Messenger: Teach for America changes its focus amid difficult times for public schools

A friend of mine left the teaching profession recently.

She didn’t retire. She didn’t win the lottery or get offered more money in another career field. She left because she was burned out. She was a young teacher — and a good one — but the field wasn’t working out for her. She’s not alone.

For the past few years, even before the coronavirus pandemic, various public school and teacher organizations have warned of a teacher shortage, fed in part by people leaving the profession. In 2019, the Economic Policy Institute warned that almost 14% of teachers nationwide were leaving their schools on a yearly basis, with about half of those leaving the profession, as compared to going to another school.

In Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is worried enough about the trend to join a national public service campaign to recruit and retain teachers. “The future depends on teachers,” it says.

I grew up believing that sentiment, and still do. My dad was a teacher and a coach before he retired. He never made much money, but it was a calling, and a good one at that. Toward the end of his career, he would complain more: Parents were less supportive. School politics were harder to navigate. Maybe that’s one reason why my friend left the profession.

It’s also a reason why a nonprofit organization that has been providing teachers to several area school districts is changing its focus with a bit of a twist that at first seems disconnected from the problem. Despite the teacher shortage, New York-based Teach for America is no longer providing teachers to the St. Louis Public Schools and other districts. Instead, it will work on training school leaders, like principals, administrators and school board members.

It’s a change that to some degree comes from a place of failure. Teach for America was founded in 1990 as an education reform organization, to try to boost academic achievement of students in urban settings and reduce the learning gap between white and Black students. But the numbers haven’t budged much after 20 years of training young teachers who make a two-year commitment to come to places like St. Louis and teach in public or charter schools.

“As a whole, student achievement is not growing the way we intended it to,” says Elizabeth Bleier, the interim executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis. Bleier came to St. Louis from Chicago. She taught in the St. Louis Public Schools for a few years, and then worked at charter school KIPP in the city for a few more, before going to work at TFA.

With 600 similar alumni in St. Louis, TFA plans to help mentor those teachers and former teachers. This week it announced its latest class of Aspiring School Leaders Fellowship, in which 15 existing public school or charter educators, many of them people of color, will be trained and mentored for a year while earning a principal certification through St. Louis University.

In turning the focus to training principals and other school leaders, Bleier says the goal is to improve school cultures so that teacher retention eventually improves. “There is a lot of teacher and principal turnover in St. Louis,” she says. “When there is a strong school leader, teachers are happier and stay longer. We want our people to be able to go into the schools and have an influence.”

The change in TFA focus comes at a precarious time in St. Louis, with supporters of charter schools and traditional public schools often clashing over legislation or other reform proposals, such as the “Better Futures” concept recently put on hold after the St. Louis School Board objected.

TFA is an organization that has traditionally straddled those two worlds, seeking to influence both.

What might that influence look like? An example could be found in two TFA graduates who are now on school boards: Nikole Schurn in Kirkwood and Kevin Martin, in Ferguson-Florissant.

Over the past year, Martin, who is also a principal in the Parkway School District, served on a board that forced a change in school discipline procedures, after it became clear that the district was leading the state in long-term out-of-school suspensions of Black children. Ferguson-Florissant has adopted a more restorative justice approach, in an attempt to reduce suspensions and keep children in class.

Will it work? It’s too soon to tell. Real progress in public education won’t come without teachers, principals and school boards all working together toward the same goals.

That’s a daunting task.