For the first time, Detroit’s Teach for America teachers have been trained locally

A national teacher training program is preparing its next crop of Detroit-based teachers in the city, a shift from past practice that also has paved the way for new summer educational programming for students.

Teach For America, a 30-year-old nonprofit, held a summer training institute this summer in Detroit for the first time. That means the 33 teachers in the program, which places new teachers in schools with many needy students, got practice teaching in the same city where they will enter the classroom this fall. 

In previous years, those who ended up teaching in the city through the TFA program did so after receiving training in Chicago or Tulsa, Oklahoma, two of the organization’s regional training sites. TFA has drawn criticism nationally for dropping freshly minted educators into communities where they have few ties. 

This year, Detroit teachers were scheduled to train again in Tulsa — until last fall, when the local organization decided to launch a training site in the city for the first time.

“Context matters,” said Charity Davidson, who leads teacher leadership development for TFA-Detroit. “So having our teachers here to engage with Detroit students, educators, and community partners who are doing work alongside us is monumental to setting them up to be who they need to be in classrooms.”

The training program has a complicated history in Detroit.   

The organization first placed teachers in the city in 2001 but left the city two years later amid concerns about whether its trainees could find teaching positions. When it returned in 2010, teachers union officials took issue with the idea of trainees working in district schools at a time when hundreds of teachers were being laid off.

Last year, some Detroit district board members opposed the idea of hiring new TFA-trained educators, even though the district was facing a teacher shortage.

The summer enrichment program that provided a laboratory for the aspiring teachers was a first for Teach For America, because the curriculum for it was developed and operated by 15 alums of the program. Typically, TFA partners with local districts and schools to place trainees in existing summer programs. 

Nearly 350 children from 40 schools across the city, both district and charter, traveled to Detroit Edison Public School Academy for a free, five-week summer program staffed in part by Teach For America trainees. 

“We did this because it was an opportunity to serve children who badly deserve more high-quality summer learning experiences in the city,” said Armen Hratchian, executive director of Teach for America-Detroit.

Jaleah Hawthorne was among the 33 who received the training in Detroit. She and the others trained for seven weeks, spending the first two weeks preparing for the arrival of the students.  

During the summer enrichment program, her school day began around 7:20 a.m., when she began preparing her classroom. She had breakfast with her sixth- to eighth-graders, before teaching and working on projects until lunchtime. In the afternoons, she and her fellow trainees would undergo hours of training, where they would watch videos of their teaching, learn new skills, and practice what their mentor teachers, experienced Detroit educators, had coached them on. 

Hawthorne’s mentor, Andrew Pearce, is a Teach for America alum and has taught at Mumford High School for five years.

The summer schedule was intense, Hawthorne said, but the experience has given her confidence in her ability to serve students next year. 

“I’ve learned to believe in myself through this process,” she said. “Being here has taught me to take my limits off, and I’m excited to teach my students that as well.’”

When Hawthorne and her fellow trainees enter Detroit district and charter classrooms this fall, they will join roughly 200 TFA-trained educators who are working with needy students in the city. They receive their initial certification to teach through an alternative certification program the school of education at the University of Michigan, which TFA-Detroit partners with.

Research on Teach For America has been mixed. Some studies have found no significant difference in the academic outcomes of students taught by TFA-trained educators compared with those taught by educators who received traditional certifications, usually after being trained at a college or university. 

But a 2017 Mathematica analysis found that TFA-trained teachers in early elementary grades had a positive effect on students’ math and reading scores, while upper elementary TFA teachers performed about the same as other teachers.

Other research has looked at how long TFA-trained teachers stay in the classroom, a concern because the program asks for a two-year commitment. A 2018 study of teachers in North Carolina found that far more Teach For America-trained teachers — 91% — left their original schools after three years than did teachers trained any other way. But the organization’s own data does show that, across the country, many trainees remain teaching, or in education in some capacity, beyond the two-year commitment.

Hratchian said TFA’s data shows that two-thirds of TFA alumni continue teaching beyond their two-year commitment, nationally and in Detroit.

Kyle Goodall, a TFA alum who has been teaching at Detroit’s Renaissance High School for three years, said the summer training wasn’t enough to prepare him for the realities of teaching, where he encountered many students who were multiple years behind and who had been affected by trauma.

During his training, he said, he heard the message that believing in students would allow them to make academic gains. “It sounds good enough,” he said, “except they don’t actually give you the skills to do that.” 

Hawthorne said she understands there will be challenges. She said the organization does a good job of motivating future teachers like her and that she’s most excited about meeting her students and getting started.

“A lot of things, you don’t realize that you need to learn,” she said. “So you learn on the job, and you learn what questions to ask.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct several inaccuracies about how Teach For America trains teachers in Detroit and across the country.