Catherine Michna’s passionate declaration that she’ll no longer write letters of recommendation for students applying to Teach for America set off a firestorm. But the Tulane University research fellow is not the ivory tower bomb thrower that her critics make her out to be. Michna’s critique of the organization of which she was once a part is deeply grounded in the city where she grew up and attended public schools: New Orleans. In the very first installment of a new series, The Frustrated Alum, EduShyster talks with Michna about her story and why she decided to speak out publicly against TFA.EduShyster: You really touched a nerve with your recent announcement that you won’t write letters of recommendations for your students who want to apply to Teach for America. But you’ve actually been critical of the organization for a long time, correct?
Michna: I became critical of TFA at a very early stage, back in 1998 when I started teaching in Oakland, CA as a corps member and got to know the veteran teachers who really taught me to teach. But the letter I wrote to my students, which Slate adapted, reflects my experience in New Orleans. I’m a graduate of New Orleans public schools, a parent of a New Orleans public school student, and my sister taught in the New Orleans public schools for 10 years, only to be pushed out by school privatization. My sister ended up leaving New Orleans and is working on a PhD in education policy. Seeing how she wasn’t valued, and how her experience and degrees basically meant that she was too expensive, had a powerful effect on me.
ES: Do you think your sister’s story is emblematic of the transformation of the New Orleans public schools?
Michna: She has a great deal of experience about curriculum building and teaching and that’s not the kind of knowledge that charter schools in New Orleans have wanted. There’s a race, class and generational dynamic behind a lot of what’s happening in the schools here. Our schools used to be staffed by African American professional women and that’s not the case anymore. Now you go into these schools and everyone there is white and 24 and the principal looks pretty similar too. It’s just such a stark contrast. This race, class and generational dynamic has also led to the dominance of the No Excuses model in New Orleans which I find troubling for all kinds of reasons.
ES: Yet defenders of TFA maintain that the organization is actually diversifying the teaching force, bringing in more minorities and first-generation college students than you might find at an institution like, say, Tulane. What do you say to that?
Michna: The problem is that the students who join TFA are being used to deprofessionalize teaching. Usually they’re being recruited because they’ve acquired some kind of social capital, even if that capital is new to their family. Their race or their class background doesn’t mean that they’re doing any less damage to the profession of teaching.
ES: When students tell you that they want to join TFA, what do you think they’re looking to get out of it?
Michna: Obviously a lot of people join TFA as a stepping stone to something bigger and better, as if teaching isn’t a real profession. But I’ve also heard from students who want to be teachers and think that they’ll have a better shot of getting a teaching job through TFA, especially in a place like New Orleans, than if they go through a traditional program. And the sad thing is that they’re right. I know new teachers who’ve been through rigorous education programs, been extensively mentored and have all sorts of credentials, but when they graduate they won’t be able to get a job as easily as a TFA corps member.
ES: What kind of responses have you gotten from students since you wrote the piece?
Michna: I’ve heard from quite a few who are looking for alternatives to TFA or just want advice. I’m going to try to meet with as many of them as possible. I’ve also heard from a number of students who are part of the growing TFA resistance movement on campuses. They’re really aware of the way their friends are being pulled in and conned and they have a pretty good analysis of what’s going on.
ES: Conned? Do you mean to tell me that TFA doesn’t represent the civil rights movement of today?
Michna: I’d say that if big oil and Walmart are paying for your civil rights movement, there’s probably something else at work. I find it horrifying that students are being told that this is the legacy of the civil rights movement. I’ve been spending most of my work time these days with elders who were part of the civil rights movement; this month marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Southern Theater. These elders have been reminding me what the values of the civil rights movement really were and its deep roots in democracy. I think that’s a big part of why I decided to speak out now.
ES: I keep reading about this professor at Tulane whose critique of TFA is “full of myths.” But it seems important to point out that you’re not actually a professor. Are you worried at all that taking such a public position on an issue like this could come back to bite you?
Michna: That was definitely the scariest part about writing this. I’m a research fellow, which basically means that I have a temporary job that pays a living wage. A lot is hinging on me not rocking the boat. But I’m very committed to New Orleans and I see myself as more of a public scholar than a typical researcher inside of a university. If I believed that tenure track positions were my only option, I wouldn’t have published the piece.
ES: Have you considered joining Teach for America? I hear it’s a great stepping stone with lots of potential for advancement and an amazing alumni network.
Michna: I’ve already done TFA…
Catherine Michna is a writer and researcher in New Orleans. She’s done extensive research on grass roots, democratic and student-centered education models in New Orleans including Students at the Center. She continues to work with teachers and students in the city’s two remaining public high schools. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.