Who makes the best teachers?

Looking at Teach for America and Troops to Teachers, Rory of Parentalcation hypothesizes that “patriotic, salty military veterans make better teachers than snot-nosed Ivy League graduates.” He cites two studies which suggest both programs produce above-average teachers.

In a 2005 study, nearly all principals said their Teach For America teachers were at least as well-trained as other new teachers; 75 percent said TFA training was better.

* Nearly three out of four principals (74 percent) considered the Teach For America teachers more effective than other beginning teachers with whom they’ve worked.
* The majority of principals (63 percent) regarded Teach For America teachers as more effective than the overall teaching faculty, with respect to their impact on student achievement.

In a different study, principals gave rave reviews to Troops to Teachers:

Principals overwhelmingly (over 90 percent) reported that Troops to Teachers are more effective in classroom instruction and classroom management/student discipline than are traditionally prepared teachers with similar years of teaching experience.

Troops to Teachers grads were praised for using using more research-based instructional methods than traditionally prepared teachers with similar years in the classroom.

Rory, who plans to teach when he retires from the Air Force, credits TMAO, a Teach for America alum, for inspiring the post. On Teaching in the 408, TMAO questions the hasty training and high turnover of TFA teachers, who commit to two years in the classroom and then usually go on to other careers. Rather than boast of TFA vets who go into education policy, the program should do more to encourage long-term teaching careers, writes TMAO.

In comments, teacher Nancy Flanagan of Teacher Leaders Network writes:

Anytime we portray teaching as missionary work, however, we are misleading the public. Teaching is complex intellectual and moral work, and suggesting that anyone (no matter how smart) can master it in a few months is simply false. Good teachers build a practice over time and through reflection. A revolving door of teachers (even teachers who got 33s on their ACTs) doesn’t help kids or schools.

As Nancy points out, TFA gets some very smart people hooked on teaching who might not otherwise have tried it. But most will leave teaching after two years, just as they’re getting good at it.

Military veterans who go into teaching, like Darren of Right on the Left Coast, typically plan to stay on the job for many years.

About Joanne


  1. than snot nosed Ivy League graduates

    Familiar bigotry, worthy of Don Imus. It’s good to know his students are being “carefully taught.”

  2. telling comment that endorsement goes to instruction inputs and classroom discipline vs student outcomes.

    I do think that it is important to stress effective teachers staying in education as a plus for vets … there is another TFA dividend of a broader spectrum of community attuned to education (although still a small fraction of all graduates, to be sure)

  3. I do decry the turnover of TFA, moreso because so little is done to counter it. It’s one thing to say it’s part of the landscape, an unfortunate byproduct, and quite another to actively encourage folks to leave. TFA, I believe, does the latter, and it is unfortunate.

    That said, the training I received and the professional development model I experienced after entering the classroom is bar none the most effective preparation/ development I have experienced, head or, or read about. They get it, especially how teaching qua teaching differs from teaching in high-needs schools. I never meant to give the impression that I feel TFA’s training methods are anything other than superb.

  4. You know all the TFA’ers are going to hate me now…

    R.J., the ribbing was made in gest…, and I am not a teacher… still on active duty.

    But… since I imagine most TFA’ers are in their 20’s… three wars and a decade gives us older coots permission to throw out a couple of youthful jabs, but I suppose any chance of me getting hired by network television is out the window.

    Besides… I am only jealous that I was too lazy in my own schooling to get into the Ivy League.

  5. “R.J., the ribbing was made in gest…, and I am not a teacher… still on active duty.”

    He probably doesn’t mind. He probably has to deal with ignorant Southern hicks all the time.

  6. Everything I know about TFA I learned from my daughter, who became a TFA corps member after she was graduated from college and spent two years in that capacity teaching in St. Louis. After her TFA commitment she stayed on to teach for a third year in the same school, because she loved the work and believed she was doing good for her students. And (not to brag on my daughter, but hey) she was terrific at it: Teacher of the Year in her school, setting up the school’s first AP English course ever, spearheading a program that helped a bunch of kids get into college who probably otherwise never even would have thought of college, etc., etc. She would be there still had the St. Louis School District not made the incredibly boneheaded move of, in essence, firing all of its teachers — well, not firing them, but mandating that none of them would get their jobs back for the next school year, but would have to re-apply for positions. Because of my daughter’s credentialing situation, this would have meant that she almost certainly would have ended up teaching elementary- or middle-school special ed, for which she had neither training nor interest. So she did what any rationally-acting person would have done: she found a job that was suited to her abilities (and that, coincidentally, paid twice as much as she had been earning). She didn’t WANT to quit; she would have been more than happy to continue teaching at her high school. In essence, the St. Louis school district made her an offer she could not accept, and by doing so lost an asset it could ill afford to lose. More’s the pity.

  7. Actually, I am not an ignorant southern hick. I am from New Zealand via Los Angeles, plus 12 years in Europe. The ignorant part is right though.

  8. Nancy Flanagan says:

    Well, guys, I hate to get in the middle of your witty repartee, but as for the definitive answer to “Who makes the best teacher?” I think it’s basically a crapshoot. I say this as a 31-year classroom veteran who has seen the gamut, from the 50ish carpet layer who decided on a second career teaching MS math in my building (a born teacher; within 6 weeks became the best math teacher in the district) to the winner of a prestigious statewide student teaching award (who spent afternoons sobbing in my office after being manhandled by her Chem class).

    I e-mentored a Troops to Teachers guy in Philadephia. He quit after a couple months of marching middle schoolers up and down the stairs as punishment for their misbehaviors. (I’m not making this up.) The anger he felt toward the young, mouthy kids he encountered oozed out of the screen. Some moms finally complained about his rough treatment of their daughters (and this was a place where parents weren’t, shall we say, showing up much) and even teacher-starved Philly asked him to leave.

    The one personality type I most worry about as a prospective teacher, oddly, is the I-love-school, valedictorian type. I’ve seen several of them bite the dust, along with their expectation that their students will love school, and try as hard to get As as they did.

  9. lol… Nancy. Some of us military types definately wouldn’t have the patience for teaching. In the military, we have the UCMJ for enforcement, and no parents to deal with. I also suspect your teacher wasn’t ex-Air Force.

    I think both programs have their place. They both bring teachers into disadvantaged and low income schools.

    I would proposed expanding both programs.

  10. not a believer says:

    Well Nancy Flanagan,

    The issue for me is not what makes a good teacher but what makes an acceptable teacher. Granted, becoming a good teacher is a complex and difficult tax. But I would argue that the modal teacher in a public school is neither good nor particularly deep. They are at best ordinary, and at worst, just poorly trained. In that case, a bright, dedicated “missionary” teacher who works for just 2 years may in fact be a superior alternative to the bottom third of the existing teacher network.

    Certainly in math, a young product of the army with an engineering background will almost certainly be a better teacher than the many middle school teacher who would have great difficult passing high school level algebra. He may not be “good” in your ideal sense. But he will be better than many of the on-the-ground alternatives kids have to deal with.

    And if there were more teachers with anger towards “young, mouthy” kids and a greater willingness to impose real punishment, the world would be a much, much better place.

  11. Imagine my surprise when I came across your reference to me in this post. Thank you! It made my day.

    I would not have made it through my first year teaching had I not had my military training to fall back on. All training in the army had tasks, conditions, and standards associated with it. Does that sound at all like a Madeleine Hunter objective statement? It does to me, too.

    Oh, and I’m also the “I love school, valedictorian-type”. Go figure.

  12. Nancy Flanagan says:

    I would propose expanding both TTT and TFA, as well as other promising alternative entry routes–and wish that TMAO and other folks who came in the side door would share more explicit details about that very effective training they got. It should be replicated, if it instills confidence and useful skills for teaching.

    There are many fine teachers who came out of the military; I currently work with one on a project to bring employees of a major technology corporation into classrooms as teachers. The guy in Philadelphia, however? He was NOT a good teacher, and not likely to become one. You don’t have to love kids in order to teach them, but you do have to be able to have respectful conversations with them. His punishment strategy was an abject failure; he was no longer the rational adult in the room, something you must be in order to maintain order and deliver instruction. He was not Air Force, BTW, Parentalcation (grin).

    As for the dedicated “missionary,” excelling in their first two years–well, the research is very clear that everyone sucks, pretty much, in their first couple of years. The “Photo Finish” study from Education Next (which is all about supporting alt entry teachers) admits that virtually nobody is effective at first. That’s because teaching is a harder job than it seems. Even Darren admits he wouldn’t have made it through even one year without military training.

    Saying that MS math teachers would probably not pass HS algebra is one of those casual slurs against teachers some folks seem to think are OK, even kind of hip, lately. I guess I’m more interested in bringing good teachers into diverse classrooms and giving them the training and support to keep them there. Strong content knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for effective teaching. In fact, teachers with PhDs in content domains are among the least effective, measured by their students’ test results.

    I still maintain that’s hard to identify a demographic that will necessarily yield “the best” teachers.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I liked teaching when I had sergeants to handle classroom control and the students (soldiers) were extreeeeemely interested in ways of avoiding being killed right off.

    Other than that, bless the folks who can handle a classroom full of kids whose parents may be looking for offense.