FRANKFORT, Ky. – “Smart, beautiful, talented, courageous.”Who used these words to describe Teach for America teachers? Most education experts would not guess a teachers’ union president. But it was Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association – which views TFA very differently than does KEA’s parent, the National Education Association.
TFA and the teachers’ unions have famously not gotten along well. NEA, the biggest national union, last year accused TFA of “taking jobs” from other teachers. TFA recruits top-tier college graduates into teaching for at least two years, though many stay in the field long after.
Some state teachers’ unions have tried to get TFA banned from their schools altogether, but not so in Kentucky.
While KEA has no official position on TFA, the union did not oppose the legislation that allowed the program’s teachers to be certified for the classroom, and top KEA officials are glowing in their assessment of TFA and the teachers it placed in Eastern Kentucky schools last year.
“We welcome TFA and hope they stay,” says Oxendine, who is from Knox County, one district with TFA teachers.
So, why is KEA bucking the national trend?
For one thing, it likes the diversity of experiences that TFA teachers bring to their students. “Expanding kids’ horizons is soimportant,” said KEA Executive Director Mary Ann Blankenship. TFA teachers are “young and energetic and funny -- and fun -- and smart and bright -- and they’ve studied abroad in all kinds of places.”
“And been to New York City!” Oxendine chimes in, exaggerating her southeastern Kentucky accent for comedic effect.
Those fresh backgrounds and perspectives, KEA leaders think, may generate more interest among students in teaching, a field Oxendine says has become less attractive for young people.
“TFA provides a role model that says to kids: a smart, beautiful, talented, courageous, ambitious person with lots of options can choose to teach -- and teach Kentuckians,” she said.
“When we look many of our teachers, I’m sad to say, you see this,” she said, pointing to herself: “You see old, you see overweight, you see tired, you see [them] doin’ everything they can just to keep their life going. And sometimes that’s depressing to a 16-year old: ‘Why in the hell would I want to be or look like her when I’m 30?’ they say.”
When a student is deciding whether to teach, Oxendine said, “You need to look at someone beautiful in the classroom and say ‘God, I want to be like her,’ and we just don’t have enough of those kinds of people right now.”
Blankenship put it another way: “My hope for every one of my students is that over the course of a day, there is at least one teacher they really connect with: ‘Oh I love Ms. Oxendine; she’s the best math teacher ever,’or ‘My love from reading really came from Ms. Blankenship.’”
Some other teacher unions have questioned TFA teachers’ one-summer training, but KEA officials don’t echo those concerns. Blankenship said she was impressed by the training’s “intensity and the quality,” and by the "[ongoing] level of support that other first year teachers don’t have.”
She noted that TFA Appalachia Executive Director Will Nash told them “Look, if you have a problem on this or that issue, call us,” and she added, “I wish every single teacher had their support system.”
Oxendine says she is disturbed by the “us-versus-them” narrative that surrounds the TFA-union conflicts in other states, because that allows policymakers to say, “Well, if you guys can’t figure this out even amongst yourselves, then I don’t have to do anything.”
And unlike other unions, KEA’s concern is not that TFA teachers are here now, but that they won’t be here long enough.
“I hope they won’t just stay for two years,” Blankenship says, and she is quick to note that TFA has been successful at keeping its members in education for the long haul. While only 10 percent of TFA teachers enter the program intending to make education a career, nearly two-thirds end up staying.
Given that 50 percent of Kentucky teachers leave the profession within five years -- something Blankenship calls “the real crisis” -- this excites her: “I hope every single one of them falls so in love with teaching that 5, 10, 15 years from now, TFA is still doing amazing things in Kentucky schools.”