Traditional and Teach For America Preparation: One Teacher’s Experience

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

While Teach For America (TFA) welcomes fully certified teachers from traditional programs at institutes of higher education, most of their corps members come in and attend TFA’s summer sessions without prior teacher training. Fully certified teachers might wonder if there is a place for them in TFA, and TFA-trained teachers might question what they missed by not having teacher preparation as an undergraduate.

I interviewed one educator who completed both pathways: my daughter Gabriella Nelson. She completed teacher training at Grinnell College, then enrolled in Teach For America and attended their summer institute in the Mississippi Delta region.

Gabriella is now the academic coordinator at the school she joined through TFA six years ago. In addition to overseeing curriculum, she coaches grade 6-12 ELA other subject teachers, bringing lessons from her classroom experience and dual preparation to shape and encourage her colleagues. In our conversation below, we touch on the reason for her choices, the differences in each type of preparation, and what she finds most helpful to prepare teachers.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you choose a college for your teacher preparation?
I looked for colleges with good educational programs where I could get my license in four or four and a half years. I picked Grinnell College because I knew that they put you in the classroom earlier than the student teaching programs in other schools. I was in a classroom beginning the second or third semester of college. I also liked that education wasn’t a major — you had to major in a subject, and I felt that was better content than what I perceived some “education major” coursework included.

Grinnell created a strong foundation for knowing how to plan my classes — they did a good job of preparing us in that respect. But the program didn’t talk a lot about classroom management. Another weakness (not their fault) was that learning how to teach in rural Iowa is not necessarily the most translatable experience to where I ended up teaching.

You also chose to participate in Teach For America (TFA) after graduation and attended their summer institute. Tell me about that choice.
I chose TFA in part because they sent me an email in October of my senior year inviting me to meet with them and apply. At that time, I was unsure of where to go teach and I knew their process would help me make that choice. Also, educational inequality was something I wanted to focus on: to be around people who valued making education more equitable.

How did TFA’s summer institute training compare to your traditional training?
Grinnell had a general focus on social justice, but I didn’t get explicit preparation for teaching in diverse settings. TFA’s institute had specific sessions geared towards diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, we learned how to teach students who didn’t share your culture, and strategies inclusive of all learners. A lot of time was spent on building cultural competency.

You ultimately taught in Memphis with TFA. Did you feel prepared to enter your classroom on the first day?
I felt prepared and then very quickly realized I was not prepared. In theory, I knew what I was supposed to be doing and had my plans, but nothing prepares you to be the only one in the room responsible for all these students. I hadn’t really practiced for that.

In theory, teaching should be easy — best practices, best classroom management, etc. — but you are not teaching in a vacuum. The hardest thing is that you never know what is going to happen. Will there be a fire drill? What kind of attitude will the kids have? Will the school flood? There were so many different things that could happen. Constantly adapting and working through the sheer number of decisions you have to make every day was overwhelming. Responding to students, switching up a lesson, calling out a student for a uniform violation or letting it go — nothing can prepare you for how much decision making is happening all of the time. And those decisions potentially have a long-lasting effect on student outcomes. Learning how to productively manage that pressure takes a lot of practice.

What have your experiences taught you about what works in traditional and/or alternative pipelines for teachers?
More programs should follow the Grinnell-like model where you are in the classroom earlier. I wish more of them would make students really study some content – Grinnell’s academics were more rigorous than some “standard” education preparation programs.

I recommend a more rigorous and regular support system for new teachers: a combination of classroom support, checking in with teachers to make sure things are going okay, and anecdotal coaching to relate to them that you also struggled when you were new. This support is better if it is school-based rather than someone coming in from the outside because every school is different.

After serving as a classroom teacher for three years, and one year split between teaching and administrative work, I’m now a full-time K-12 academic coordinator for about 700 students and 45 – 50 teachers. The value of what I do is that I’ve been here and understand this school’s culture and can coach from that lens. Outsiders may not understand the culture and norms our teachers face. At the very least, the coach should have taught in the same city or the same general environment. A suburban teacher coaching in a Title 1 school is not effective.