Nashville’s Teach For America Recruits Often Lauded, But Rarely Stay More Than A Few Years

Almost a hundred young teachers just wrapped up two-year stints in Nashville by way of Teach For America.

They’re often rated among the district’s best newcomers, but the program is sometimes slammed for staffing tough classrooms with ambitious but inexperienced college grads, many of whom leave after just a few years to attend law school or pursue policy work.

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With guests including Nashville's mayor and congressman, some 90 TFA teachers in dapper vests and elegant dresses were honored for finishing their initial two years in Nashville.  Many will move on to other jobs or other districts in the next year or two. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

With guests including Nashville’s mayor and congressman, some 90 TFA teachers in dapper vests and elegant dresses were honored for finishing their initial two years in Nashville. Many will move on to other jobs or other districts in the next year or two. Credit WPLN / Daniel Potter

There’s no shortage of skeptics of Teach For America, but the program also has its share of cheerleaders in Nashville, like Mayor Karl Dean, who spoke last month at a swank alumni celebration for the group that just finished its two-year commitment:

“One of the things I think it’s important to understand – You’re doing God’s work,” said Dean, who helped recruit TFA into Metro schools. “You’ve got to make me one promise: when you’re all done, whatever you do, whether you stay in teaching, whether you start a school or run for office and run for the school board, that you will stay in Nashville,” he concluded to cheers.

The event felt like a graduation at times, albeit for 20-somethings with degrees in fields like international studies and public relations.  Older alums spoke of going on to careers everywhere from politics to psychiatry, repeating a kind of mantra: ‘Your work begins now.’

More Tend To Exit Over Time

The night was a chance for some to say ‘goodbye’ after two years, though more than a few will head back to the classroom in the fall.  Of Metro’s first Teach For America group from 2009, half stayed and taught a third year, and 42 percent a fourth.  And some of those who left are still teaching, albeit in other districts now.

Research from North Carolina, which has a longer history with TFA, shows more tend to leave over time.  Just 10 percent from the program were still at it there five years after they began, compared to 70 percent who trained to be teachers in-state.

Melissa Hendricks expects to keep teaching for a good while, though she would eventually like to do more, saying “Ultimately – this is a lofty goal – my fiancée and I hope to someday start a nonprofit.”

TFA is an elite resume builder – a springboard.  The state’s top education official, Kevin Huffman, started through the program in Houston in the early 90s, as did the head of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Chris Barbic.  Elissa Kim, the challenger who unseated the chair of the Metro school board last year is also a TFA veteran, and still works as a recruiter.  They all spent at least two years working in underprivileged schools.

Getting Praise Now, Getting Out Eventually

Kayleigh Wettstein, a graduate from Northwestern University in Illinois, came through TFA to Nashville, where she continues to teach third-grade English-language learners while working toward her next degree. Credit Daniel Potter / WPLN

Kayleigh Wettstein, a graduate from Northwestern University in Illinois, came through TFA to Nashville, where she continues to teach third-grade English-language learners while working toward her next degree. Credit Daniel Potter / WPLN

Kayleigh Wettstein teaches English-language learners at J.E. Moss Elementary in Antioch.  The New Jersey native got her degree in Human Development and Psychological Services from Northwestern.  Like Wettstein, many in TFA hail from top schools, leading some to argue the program doesn’t so much develop hard workers as recruit them.

Wettstein just wrapped up her third year in Metro, but won’t stay at this job forever.   She’s on a path to become an administrator or an instructional coach, working alongside teachers to help them get better in an exhausting business.

“My first two years, it was probably between 80 and 100 hours a week.  Now it’s a little bit less just because I’m balancing school and – I’m going to school myself at Lipscomb.  So that takes up a significant amount of time as well.”

The principal at JE Moss, Carlos Comer, says if he could hang on to teachers as good as Wettstein for longer, he would, because he respects the program and likes its handiwork.  Comer wrote his dissertation on teacher attrition, and, having hired several from TFA in the last few years, he only has one complaint: they leave.

“I have a teacher that I’ve worked with the past two years – outstanding fourth grade teacher,” Comer says.  “But her contract is up, and so she’s going to law school.  So now, I’m having to start over to develop another candidate.”

The next hire could well be another from Teach For America.  Metro is expecting 75 first-year recruits this coming school year, with more on the way to charter schools in the district.


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