional labor trying to build some connections and establish my pedagogical credibility there. So, because I started to learn about their experiences and how the program was structured, I really tried to adapt and tailor the graduate courses that I was teaching to their needs. And I had a senior colleague who recommended spending the first several minutes of the course, just time to discuss and debrief and problem solve questions. And so, kind of leave it as an open space for dialogue amongst the teachers to share things that they were concerned about. So, I would receive questions like, how much recess should I provide for first graders? Or is it better to use the recess time to teach literacy or that type of thing? Or questions about how I transition from large group instruction to small group instruction and, and so, some of the unique needs I think of the Teach for America teachers really came out in those conversations, because they were looking for things to implement the next day. You know, this kind of immediacy of “Okay, I’m here at graduate school, what you tell me tonight better be implementable tomorrow morning.”

Will Brehm  16:02
It sounds like an incredibly difficult job for you. I mean, because your what you do is going to have immediate consequences in all sorts of schools where these teachers go, and you know, the next morning go to. So, I mean, how did you yourself navigate this very difficult space of training teachers who were currently teaching?

Matthew Thomas  16:26
Yeah, no, that’s a really good question. And in a forthcoming paper, my colleague, Elizabeth Lefebvre, and I kind of explore that issue. And one of the things that I started to think about were the ways that different forums of teacher education and professional development were set up for teachers. And so, on one hand, we have kind of the standard traditional model of pre-service teacher education, which takes as its starting point the assumption that the students they’re teaching the future teachers have not yet started teaching, so therefore, we have X amount of time to prepare them. And so, we can do courses in pedagogy and content and pedagogical content knowledge and send them out into schools to do practicum experiences and those types of things. So, the pre-service teachers have not really taken on the full responsibility of being a teacher yet. So, you have that kind of program on one hand, and on the other you have the more in-service teacher education model, where you would go out into schools and conduct professional developments or professional learning with working teachers, many of whom have been in the classroom for a while or have already gone through a pre-service teacher education program, maybe an alternative licensure program, but they already have a considerable amount of experience. And so, starting to kind of realize this and think about that these teachers were almost stuck in this intermediary, liminal space where they weren’t pre-service teachers because they were already working full-time. But at the same time, they weren’t in service teachers who had completed a longer period of teacher preparation. And so, they were both being and becoming a teacher at the same time. And it was in these graduate courses that I started to really feel this tension where they were being prepared for something that they were already doing.

Will Brehm  18:23
And I mean, that’s quite interesting, because it seems as if then, the graduate school, and the courses offered to these sort of TFA teachers who are sort of in and in-between space needs to be redesigned. I mean, or actually designed to begin with, I mean, it doesn’t sound like there’s a graduate program that has actually taken that into account in a serious way to, to think through what these TFA teachers actually need in this process.

Matthew Thomas  18:55
Yeah, no, that’s a really good point and question. And I think the programs or the university TFA partnerships definitely look different across different regions. So, I can kind of only speak from my experience as a teacher educator at this one institution. But I think our tale, or our example was one of considerable misalignments where the programming didn’t quite fit the needs of these TFA teachers and, to be honest, I was a teacher educator not really involved in the agreements, or how they were set up from kind of a programmatic structure. And I will say that, that the teacher education programming was reformed over time, such that it better fit the needs of the TFA teachers but certainly at the outset, there was this kind of critical misalignment that I’m not sure was beneficial for the TFA teachers, I’m not sure it was really beneficial for the teacher educators like myself, and so there was this kind of perpetual tension.

Will Brehm  19:56
Yeah. And then, of course, what happens in the classroom to the students, it would be another sort of question to be asking. I mean, it makes me wonder, you know, so there’s a majority of teachers in schools have gone through this sort of traditional pre service training, and then over the years, sort of, complement that with in-service training. But then there’s this sort of, you know, growing group of teachers in schools across America, and perhaps the world that are going through this very strange hybrid form of these University-TFA partnerships, where you taught a few courses. So, it makes me wonder, it’s almost as if there’s two different classes of teachers that are sort of emerging. And I wonder if you noticed any, like, how did the TFA teachers perceive those teachers who just went through the normal pre-service training inside their schools when they went and taught?

Matthew Thomas  20:59
Yeah. That’s a great question. I think, we do see a proliferation of different models, not only Teach for America but certainly other so-called alternative route teacher education programs as well. There was one study done not too long ago that showed that about 40% of all first-year teachers have completed an alternative teacher education program and that percentage has risen considerably in the last 20 or 30 years. You know, if you went back to the 1970s, 1980s, almost all of the teachers working full-time would have gone through a traditional pre-service teacher education program. So, we do see a rapid proliferation of alternative teacher education programs, not only in the US but around the world as well. And so, there are different experiences. And I think, also, it’s important to note that there are certainly different needs as well. So, you know, many of these alternative routes exist because you might have an individual who gets a bachelor’s degree in something other than education starts working, and then at some point, decides they want to become a teacher, well, it’s probably not fair to ask them to go through, you know, a really long four or five year program when they already have a bachelor’s degree. So, it makes sense that we do have other kind of alternative forums for those people. In my experience and based on the longitudinal study that that I’ve been conducting with Elizabeth Lefebvre, we’ve looked at a set of these Teach for America teachers and to get back to your question, I think the way that they have interacted with or perceived other teachers who have gone through more traditional pre-service teacher education route, really varies quite widely. And so, on one hand, one of the teachers in my study talks a little bit about kind of these magical individuals who were super, super compassionate and running around the room. And were just these kinds of models of exemplary teaching, essentially. So, you have that on one hand. And then on the other hand, almost this, distasteful, disrespect, or disdain for the kind of prototypical lazy, ineffective teacher who, you know, carries around a coffee mug that says, I live for the summer, you know, or says things in the faculty room that “the three best things about teaching are June, July and August”, and you know, that type of thing. So, I think it varies quite widely.

Will Brehm  23:35
Yeah, right. I mean, I’m trying to reflect on my own university experience. And I remember, you know, in senior year of my university undergraduate degree, Teach for America would come and visit campus to sort of recruit students. And there was TFA recruiters on campus and a lot of my friends would go and have these interviews and conversations, and they sort of, it was almost like this really prestigious job that they were trying to get. And is that a common experience? You know, you were saying, also that there might have been people who started another career and then wanted to switch over. So, you know, in a sense, can you give us a sense who these TFA teachers are? Like, are they undergraduates just graduated, moving into the TFA space? Or are they, you know, going down a different track? And then moving over to teaching later on a few years later?

Matthew Thomas  24:32
Yeah. Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, theoretically, they could be anyone. So Teach for America has a pretty competitive application process. And so theoretically, anybody could apply and get into the program. Historically, and kind of connecting with your personal vignette there, Teach for America has operated according to what Blumenreich and Rogers call this kind of magical thinking of the best and the brightest. So, this idea that we’re going to recruit at America’s most elite universities, we’re going to recruit the best students at those elite universities, who have been leaders on a sports team, or class president or something like that, and specifically target people who would not normally consider becoming a teacher. And so, I think that’s part of the logic and the theory of change of the organization, to invest in these bright, kind of very hardworking, committed leaders and individuals to recruit them into the teaching profession. And so, a lot of the theory of change is kind of premised on that idea. And some other scholars have basically pointed out that kind of drawing on Carol Bacchi’s work about the problem of the policy that this situates the problem of educational equity and educational quality. The locus is on the teacher themselves, and so the answer then becomes almost exclusively fixing the notion of the teacher, rather than looking more systemically at all of the issues recognizing that, of course, teaching quality and who goes into the profession certainly matters alongside all of the other things like the amount of support provided to teachers, the salaries that they have received all of those types of things. So that, you know, all of that said, I do think that the number of people joining Teach for America has gotten more diverse in the last several years, not only recent college graduates, also, my understanding is that they’re cohorts have gotten more diverse, so more teachers of color have been joining, and those types of things. So there have been changes in recent years, but historically, it has been just like you were saying, kind of heavily recruited at specific universities.

Will Brehm  26:54
Yeah, it occurs to me that this logic or theory of change you said of Teach for America, it is about this idea that you hear in say, like Silicon Valley, the disruption. Like we’re going to disrupt this industry of public education. And it always sits with me a little uncomfortably because it sort of assumes that public education, there’s, you know, massive problems, and it’s a terrible industry. And we need to have these young, ambitious people disrupted and have a totally different setup in the end, but then I just wonder, you know, is it really happening? And is that even possible? And why is the logic even created like that? And then is it even good? I mean, so I have all these questions that I guess, I don’t really know, know the answer to but is that logic of disruption, like, in the Uber sense, present in TFA?

Matthew Thomas  27:52
Yeah, I think, I think absolutely. It comes out in a number of different ways. So, one example, there’s a spin off organization called Leadership for Educational Equity, which is, as I mentioned, a spinoff from Teach for America, they will fund the political campaigns of alumni of Teach for America teachers, so people who have gone through Teach for America. And, you know, the obvious goal is to affect policy at all levels, from your local school board, to the state level to the national level. And there have been some very prominent alumni of Teach for America, who have been involved in politics. And I think there will probably be an increasing number who go through programs like Leadership for Educational Equity. And again, I think that there’s a large premise of disruption, as you’re mentioning that rises through these processes. But I think we need to be careful. And I think you’re right to express some caution there. And so, you know, there’s been some studies that distress the “White savior complex” and trying to make sure that we don’t have people going to communities as you know, kind of foreigners almost, who know how to do certain things and kind of position themselves in that kind of way. We’ve seen other evidence of displacement of veteran teachers, and kind of privileging of charter schools, in some instances, even though TFA also aims to place teachers in more traditional public schools as well. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of concern about some of the future of programs like Teach for America, and, again, stemming back to Teach for All, this larger umbrella network, I think there’s concerned as well, as these programs proliferate around the world, as they’re now in about 50 different countries. And so, for this reason, along with two colleagues, Katherine Crawford-Garrett and Emilee Rauschenber, I have been working on a new book project that includes some empirical research on different variations of similar programs based on Teach for America around the world, including chapters that look at Teach for X country, Teach for Y country, that type of thing. So, look forward to that in 2020, hopefully, but I think, as you mentioned, you know, it’s certainly along that same vein of the notion of disruption.

Will Brehm  30:17
So, what are some of these larger implications, then of models, like Teach for America or Teach for All vis a vis, public education?

Matthew Thomas  30:26
Ah, implications, gosh! So many, I think, potentially, you know, on one hand, much of my research has really shown and looked at how much pressure these Teach for America teachers are under when they get into their schools. And as I mentioned, there’s a condensed training period and I think the organization tries to provide additional support to them through the year. But at least what I’ve heard from the people who are in my study is that they were working incredibly hard hours, long hours, they felt very insecure in many instances about their roles as teachers, and so even though I wasn’t in the classroom conducting observations of them, I have to wonder how their own anxieties as teachers were playing out in their classroom spaces. And so, I think that’s certainly a potential implication. As I mentioned earlier, through other organizations and the number of Teach for America alumni who are going on to leadership positions, I think there’s a possibility for really significant policy change and other changes that may push education in a direction that becomes more instrumentalists -so more focused on achievement scores and other things because of those lenses that I think in some instances are carried through the stream. Just as one quick example, I know, not too long ago, all three candidates for the state commissioner of Massachusetts were TFA alumni, so there are, you know, increasingly, I think, assuming really prominent positions. But, you know, I will also say that there’s one individual in my study, who comes to mind, who was an English major at university, then was placed as an ESL teacher in a traditional public school, and, you know, seven years on is still in that school teaching in that same kind of space. And I’ve not observed this individual teach but I think, you know, it seems like they’re doing really well there. I believe the leader of their school union, so very involved, and this person probably would not be in education otherwise without Teach for America. So, I think the implications are really, really mixed. I think my final kind of caution, I guess, or consideration, maybe is that we think really deeply and carefully about how the program functions and where possible try to implement some structural change to the program. At the same time that we also think carefully and deeply about traditional teacher education and trying to make sure that all of our students have a really good education. So, you know, that notion of high equity and high quality together at the same time for all of the schools in America and beyond.

Will Brehm  33:15
Well, Matthew Thomas, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, it really was a pleasure of talking today.

Matthew Thomas  33:19
Oh, thanks so much really enjoyed it.

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