Teaching may be in Ethan Tillman’s blood – his mother is a teacher in Charlotte - but in college at the University of South Carolina, he dreamed of being a television reporter.
But a few months after graduating with a degree in broadcast journalism, Tillman wasn’t beginning his career at a small TV station somewhere, he was in Mississippi, at an intensive six-week training session for new Teach For America recruits.
Not long after that, he was on the second floor of Rochelle Middle School in Kinston, teaching Language Arts to sixth graders.
“I knew that middle school was going to be tough,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could have prepared me for how tough being a middle school teacher actually is.”
Teach For America currently has two branches in North Carolina: in the eastern part of the state and another in Charlotte. Since the early 1990s, TFA has placed nearly 1,600 teachers in the state, instructing tens of thousands of students.
“Over the last 20-plus years we have been a sustained pipeline of excellent teachers for school districts that struggle to recruit incredible teachers into their classrooms,” says Robyn Fehrman, the Director of TFA for eastern North Carolina. ”And I think because of that sustained pipeline, we have helped ensure that kids in rural eastern North Carolina have an excellent teacher where otherwise they might not.”
Teach For America has also risen to become the top single employer for graduates at UNC-Chapel Hill and Elon University.
But as it’s grown, TFA has come under strong criticism from teachers’ groups, unions, and those in teacher education. Among other things, they say a six-week seminar is not sufficient to train teachers.
“Teach For America has sucked all the air out of any discussion of changing the profession,” said advocate and author Diane Ravitch at a speech at Duke in 2011. ”Over the past decade it’s raised $500 million. Well, if we took the same amount of energy and focused on how we raise the standards of the teaching profession, we might be much farther along than we are today. Instead, we’re lowering standards.
According to a teacher effectiveness study out of UNC-Chapel Hill last year (pdf), TFA teachers were the most effective early-career teachers, when measuring student achievement on test scores - placing higher than teachers coming out of the University system or lateral entry.
But fewer than ten percent of TFA teachers were still in public schools after five years. And it’s at that point - five years in – that research shows teachers enter their most-effective period.
“There’s this churn that we don’t really talk about, that can’t be good for communities and children, the fact that every year or every two years I’ve got a whole new corps of folks coming into my school,” says Michael Maher, the Assistant Dean for Professional Education and Accreditation at NC State’s School of Education.
Superintendents and principals in the partner school districts almost universally say they can’t do without Teach For America corps members.
BEATING THE ODDS
Ryan Hurley happens to be one of the few Teach For America corps members who beat the odds. He started as a teacher in Warren County in 2006 - and he’s still there, now as a principal at Warren Early College High School.
“People began to forget that I was a Teach For America corps member at all,” he says. “There was a lot of pride I took in that. Any sense of standoffishness that people had towards me or keeping me at arm’s length because they didn’t know how long I was going to stay there had disappeared.
And now that Hurley’s hiring teachers in a rural, high-poverty school, he has a different perspective on what TFA offers.
On one of the last days before a holiday break, first-year TFA teacher Ethan Tillman is wrapping up his class by asking his students to write a “vision statement”. As part of the activity, he’s calling students one-by-one to the front of the room and draping his own college graduation robe on their shoulders. When it’s on, he takes their picture on his phone.
“What I want to do for them is to let them know to dream big and to always have those dreams and then to realize what role school plays in those dreams and how they have to further their education if they want to get to where they want to be in life,” he says.
Tillman isn’t sure he’ll stay in Kinston once his two-year commitment is up, or if he’ll even stay in education.
But Teach For America isn’t going anywhere. The organization has a new $12 million dollar contract with the state to expand its operations, thanks, in part, to its growing political influence.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.