Monday, February 11, 2008

I have been wondering recently whether Teacher Corps, Teach for America, the NYC Teaching Fellows, and other similar programs actually fail at one of their main goals - that is, placing more "quality" teachers in the classroom - because they scare away those who would otherwise consider teaching as a lifelong profession by placing them in exceedingly difficult situations.

As has been much discussed in this forum, my Teacher Corps class has lost about a third of the original 32 members of our class. I believe that the majority of these have not only left the Corps, but have also left Mississippi and teaching altogether. From talking to many of my classmates that remain, it seems that most will be leaving the teaching profession after this year. Given this exceptionally high turnover, I wonder if Teacher Corps is doing the educational world a long-term disservice by driving (Corps-proclaimed) "high quality" teachers out of the classroom before their careers have truly begun. To be clear: I am not saying that this fact - and I do believe it is a fact - outweighs the positive accomplishments of Teacher Corps, its leaders, and its members. What I am saying is that perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the way Teacher Corps goes about achieving its organizational goals. How can we reshape the program to better serve the students of Mississippi and the Corps members who arrive in this state fully dedicated to helping them?

The best proposal I have heard tossed around - never fully annunciated or explored, mind you - is the idea of opening a Teacher Corps Charter/Magnet School. I think the first place I heard this mentioned was by Ben Guest, and I probably immediately dismissed it as a pipe dream at the time. Too many logistical and monetary issues. Legislature wouldn't like it. It wouldn't fulfill Teacher Corps' goals. Etc.

But given the way the program is going right now, I don't see any reason not to try opening a Teacher Corps Preparatory School.

The advantages would be numerous. To begin with, the school could control the raw product, that is, the students who are admitted. I am not suggesting that it should only admit the best students, but rather those with the most promise of improvement. Taking a student who was going to attend Vanderbilt and getting them into the University of Chicago is not that great of an achievement for a teacher; the talent probably carried the student. Taking a student who was headed to a GED and no college and convincing them to attend a four-year school is an exceptional achievement for a teacher and a school, a theoretical Teacher Corps Prep should keep that premise in mind.

Another huge plus would be the near-guaranteed administrative consistency and competence. I have witnessed many of my peers - both those in MTC and teachers in general - have been sent running for the hills after a year or semester spent with a horrendous administration. Even if I'd not already made alternate plans for my next year, even if I wanted to remain teaching in Mississippi, there would be no way I'd continue at my current high school if the administration remained the same next year. A solid administration could inspire both teachers and students and would significantly contribute to a drastically improved retention rate amongst teachers.

Innovative administrative thought could also be utilized in designing a new school, both physically and ideologically. Given the opportunity, Dr. Mullins, Dr. Bounds, and the leaders of the Barksdale institute would have a field day designing an improved secondary school environment. Curriculum could be redesigned to align more with national rather than state or regional standards. The school could be a community center rather than a building only used from 7:00 am until 4:00 pm. With Teacher Corps members manning the controls, there's no limit to the number of innovative projects that would thrive at the school. Additionally, the intellectually-based extra-curricular interests of Teacher Corps members would be more likely fulfilled by their job; I imagine a community garden, forums for artistic exploration, outdoor education. I imagine a place where parental involvement would be all-but mandated through a variety of innovative tactics. I imagine partnerships with the other wonderful organizations trying to transform Mississippi: The Sunflower County Freedom Project, the William Winter Institute, Teach for America, the Barksdale Institute. I imagine a center for a community that will be invigorated by higher demands and a school faculty that will be inspired and challenged by the community they serve.

The school would still be semi-public so that it could qualify for state funds. It would still serve a "critical needs" community to qualify for federal funds and fulfill the most important facet of Teacher Corps' mission. Perhaps most importantly for the growth of the program in general, the school wouldn't scare promising teachers away, but would foster their growth into life-long educators and eventually make students and teachers alike into leaders in education, community, and society.