Vanderbilt’s Love/Hate Relationship With Teach For America

Vanderbilt's Peabody College has been ranked as the top education school in the country by U.S. News and World report for the last five years. Credit: Vanderbilt Peabody College / Reed Brown

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College has been ranked as the top education school in the country by U.S. News and World report for the last five years. Credit: Vanderbilt Peabody College / Reed Brown

In the education world, friction has developed between teachers who come to the profession the old fashioned way and the increasing number who enter through a side door, particularly Teach for America. The rub has become particularly glaring at Vanderbilt University.

The West End campus is now one of the biggest recruiting grounds for Teach for America, which takes a headhunter approach to finding talented students from elite colleges to spend two years as teachers. But Vandy is also home to one of the nation’s top education schools – Peabody College.

“A reliance on Teach for America is an assault to the idea of teaching as a profession,” says Peabody professor Marcy Singer-Gabella.

Singer-Gabella specializes in teacher training. And she doesn’t think much of TFA, which now has hundreds of of teachers working in Nashville and Memphis.

Teaching is already hemorrhaging experience, though TFA is hardly the only factor. Pop into a classroom in the late 80s, and odds were there’d be a 15-year veteran. Do the same today, and the teacher is more likely in her first or second year, Singer-Gabella says, citing a 2010 study.

At times, Singer-Gabella tries to talk students on campus out of taking a position, especially if they only see the experience as padding for a resume prior to law school or a Wall Street job. Teach for America, she says, sets people up for a “sprint” that creates a “perpetual cycle of novices.”

“I can do anything if I am 23-years-old and am super smart and have leadership and organizational skills. I can go in and I can drill down and focus on the things that are going to get test scores up,” she says. 

Model Teachers

Nationally, only about a third of Teach for America recruits stay in the classroom long term. But according to how their students perform on standardized tests, they are some of the best new teachers around.

2013 graduate Mackenzie Bell says she considered studying education at Vanderbilt but opted for political science so she could finish her degree in four years. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

2013 graduate Mackenzie Bell says she considered studying education at Vanderbilt but opted for political science so she could finish her degree in four years. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Dressed in flats and a polka dot blouse, Mackenzie Bell paces around tables of eighth-graders learning the Pythagorean theorem at Donelson Middle School. The 2013 Vanderbilt political science grad has the attention of everyone in the room.

“This table is college-ready,” Bell says to encourage students who are following instructions.

Along the back wall rests a stack of steel folding chairs. That’s where other teachers sit when the principal sends them to watch and take notes.

Bell has been deemed a “model teacher” even though this is her first year in the classroom and instead of studying four years to be an educator, she went through TFA’s seven-week crash course.

“Yeah, isn’t that interesting,” she says. “I’m not saying teaching is easy. Teaching is a craft. And I’m only going to get better every day at it.”

But Bell says she was “more-than prepared” and encountered “no surprises.”

In 2013, Vanderbilt tied with Harvard University for being the mid-sized school to contribute the most TFA signees – 45. More than three times that number applied.

Senior Sarah Chu just landed a TFA job in Dallas.

“Me personally, I don’t necessarily know what I want to do with my life, you know, with my math major,” she says.

Chu says before TFA, she hadn’t considered teaching. 

Paying A Premium For Talent

Nearly 50 school districts work with Teach for America. They pay the teachers just like any first-year educator, but they also pay TFA. In Nashville, the organization gets a total of $14,000 per teacher, per year. TFA corps members now make up nearly one-in-six new teachers hired in Metro Schools.

*Principals have the final say on hiring in Metro Schools, but in many school districts, TFA gets first dibs.

“I generally have a problem if those guys are getting priority job placement,” says Vanderbilt senior Henry Munk, who is taking the traditional route from Peabody to the classroom.

On a recent afternoon, Munk and a dozen other aspiring teachers huddle around laptops. They’re breaking down video of themselves student teaching history lessons.

Henry Munk and fellow Peabody students critique video of themselves delivering a history lesson as student teachers. Munk says he respects anyone willing to teach - even for a few years. But he gets irked that TFA teachers often get priority. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Henry Munk and fellow Peabody students critique video of themselves delivering a history lesson as student teachers. Munk says he respects anyone willing to teach – even for a few years. But he gets irked that TFA teachers often get priority. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Unlike the TFA signees, these students don’t have jobs lined up yet. But more than the competition, Munk says it feels like Teach for America gets all the glory. It’s treated like noble mission work, while teaching as a career isn’t, at least not in the same way.

“One is saying I was willing to volunteer in an urban school system for two years and then I’m going to go figure my life out, which is what a lot of people do,” Munk says. “Say I’m going to college to be a teacher says you’re in it for the long run, and people look at you differently.”

Making Teaching Sexy

TFA has made teaching appeal to a group of students who probably wouldn’t have considered it a few years ago, says Peabody professor Gary Henry.

Unlike some colleagues, Henry chooses to focus primarily on what can be learned from TFA. He says it’s shown that with the right recruit, it doesn’t take four years to become an effective teacher.

“The most profound thing is, it’s made us check our assumptions,” he says. “TFA has challenged us.” 

Vanderbilt’s education school also has to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds it.

Many TFA teachers go on to work in education policy, start charter schools or become superintendents. Right now, nearly 50 Teach for America alums have returned to Vanderbilt for their graduate studies.

Shani Jackson-Dowell, who leads the TFA office in Nashville, says the organization maintains a good working relationship with Vanderbilt.

“There’s enough for everyone to tackle, so I think that’s where I generally get somewhat confused,” she says. “I feel like there is so much opportunity for all of us to contribute to education. And there’s probably enough for each person to take one whatever their theory of how we need to fix this.”

*12:30 pm: This line was added to clarify that principals in Nashville have the final say over hiring TFA instructors, which is not the case in all districts.

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