A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 05 2010

TFA Cultishness and Michelle Rhee’s Top 3 Learnings

Observers like to point out that TFA is a cult. We have bounteous acronyms that only we, as CMs, know. We all have identical–or, at the very least, extremely similar–views on the achievement gap.  We all go through the same indoctrination process, the same rites of passage.  We all have, as a result, similar teaching methods and philosophies.  When, in our summer travels, we cross paths with another CM, the first thing we ask is “what corps were you in?”

Some find this “cultishness” off-putting.  But I happen to like it. I happen to like working in groups composed of individuals who have a laser sharp sense of purpose; who can immediately understand one person’s problem because everyone has, more or less, gone through the same experience; who, by consequence of holding the same views on education, can use the power of synergies to discover solutions that could not have been conceived alone.  And what’s the hurt in robotically chewing up the same teaching method if that method is the synthesis and product of all the best aspects of different methods out there?  TFA’s cultishness is valuable to me.

Of course, I don’t let the cult stifle my open-mindedness. I like to hang out with “non-TFA” people (I apologize for categorizing people into in- and out-groups, but I guess that inevitably comes with being part of a cult). No, I love to hang out with non-TFA folks; it’s just hard to do that when your life so fully revolves around teaching.  I read many and accept some of the criticisms leveled at Teach For America, whether as a bogus concept, wasteful organization, or ineffective method of improving our nation’s public school system.  I read widely on education and how to improve it; even those whom appear to stand as far away as possible from me on the plane of educational beliefs are on my Google Reader (examples: The Washington Teacher and GFBrandenburg).  I read widely on things outside of education, since I know the issue is one that is intertwined with many others.  The last thing that I would want from being a CM is to become narrow-minded.

So there you have it.  An open appreciation for the cult of Teach For America.  I drank the Kool Aid a long time ago, I’m aware.  But I am the better for it.


I mentioned rites of passage as an essential part of any cult.  For many CMs, there is an Induction of another kind that receives less attention than the one that begins a CM’s experience.  I’m speaking of Alumni Induction–that moment where the 2-year commitment is up and the gate that separates the fish of the TFA ilk from the vast oceans of the world is lifted up, providing further evidence that entropy does exist.

Let me be clear–I didn’t “graduate” early.  But I was able to attend the ceremony for the 2008 corps. It was truly a fantastic, uplifting event.

A large part of what made it so special was hearing CMs share their reflections on their experience with the entire DC Region corps.

Another special part was when Chancellor Michelle Rhee of DC Public Schools gave the keynote address. This was special, because she spoke to us about her experience as Chancellor of a major urban school district through the lens of being a TFA alum–as someone who adheres to the same set of values and principles.

I was able to record most of her address. It is below (I attempted to embed it but the function doesn’t seem to be working):

Here are the learnings as well as some select quotes (if 13 minutes is too long):

(1) “Go get a boyfriend.”

“This is the loneliest job you can possibly imagine…you need someone at home who loves you unconditionally.” -on the need for love.

(2) “You have to lead from the front.”

“If you ever want to become the least popular person in the city, all you have to do is to tell someone you are closing down a school, much less 23 schools.” -on how to become unpopular–fast!

“Sometimes, as a leader, you have to be able to see things that other people might not see at that moment, but know that eventually people are going to see it if you are doing the right things. And so sometimes you can’t be afraid to be out in front.” -on vision.

(3) “It is hard to be liked.”

“For far too long in this city, and in this country, we have tried to make people feel good about what was going on and about themselves and the jobs that we were doing and we weren’t willing to talk about the hard stuff. And look at what that’s produced in the Washington DC public schools…I’m going to talk about the bad stuff, I’m going to talk about the hard stuff. And if what that does is make people feel a little uncomfortable, but also gives them a sense of urgency about the changes that need to happen, then I’m okay with that.” –on the problem with softening up.

“If you want warm and fuzzy I am not your girl. But if you want results and rapid change and transformation, though it may make some people uncomfortable, then you should…[help people] understand that change does not come easily. –on getting to the business of the work.

(4) “It all comes down to courage.”

“The courage that I’m talking about is on the part of our Mayor, Adrian Fenty…And he has supported me at everything that I have done 100% percent. The man has not blinked or flinched once.” -on the courage of Mayor Fenty.

“If you have to cut everything a little bit deeper so that you can protect what is most important, that is what a priority is.” –on the meaning of priority.

Closing Remarks:

“I believe that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country. It’s supposed to be the thing that ensures that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor. We have public schools so that every kid can have an equal shot in life. That is not the reality as you know it in Washington DC today. As you know in Washington DC today, if you had grown up in Georgetown versus if you had grown up in Anacostia, you’d get two wildly different educational experiences. That is the greatest social injustice imaginable because essentially what that means is that we are still, in this day and age, allowing the color of a child’s skin and the zip code that they live in to dictate their educational attainment levels and, therefore, their life chances and their life outcomes. That goes counter to everything that we believe in as a country, every ideal that this nation was founded on, and it is time, now, to make sure that we reverse that trend, so that every single child growing up in this city and this country today can be assured that they have that equal chance in life, that they can live the American Dream because they’re getting an excellent education in a public school.”

TFA Alumni Role:

“[Wherever you end up] every single person in this room will continue to play a significant role in this society in terms of whether or not we can deliver on that promise for kids or not. But you cannot forget the last 2 years of experience that you’ve had with these kids, because I know that you have met countless numbers of children who, through no fault of their own, are being robbed every single day of a decent education. And it is our obligation to make sure that that does not continue.”


What do I think her address reveals? Here are a few things:

  • Michelle Rhee can be funny. What she shows in her speech is an ability to take herself less seriously than most people expect. She’s not always Braveheart and she’s not always Ms. Sweeper-Upper; sometimes, she’s a normal human being (shock!).
  • Michelle Rhee is eloquent. Not a single word is wasted.  We get the gist of her lessons.  She tells stories with ease. They fascinate, they enrapture and they enlighten.  Brilliant.
  • Michelle Rhee is focused. Everything she says loops back to her commitment to student achievement.  Even her jokes serve to set up broader points about improving education.  When she explained how closing a school is the fastest way to win an unpopularity contest, she certainly aimed to make us laugh (and we did).  But, in finishing her explanation, she showed that, by closing some schools, she had provided every student in DCPS with an art teacher, music teacher, PE teacher, librarian and nurse.  That’s use of lighthearted language with a purpose.
  • Michelle Rhee is proud to be a TFA alum. She spoke fondly of her corps experience in Baltimore. They were formative in many ways.  It’s not surprising, then, that she appreciates what the current generation of CMs is doing.

In closing, I’m proud to be working alongside Chancellor Rhee, both as a fellow member of TFA, but also as part of the broader movement to improve educational opportunity for every child in this nation.  I’m going to have to say it again: TFA is a cult–but I like it.
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10 Responses

  1. I think the downfall of the cultishness of TFA is that once inside you tend to forget you are on the same side as those non-TFA teachers out there. I’ve had many friends do TFA and I’ve seen the shift in their thinking- suddenly only TFAers have all the answers to education- they seem to believe everyone else is fighting against them.
    I’ve had a TFA member refuse to shake my hand because I was a “real teacher” and not a member of TFA. I’ve seen TFA teachers disregard good recommendations because they came from “real teachers”.
    I don’t know what the teachers inside your school system are like, but I know outside your school system, many of us are fighting as hard as possible to close the achievement gap. We’ve dedicated our lives to it, and have turned down the idea of law school, med school, policy jobs in order to fight on the front lines and make a difference inside our schools. I’ve seen too many people from TFA disregard the amazing work being done outside TFA simply because it is being done by “real teachers”. As though being a teacher suddenly means you have less of an IQ.
    Together- TFA along with the hard working public school teachers could do amazing things to close the achievement gap. We want the same things- when did we stop working together?
    If we were able to bridge the gap between us- encourage new TFA members to learn from all teachers- not just their TFA members- think of the amazing achievements that could happen.

    Like I said, I have no idea what sort of quality teachers exist inside your schools, so I don’t know what you are exposed to in terms of life-long teachers. But I do know that only 5-10 minutes outside the city are a plethora of amazing, hard working teachers fighting the same battles you are- and are willing to work together if asked. They’ve been analyzing test data, working with children from poverty, creating programs, working on closing the achievement gap, looking at best practice and accepting no shortcuts for years now. Their experience plus the drive of TFA could create miracles in the DCPS system.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      You point out that TFA seems to develop in its members a belief that only the “insiders” are capable of winning the fight to improve education. While I think this statement is too broad a generalization, I can see how one or two bad experiences with CMs may have led you to believe this about TFA. I can’t make any excuses for the few who do act with that mindset; any group of individuals is bound to have a few bad apples.

      I am in no way disputing anything you say about “real teachers” (for the sake of this conversation–and this conversation only–those who are not TFA). Labels, often based on stereotypes, are harmful. Personally, I don’t worry about WHO accomplishes something; what is more important is the WORTH of that work.

      I also don’t think TFA CMs ever stopped working together with non-TFA educators, as you suggest. The presence of strong intra-TFA bonds has never precluded the development of strong bonds with other teachers; I’ve seen enough great inter-collaboration to know that. More importantly, TFA would not last without the cooperation and dedication of its school district partners and the teachers who constitute them. A symbiotic relationship exists between those “inside” and those “outside”.

      But, again, we should worry less about the labels (who is who) and more about what actually gets done.


      Just as you think that TFA “insiders” misunderstand “outsiders” who also seek the reform our education system, I think many of those coming from the outside misunderstand what those of us inside do.

      The media portrayal–and particularly what it chooses to emphasize–is one of the biggest causes of this misconception. Articles like Michael Winerip’s “A Chosen Few Are Teaching For America” focus almost entirely on how selective TFA is (presumably because this creates a buzz that attracts controversy and readers) and almost completely ignore what lies at the core of every TFA CM–a sincere desire to work towards closing the achievement gap.

      Let me offer an anecdote about a college alumni event I recently attended in DC. When people asked what I did here in the District, I said, “I teach English in DC Public Schools.” The first reaction after my response was “Oh, are you TFA?–or are you a regular teacher?” I told them that I was both (“I am a regular teacher, but I am affiliated with TFA”). I also cleared up this idea that somehow TFA is my employer (not true). Or that I got a special salary (I don’t). Or that I didn’t need to be certified (I do and I am). Put simply, there are serious misunderstandings on both sides of the supposed “fence” that exists between those inside and outside TFA.

      At the end of the day, more–and better–communication needs to occur. Within TFA–even if I personally think TFA does a decent job on this–there is always room for improvement in developing a more open-minded and positive mindset towards collaboration with others in the school community (an “us vs. them” mentality never works). On the flip side, the public needs to be better informed about TFA’s philosophy, its goals and the attitudes of the members who constitute it.

      Unfortunately, we might continue to live in a world where one teacher might always be labeled a “TFA” and another might always be labeled a “real” teacher. We use labels for a reason. Hopefully, though, when it comes to improving our public education system, we can all share the label “dedicated.”

  2. A REAL TEACHER--20 years plus

    When I see you still in a classroom five, ten, twenty years from now, still slogging it out, still trying to reach kids, still figuring out where the money is going to come from to run off those 150 copies you need to give out a handout or put up posters in the classroom, or for God’s sake, just to have enough chalk or markers or whatever is needed to teach by then, then–and only then–will I believe you are a REAL teacher. But, if you, like approximately 80% of TFA “teachers,” leave the system, to go on your merry way, take high paying jobs in law, public policy, etc., as befits the Ivy League background you paid so dearly for and want to recoup on, and in doing so, show the poor, needy children of the many decaying school systems of the big cities that you are just one more thing/person in their life which cannot be counted on to stick around, then you will forever in my mind be a TFA “teacher,” and most assuredly NOT a REAL one.

    It will be interesting to see if you even have the guts to publish this comment, or whether you cherry-pick comments on your blog the same way charter schools cherry-pick their students, and TFA cherry-picks their so-called “teachers:” like English teachers whose background is not in English (I quote from your first post in this blog: “I graduated from Yale this May with a degree in Ethics, Politics, and Economics. Despite the fact that I took only one English class in college (during freshman fall and, for that matter, one of the worst grades I’ve received in college), TFA placed me as an English teacher in the DC Public Schools system. Given my background, I was surprised by my placement.”

    Those of us with college degrees in literature are rightly appalled by “wet behind the ears” Ivy League students with a crash course in education, and not even in subject matter, being handed jobs on a silver platter that should rightfully go to those of us who put in the time, expense, and effort to actually major in a particular subject. And when these so-called “teachers” have the unmitigated gall to complain that they might not get a second year in a position because of policies that “last hired-first fired” is still in effect, and they try to argue that they are, after only one year, a far better, more knowledgeable and effective teacher than someone doing the job for the past 20 years, I want to vomit–and ask where
    the TFA prima donna will be even three years from now, let alone 10 or 20.

    Do I expect this comment to appear? No, though now you might feel a little pressure or guilt to publish it, and I imagine you’ll also comment something along the lines of “see, I did publish it.”

  3. Michael Jones

    Thank you for your reports from school reality. I’m responding to a different post here — the one about Lemov regarding school culture’s effect on teacher effectiveness–because I think you’ve hit on an essential point.

    Excellent teachers can succeed in an elementary school with poor culture, because they control the culture that matters for an elementary student: the primary classroom. Rafe Esquith (Teach Like Your Hair Is On Fire) is probably the most famous example of this. For secondary teachers, classroom culture is inevitably embedded in the larger school culture. Excellence as an island (Escalante, for example) is the rule in secondary schools which have indifferent cultures, meaning that the school fails to create a positive culture that overcomes the inequities and traumas students arrive with. Those islands can and do change students’ lives for better; however, the teachers who create those islands often do so at great cost to themselves and sometimes at cost to their colleagues (depending on the extensiveness of the conflicts that arise from jealousy, misunderstanding, resentment in both directions, and such). The pain of ineffectiveness at one’s chosen career is deep in any profession; in work as profoundly personal as teaching, the pain of ineffectiveness can be disabling. The contrast between islands of excellence and the compromised results of everyone else — inevitably including many dedicated, hardworking, successful-in-many-ways teachers — triggers that pain, usually promoting avoidance or backlash rather than introspection — especially when the school’s culture makes excellence in one’s own room that much harder to achieve, when teacher exhaustion and frustration becomes part of the adult culture of the school (a completely common occurrence).

    There is good news in all this. The work of professional learning communities within successful schools addresses precisely this issue. I urge you to attend a PLC conference keynoted by Richard and Rebecca DuFour, if you haven’t already done so; and to check out Anthony Muhammad’s book on transformational leadership (another key ingredient to creating a successful school culture, and Muhammad’s developed an interesting taxonomy of roles adults play regarding change initiatives in a school, or any comparable organization; no teacher cohort, not even one as well-organized and trained as CMs, can do much besides be squeaky wheels within the culture of a typical urban secondary school) and hear him speak, as he did recently in San Jose, CA, at PLC events.

    This point about school culture is especially important in light of the ongoing debate about the importance of firing teachers who do not measure up to the standard of producing excellence and equity in their students’ demonstrable learning.
    As much as Michelle Rhees is right about the nature of the problem confronting education, we cannot fire our way to better teachers, nor can we simply professionally develop teachers en masse from identified best practices, for precisely the what-about-culture problem you posed to Lemov, whose implications I tried to at least partially outline above. The PLC approach holds the most promise for excellence and equity (for example, Dr. Muhammad turned a typically dysfunctional Detroit-area middle school into a 90=90 school in three years, as principal), because once a staff commits to achieving excellence and equity AS A TEAM, the jealousy/resentment/failure-response issues diminish as team successes build on each other. This is not a trivial accomplishment; it takes strong building leadership and a willing-enough staff (critical mass/ tipping point stuff). But it’s happening, and it’s working; you can check the research at allthingsplc.org.

    I’m delighted that you’re so clearly committed to the cause of excellence and equity in our schools, both in the classroom and in the blogosphere, and I hope that you’ll find what you need to continue and achieve the greatest impact possible.

  4. Michael Jones

    One addendum: when I said Rhees is right about the nature of the problem facing education, I want to be clear that, in my view, the lack of excellence and equity and the pervasive disbelief in, despite pervasive lip service to, the possibility of excellence and equity, is the problem. I do not, repeat not, believe that “teacher ineffectiveness” or “bad teachers” captures the cause of the problem, although teacher ineffectiveness at achieving excellence and equity is the norm, for the reasons I explained in the rest of my post.

    • Thank you for elaborating on a culture-based perspective to education reform. I will look into the PLC concept (ironically, we already have PLCs at our school, but they are PLCs only in name, and not in reality). Also, thank you for your kind last words.

  5. That was some scholastic blog post!!

  6. Particularly well executed read!!


    Michelle Rhee – The famous former Washington DC School District Chancellor


    Michelle Rhee on OPRAH https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPsqO17f6Lw

    Michelle Rhee on abc’s ThisWeek https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nep1mcaFthU

    Michelle Rhee on The DailyShow with Jon Stewart

    pbs.org FRONTLINE: The Education of Michelle Rhee
    http://video.pbs.org/video/2323979463/ http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/education-of-michelle-rhee/

    Time Magazine: Rhee Tackles Classroom Challenge

    Michelle Rhee Discusses “Waiting for Superman,” Charter Schools And Sch… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLih24QdwH8

    Why Teach For America works – Michelle Rhee

    A Two-Tier Proposal for Teacher Pay – Michelle Rhee

    Stanford University: A Conversation on “Waiting for Superman” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzrjo7Fvs1A

    “Radical” Fighting to Put Students First should be a must read for all studentsfirst.org members! Michelle Rhee’s new book, “RADICAL: Fighting to Put Students First,” is now in stores! For more information about where you can find it, to read an excerpt from the book, and to share your story about education in America visit the official site at http://www.edradical.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/edradical.

    Michelle Rhee at the ACE 2011 Spring Luncheon https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=mO9F-amHDuw

    Michelle Rhee and Kevin Johnson (4/20/11) https://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=OCcNzh7C_Tk&feature=endscreen

    Michelle A. Rhee 03.17.11 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KD0g8Jb9l78

    Cornell Alumni: Olin Lecture 2012: Michelle Rhee ’92https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwFD-wkAEi8

    Harvard Public Health: Michelle Rhee, Former Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schoolshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH0twXcxNUY


    Geoffrey Canada – Conversations at KCTS 9
    Geoffrey Canada interviewed by Julian Bond: Explorations in Black Leadership …

    “Waiting for Superman” the documentary and Bloomberg documentary “Risk Takers” Michelle Rhee should a required screening for all studentsfirst.org members. I saw them on Netflix and became an instant member of studentsfirst.org and Michelle Rhee follower.

    “Won’t Back down” the movie is another example to screen to all studentsfirst.org members.

    Share the reasons you fight for education reform. Your story will inspire others to get involved. So tell us: Why are you working to put students first? http://www.studentsfirst.org/facebook-story

    Check out today’s blog by StudentsFirst staffer Charity Hallman, “One size fits all, or so they said,” on The Fordham Institute’s “Education Gadfly Daily: FLYPAPER” blog.

    To view the Fordham study, “When Teachers Choose Pension Plans: The Florida Story,” visit http://www.studentsfirst.org/fordham-study-on-fl-teacher-pension-reform

    Watch MAKER videos on StudentFirst Founder Michelle Rhee visit http://www.makers.com/michelle-rhee


    The Voting Rights Act (VRA) must be upheld by the supreme court:

    The numerous despicable attempts to restrict voting made during the last election cycle are proof of that. Anyone who truly believes the VRA is obsolete needs to recognize, given last year’s voter suppression efforts, the Jim Crowe era is biding its time.

    Now even if you are dumb enough to believe that all is OK with the world and there are no reasons to have the voting rights act on the books. Then why are the the parties at opposite end’s on this? Why are the Republicans in America trying to keep people from the poles ?

    The argument is that VRA is discriminatory against Southern states to require them but not other states to seek pre-clearance for voting laws; I actually agree. The Voting Rights Act should require *ALL* states to seek pre-clearance. After what we’ve seen the GOP try to pass in states all across the nation prior to the last 2012 election, I see no reason this safeguard against voter suppression should be limited to just Southern states as suggested by VRA of 1965 but now should be expanded to apply to ALL 50 states.

    Ajay Jain
    [email protected]
    1209 Creekwood Drive
    Garland TX 75044-2421

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