The Green Berets of Excellence

Teaching Alongside TFA Special Forces

By Johnny Bravo
My story starts some years back, on my first day on the job as a public school teacher. (After twenty years of private industry work and collegiate teaching experience, I shifted gears relatively recently and became a teacher). Having expected to encounter a balanced mix of experienced-to-new teachers, I was surprised at what seemed to be an extremely large number of very young recruits at our orientation. Although they weren’t introduced to us as being part of Teach for America, it didn’t take long to find out. While we all wore the same uniform, so to speak, there was something different about them.

And now it’s time for my joke
How can you tell which guest at a party is a TFA corps member?
Answer: Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.

There’s a part two to my joke that I like to call “the conversation.”

Me: “So Jenny—where are you from?”

Me: “Wow—Wisconsin. What brings you all the way out here?”
“I put in for this assignment. I’ve always wanted to see this place.”

Me: “This place???” feeling a bit like a Sri Lankan rice farmer.

Special forces
We’ve now been through several rounds of TFA coworkers at my school and I’ve had many conversations just like this one. They tend to end quickly because the TFA recruit on the other end rarely inquires about me in return. In fact, these one-sided exchanges are typical of the relationship between the traditional teachers and the TFA recruits at my school. They cluster together and never really integrate with us. They rent their apartments near other TFA members—away from the school district. We don’t really get a chance to know them; they don’t seem interested in getting to know us. Last year I decided that it was finally time to break the ice. I invited all of the TFA newcomers to join a group of us for lunch in my classroom. Not a single one accepted.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

It’s not that hard to see why. TFA corps members don’t see themselves as teachers at our school. They’re TFA. Think of a transport plane that carries soldiers. There are regular infantry and then there are the Green Berets, the Special Forces. We may show up at the same school every day, ostensibly for the same reasons, but we’re not the same and the TFA corps members know it. They’re here on a brief and special mission and to integrate with us would serve as a distraction.

Until recently, I had the same mental concept of TFA that most non-teaching Americans probably have: recent college grads recruited to parachute into the sort of big-city schools seen in such films as Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver. In other words, places where it was difficult, or even impossible, to recruit experienced teachers. The TFA recruits were filling an urgent need and using their *smart-people smarts* to help out. Except that in my predominantly suburban district there are plenty of experienced teachers looking for work. We also have a major university with a big teachers college nearby, regularly cranking out graduates who want to make a career out of teaching.

On a rescue mission—just not the one they think
While our district is more suburb than war zone, my TFA colleagues have been prepared for a rescue mission nonetheless. And they are on a rescue mission—it’s just not the one they think. The reality is that in my district, TFA recruits are hired to help balance the budget. They’re young. They start out at the bottom of the pay scale and leave long before reaching the middle, let alone the top. Gone in two years? Who cares? There will always be new corps members to take their place. District administrators have found a bottomless pool of cheap labor. Best of all, the corps members, data enthusiasts all, will work themselves virtually to death without uttering a complaint.

Corps members can’t see this exploitative situation for what it is—because they’ve been sold a brave heroic story about why they’re really here. And it’s a great story that anyone in their place would want to believe.

Sgt. Johnny Bravo serves on the front lines of public education.  Although he possesses a 4-year college degree, attended Officer Candidate School and has two decades of prior experience serving society in a different professional capacity, his true rank is not O-level, but rather non-commissioned officer. His experience on the front lines has convinced him that while many of his fellow TFA sergeants have graduated from the finest private military institutions around the nation, they don’t seem to shoot any straighter, aren’t any braver, and seem particularly vulnerable to fratricide. Sgt. Bravo’s field research interests include the impact of digital devices and culture on battlefield efficacy as well as the newly emerging study of herd dynamics.

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