TFA, CTA, and What It Means to Be a Union

A former instructional coach and one of only five people selected nationwide as a 2012 recipient of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, Jen Thomas is now President of the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA).  In this post, also destined for the next issue of the California Educator, Jen discusses the California Teachers Association’s (CTA’s) recent cover story about Teach For America (TFA) and the responsibility that comes with being part of a union.

SJTA President Jen Thomas

Jen Thomas

Like any president would be, I was delighted when I received the October edition of the California Educator and saw one of San Jose TA’s members smiling from the cover. Clinton Loo was not only a very talented math teacher, but a member of our local’s governing body: he spent the 2013-2014 school year as our Secretary-Treasurer.

My excitement turned quickly to concern, though, when I saw the title of the article in which Clinton was featured: “Teach for America: Do-gooders or school Rhee-formers?” My concern was the rhetorical choice this framing implied. My colleagues and friends from TFA are either “do-gooders” with the saccharine naiveté that implies, or agents of Michelle Rhee and her intolerable demagoguery.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.

The October issue of California Educator, featuring TFA alum and former SJTA Secretary-Treasurer Clinton Loo on the cover.  

As CTA, this article highlights two serious problems: inadvertently undermining our union brothers and sisters who came to us from the TFA program, and not resolving the problems generated by the organization.

1) CTA members who come from Teach for America should feel that they are as valued and supported as any other teacher entering the classroom.  First and foremost, a teacher is our colleague. We must be united in support of one another, and that starts with being extremely careful with how we frame important questions about the changing political landscape in our profession when these questions can lead to division in our ranks.

2) What are we doing about these issues and are they unique to Teach for America members?

  • High TFA turnover is an issue, but about 50% of all teachers leave in their first five years, driven out by workload, wage stagnation, and the abject failure of our society to prioritize education.  Many TFA corps members stay in San Jose for long past their two-year mandate and often they leave for the same reason any teacher leaves: The job is entirely unsustainable. Our compassion for that should be where we anchor this conversation.
  • No, five weeks training is not enough time to make a quality educator. We’ve also seen teacher training programs of a year or even two years that do not produce teachers ready to face the real strains and struggles of the classroom.  Poor preparation puts a terrible burden on our system; what are we going to do about it?
  • That TFA members don’t become actively involved in the union because they see themselves as education transients is a broad statement and contradicted by our experience in San Jose. Perhaps we are unique, but TFA corps members and alumni don’t deserve to all be painted with the same brush.
  • Where’s our plan to be as strong as Leadership for Educational Equity? Let’s build on our political strength and create a powerful support and training program to elect public officials from the teaching ranks.

Issues of training, policy, and politics; issues of values, arrogance, and teaching as a hobby – all of these are valid and worth a discussion aimed at remedy rather than rhetoric. In the meantime, every CTA member past and present – regardless of how they came to the classroom – should believe that we are united together in support of the work we do for our students, our colleagues, our communities, and our futures.

That’s what it means to be a union.

10 Comments

Filed under Education, Labor

10 responses to “TFA, CTA, and What It Means to Be a Union

  1. Great piece. Thoughtful and not inflammatory. Makes the point that all teaches have common interests and that the union helps support them. Debunks some of the standard critiques of TFA without giving the organization a pass. Very fair.

    • oscarcielos

      never mind this article…although Ms. Thomas’ rhetoric is smooth as silk, there’s a lot that goes under the radar that needs to be examined. The relationship she has with the district is a mutually beneficial one that possibly puts future job promotion over teacher interest. Just look at where previous SJTA presidents head for employment. This can’t be a coincidence and it can’t possibly be good for teachers.

      • That SJTA has a strong relationship with SJUSD is a really good thing for both students and teachers. Not only does it help ensure that everyone is working together on behalf of San Jose students, but it’s also a large part of the reason the district got furlough days instead of layoffs in 2010, has consistently strong salary and benefits compared to comparable districts, has school board members who are both pro-student and pro-labor, and is so responsive to teacher professional development needs and feedback. I have never seen Jen or Stephen (the old SJTA president not mentioned by name) conduct themselves with anything other than integrity, and students and teachers have already benefited greatly from Stephen’s new role as Chief Business Officer (in terms of lunch options, compensation, and initiatives that connect leadership more effectively with the school experience).

        • oscarcielos

          Ben, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of SJUSD, SJTA and their relationship. From a pro-student, pro-teacher standpoint I saw a troublesome landscape that I prefer not to get into at the moment due to legal reasons. (This will be my last word) You’re a teacher so I know you got into it for the right reasons. What I have seen and experienced at SJUSD and SJTA have given me plenty of pause to understand not everyone is in education for the benefit of students (1st) and teachers (2nd). I would just suggest you keep an open mind and question (not defy) authority just a little bit. In the least, study my case a little closer and listen to teachers at SJUSD who may be struggling silently. I’m sorry if I in any way have offended. I really am.

          • I am always interested in hearing teachers’ experiences – a large part of my job as Outreach Director was to do so. Unions should welcome feedback from all members and should invite critical assessments of their practices. There is room for improvement everywhere, and SJTA (and SJUSD) is no exception. However, I do want to stress that I admire my former colleagues on the SJTA Board not just because they are by all accounts excellent educators, and not just because they are smart and hard-working, but also and most importantly because I have seen a plethora of examples of their commitment to being the best advocates for students, teachers, and the broader San Jose community that they possibly can be.

            Also, I agree that it’s essential to question authority.

  2. Gayle

    “My colleagues and friends from TFA are either “do-gooders” with the saccharine naiveté that implies, or agents of Michelle Rhee and her intolerable demagoguery.” KO

  3. Arn

    “…and the abject failure of our society to prioritize education”….Let’s not forget about that.

  4. Lynette Garcia

    I have had several TFA peers to support and be supported by. They have struggled right beside me. It is true that their training does not prepare them well for reality in the classroom but based on what I have seen in 22 years of teaching, college programs aren’t experts at this either. This job requires “on the job” training. TFA is also known for the types of people it chooses to be in the program. I have had the pleasure of working with individuals who are quite gifted and have a lot to offer once the initial shock of our reality wears off. Jen Thomas’ article brings a clearer and more accurate perspective to the situation.

  5. Reblogged this on DAVID B. COHEN and commented:
    San Jose Teachers Association President Jennifer Thomas wrote this blog about unionism that is progressive, solution-oriented, and … united. She’s responding to an article about Teach for American corps members and their relationship to the profession and the union, but really, it’s an interesting post about how we should approach bigger issues as well.

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