Collaborative Learning Development: A Pragmatic Approach to Teaching

My interest in Teach for America (TFA) began out of frustration. After four years of taking Political Science courses, I realize how little our country values education. Teachers are underpaid, and issues of foreign policy constantly overshadow education. We allocate money to waging wars oversees while poverty remains a national reality—meanwhile, children suffer through terrible circumstances, without fault or control. It is a true tragedy. Our nation neglects education, without realizing that children suffer the most from educational negligence. We don’t give them the opportunity to improve their circumstances, paving the path for them to repeat familial mistakes, and embark on the cyclical road to poverty.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I am an advocate for justice. I promised myself long ago that I would not join the masses—become another buzz amongst the beehive—complaining without acting. I am committed to activism; I always knew I wanted to devote time to serving others after graduation. I’m also a strong believer in helping people in your community, before venturing off to other places. I understand that there are wonderful people engaged in service projects abroad, and I do not criticize or judge their work—we are all human beings. But, I am not the type of person who can go abroad, whilst problems exist so close to me—in my nation and neighboring communities.

This is why I chose to apply to TFA. After a three-month application process, I was accepted into TFA. I was offered a position in the Greater Nashville region to teach High School or Middle School English (depending on my summer training). Ironically, I got accepted into a teaching program in Italy at the same time. I realized I needed to take a break and confront some personal issues before I could devote myself mentally and emotionally to TFA. I thus got a deferral, and will begin TFA in May of 2015. Even though I know that getting a deferral was the best thing for me, I find myself itching to start TFA—I want to meet my future students, and I want to start getting to know them. I want to embark on my journey of activism.

TFA is an American non-profit organization whose mission is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach for a least two years in low-income communities throughout the United States.” Wendy Kopp, based on her 1989 Princeton University undergraduate thesis, founded the organization. Since the charter corps was established in 1990, more than 28,000 members have completed their commitment to TFA. Kopp wrote a book reflecting on the first ten years of the organization entitled “One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach For America and What I Learned Along the Way.” In 2011, Kopp released a second book, A Chance To Make History,” outlining what she has learned over the last 20 years working in American education.

TFA recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in urban and rural communities throughout the U.S. for the purpose of making an impact, and becoming lifelong leaders for educational equity. Corps members attend an intensive five-week summer training program, called the Institute, to prepare for their commitment. TFA teachers are full-fledged faculty members at their respective schools—receiving the normal school district salary and benefits, as well as a modest AmeriCorps “education voucher.” This voucher can be used for credentialing courses, to cover previous student loans or to fund further education aspirations, whether it be during or after the two-year commitment. TFA placed 500 teachers in its first year. The organization then received more than 48,000 applications for its 2012 corps, resulting in 5,800 new corps members in 46 regions.

I want to emphasize that I am writing this paper from a biased standpoint. I believe wholeheartedly in TFA and it’s success in stimulating improvement and opening doors for students. I will be analyzing the organization of TFA in relation to theories of collaborative learning to stimulate writing improvement. TFA is unique as an institution whose strategy is based primarily on recruiting young college graduates who embody leadership, diversity and passion for equity in education. Collaborative learning development enables developers of learning systems to work as a network. TFA thus recruits diverse individuals and places them in local impoverished school districts so they may collaborate with other teachers, and develop effective teaching strategies. TFA aims to add diversity to school districts in order to allow for successful collaboration through fresh perspectives and differing opinions.

TFA states:“We look for individuals who show leadership potential and have other traits that are found in our most successful teachers. Over the past 22 years, we’ve learned that there is no specific personality profile or background that predicts success in the classroom. Our approach to selecting corps members is based on our commitment to student success. We continuously study our teachers to identify the characteristics of those whose students have made the most progress. We’ve discovered that their most distinguishing characteristics are:

  • A deep belief in the potential of all kids and a commitment to do whatever it takes to expand opportunities for students
  • Demonstrated leadership ability and superior interpersonal skills to motivate others
  • Strong achievement in academic, professional, extracurricular, and/or volunteer settings
  • Perseverance in the face of challenges, ability to adapt to changing environments, and a strong desire to do whatever it takes to improve and develop
  • Excellent critical thinking skills, including the ability to accurately link cause and effect and to generate relevant solutions to problems
  • Superior organizational ability, including planning well and managing responsibilities effectively
  • Respect for individuals’ diverse experiences and the ability to work effectively with people from a variety of backgrounds” (Teach For America).

TFA’s strong belief in children’s potential to improve reflects a positivist ideology on education—children can improve if the right teachers can develop the proper system to approach each individual school district. These inherent ideological assumptions on successful teachers defy the typical mentality of our American Educational system, giving preference to seniority—despite student’s failures, or successes. TFA essentially declares that a teacher’s character traits are vital to student progress. A teacher doesn’t necessarily need prior experience, but rather, it is their tenacity and desire to help that will determine the student’s progress. This tenacity will motivate them to be creative and inventive with their teaching strategies.

Therefore, TFA applies theories of collaborative learning throughout the developmental stages of the learning process. TFA teachers are placed in impoverished school districts throughout the US, after they attend a minimum of 6 weeks in the TFA training Institute, and become full-fledged faculty members in the respective school districts. The TFA teachers thus blend the skills they acquired from the TFA institute with the school district’s strategies. TFA teachers are required to attend staff meetings nearly every week to discuss student progress and brainstorm new ideas on how to best ensure student progress. These meetings directly reflect collaborative learning development—enabling the TFA teachers and school district faculty, as developers of learning systems, to work as a network. This network is specifically relevant to TFA, as a national organization, who communicates with their local teachers and adapts successful learning strategies in order to apply them to other local regions—it is a national developmental network. These teachers—both from TFA and the respective school districts—share and build knowledge of courses in a collaborative environment. Moreover, the electronic communications via email and phone over the national network also allow people to share their knowledge of a single subject to other people, in different remote locations. The collaborative learning development thus expands beyond city and state boundaries.

Although I acknowledge there is no universal system that works for every individual student and region, I strongly believe there is a need to assimilate TFA’s positivist ideology with the meritocratic system currently in place throughout the United States. There are two discourses going on—that of sticking to tradition and relying on “experienced” teachers to cultivate the motivated students, versus incorporating youthful minds, to spruce up an outdated ideology (arguably responsible for the cyclical educational issues). Again, there are always exceptions—not every young teacher who embodies these characteristics will stimulate improvement, and not every experienced teacher grows complacent and stagnant.

I strongly believe educational reform is possible—it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick—but the first step is acknowledgement. The second step is action. My own activism begins with Teach for America.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.” –Margaret Mead.

Despite my petty criticism of the United States’ governmental priorities, I am not disillusioned. I strongly believe in the potential of our nation to prosper, starting with educational reform. And, I need to make something clear: I do not support TFA because I am an idealist. I support TFA because I am a pragmatist—fully acknowledging my need to experience the reality of our educational system firsthand, so I may accurately identify the root of the problem, and work to create a viable solution.

Pragmatism derived from the teaching of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), who believed that thought must produce action, rather than linger in the mind and lead to indecisiveness. I believe that reality is constantly changing and that we learn best through applying experiences and thoughts to problems, as they arise. The universe is dynamic and evolving. I do not believe there is an absolute and unchanging truth; rather, truth is simply what works.

Taking this class, Theory and Practice of Tutoring and Writing, allowed me to recognize my personal philosophy—while allowing me to put my pragmatism to work. Life is not made up of binaries. The key to life, and teaching, is trial and error. Mistakes are inevitable, but the beauty of the human race lies in our aptitude—we have the ability to recognize our mistakes and learn from them.

Collaborative learning development is enriched through diversity—the more diverse the group, the more ideas will be brought to the table. TFA’s recruiting strategies take this into account; TFA seeks out a diverse group of individuals, coming from different regions, educational backgrounds and ethnicities to heighten collaborative efforts. TFA realizes that we all have biases based on our different backgrounds, and we are conditioned to adapt ideologies based on our individual upbringing. These are Social Constructionist views, but I’ve found them to be true in my experience. Social Constructionism is a theory of knowledge that examines the development of jointly constructed understandings of the world. It assumes that understanding, significance and meaning are developed, not separately within the individual, but in coordination with other human beings. We, as human beings, are thus the byproducts of countless human choices—these can be our own choices, our family’s choices, or our friend’s choices. Our perception of social reality, and our inherent ideology is clouded by these prior choices. We are all inherently biased because of them. This subjectivity poses challenges—we often forget how others view the world, and more importantly, why they view the world that way. But, there is a beauty in diversity. My own experience has taught me that the key to human prosperity is collaboration—we thrive in diverse communities. My life is enriched by diversity; TFA’s collaborative learning development is enriched through diversity.

The more I learn, the more I realize that learning is an everlasting excursion. The more people I come to know, the more I realize how judgmental I can be. The more I read about TFA, the more I realize that I need to just try it for myself, before allowing these articles to dictate my opinion.

Honestly, I’ve read many negative articles about TFA throughout my research for this post. I don’t even want to link to these articles—urging people not to apply to TFA, urging people not to believe in TFA’s potential and ultimately urging them not to write recommendations for people looking to apply to TFA, unless they were Education majors in college (this would defy TFA’s foundational diversity). Most of these authors haven’t experienced TFA first-hand, haven’t applied to TFA and have conducted extremely generalized critique on an organization that is multi-faceted—working in schools spanning across the United States—an organization growing larger every day.

Their criticisms are not based on TFA’s results. TFA is very clear about their success rates and their student progress. Rather, the critiques are judgments made from individuals working in the exact system that TFA is attempting to improve; these criticisms are written by people who dislike the American educational system, as it is—they acknowledge the need to reform, but don’t believe reformation is possible. They criticize TFA’s attempts to stimulate improvement without offering viable alternatives. They are complaints, lacking solutions. They are bees in the aforementioned beehive. And I am over the buzzing.

They also claim that TFA’s positivist ideology cannot measure up in the reality of impoverished school districts. Yet, TFA continues to either measure up or surpass the school district’s prior testing scores. These critiques overtly hate on TFA, as an organization, in its entirety—straight down to its positivist ideology on education. I simply do not value critique from people who do not acknowledge that the American education system needs reformation and that TFA has had its share of success.

Harvard graduate and 2010 TFA corps member, Jarell Lee, echoes my own sentiments: “I think a lot of the criticism of TFA is criticism about what people think education and teacher training should look like in America, and not based on what Teach for America is. TFA… never set out to be the only teacher-training program ever created… It was ever meant to be the solution. I think TFA was meant to create a movement that would eventually walk—no march—toward that solution… The question is, are we criticizing TFA or are we criticizing the American education system? Where we are right now, TFA is not going to be the one solution to solve the symptoms we see in the American education system. It is one medicine. It is one of many medications that this very sick system is going to have to take.”

During my final TFA interview, the TFA staff member asked me if there was anything discouraging me from joining the Corps—I responded hesitantly—apparently my reaction blatantly insinuated my prior online research, revealing my true fear and doubt. He candidly told me, off the record (he closed his computer and walked me outside), that there were three types of TFA criticism: the first is valid, the second was valid, but has since been addressed, and the third is completely false. He urged me to form my own judgments, to realize that my TFA experience will largely depend on my individual placement, and essentially, to give TFA a chance. He told me that no organization is perfect, and he has devoted the last eight years to the organization because he believes in its potential. TFA is pragmatic in nature—it observes something that doesn’t work, and aims to try a different approach.

Janet Wee, who now works in development for TFA’s Baltimore office, stresses this point repeatedly: “One of the most encouraging facts about the organization is that it does seem to be adaptive. It’s an incredible group of people, who are so introspective [about our work] to the extent that sometimes we’re really tough on ourselves…[we’re] always thinking about what else can we do, what more do we do, how do we improve?”

Susan Moore Johnson comments on the pragmatic nature of TFA as well: “It’s a moving stream in the sense that the organization has developed. They reinvent themselves—they’re very agile that way.” (One example is TFA’s Values-Based Leadership Collaborative, which was founded two years ago by Andrew Mandel, a 2000 Corps member, and helps TFA “put a renewed emphasis on making sure self-scrutiny is a central part of what we do.”)

I believe all educators should take a pragmatic approach when it comes to teaching strategies. Every student learns differently, and it’s important to understand how you can best meet their needs, and set them up for success. The most important thing is building relationships through dialogue—communication is key.

After all, collaboration is dependent on quality communication.

The TFA philosophy is simple: “Change is possible.” TFA believes in their ability to “provide an excellent education for kids in low-income communities. Although 16 million American children face the extra challenges of poverty, an increasing body of evidence shows they can achieve at the highest levels.” Yet, every region is different and the results vary. TFA is situational—every region’s Institute training program aims to mold the individuals into the type of teacher the region demands.

The collaborative learning developmental strategies extend beyond the two-year commitment for TFA corps members. “For example, TFA alums and scholars from the Harvard community offer a variety of suggestions for how the organization could further adapt:

  • Many proposed that TFA extend the length of its commitment, noting that even the best teachers rarely hit their stride before year two.
  • In addition to lengthening the commitment, Katherine Merseth suggests that TFA expand the Institute from five weeks to six to nine months. She also advises them to increase support to new teachers once they are in the classroom, because new teachers learn the most from reflecting on these early teaching experiences.
  • Anthony Britt, who included constructive criticism in a column for the Guardian entitled “Teach for America isn’t perfect, but it has been a boost to education,” predicts that TFA will face issues until it clarifies its long-term plan—“especially with respect to charter schools”—and stops “having numerous corporate or controversial stakeholders and donors.”
  • Noam Hassenfeld, who wrote an article for the website PolicyMic entitled “This Former TFA Corps Member Thinks You Should Join City Year Instead,” argues for placing corps members as teaching assistants rather than teachers—“a meaningful educational experience that can only help and not hurt.” He also suggests a “Doctors Without Borders” model for TFA that would provide incentives, financial and otherwise, for teachers who have already demonstrated commitment to the profession—not novices fresh out of college—to take jobs in higher-needs districts.
  • Susan Moore Johnson, drawing on other research done with Morgaen Donaldson, thinks TFA should improve the way it matches corps members with teaching assignments.
  • Almost everyone agreed that TFA should focus less on simple growth in numbers and more on sending corps members to placements that most need them. “I do not understand why first-year corps members are placed at KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program] schools, for example,” wrote Millicent Younger, alluding to KIPP’s desirability as a place to teach (its eight public charter schools in Newark and Camden alone report receiving over 3,000 teacher applications per year). “I feel that TFA should use its manpower as a way to put teachers in schools and districts that are struggling to find teachers, not to take higher-demand jobs.”

TFA is completely based on communication, collaborative learning development and adaptation. Communication is the basis of collaborative learning development. A healthy dialogue between TFA corps members and established school district teachers is needed to formulate new teaching strategies. Moreover, the local school districts that TFA work with hold regular staff meetings to analyze their student’s progress and previous teaching strategies. As aforementioned, the most effective strategies are communicated to the national headquarters so they can be applied to other regions facing similar issues and challenges. TFA works alongside local school districts constantly to try and improve their student’s test scores, primarily by analyzing what teaching strategies students respond best to. This pragmatic approach puts the theory of collaborative learning development into practice.

Ultimately, it’s important to realize that TFA works in diverse communities and offers positions to very different kinds of people. The reason for seeking variation is to enrich the organization as a whole—to heighten the success of collaboration efforts.

There is also institutional collaboration between TFA and other organizations, beyond local school districts. The specific region I got placed in, Nashville, collaborates with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP began in 1994 when two teachers, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, launched a fifth-grade public school program in inner-city Houston, TX, after completing their commitment to Teach For America. In 1995, Feinberg established KIPP Academy Middle School in Houston, while Levin returned home to New York City to establish KIPP Academy Middle School in the South Bronx. These two original KIPP Academies quickly became among the highest performing public schools in their communities. In 2000, Feinberg and Levin partnered with Doris and Don Fisher, the founders of The Gap, to establish the KIPP Foundation, focused on replicating the success of the original KIPP Academies on a national scale.

“The KIPP Foundation recruits, trains, and supports leaders to open locally-managed KIPP schools. The KIPP Foundation supports excellence, growth and sustainability across the network, as well as leads network-wide efforts to innovate and share best practices. The KIPP Foundation also provides a variety of supports and services such as legal services, real estate, technology, finance, governance, operations, communications, marketing, and development.”

KIPP describes their teachers as the heart and soul of KIPP schools. There are currently more than 3,000 KIPP teachers nationwide, and each shares the fundamental belief that all children can and will learn.

KIPP teachers are a diverse group, including experienced teachers who have worked in schools serving underserved students, new teachers who are just beginning their careers and career changers who are entering the classroom after succeeding in another profession. Nearly 38 percent of KIPP teachers are African-American or Latino, and about 33 percent are Teach For America alumni, and more than 32 percent hold master’s degrees. The positivist ideology of KIPP directly correlates with TFA’s own positivist view on education.

The only absolute truth, ingrained in both TFA and KIPP philosophy, is the belief that all children have the potential to learn—despite their economic circumstance. The fact that TFA alum founded KIPP is a testament to TFA and their success in training lifelong advocates for educational equity. The most noteworthy achievement, however, is the fact that TFA and KIPP highlight our national need to reform education. These organizations call for a reevaluation to teaching strategies—it is calling for en overall evaluation to our current educational approach. They call for a pragmatic approach to education.

“Teachers everywhere—this is not just TFA teachers—all teachers are in the midst of an ongoing debate about education and whether teachers are smart, dumb, well-trained, poorly trained, taking the summers off, working hard, being overpaid, being underpaid.”—Professor Susan Moore Johnson, Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE)

It’s important to realize that TFA is not aiming to replace all veteran and experienced teachers. TFA is collaborating with school districts in each specific region, and placing TFA teachers where they are needed. These TFA teachers get treated like regular faculty, and must partake in staff meetings and district projects. TFA teachers thus collaborate with one another during their Summer Institute training, and then collaborate with the specific schools they get placed in—as well as with other organizations, like KIPP.

When I begin TFA, I will bring my own unique background with me to the specific school I get placed in. As an upper-middle-class American citizen, I was blessed with an excellent education. I went to a private-Muslim school until 4th grade, when I enrolled in the public school system. I attended the Arcadia School District, ranked 89th within California. The median household income in Arcadia is $70,173 while the median home price is $718,000. Moreover, 54 percent of Arcadia High School students participate in the Advanced Placement program, giving students the opportunity to study college-level course work and take Advanced Placement exams that allow students to obtain college credit.

These blessings motivate me to give back to less-privileged school districts, lacking funding, attention and resources to improve. I fully acknowledge that I have little experience in an actual classroom, aside from volunteering and tutoring—yet, I am willing to learn. I am willing to work hard and I am staying pragmatic. Most importantly, I am excited to implement strategies based on the theory of collaborative learning development. I will have the power to dictate the environment of my own classroom. I will be the ultimate judge on what strategies to implement for my students, and I will be able to choose to collaborate.

I thus approach TFA with an open mind—taking the knowledge I acquired from this class as ammo to experiment with when I begin teaching. My teaching philosophy is currently based on Theories of Collaboration I’ve read about this semester. Even though these theories were written in relation to writing, they are applicable in any learning situation. TFA doesn’t train recent college grads with the intention of criticizing veteran teachers—they bring in college grads to add fresh perspectives—so they may collaborate. “TFA succeeds in pulling new people and ideas into education.” They want TFA corps members to engage in collaboration, based on mutual respect and the ultimate goal to bring out students’ utmost potential.

I hope my TFA experience reveals the brilliance that assimilation can create. My only hope is that I will learn immensely from the TFA institute, fellow TFA corps members, and future colleagues—and maybe, by some odd stroke of luck—they just may learn something from me too.

Maybe when my TFA journey is all said and done, I can use my newfound knowledge to compose a progressive manifesta  of my own (I recently decided to embrace feminism), for future teaching strategies.

All of this research has done nothing but motivate me.




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