Teaching Alongside TFA Special Forces

Meet the Green Berets of Excellence

forcesBy Johnny Bravo
My story starts some years back, on my first day on the job as a public school teacher. (After twenty years of private industry work and collegiate teaching experience, I shifted gears relatively recently and became a teacher). Having expected to encounter a balanced mix of experienced-to-new teachers, I was surprised at what seemed to be an extremely large number of very young recruits at our orientation. Although they weren’t introduced to us as being part of Teach for America, it didn’t take long to find out. While we all wore the same uniform, so to speak, there was something different about them.

And now it’s time for my joke
How can you tell which guest at a party is a TFA corps member?
Answer: Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.

There’s a part two to my joke that I like to call “the conversation.”
Me: “So Jenny—where are you from?”
Me: “Wow—Wisconsin. What brings you all the way out here?”
“I put in for this assignment. I’ve always wanted to see this place.”
Me: “This place???” feeling a bit like a Sri Lankan rice farmer.

Special forces
We’ve now been through several rounds of TFA coworkers at my school and I’ve had many conversations just like this one. They tend to end quickly because the TFA recruit on the other end rarely inquires about me in return. In fact, these one-sided exchanges are typical of the relationship between the traditional teachers and the TFA recruits at my school. They cluster together and never really integrate with us. They rent their apartments near other TFA members—away from the school district. We don’t really get a chance to know them; they don’t seem interested in getting to know us. Last year I decided that it was finally time to break the ice. I invited all of the TFA newcomers to join a group of us for lunch in my classroom. Not a single one accepted.

Teach for me

Your mission, should you choose to accept it
It’s not that hard to see why. TFA corps members don’t see themselves as teachers at our school. They’re TFA. Think of a transport plane that carries soldiers. There are regular infantry and then there are the Green Berets, the Special Forces. We may show up at the same school every day, ostensibly for the same reasons, but we’re not the same and the TFA corps members know it. They’re here on a brief and special mission and to integrate with us would serve as a distraction.

uniformTFMUntil recently, I had the same mental concept of TFA that most non-teaching Americans probably have: recent college grads recruited to parachute into the sort of big-city schools seen in such films as Freedom Writers and Stand and Deliver. In other words, places where it was difficult, or even impossible, to recruit experienced teachers. The TFA recruits were filling an urgent need and using their *smart-people smarts* to help out. Except that in my predominantly suburban district there are plenty of experienced teachers looking for work. We also have a major university with a big teachers college nearby, regularly cranking out graduates who want to make a career out of teaching.

On a rescue mission—just not the one they think
While our district is more suburb than war zone, my TFA colleagues have been prepared for a rescue mission nonetheless. And they are on a rescue mission—it’s just not the one patchthey think. The reality is that in my district, TFA recruits are hired to help balance the budget. They’re young. They start out at the bottom of the pay scale and leave long before reaching the middle, let alone the top. Gone in two years? Who cares? There will always be new corps members to take their place. District administrators have found a bottomless pool of cheap labor. Best of all, the corps members, data enthusiasts all, will work themselves virtually to death without uttering a complaint.

Corps members can’t see this exploitative situation for what it is—because they’ve been sold a brave heroic story about why they’re really here. And it’s a great story that anyone in their place would want to believe.

Sgt. Johnny Bravo serves on the front lines of public education.  Although he possesses a 4-year college degree, attended Officer Candidate School and has two decades of prior experience serving society in a different professional capacity, his true rank is not O-level, but rather non-commissioned officer. His experience on the front lines has convinced him that while many of his fellow TFA sergeants have graduated from the finest private military institutions around the nation, they don’t seem to shoot any straighter, aren’t any braver, and seem particularly vulnerable to fratricide. Sgt. Bravo’s field research interests include the impact of digital devices and culture on battlefield efficacy as well as the newly emerging study of herd dynamics.

Send tips and comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.


  1. There’s a conversation that needs to be had with these little pups, and it needs to start with, “Listen here, you little whippersnappers….”

  2. Very funny. If a touch harsh. I suspect the TFAs are much like the UK TFs; a more diverse bunch than you might expect. Are there some tools? Sure. But also a lot of hard-working and skilled people too.

  3. Special Forces? More like self righteous, usually. Only they truly care for the kids and only they work hard enough for the kids. Bleah.

  4. I’ve served with some very industrious, hard-working TFA sergeants over the past several years in this suburban, middle-class rice paddy. Discipline is big with them, as they account for assigning the vast majority of after-school detentions. But the guard-house often sits empty, as their squad members don’t respect them enough to actually show up. They’ve gone AWOL.

    They are a diverse bunch indeed. Of the top-25 universities in America, almost all of them are represented. Some Sergeants have studied political science. Others studied business. Oddly, they teach math and science, yet tend to have no training in teaching either. They merely passed the subject tests for provisional licensing purposes. In other words, they’re checked-out on the M-16, but that doesn’t mean they’ve earned their marksman’s badge. Let me put it this way… The cooks must also qualify to shoot the M-16, but we don’t have those guys donning night-vision-goggles and choppering into high-risk locations and locating high-value targets.

    I’m very sorry, but years on the front lines have left me shell-shocked and my best girl singing “Johnny we hardly knew ye”.

  5. And just to clarify, the rules of engagement require that I keep the conversation off of Twitter. And besides, Charlie monitors Twitter.

  6. You know, if I were 23 and got invited by someone 20 years my senior to have lunch with him and his friends, I would probably pass and eat with my friends, too. If you want to chalk this up to elitism, fine, but it sounds like garden variety social psychology.

    Since you don’t appear to have developed close relationships with these teachers, I wonder about the accuracy of your interpretation of how they self-percieve. You’ve already established that you’re not in a good position to report their attitudes! And, in reducing your colleagues to the hackneyed, two-dimensional TFA straw man, you’ve deadened the conversation by presenting yourself as the ed reformers’ public school straw man: defensive, self-serving, closed-minded. This isn’t the way forward.

    (And if you respond by extending further your extensively extended military metaphor, I can’t be held responsible for my emoticons.)

    1. Now I know why I’m having such a hard time convincing you to have coffee with me (or a beverage of the carbonated variety)–I’m too old!

      1. I thought Corps members were all about social justice. What about ageism? They should go set the world on fire. They can burn brighter. Than than the Suuuuuuuuuuun! Me: I’m gonna go on liberty and get higher than the Empire State. PTSD’s a bitch!

        1. I’m almost over a couple of big deadline humps! I swear! Sorry about the PTSD, JB. In-country PTSD? Garden variety teacher shell-shock? Both!?

    2. How sad and pathetic you sound. I wonder if you have any friends at all. Not likely. When I started teaching, I was chomping at the bit to get invited to lunch by a veteran. When it finally happened I kept my big mouth shut and listened. I learned an incredible amount of information. Some good, some pretty bad. But I learned, and never in 26 years had a single significant problem in any of my classrooms. I avoided new haughty know-it-alls like the plague, and watched as they failed time and time again. Most left for other careers within three to five years. TFAs last less than that.

    3. As someone who recently completed his bachelor degree at the age of 48 surrounded by the 20-somethings, I call bullcrap. I didn’t have to invite my younger classmates to eat lunch–they invited me. I ate lunch most days for five years surrounded by kids who were almost young enough to be my actual kids. I also studied with them.

      You see, we were all in the same boat–students trying to get their degrees. There was a commonality that transcended age. One would think that would be the case with colleagues as well.

      1. Roger that, Frank. One would think. But what these nuggets (straight out of Institute) seem to not grasp is that perhaps their new comrades might have something useful to offer them. But that’s not the personality that typically gets recruited. They’ve been through so much together over their first summer, they tend to stick to their assigned TFA squads.

  7. Our unit has plenty of other young gremmies to eat lunch with as well. They volunteered for the same kind of duty, yet without needing a special ribbon pinned to their chest to mark their heroism. They got here earlier, will stay later and participate for the right reasons.

  8. Wait. You said that TFA Corpsmen will “work themselves to death,” but their non-TFA peers apparently arrive earlier and stay later? I… never mind. I hate the internet.

  9. Meaning they joined-up earlier, and will be here long after you rotate stateside to management consulting (or as I can see, in your case, law school). Sheesh, some smart people just can’t take a mean-spirited joke these days.

  10. Smart people? If I see any I’ll send them your way. I hear it takes one to know one though, so don’t hold your breath…

  11. I LOVE TFA’s! My job has become a living, breathing nightmare. I used to be a teacher. Now I indoctrinate. It’s so horrible that my entire outlook on education is, “I cannot wait to retire.” But TFA’s have come to my emotional rescue! When I’m really feeling down and out, I just pop up near one of their classrooms. The entertainment is awesome, albeit frightening. I stand and watch in amusement, as the “expert” demonstrates for me all the effective teaching methods that are superior to the ones used in my quiet classroom where students know better than to call out, let alone run around the room all period, sit at my desk and go shopping for pencils, pens, erasers, etc., or scream curses and threats about the condition of my car after school lets out. Or, threaten to beat the snot out of me.

    When they see me and ask for assistance, I kindly explain that I am old and burned out. I am an obvious failure, and only they can show me the way. If I intervened, I would only create chaos. And after all, why disallow the children from expressing themselves? This often results in several students begging, “Please take me with you!” or “Please, take me, I’ll promise to be good. I won’t even talk.” But I leave he children with the “expert” so (s)he can show me a thing or two.

  12. “They won’t eat lunch with me.” Well done on this thoughtful field report, Sergeant. Head back to the mess hall for some well-earned red meat. -General Ed.

Comments are closed.