Last week, I received a review copy of Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. Thought it was worth taking a minute or two to say that I’m definitely a fan of the book. I’m impressed with the way the author, Donna Foote, has captured the different teachers, students, administrators, and classrooms and painted them as actual human beings dealing with complex issues and feelings as opposed to one-dimensional cogs in the educational machine.
While the book’s set in Los Angeles, I recognize many of the folks, or at least the types, she’s written about. Kids who disappear. Teachers who will do anything to see their kids do well. Teachers who burnout. Administrators who try too hard – and aren’t successful. The folks who show up because they’re supposed to, but who’ve given up. I appreciate the portrait. It’s real and honest and captivating and certainly not pretty. A fine example, one with which I’m more familiar than I’d like to be, is this paragraph, a stream of consciousness from one teacher struggling to figure out how to help a student he noticed was cutting herself:
Who am I kidding? I don’t know what I’m doing. The fact that it’s left to me to identify a girl who is on the verge of killing herself is ridiculous. You can fake the teaching, but when it comes to this stuff, you can’t. How can it be that I’m the one diagnosing or even realizing that this girl is in trouble? I don’t even know who her guidance counselor is. If something happens, I could be held liable. I don’t know who to go to. And if I don’t write it on my hand, I won’t remember to even report it. It’s crazy. Oh God, I hope she’s okay.
I’ve been there. Ignore the TFA aspect of this book – it’s an eye-opening account of what it means to be a teacher in a dysfunctional school in the United States. Or maybe in any school in the United States.
As for TFA – any alumni out there want to comment on the program? While I dig their goals, it doesn’t seem to me like the program is necessarily going to result in systemic education reform. Although, I might be getting cynical on the whole idea of education reform – small group of committed citizens, right? And perhaps TFA, as only a 20-ish year old organization, isn’t mature enough yet. Foote, in this interview with U.S. News & World Report, talks about the “two-pronged” approach of TFA as a reform group:
TFA has a two-pronged theory of change. In the short term, it will send smart, energetic, committed young people into these terrible schools. But the longer-term vision, and the one that is most likely to bear fruit, is the idea that, because TFA has culled so carefully for leaders and because these young teachers will be so informed by this unbelievable experience of teaching in underperforming schools, they will go out and make big changes.
Now that the early corps members are approaching their early 40s, we’re starting to see signs that these leaders that have been embedded in society are starting to rise up. If you troll the education reform movements, the big nonprofits, and philanthropies, you’ll see TFA alum[s] in their ranks. I think a real marker was laid down last spring when TFA alum Michelle Rhee was named chancellor of the D.C. schools.
I’d be curious to hear from anyone with TFA experience. And I’m looking forward to the rest of the book. Not because I suspect the ending’s a positive one – but because I so appreciate the humanity of the story.