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A worm in the Apple for teachers

August 22, 2011

Recently I stopped at a mall with one of my daughters for a quick trip to a particular store.  By chance, I passed by the Apple store and saw a poster that instantly raised my blood pressure.  Young teen in tow, I stopped short, marched into the store, and requested of the nearest store employee the contact information for the Apple customer relations department.  The poor guy asked if he could help but I calmly explained that he probably couldn’t.  I was infuriated by the poster suggesting that Apple was “helping” teachers in low-income schools because it is teaming with Teach for America to donate iPads to TFA employees.  Uh, Apple, if you really want to help  teachers in urban schools, maybe y’all could start by helping those with experience and education in the field.

Teach for America, I explained, consists of people with degrees in other fields who go through a brief summer training program prior to working in the classroom. With all due respect, they are not, strictly speaking, teachers, not yet, “intensive five weeks summer institute”  notwithstanding.   Actually, as I explained to two Apple employees, that is part of the problem I have with the Apple/TFA partnership.  Teach for America promotes a notion that it can create (bigger? better? snappier?) teachers through a remarkably brief training program, and agencies like Apple and a general lack of social incredulity help to promote the delusion that a quality teacher can be cultivated in a matter of weeks.  (For now, let’s not even discuss what is happening with experienced teachers in urban schools nationwide but suffice it to say that we at FSP and others have written at length on the topic.)  Today I finally wrote the letter to Apple’s executive relations department  and plan to put it in the mail tomorrow.  Here is my most recent draft and I encourage others to write similar letters, or share this one if they similarly disapprove of Apple’s current Teach for America campaign (Apple Inc, Attn: Executive Relations, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014):

8/21/11

To Whom It May Concern:

This letter is a follow-up to a conversation I had with one of your customer service representatives, Katie Phillips, on August 4th (case 236911204); I greatly appreciate her assistance. As a loyal user of Apple products for the past fifteen years, a holder of Apple stocks, and an urban teacher, I am writing to articulate how viscerally disappointed I was to see that Apple has channeled a desire to help teachers in low-income schools by providing iPads to employees of Teach for America.  I am an effective, highly qualified, graduate-school educated, bilingual, urban public school teacher and I wonder why you did not launch a campaign to help urban students in low-income neighborhoods by supporting experienced, qualified, veteran teachers. Students in high-risk neighborhoods need, and deserve, qualified and committed educators working with them. Perhaps you are unaware that thousands of urban teachers, with degrees in the educational field, have been working diligently in high-need areas for years.  Perhaps you are unaware that TFA teachers are not teachers by profession, and instead receive a brief summer training program prior to their work in urban schools.  While I do not disparage the intent, efforts, or abilities of individual Teach for America candidates, this assembly-line approach to teaching fundamentally insults those of us who have dedicated our careers to education.   Your endorsement of TFA helps to erode the professionalism of the teaching field.  Tellingly, your website promotion of Teach for America notes that its candidates commit to two years of teaching.  Meanwhile, I have committed to my fifteenth year, and can name colleagues with up to thirty years of practical experience in the neediest of schools.

Perhaps you are also unaware that there is a movement to discredit and de-professionalize the teaching field.  However, the message sent by TFA head, Wendy Kopp (whose bachelor’s degree, by the way, is in public and international affairs, not education), as well as other self-proclaimed school “reformers” regarding (often-unionized) public school teachers is predominantly a blameful and negative one.  These polarizing forces, would like to suggest that problems in urban schools are solely the onus of the public school teacher, and that they–white knights for the cause–can provide formulaic solutions to the very real challenges we face in urban neighborhoods.  This is patently false, and should be a ridiculous proposition. Consider, please, the work of nurses, police officers, doctors, lawyers and firefighters, and our understanding that optimum performance of these jobs is sometimes complicated by factors out of the professionals’ sphere of influence. We do not accept police officers, nurses, doctors, firefighters or lawyers practicing in the field after a summer crash course, yet somehow it has become perfectly acceptable to do just this in the neediest of public schools.

Therefore, when I recently saw a poster in the window of one of your retail stores trumpeting your support of “urban teachers”, via Teach for America, I felt like I had been punched.  I was inspired to purchase stock in Apple primarily for ideological reasons and am deeply troubled by your endorsement of McTeachers in favor of those with educational training.  When we want to know about a subject, we typically find an expert.  Pity that Apple did not seek out expert teachers in its bid to help urban schools.

Suffice it to say, this particular Apple for teachers left me with a nasty taste in my mouth, especially since it was not offered to the teachers who are most qualified to work with students at risk.

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 6:54 am

    The PAA-Seattle group has already held a protest at a Seattle Apple store.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 22, 2011 7:24 am

      Thanks, Bob. I saw on a recent Seattle Education weblog that there had been some action out that way and that motivated me to get my letter done. Apple employees that I spoke with expressed a genuine-sounding respect for teachers and they were very surprised to hear of the Teach for America dynamic. Teaching moments…

      • Kristina permalink
        August 22, 2011 8:29 am

        There are videos on Youtube of the action, including 2 respectful security guards in the last one. I can’t find the link right now, but if I do I will share it with you.

  2. August 22, 2011 7:36 am

    I met a Teach for America teacher yesterday, a friend of my cousin’s daughter. When I walked in she was on her Apple laptop. (Probably got it from Apple). She will be co-teaching this year, and I wished her well, and offered any help I could give her. What was funny(not ha-ha) was her mom’s response to a question asked by my cousin. “Oh no, she’s not going to keep doing this, she’s going to get her law degree.” So, is teaching now the thing you do on the way to another career?”

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 22, 2011 8:16 pm

      Ugh! That makes me mutter things under my breath…

    • TFA mom permalink
      August 27, 2011 11:08 am

      I really disagree with the comments on TFA. My daughter joined TFA last year. She went through a rigorous interview process and extensive training. She had to take and pass the teachers’ exam. This is her second year and she is dedicated and committed. She went right in the class as a solo teacher without any supplies. She would go to school on the weekends to copy pages of text books for her students because they didn’t have the books. She works long hours and ‘bribes’ the kids with food if they stay after for extra help. When she joined TFA she wasn’t sure what career path she would pursue after her two years, but after about two months she knew this was her calling. She just finished her Master of Education program.

      I know some people join TFA because it looks good on a resume and they have no interest in pursing a career in education.

      I’m sure most teachers are committed to their profession. I also know, as with any profession, there are a lot of ‘career’ teachers who just push the kids along without making an effort to really teach.

      You can’t catergorize all Teach for America teachers any more than you can catergorize all teachers as complacent because they have tenure!

      PS She has an Apple which she saved for and bought herself while she was in college.

    • October 25, 2011 8:33 am

      My husband, who has been teaching in DPS for a while now and got there the hard way, is incredibly frustrated with TFA’s. He frequently mentions how teaching is just a brief stopping point on their way to another career. It’s unfortunate the high school he works at is filling up with them.

  3. Zulma permalink
    August 22, 2011 11:17 am

    Great letter! Your letter should be used as a campaign-flyer to all educators who use Apple computers. We cannot continue to have these companies promote this divide and conquer, the haves and have nots in the teaching profession. I plan to put your blog comment on my face book.

  4. Andrea Cecconi permalink
    August 22, 2011 11:17 am

    Wendy Kopp is pretty clear about this. TFA is not a teacher preparation program. It’s a leadership development program. It’s not for kids. It’s for adults. And these folks say that unions are self-serving?!

    “In October, the group announced a partnership with Goldman Sachs, in which TFA recruits are guaranteed jobs at the investment bank directly following their two years in the classroom.”

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2011/01/25/wendy-kopp-on-her-new-book-and-teach-for-americas-record.html

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 22, 2011 8:22 pm

      @Andrea Like you, I do not understand why the obviously self-serving agendas of the Kopps, Rhees, Mike Johnstons (current CO State Senator and former TFA “expert) et. al. have not drawn more scrutiny…Newspapers and spin-masters too busy blaming unions?

      • joan permalink
        August 23, 2011 7:52 pm

        Why the obviously self-serving agendas of the Kopps et al., have not drawn more scrutiny?

        Because the only motives allowed to be questioned are teachers and teachers unions. Teachers, gasp, want autonomy to teach, free from threats and punitive sanctions.

        We’re not allowed to question the motives of edu-profiteers and their money laundering charter schools.

  5. August 22, 2011 12:39 pm

    How thoroughly creepy. And it’s pretty sad that the only alternative to Apple, were we to seek one, would be Microsoft, and Great Satan Bill Gates.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 22, 2011 8:24 pm

      Agreed! Or, should I say, A Greed?

  6. Tauna permalink
    August 22, 2011 6:16 pm

    Great letter.

  7. August 22, 2011 9:03 pm

    Makes me feel better about having abandoned Apple Computers a few years ago. But it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t: now I’m in the nightmare of Windoze. Must be time to go to Unix/Linux.

    As for TFA and Ms. Kopp, it’s hard not to be outraged and offended by the presumptuousness and blind egotism behind her project, particularly as it has developed over the years. My direct experience with TFA kids (and they are kids) suggests that there are gems amongst the dross, but that most are drastically over-matched by and grossly under-prepared for the work they’re expected to do. Seeing a number of them get steam-rolled time and again by 6th graders in the South Bronx in 2004 made me feel sorry for everyone involved. But a few really were serious about trying to become teachers, and I’ve gotten to see one guy teaching math in an NYC high school who started to see through the TFA malarkey fairly early on and now seems poised to continue teaching well past his TFA requirement. I think, however, that by and large the TFA approach is wrong-headed and, like many efforts that catch the fancy of educational conservatives and neo-liberals, it does little good and, directly or indirectly, a good deal of harm.

    • August 25, 2011 9:53 am

      Hi Michael,

      I hope you’ll read the comment I left below. TFA corps members do a lot of good. Every day.

  8. green permalink
    August 24, 2011 10:22 am

    Why do teachers – TFA or otherwise – need ipads anyway? How does that really help the challenge students / teachers face in high needs schools?

    And just because Apple’s actions insult teachers with more training and experience, does that negate the improvement in student achievement that some inexperienced TFA teachers have proven to bring?

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 25, 2011 6:01 pm

      As I state in my letter to Apple, “I do not disparage the intent, efforts, or abilities of individual Teach for America candidates” but I think we should be wary of any lay agency that presumes to know more about the profession than those who have degrees in the field.

  9. August 25, 2011 7:25 am

    I would love to hear Apple explain how, exactly, they anticipate students at low-income schools receiving a direct benefit from this program.

    I think there would be a far greater direct impact on students’ learning – and my low-income, high-needs students seeing themselves as people who successfully and adeptly use technology – if Apple replaced the sixteen year old iMacs in my classroom. But I suppose that’s far less glamourous.

  10. August 25, 2011 9:47 am

    Hi Everyone,

    It seems the only people responding here are anti-TFA, so I felt no choice but to lend my voice to this discussion.

    I just finished two years as a TFA corps member in the Mississippi Delta. Was I underprepared to be a teacher? Yes. Did I feel like I knew what I was doing all the time? Not a chance. Would having an iPad have done much for me or my students in the classroom? Probably not.

    I’m definitely aware of the problems imbedded in TFA’s model. It’s very difficult to get people prepared to be great teachers in such a short training period, but the truth of the matter is that TFA as a whole is having a substantial impact on the classrooms where its corps members work.

    When I started TFA in Mississippi, I was blown away by how far behind my students were. I taught 8th grade English, but most of my kids were 4-5 years behind in their reading level. They could barely write complete sentences, much less essays. In one year with me, through sheer determination and force of will, those kids grew to the point where 87% of them could write proficient 5 paragraph essays at the end of the year and they grew an average of 2 years in their reading level. I taught them about college readiness and character traits and how to treat one another amongst a terribly violent environment where the expectations were incredibly low because these kids were all from low-income backgrounds and very few people actually believed in them. Because I believed in them and loved them in a way that no other adult had, some of my students completely changed the trajectory of their lives and are now on a path toward college when before they were headed toward prison or a life spent trapped in the cycle of poverty in which they were growing up.

    The veteran teachers in my school had lost all perspective on how kids should be treated. There was a culture of complacency and I’m glad that TFA was brought in to shake things up. I know there are incredible veteran teachers, and to the author of this piece, I am humbled by your years of service for your students. However, I think it is a fallacy to say that TFA is an organization which is causing more harm than good. TFA is a leadership development program on purpose. You don’t have to stay in the classroom for more than two years to change kids’ lives, though 60% of TFA corps members DO stay in the classroom for at least a third year. More importantly though, when TFA corps members leave their schools, they have just become witness to the reality of the education system, often in some of its worst forms.

    TFA is creating a long-term movement of people across all sectors who truly care about education and about the future of all kids in this country. If the only people who want education to improve are teachers and people with education degrees, well then nothing will ever change. If, on the other hand, working in a low-income school, even for just a few short years, becomes the norm — if every policy maker, politician, business person, CEO, healthcare or social worker has had experience in one of these classrooms, then we might be able to battle this widespread, system-wide problem on the level it would require to actually make a difference.

    As far as this Apple campaign goes, I think it is a brilliant way to bring awareness to the mission of TFA. Most people don’t understand the fact that in this country, 50% of kids from low-income communities drop out of high school. Of those that do, most of them are only able to perform at the level of an average eighth grader in a more affluent area. The overwhelming majority of kids from low-income homes are African American and Latino, meaning that the tragedy of the achievement gap has racial implications, as well. I love that we are having this dialogue here, but it’s likely that the people reading this and commenting are the ones who already knew that the problem existed. We can’t overcome this problem unless more people are aware of it and Apple is helping us do just that.

    Right now only 5% of students on college campuses in this country are African America. That’s it. You might be an incredible teacher — surely better than I could have been in just two years — but if you want educational equity to take hold in America on a long-term basis, if we want kids of color to have an equal opportunity to go to college and create their own paths in life — then you need Teach For America. Please see us as allies, not adversaries.

    • mariasallee permalink*
      August 25, 2011 6:18 pm

      Dear Julianna,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. As you clearly understand, this is a bigger issue than the rhetoric might suggest. I am perfectly willing to see other teachers as allies, regardless of their level of expertise, training etc., and wholeheartedly agree that we need to address issues of equity in public schools. I am not, however, convinced that Teach for America is a flawless remedy that we can prescribe in low-income, low-performing neighborhoods without regard to addressing the many other issues that affect them.

      My discomfort with Teach for America comes from the observation that Wendy Kopp seems to focus more on the “failure” of teachers rather than on those of the systems in which they work. I can name at least one former TFA teacher who left my school district in frustration at the lack of support she had received from administration. I appreciate your point that TFA candidates leave the field with a better perspective on the realities in public schools, but I would like it even better if we as a society had greater regard for the importance of public schools, teachers, and the teaching profession.

  11. Frederika permalink
    November 23, 2011 5:18 pm

    ” Because I believed in them and loved them in a way that no other adult had, some of my students completely changed the trajectory of their lives,…”

    OMG. She was a freakin’ miracle worker! Give me a break. In almost forty years in the classroom, I too have changed the trajectory of children’s lives. I just don’t go around describing MY accomplishments. Why is it that TFA corps members who have put in their two(2) years in a school feel that they have made their mark, done their due diligence, and saved the world? It seems almost cultish. Many, many newly-minted YOUNGER teachers from our standard teacher prep institutes put in the same levels of dedication, energy, and enthusiasm and get similar results. Hell, a bunch of us over-the-hill folks do too. I have done all the things she did and more, AND, I stayed with it–it has been my career and my profession. It was not a place marker, a feel-good opportunity on my way up the ladder. I will tolerate the short-term TFA corps members. I embrace the ones that find that teaching turns out to be their calling. I detest the national organization and the ploys it uses to convice others that they and only they can save our students. It’s corporate-political BS.

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