Teach for San Francisco

The Chronicle recently reported that principals in the San Francisco Unified School District have begun hiring Teach for America teachers in defiance of the school board's wishes. While I agree with the general decision to reduce the TFA presence in the Bay, I think the current teacher shortage is the exact sort of situation where TFA makes sense.

I have many criticisms of Teach for America. While I think they put a lot of thought into their five-week teacher training, there is no way to adequately prepare teachers for the classroom in that short a time. Furthermore, even if corps members perform at the same level on some measures as conventionally educated teachers, their far lower retention hinders schools from building effective and experienced communities of practice. Finally, I think there are some serious issues with the narrative of "high performing," privileged white folks swooping into communities to save the day. I dearly treasure my participation in TFA, but I'm also troubled by it.

But things in San Francisco have changed. I served in the SF corps from 2010-2012, when the economy was still recovering from the recession and liberal arts graduates were short on jobs. TFA was riding a wave of support and prestige, and districts were eager for their data-driven approach to education. TFA's contract with SF in 2010 basically guaranteed that my hire as a teacher displaced a traditionally trained teacher in SF. I believe I taught my students well, and I was grateful to be near my friends and family during my service, but regret that I wasn't in a place that needed me more.

Now, San Francisco's situation has flipped. The tech economy is growing and hiring aggressively, and teachers face both insane housing costs and high opportunity costs. When median rent is over $3,000 and many tech salaries salaries start at 1.5-2x what teachers make a decade into their career, it's hard for even the most dedicated teachers to rationally justify staying in the profession.

Students need teachers. If you've been in a classroom, you know that every extra student means that much less of your attention, and that large class sizes hinder your ability to deliver effective instruction. Teacher shortages are emergencies that an enthusiastic, high-performing, and gritty service corps can address well, and I believe TFA's early success and celebration was due to how they did that. In a 2013 Harvard Magazine article, former TFA corps members universally suggested TFA focus on placing corps members in areas with teacher shortages, rather than trying to displace conventional teachers in competitive districts.

I understand where the school board is coming from in ending the TFA contract— if I was in their position, I'd also want to be building a great career teacher pipeline rather than staffing with a revolving door of tech-bound Ivy League graduates. But until we pay teachers a living local wage and give them the resources to do their valuable jobs, no amount of "pipeline building" will fix the shortage.

Teach for America corps members aren't magic, but they're loving, driven and enthusiastic humans who want to serve the kids that others won't, and that's a good thing. It's sad that a growing economy has a shortage in one of its highest-leverage jobs, but while we wait for the city, state, and country to get their heads on straight, I'm glad that San Francisco's principals are hiring corps members to teach their students.