Over the next few weeks, 5,200 new Teach For America members will become first-year teachers in some of this nation’s most challenging school settings. In lieu of a traditional, year-long teacher preparation program, they just spent five weeks attending one of the organization's eight summer training institutes. That short time span makes the institute an intense experience, and critics say it can’t truly prepare corps members to teach.
The institutes are overseen by Susan Asiyanbi, Teach For America’s executive vice president for teacher preparation, support and development, who draws on her personal experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago and working as a corps member in Newark, New Jersey, as well her Kellogg M.B.A. We caught up with her to find out what the organization is doing to improve its training program, and got some answers to some of the common critiques of the process.
GOOD: What does a typical day at the institute look like for a corps member?
Susan Asiyanbi: They begin by student-teaching public school students while being observed and coached by a veteran teacher and a Teach For America instructional coach. Student teaching is followed by instructional sessions and workshops, led by experienced teachers, on effective teaching practices like setting big goals, building strong classroom culture, and developing curriculum. In addition, corps members have time to use data to assess their students’ progress and collaborate with other teachers—new and experienced—on lesson planning.
GOOD: Critics say that corps members aren't as prepared as they should be.
Asiyanbi: Being a first-year teacher is a challenging job, regardless of how you were trained. The most recent study from Tennessee, which looked at 42 different teacher preparation programs, found that Teach For America corps members outperformed the average new teacher across all subject areas and grade levels.
Our teacher training does not end with summer institute, but continues throughout a corps members’ time in the classroom. Corps members receive ongoing professional development from regional Teach For America staff, including feedback from experienced instructional coaches. In addition, Teach For America corps members typically enroll at a local university to complete state teacher licensing requirements, and also have the opportunity to obtain a master's degree in education during their two-year commitment.
GOOD: Teach For America corps members are stereotyped as white and from privileged backgrounds, and so they don't know how to relate to low income black and brown kids and their communities. How does the institute ensure they're ready to work with a diverse population?
Asiyanbi: It is important for our corps to be diverse, and we’re continuing to focus on increasing our diversity. One third of our 2011 corps identify as people of color. Twelve percent are African American, and 8 percent are Hispanic. Our corps also is economically diverse—22 percent are the first in their family to graduate from college and nearly one-third received Pell Grants.
We believe all of our corps members have the capacity to be great teachers, regardless of their background. To be an effective teacher in an underserved public school, corps members must be grounded in an understanding of the communities where they teach and be able to build relationships with students and their families.
GOOD: Do institute staff talk to them about the education climate where—like in Kansas City—veteran teachers are being laid off and districts are bringing in corps members, and so there might possibly be a lack of goodwill toward them at their school sites?
Asiyanbi: Teach For America is just one of multiple sources of high-quality teachers for high-need schools and subjects areas. Our corps members apply for open positions along with other veteran teachers and are typically hired for hard-to-staff subjects, like special education and science.
It takes teamwork at the school level to reach our goal of providing all students an effective education. With that goal in mind, we prepare our teachers to work collaboratively with veteran teachers and fellow corps members.
GOOD: How does Teach For America incorporate feedback from corps members, principals and school district officials to improve the institute year-to-year?
SA: During the institute, we survey our corps members, as well as supervising teachers and principals, on their experience with the program. We use this information to make adjustments during the summer program. After institute is finished, we also use survey data to identify both what works and areas for improvement for the following year.
GOOD: What are one or two improvements that you're already thinking about making for next year?
Asiyanbi: One idea is to strengthen our system for monitoring student learning growth. We think it’s critical for our corps members to have the best possible systems and skills to track student performance and make data-driven decisions to propel student achievement. We will continue to refine how we support our corps members in this critical area during institute. We are also thinking through how we can create learning experiences that will support our corps members’ development in particular content areas, such as math and reading.
Photo courtesy of Susan Asiyanbi.