Teach for America Comes to Appalachia and Kentucky

Sep 11, 2012

When schools reopened last month, some in Eastern Kentucky began the second year of a grand education experiment that has been going on in underprivileged school districts across the nation for 20 years but which came to Appalachia only a year ago. Teach for America recruits talented college seniors from highly ranked universities, gives them their first training as teachers, and makes them available to schools that are willing to hire them. This year it has 36 teachers in 20 schools in 11 Eastern Kentucky districts.      

In Appalachian Kentucky, the coming of TFA teachers has stirred hope that their sharp minds, youthful energy, diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives are invigorating rural schools where most teachers are natives who went to the nearest college – and giving fresh promise to the idea that education is the key to economic progress in the region.

“Any time you challenge the status quo – ‘the man’ – any time you challenge the man, you’re gonna put pressure on the whole system to do better,” said Terry Holliday, the state commissioner of education.

But TFA has its critics, and to some, it is just the most recent incarnation in a long series of well-intentioned but naive outsiders who try to help Appalachians who never asked for it; privileged, bored, 20-somethings who want to fight a war without dodging bullets.

Morehead State University Education Dean Cathy Gunn, who doesn’t support TFA, said some of its teachers might think “It will look good on my resume, and I want to take a break, and it’s like the Peace Corps.”

People in the region have seen similar programs since the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s; while some volunteers from outside the region stayed, most left.  “People would say that they ‘popped in, popped off, and popped out’,” says Lois Combs Weinberg, who was a VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) and whose father, Bert Combs, was governor from 1969-73.

But unlike some such programs, TFAers don’t organize.  They don’t picket.  In fact, they’re media-shy: Getting interviews with some of them was a challenge.  They’re here to teach, and they want to make clear that TFA – at least as an organization – is here to stay for the long term.

“It’s basically been a boom and bust cycle of people coming in and leaving,” says TFA corps member Alix Smith, who teaches in Lynn Camp High School at Corbin.  “Our goal here with TFA is to get the boom without the bust.” 

TFA’s careful efforts at community integration seem to be working, based on interviews with some Eastern Kentucky citizens. “At first we were skeptical, but they won us over in the end,” one said.  “Every one of them would have faced down hell with a water pistol if they thought it would help their kids.”

Principal Robbie Fletcher of Sheldon Clark High School in Inez shared a similar story about a TFA teacher. Several students’ parents “called me and wanted their kids out of her class,” he said.  And inside that class, some students were equally irate, saying things like “I don’t know how things work wherever it is you came from, but this is just not the way we do things around here.”  But in the end, Fletcher said, the teacher won them over, parents included –“except one,” he says, “and the pope himself couldn’t have converted that one.”

Another reason for TFA’s success is that it is meeting real needs.  Many schools in Appalachia don’t have qualified teachers in foreign languages, special education or the sciences.  TFA is filling desks that would otherwise be vacant or filled with long-term substitutes.

There’s another difference between TFA and past programs, too: 50 years of academic research.  “TFA is specific.  It’s much more targeted work,” says Weinberg.  “With VISTA, we really didn’t know what [the volunteers] were doing,” she says.  “We sent them there to ‘do good’ and gave them no training.”  TFA now has a much more “sophisticated conceptual framework,” she says, “We now know that education equals economic development.”

Even if TFA members don’t see themselves as directly fighting poverty, they still are very much part of the poverty war, says University of Kentucky economist Ken Troske, who runs the Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.

“If you can just raise education levels in Eastern Kentucky,” Troske says, “you could eliminate almost all of the region’s problems because low education levels are responsible for poverty, poor health, smoking, obesity, crime, drug use.”

Troske says TFA doesn’t have to work miracles: “Even if you can raise these kids’ achievement by just 1 or 2 years of quality-adjusted education, you can start to see some real results in these other metrics.”

There was skepticism that TFA could get the political support needed to open a region in Appalachia and start placing teachers.  A starting teacher in Eastern Kentucky makes upward of $30,000 a year in a region where the per capita income is approximately half that, so local demand for teaching jobs is strong. But the need for qualified teachers overcame the politics."

“Right now TFA is very targeted in rural settings where they just can’t find the teachers,” Holliday said. He hopes to broaden the impact by making it a catalyst for better teacher quality throughout the state.

While TFA is a national program, its teachers are employed locally, at the same salary locals would have been paid. “None of the hiring/firing processes were taken away,” said Phil Rogers, who was executive director of the state Education Professional Standards Board until he retired this summer. “They still have to be hired by the site-based council” at a school, Rogers noted; the only difference is that schools get an added benefit from having a bigger pool of applicants."

Regardless of how much like normal, local teachers the TFA corps members may feel, they are still part of a national service organization and their career tracks are different.  Many are delaying six-figure salaries.  Altruism is at work here, to some extent, and the students respect that.

“They know that the other jobs we had are higher paying, salary-wise,” said Smith, who teaches Spanish at Lynn Camp.

But they also wonder about motives. Senorita Smith said one of her students confronted her in class, saying: “I heard that Teach for America teachers are only here because they think that we’re poor and think we’re stupid and think we’re don’t wear shoes.” Smith said she replied, “Do you really believe that I think you guys are stupid?”

Smith’s eyes went glittery with tears for a moment in the retelling.  She says the class murmured back, “No,” and finally one found the right words: “You wouldn’t work us so hard if you thought we were that stupid.” But for many of the TFAers, the question comes up over and over.

“My kids think I’m certifiably insane for coming here,” says TFA teacher Liz Selden.  Her colleague, Tom Mitchell, tells me that his students thought his very presence in Eastern Kentucky was a sure sign that he couldn’t get a job anywhere else. “You must have done something really wrong to end up here,” he says they told him. 

The students can play the Appalachia card another way, too. TFA teacher Marie Giezendanner said her students started out saying, “We’re from Martin County.  You can’t expect us to always do our homework. I got so sick and tired of hearing about Martin County this, and Martin County that, that eventually I came down pretty hard on them about it.  They don’t try that excuse so much anymore.”

When asked what causes low educational achievement in the region, TFA teachers say it is not so much poverty as “low expectations,” and this isn’t just armchair sociology.  UK education and sociology Professor Alan DeYoung says this is deeply rooted in the history of education in Appalachia.

“Up until about 1960, the point of the high-school teacher in Eastern Kentucky was to keep kids in the area, to prepare them for local jobs.  Now, it’s the opposite – it’s to equip kids to leave for college,” DeYoung said, and he thinks the schools have been slow to catch up.

The most common question TFA teachers in Appalachia get is “Are you going to stay?”   It is often used as a “polite way to express doubts about TFA,” says Smith.  Gunn, the Morehead dean, said confidently, “They’re not coming to Appalachia to stay, that’s for sure.”

TFA is a two-year commitment, but the hope is that many will stay longer.  “Coming into the corps, only 10 percent of corps members say they want education to be their career,” says UK graduate Will Nash, executive director of TFA’s Appalachia region, but “Two-thirds of all TFA alumni who have gone through the program are currently in education, broadly defined,” some in school administration.

Coming in, some Kentucky TFAers couldn’t imagine staying.  “Now,” says Smith, “I can’t imagine leaving.” Already, some of the corps members are making plans for the long haul.  “I’d stay at Leslie County for the next 30 years, Lord willing,” says Selden, who is from Georgia and says she is now “queen of [her] very own single wide” mobile home.

The short-term commitment is a common criticism, and it’s an even bigger problem in Appalachia, Lynn Camp Principal Amy Bays said.  “In our area, kids are used to people leaving them,” she says, “so they were especially wary of these people who would only stay for two years.”

Mitchell said likewise.  “A lot of my boys don’t have stable male role models in their life,” he says, “so they’re often looking to me to provide guidance.  I’m concerned about what happens when I’m gone.”

TFA teachers try to get their students to focus on their own futures. They say there is one topic that is “daily conversation” in their classes: college.  But in high school and especially the middle grades, this can seem a far-off and distant goal.

TFA teachers talk about their own experiences to make college more attractive, and administrators like that.  Bays says students are “star struck” by the TFAers’ experiences, which broaden their conception of what is possible. “They don’t get out of the county much,” she said, so this is important.

Holliday agrees.  “One of the things that excites me most about TFA,” he said, “is that since TFA recruits from the top 10 percent of the top 10 percent, they’re great role models for these kids.” 

But it may be more elemental than that.  

It’s the last day of school in Barbourville and I’m on the bus with Stephanie Tanner’s Spanish class.  I ask them what they think of their TFA teachers, Ms. Tanner and Mr. Roach, and I can barely hear for the shouting.

“They’re awesome,” they tell me.  “Best teachers we have,” says one.  When asked why, they tell me in gritty detail, pulling no punches, often giving me quotes about the shortcomings of non-TFA teachers that prudence makes unprintable here. “She’s the first Spanish teacher to stay with us for more than a year,” says Chandler Smith, a ninth grader at Knox County High.  “Only one of them that knew how to teach, too,” another kid interjects. 

At lunch, I get 20 versions of the same response: TFA teachers just know how to connect.  The same point is made more and more colorfully as I talk to more of the students.  “They’re basically really, really, really smart teenagers who know how to teach,” says one.   “No, no, no,” another corrects him.  “They just get what we like because they like those things too,” says another.  And then, finally, “They’re great teachers for us kids because they’re really just kids themselves.”

The teachers seem to know what they’re doing: every piece of role-modeling is intentional, every allusion calculated.  They know the value of a good pop-culture reference and they’re not above leveraging that if it works. 

They’re scrappy educators – and scrappy is a good way of describing their feelings about TFA’s mission, too.  Over and over again in interviews, the corps members tell me that “humility goes a long way.” They don’t think they’re here to save Appalachia or to end poverty in the state of Kentucky.  For them, it’s much simpler than that: get the students to learn the material – by any means necessary.  That’s hard enough.  But if you can do it, TFA and its supporters believe, day after day after day, we might just be able to close the achievement gap in Appalachia.