Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Teaching Synchronous-Service Teachers: Traditional Teacher Education at a Crossroads

by Matthew A.M. Thomas & Elisabeth E. Lefebvre - 2020

Background/Context: Teachers enrolled in alternative training and licensure programs may have experiences that lie outside what is considered typical for both preservice teachers and in-service teachers. This article explores the experiences of a growing cadre of "synchronous-service teachers" – including, but not limited to, Teach For America (TFA) corps members – who are teaching full time while also completing coursework in teacher preparation programs.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of the Study: This study considers how synchronous-service teachers perceived the education and training they received while enrolled in traditional teacher education coursework, as well as how they interpreted their broader interactions with the teaching profession and teacher education writ large.

Research Setting and Participants: This research was conducted in the Midwestern United States in a major metropolitan area with a TFA regional presence. Thirty-six corps members who completed coursework at a traditional teacher education institution opted to participate in this study. They were primarily White and female, and most entered TFA immediately following completion of their undergraduate degrees. The majority had little previous exposure to the education discipline.

Research Design: The thirty-six corps members were interviewed about their experiences while participating in TFA, teaching at their schools, and, especially pertinent to this article, learning at a partner university where TFA corps members in the region completed teacher education coursework.

Findings/Results: The findings suggest that corps members held primarily negative views about the teacher education coursework they experienced. They complained that the teacher education programming failed to provide immediately applicable insights and lacked rigor and relevance. Yet they also maintained paradoxical expectations about what teacher education, particularly for synchronous-service teachers, should or should not entail.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The article concludes by suggesting the potential utility of synchronous-service teachers as a conceptual category, noting that these teachers should be considered distinct from others. As such, providing synchronous-service teachers with teacher education programming designed for either preservice or in-service teachers may lead to missed opportunities in terms of professional learning and exacerbate negative sentiments about teacher education. The experiences and opinions of synchronous-service teachers can have considerable significance, particularly when these teachers go on to affect education leadership and policy. In sum, teacher education institutions are at a critical crossroads concerning how and whether to proceed with similar partnerships, especially as alternative recruitment and training programs continue to grow in the United States and beyond.

The landscape of teacher preparation is changing. Traditional teacher education programs, which historically prepared the majority of the teaching force in the United States, are increasingly losing influence (and students) to nontraditional approaches. These so-called alternative routes have in recent years prepared upwards of 40% of all first-year teachers (Feistritzer et al., 2011). While a considerable number of these routes operate as independent entities, intentionally detached from universities (Kretchmar et al., 2018), many are not entirely separate from more traditional pathways. Indeed, large cadres of teachers entering the profession through alternative routes also spend time simultaneously enrolled in teacher education programs housed at universities (Grossman & Loeb, 2008; Meyers et al., 2014). The experiences of these teachers are arguably quite different from those of preservice teachers enrolled in more traditional preservice programs, or even graduates of postbaccalaureate programs (e.g., master of arts in teaching) who complete considerable pedagogically-oriented coursework before entering the classroom as full-time teachers.

In this article, we explore the fissures that can exist between the structures and approaches of traditional teacher education programs and the perceived needs of what we term “synchronous-service teachers.” These teachers necessarily bring with them to teacher preparation a distinct perspective and set of experiences. This, in turn, uniquely shapes their understandings of teaching quality.1 This category of teachers includes, but is not limited to, those who enter the profession through alternative routes, such as Teach For America (TFA), undeniably one of the most prominent and influential programs in this space (Curran, 2017). Drawing on our time spent as teacher educators of TFA corps members (CMs) at Greenwood University (all names are pseudonyms), we consider how the CMs we taught and interviewed (N = 36) experienced and perceived their required teacher preparation courses, taken to fulfill state mandates for alternative licensure and to be considered qualified teachers. In so doing, we highlight the complexity of corps members’ roles as novice teachers and frame a broader exploration of the shifting nature of teacher preparation in the United States. As full-time, working teachers, CMs are unlike traditional preservice teachers in that they are generally already teaching students all day, every day. However, CMs are not in-service teachers in the usual sense, either; while they are working full-time, most have not completed previous university coursework in teacher education or undertaken substantial practicum experiences in schools, two common assumptions of much in-service professional development.

As such, these teachers are notably positioned in a genre-bending space that exists between preservice and in-service, or what we are terming “synchronous-service,” because their training and early practice occur largely simultaneously. This peculiar space of professional teacher preparation is, in some ways, analogous to the philosophical notion of “being and becoming”; this idea is drawn from the work of Prigogine (1980, 1996) and has been used by childhood researcher Uprichard (2008) to complicate binary constructions of an individual as either/or and to move toward both/and understandings. Uprichard’s work highlights the importance of understanding children’s lived experiences both in their current state, “being children,” but also as they are “becoming adults.” Though in our case, synchronous-service teachers are both “being teachers” and “becoming teachers,” arguably a more similar role, the tensions individuals may feel as they navigate between current and future needs are significant nonetheless. Applying this concept to our study, we seek to conceptualize the experiences of CMs who are both under development as novice trainees and already doing the full labor of their positions. In short, they experience the particular demands of existing within and between the categories of “preservice teacher” and “in-service teacher.” This article expounds on this idea and raises critical questions about the ongoing relationships and programming that span teacher education institutions and nontraditional actors, including TFA. It further highlights the necessity for teacher preparation programs and policies to consider carefully their orientations and engagements with nontraditional actors as they aim to best prepare their teacher graduates.

In what follows, we first briefly explore teacher education in the United States and its history of alternative routes to teaching. This initial section outlines ongoing debates surrounding the amount, timing, and substance of teacher preparation, before concluding with an examination of TFA–university partnerships and related contemporary and changing discourses of teacher preparation. Next, we frame what we refer to as synchronous-service teachers in light of their unique needs and experiences as “being and becoming” educators. In the third section, we describe this study’s methodology and our positionalities in the larger research project—of which this study is a part—that examined CM experiences during and after their two-year commitments to teaching in the TFA program. Fourth, we highlight key findings from this study and consider the perceptions that these synchronous-service teachers had of their experiences enrolled in a university-based, largely traditional teacher education program. We conclude by reflecting on the implications of this research and suggest that teacher education institutions may have arrived at a pivotal crossroads concerning continued engagement with TFA and improvement of CM learning and teaching during their synchronous service. More broadly, this article calls for additional research on synchronous-service teachers, including the programs they complete, the roles they inhabit, the pedagogies they enact, and the perspectives they develop. As a rapidly growing constituency within the education community, their early experiences within the field are likely to play an important, and perhaps disproportionately large, role in shaping the future of teacher preparation and the teaching profession.



Prior to the early 19th century in the United States, teachers were commonly male, taught in classrooms for only a short period, and received very little (if any) professional training (Fraser, 2007). The country’s contemporary teacher preparation system emerged in large part because of the work of reformers such as Horace Mann, who sought to systematize and “rationalize” schooling under a common model, and Emma Willard and Catharine Beecher, who sought new career opportunities for middle-class women (see Darling-Hammond, 2006; Fraser, 2007). Coupled with an increasing demand for schooling, their efforts coalesced in the creation of “normal schools,” whose purpose was to provide professionally prepared teachers (Labaree, 2010). Over time, these normal schools were subsumed under colleges and universities, and by the mid-20th century, higher education institutions “held a virtual monopoly over preservice teacher education” (Zeichner & Hutchinson, 2008, p. 16). Before 1980, nearly 90% of first-year teachers completed undergraduate traditional teacher education programs, but as alternative teacher education programs grew in number and popularity, the percentage of first-year teachers entering through alternative routes increased as well: From 2005 to 2010, approximately 40% of first-year teachers entered the profession through alternative routes (Feistritzer et al., 2011).

Because universities and their student populations are diverse in nature, as are various state requirements for licensure, teacher education programs similarly exist in a wide range of forms (Darling-Hammond, 2006; National Research Council, 2010). Yet broadly speaking, so-called traditional university-based teacher education programs are structured on the foundational assumption that substantial coursework in pedagogical knowledge, content knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge is necessary to becoming an exemplary teacher (Shulman, 1986). Most university-based teacher education programs also assume that multiple, prolonged in-school practicum experiences are useful for candidates to learn how to teach before they begin working full time (Lefebvre & Thomas, 2019; National Research Council, 2010). In this way, traditional teacher education programs have prioritized a preservice model that emphasizes time spent “becoming” a teacher, before a candidate is able to “be” a teacher.

For as long as teacher education has been institutionalized, critiques have persisted about these time-intensive preservice methods. In particular, teacher education programs are often perceived to be overly theoretical, disconnected from schools, and unable to produce “quality teachers” who want to stay in the profession (Darling-Hammond, 2006). A growing body of research related to “core practices,” explicit modeling, and “practice-based” teacher education (cf. Jenset et al., 2018; Zeichner, 2012) further substantiates the power of this critique: This renewed turn toward hands-on practice within teacher education is in many ways a response to consistent popular and political critiques of traditional teacher education as ineffective. Teacher education programs are also criticized, sometimes by governments themselves (Darling-Hammond & Lieberman, 2012), for their purported inability to attract talented and diverse candidates into the teaching profession. Although these (and perhaps other) critiques of university-based teacher education are not new (Kumashiro, 2010), there is agreement that blaming teacher education for broader, systemic issues has increased in intensity in recent years (Kretchmar et al., 2018). Buoyed by newer measures of educational accountability and deep cuts to public higher education spending, these criticisms have created ideal conditions for the remarkable rise of alternative routes to teaching.


Like university-based teacher education programs, alternative routes vary significantly in form and can be challenging to define (Grossman & Loeb, 2008; National Research Council, 2010). One of the broader definitions positions alternative routes as “anything other than a four- or five-year undergraduate program in a college or university” (Zeichner & Hutchinson, 2008, p. 15), including both so-called fast-track programs and university-based programs that are taught by teacher educators and cater to postbaccalaureate and graduate students enrolled in master of arts in teaching (MAT) programs. This definition highlights the shift away from traditional, bachelor’s-granting teaching programs toward a diverse set of alternative training models but does not explicate significant differences between these programs’ content, duration, and levels of engagement with teacher education institutions. Given our emphasis in this article on the amount, timing, and substance of preparation, we build on Boyd and colleagues’ (2008) distinction between “early entry” programs, in which students are teaching full time before they finish their certifications, and “college-recommending” programs, in which students complete extensive preparation before student teaching. Thus, we contend that synchronous-service teachers are those in early entry programs such as TFA or the NYC Teaching Fellows program, among others. Because of the nature of their work as both full-time teachers and, at a minimum, part-time students, they are simultaneously being and becoming teachers. Our use of the term “synchronous-service” is important because it focuses attention on the dual demands faced by this distinct but growing group of novice teachers.

TFA could therefore be categorized as an early-entry program even though many CMs complete graduate-level coursework through TFA’s university partners—institutions that often offer more traditional routes to teacher certification, including MAT programs. Once recruited, all CMs undergo a brief training, known as Summer Institute, that is typically five weeks in duration and operated by TFA, although its form and content have come to vary as the TFA program has grown (Schneider, 2014). Many CMs attend Summer Institute in a different city/region than where they will teach (Teach For America [TFA], 2018), but there is remarkable consistency across sites due at least in part to the primary reliance on TFA CMs and alumni to serve as mentors and instructional coaches. Summer Institute is notoriously intense and typically includes teaching experiences in summer school programs in the mornings, and curriculum sessions and other professional development opportunities in the afternoons and evenings. As TFA staff member Stoneburner (2018) noted in his study of stress levels and coping mechanisms for CMs at Summer Institute, “For the majority of participants who have limited or no previous teaching experience, there is a lot to learn in a short amount of time” (p. 67). He further posited that the schedule is so packed that “there is very little, if any, opportunity for participants to make meaning of what they are learning” (p. 73).

Despite this lack of opportunity to both process and practice, CMs start teaching full time at the beginning of the school year. Meanwhile, as a result of mandates in some states, many CMs are concurrently required to take certification courses in a university-based program (McNew-Birren et al., 2018). In the case of Greenwood University, the context for this research, CMs were expected to take two graduate-level courses per semester during their two-year commitment to TFA. This meant that these synchronous-service teachers completed at least eight courses (approximately 24 credits) while also working full time. It is perhaps unsurprising that the CMs with whom we worked were anxious as they sought to balance their multiple and conflated roles as novice teachers, as students, and as representatives of TFA (Thomas & Mockler, 2018). In the following section, we explore some of the complexities of these roles and draw on broader literature to conceptualize the synchronous-service teacher beyond the TFA case.


The work of teaching is highly absorbing: In the words of Connell (1993), it “is not just a matter of having a body of knowledge and a capacity to control a classroom. That could be done by a computer with a cattle-prod” (p. 63). Instead, the interpretive, pedagogical, discursive, relational, and institutional demands of full-time teaching are substantial (Comber, 2006). Yet the conceptualization of teachers’ work put forward by organizations like TFA might be described as “teacher as a technician” (Kretchmar & Zeichner, 2016, p. 423), and the experiences of teachers hired through such programs and who work in traditionally underserved classrooms have been shown to exact a heavy emotional human toll on individuals (Matsui, 2015; Thomas & Lefebvre, 2018; Veltri, 2010).

This is reflected in a number of studies that consider the studying-while-working experiences of the synchronous-service teacher. For instance, Journell and Webb (2013) noted that after the demands of the day, such teachers “will often come to their [teacher education] classes discouraged and overwhelmed” (p. 13). Similarly, Carter and colleagues’ (2011) study of teacher education course evaluations indicates that such teachers may be more critical of their teacher education courses because they come to them “tired, super-stressed, annoyed, bitter, irritable, moody, mean, angry, hostile, and disgruntled” (p. 882). As “more critical consumers,” these synchronous-service teachers may feel they need “just-in-time” knowledge that will help them with their current teaching load; in the words of one such teacher, “Nothing will ever seem as rigorous as actually teaching everyday” (Carter et al., 2011, p. 878). This is further supported by a study that compares the first-year teaching experiences of alternative certification and traditional teacher education teachers completing a yearlong induction program (Linek et al., 2012). The alternative certification or synchronous-service teachers in this study showed strong concern for more mechanical or basic aspects of teaching, such as classroom management, time management, and lesson preparation. The authors argue that the “enormous breadth of information” to which these teachers were concurrently exposed had “resulted in a struggle to survive professionally” (Linek et al., 2012, p. 78). Unsurprisingly, teachers who go through alternative certification programs have been found to feel less prepared for their work, on the whole (Kee, 2012).2 When forced to both be and become a teacher, a focus on immediate concerns as a means of day-to-day survival becomes a necessity.

Combining these factors with the “underlying theoretical assumption” of alternative certification programs—that “student teachers can become highly qualified teachers by learning what they need to learn about teaching on the job” (Consuegra et al., 2014, p. 80)—such findings are expected, yet still concerning. In a Belgian study of “early-entry” teachers’ workplace learning, the authors noted, “Teaching full-time does not leave any space for peripheral participation,” and that explicit action is needed to ensure “that reflection, collaboration and problem solving are integrated in the work time” (Consuegra et al., 2014, p. 86). The authors further suggested that “provision of theory in campus-based courses will not guarantee the integration and transformation of different kinds of knowledge” (Consuegra et al., 2014, p. 87). This perspective complements other findings related to how a “multiplicity of supports” available to synchronous-service teachers—for instance, within school workplaces and within teacher education courses—can actually be a hindrance if they “do not work together and instead contradict each other” (Foote et al., 2011, p. 402).

In fact, this phenomenon has been documented among TFA’s CMs. Despite a longtime contractual agreement and institutional support from the dean at a university in the Northeast that partnered with TFA (Koerner et al., 2008), other research has found that TFA and the university’s courses were not necessarily in agreement concerning philosophies of teaching, learning, schooling, and, importantly, social justice (Crawford-Garrett, 2012, 2013). Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that CMs experienced a disconnect between the rhetoric of TFA and that of their instructors, or that tensions threatened to derail the partnership (Crawford-Garrett, 2013). In an analogous example (McNew et al., 2018), CMs in the Midwest experienced “cognitive dissonance” (p. 2) between the “overlapping but conflicting understandings of education” (p. 5) they learned and experienced in their coursework and those espoused by TFA. This also caused their university instructors to question whether the timing and arrangement of science education coursework was actually detrimental to the CMs’ development as teachers. As teacher educators of synchronous-service teachers ourselves, we wanted to further explore their perspectives and better understand their experiences with university-based teacher education.


To address these questions, we turned to the TFA CMs enrolled in our educational foundations courses at Greenwood University. Our research questions from the broader study on which this article is based aimed to understand how CMs constructed their identities “being” teachers and how they experienced TFA, the urban schools where they were teaching, and, in the case of this article, their experiences with/in the graduate school of education where they were “becoming” teachers. The CMs in this study were employed in charter and traditional public schools throughout the metropolitan area of one TFA region in the Midwestern United States. In addition to the teaching responsibilities at their schools, these CMs took courses at Greenwood University, TFA’s university partner in the region at the time of data collection. The graduate program in which we taught was largely based on Greenwood’s preexisting MAT program, commonly completed by postbaccalaureate career-changers who attended part time in the evenings after (nonteaching) work. Matthew taught both the TFA-adapted and mainstream versions of these courses. Elisabeth subsequently taught an educational foundations course composed exclusively of TFA students.

CMs typically took two graduate courses per semester during their two-year TFA commitment, each of which met weekly for 3–4 hours. The CMs therefore spent two of their weeknights at Greenwood, typically arriving at the university directly from their schools just in time (or late) for class. CMs also had the option to complete additional requirements, including an applied research project, if they desired to earn their master’s degree (beyond meeting the requirements for certification) after their two-year TFA commitment. In one case, Matthew acted as a research committee member for a CM. In sum, as teacher educators at Greenwood who combined taught 89 CMs, we had ample opportunities to observe and dialogue with the TFA teachers enrolled in our courses. These opportunities helped guide our emerging understandings of CMs’ experiences and contributed to the design of this research study, including informing ethics and other research procedures.


At the conclusion of each of the five foundations courses during which we instructed TFA teachers, we invited any willing members to participate voluntarily in an in-depth interview about their experiences in TFA and with teacher education. This article therefore differs from the extant survey-based studies that examine CMs’ perceptions of their university-based coursework and compares them with other student groups (cf. Carter et al., 2011; Torres & Chu, 2016), and from research with key leadership stakeholders across TFA and its university partners (Meyers et al., 2014). We wanted the opportunity to ask probing questions of these teachers and for CMs to provide elongated responses, to tell stories, to reflect with us, and to reference specific discussions or examples from our classes at Greenwood University (Maxwell, 2005; Patton, 2015; Rubin & Rubin, 2012). In short, we wanted to better understand their perspectives rather than conduct a program evaluation.

Roughly a third of our students/CMs volunteered to participate, and interview dates were established well after course grades had been submitted. Using our courses to recruit participants meant that the response rate varied depending on the number of CMs in each class, rather than the total number of CMs in each annual cohort, which in this TFA region in the Midwest averaged approximately 40 CMs per annum. Overall, 43% (n = 25; N = 58) of CMs in Matthew’s courses opted to participate in the study, and 26% (n = 8; N = 31) of those in Elisabeth’s course, for a total response rate of 38% (n = 33; N = 89). Three additional CMs asked to participate in the study and were also interviewed. Thus, the participants interviewed in this study consisted of 36 TFA teachers from across cohorts, content areas, grade levels, and types of schools (i.e., traditional public or charter). Matthew conducted 27 interviews with CMs from the 2009, 2010, and 2011 cohorts; Elisabeth conducted nine interviews with CMs in the 2013 cohort. Overall, 42% of the participants were from the state in which they were teaching, 80% were female, 84% were White, and 90% entered TFA immediately after completing college/university.3 Two thirds of the participants worked in charter schools during their time in TFA, a disproportionately high percentage compared with the broader region (Lefebvre & Thomas, 2017), and six of the participants ended up quitting TFA before the end of their two-year commitment.

A semistructured interview protocol was used during both phases of interviews. The protocol included questions organized into several main sections: (1) demographics, (2) teacher professional identity and philosophy, (3) experiences with/in TFA and their schools, (4) perspectives on education policy, and (5) experiences at Greenwood University. For the purpose of this article, we were primarily concerned with participants’ responses to one prompt from Section 5 above: “Tell me about your graduate experience at Greenwood University.” The dynamic nature of the in-depth interview, however, enabled respondents to address their experiences in teacher education, and their synchronous-service status, during any part of our conversation (Rubin & Rubin, 2012), which many did.

All interviews were audio-recorded and typically lasted 2–3 hours. Several participants further expanded their comments and thinking through email correspondence (unsolicited by the researchers) after the interviews. The interviews yielded a substantial corpus of data; most were between 15,000 and 20,000 words in length, though several transcripts reached more than 24,000 words. We then used an iterative data analysis process (Maxwell, 2005) that began with a series of deductive codes (e.g., pedagogy at Greenwood, content knowledge at Greenwood, general perspectives of teacher education programs) created collectively, and later involved inductive codes based on concepts identified independently by the researchers as important and typically as appearing repeatedly in the data (Hatch, 2002). We collaboratively refined the inductive codes and then coded across the TFA cohorts to reduce the data into conceptual themes (Maxwell, 2005). These were revised and refined further after rereading the entire corpus of data, and themes from the broader study that are not addressed in this article can be found elsewhere.4

Two CMs who were research participants in the study also reviewed early drafts of this article as a means to further validate the findings and thematic analysis. These CMs were selected for their willingness and availability, which facilitated the review process, and, more importantly, for their different experiences as CMs and teachers: They were in different TFA cohorts and taught different subjects at different grade levels in different schools in different sectors (i.e., charter, traditional). Although the broader study was not designed to be generalizable, the feedback and perspectives of these CMs led to greater conceptual clarity in the article and increased the trustworthiness of our findings and analysis.


Our professional roles as teacher educators of the research participants are also worth noting. Qualitative researchers are not neutral entities; therefore, one’s positionality must never be ignored (Maxwell, 2005). In this study, our prior relationships and in-class experiences with most participants were beneficial in generating common topics for discussion and enabled us to draw on the shared understandings that had been built during our time together in our participants’ graduate coursework (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2006). For example, respondents could reflect on specific activities from our courses, reference readings we had discussed, or even allude to the work, perspectives, and experiences of other CMs in our courses. They made these references often in the interviews, and our rapport largely enabled richer interview discussions.

We also think our statuses as young adjunct professors benefited the study. As a result of the intensive in-class discussions that ensued during our more than 30 hours of contact time, the CMs learned that we were independently both former public school teachers, employed at Greenwood University on an adjunct rather than full-time basis, and not on staff with TFA. We were also unaffiliated with the schools at which they taught, which enabled CMs to more freely debrief in our Greenwood classes and discuss during the interviews the various types of work (Comber, 2006) in which they engaged and the challenges they perceived.

Thus, we felt that our relationships and intermediate statuses yielded more interesting, if not more trustworthy, data from the participants. Moreover, throughout the interviews, we explicitly encouraged the participants to speak openly—positively, negatively, or otherwise—about their schools, TFA, Greenwood, our courses, or even us as teacher educators. In several cases, participants asked about our previous experiences as teachers, how long we taught, how much we liked Greenwood, or, perhaps most urgently, for advice about how to address certain situations in their classrooms. We felt comfortable in these instances to share openly and draw on our own experiences in traditional teacher education (Matthew) and TFA (Elisabeth) and our respective work as public school teachers in different regions, subjects, and grade levels. Finally, in a number of instances, participants did provide constructive critiques of our pedagogical approaches and our personal dispositions. Although sometimes difficult to hear, these instances further suggested strong trust and that our positionalities generally served to the benefit the research process and its findings, to which we will now turn.


Four key findings emerged from the data. First, TFA corps members felt driven by a sense of immediacy that often got in the way of their success as graduate students, and this was exacerbated by the requirements of this particular synchronous-service program. Second, CMs were generally “appalled” by what they perceived as a lack of rigor in their coursework at Greenwood. Third, CMs desired courses to be more relevant to their specific teaching posts and to include instructional activities and approaches tailored for their grade level and content areas. Fourth and most important, this confluence of perspectives and factors led to a paradoxical disinvestment on the part of CMs from coursework they deemed to require too much and to teach too little. Each of these key findings is elaborated in the subsections that follow.


Throughout its recruitment and programming, TFA emphasizes the immediacy of its aims and the relentlessness it expects of those attempting to achieve them (Crawford-Garrett, 2012; Thomas & Lefebvre, 2018). With little if any experience (save Summer Institute) on which to draw, CMs commonly move to a new region of the country, set up classrooms, begin teaching, and start taking graduate-level coursework at roughly the same time. These conditions, as well as the discourses of TFA itself, foster a sense of urgency, with little time to spare even for coursework. As one CM described,

Wake up and get to school. By 7:00 kids arrive. Leave at 5:00 when kids leave and be at Greenwood at 5:30. Be here until 9:00. Like, that is a day and, like, so when I’m sitting in a [graduate] classroom from 5:30 to 9:00 [at Greenwood], and I just am, like, “There have been so many sessions [when] you could have taught me this in 45 minutes, and I have been here for 2 1/2 to 3 hours because that is the time allotted.”

In fact, one year, the school and university calendars aligned such that CMs started their first full-time jobs as teachers in the same week in early September as they started graduate school at Greenwood. This timing was in many ways unfortunate. Kirk noted the pivotal nature of those early weeks: “Those first couple semesters when we had no experience, no background experience as a teacher, like that was the critical development stage.”

Understandably exhausted after a long day of work, CMs stepped into our evening classes unprepared to assume (and in some instances, uninterested in assuming) the role of learner—to “become” a teacher. As Biashara put it, “Greenwood is the last thing on my mind.” Another CM, Melanie, said, “I always feel like I am a teacher more than anything else. . . . Sometimes I am a TFA teacher. Rarely am I a graduate student.”

As synchronous-service teachers who were both being and becoming, CMs across all cohorts recognized, were compelled by, and arguably were controlled by what we term the “instructional imperative of immediacy.” The CMs were full-time working teachers with little previous experience in the field of education, and therefore, they craved specific hands-on methods to use in teaching their students the following day. Questions such as, “How do you discipline naughty first graders?” “How do you transition into direct instruction?,” and “How much recess should I provide? Should I even give them recess?” could be heard as we entered Greenwood University classrooms for our graduate classes, during bathroom breaks, and even as CMs walked down the hallway to return home after class. Though this immediacy is likely felt to some degree by traditionally trained teachers in their first year, because alternative certification programs such as TFA require participants to be the teacher of record essentially from the beginning of their training, they have far fewer safety nets and supports, such as extended opportunities for field observations or cooperative teaching (cf. Veltri, 2010). Keith, a middle school teacher working at a charter start-up, explained, “It has been hard to focus on the abstract and then have to deal with the concrete the next day . . . the immediate returns [of graduate coursework] are a lot lower than they are going to be long term, unfortunately.” Kirk similarly noted his intent to “walk away from class on a Wednesday and do something better on a Thursday.”5

In many cases, this led CMs to critique the pedagogical approaches of instructors, who they believed had not adapted their practices to meet the needs of teachers engaged in synchronous service, especially in foundations courses that were designed to be less focused on practice than on theory. Leslie felt that her coursework was essentially a waste of time:

I also know that it’s really frustrating when we have instructors who have not accommodated their syllabusessyllabifor people who are already in the classroom. It’s the most infuriating thing to know that I have to waste 3 1/2 hours of my time in the class, as well as whatever homework I have, to do [things] for a teacher [teacher educator] who doesn’t understand what I’m doing. [emphasis added]

Other CMs were caught off guard by theory-based aspects of their coursework, having experienced a much more practically-oriented Summer Institute. Quincy assumed, ironically, that her educational psychology course would focus “more on curriculum than . . . actually focus on educational psychology.” She continued by noting,

That was surprising, how much psychology was involved in education. Like to me, [I assumed] it was more of, “Okay, this is how you’re going to teach this math lesson,” not talk about development, and not talk about, you know, what [students] can learn at this age and at the other, or learning styles.

Indeed, many CMs downplayed or disregarded the need for in-depth coursework at all—attitudes they felt were justifiable because of their strident perspectives that the classes they took were too abstract to be useful, particularly for their instruction the next day, or, as discussed in the next section, too easy.


Even when courses spoke to CMs’ more immediate concerns, they still complained about Greenwood’s perceived lack of rigor. As Charles put it, “Corps members are really smart, solid, dedicated people . . . but then the department at Greenwood—I don’t think it’s that rigorous and that impressive of a department.” CMs also reported that comparatively, whatever area/discipline they studied as undergraduates was more challenging than their current programming at Greenwood. Ralph, for example, highlighted this perceived dichotomy:

Matthew: So, if a first-year corps member said, like, “Hey, what advice do you have for me as I start, like [my] graduate experience at Greenwood?”, what would you say?

Ralph: Ummm . . . do not stress about it, because overall, the expectations for the work that you need to complete are not going to be what you experienced in your undergrad.

He continued by more specifically describing the coursework, as he had experienced it, at Greenwood:

Ralph: I had this idea of what going to graduate school was, so I assumed that graduate school was going to be really rigorous and, like, um, you know I’d come away with this master’s and I’d be confident in myself because I had a master’s degree. . .

Matthew: Did you find it to be rigorous?

Ralph: Ummm, no. [Laughs.] I mean . . . some classes, like, I literally had to do, like, nothing. The work was an absolute joke. I could just barf it out and they would give me a 100%.

Ralph maintained incredibly low expectations for the quality of work he needed to get good grades at Greenwood. Isaac noted a similar situation when comparing his undergraduate and graduate school experiences: “It’s borderline embarrassing that my GPA at Greenwood is higher than my GPA from college because the amount of effort that I put in was nothing compared to college.” These sentiments were shared in various ways by all the CMs we interviewed, a notable finding given its consistency.

For CMs, these understandings of “rigor” closely connected to the types of activities or assignments they were expected to complete. Babette, for example, suggested that her experiences at Greenwood “felt like a waste of time”—a common phrase used by other CMs to describe some coursework at Greenwood. She noted,

I don’t think I learned a lot. I wasn’t asked to reflect often on myself as a teacher, as a practitioner, I wasn’t asked to dig deeper into the root causes of the problems that I was seeing, I wasn’t given any tools or pedagogical skills, I wasn’t asked to practice anything, there was not a lot that could be applied. And, I found it very frustrating.

In short, Babette felt disenfranchised and did not see the utility of her coursework, which ultimately contributed to the sense that attending courses at Greenwood was “like punching my card, just punching a time card.” She noted earlier in the interview that although she had originally planned to complete her master’s (which was not a requirement for provisional licensure), her negative experiences led her to stop working toward it; she “didn’t want to devote any more time, or money, or energy to Greenwood.” Both Ingrid and Sandy similarly described their courses as “hoops” to jump through. Still another, Calla, described herself as “disdainful” of her graduate course experience, in part because course activities and assessments seemed to lack rigor and, relatedly, value:

My roommates were in, like, a teaching art and music class and had an assignment, like, make a papier-mâché loon as an assignment. Right? And if you are a full-time teacher and that is your assignment, it is hard not to be a little bit disdainful. And, you know, I had a couple of really valuable experiences, but, like, again…I just wanted the pace to be quicker and I wanted the expectations to be higher.

Indeed, the findings suggest that the expectations of many CMs remained unmet throughout their time at Greenwood.

Based on our interviews, coursework in noneducation disciplines and previous expectations of higher education seem to have contributed to these sentiments. Although the educational histories of the corps members in this study varied somewhat—ranging from “elite” private schools such as Columbia University and the Georgetown, to large state schools such as The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, to smaller liberal arts colleges such as Oberlin and Lewis and Clark—the general consensus was that coursework at Greenwood did not have the same degree of rigor as the courses they had taken as undergraduates or that they expected from a graduate institution and university partner of TFA. As Torres and Chu (2016) suggested, this could have been the result of their higher undergraduate GPAs. Discursive and ideological assumptions about teacher education concomitant with TFA recruitment may have also played a role (see Straubhaar, 2020). The broader point, however, is that CMs craved rigor of a specific form and desired to feel successful, perhaps based on their prior experiences in higher education, and likely in contrast to the daily struggles they felt in classrooms (Thomas & Mockler, 2018).


This sense of immediacy and disdain for a perceived lack of rigor related to another concern that CMs commonly expressed, namely, the irrelevance of coursework. Isaac explained, “There was very little carry-over from what we were doing in our classes [at Greenwood] to what I was doing in my classroom.” Across most interviews, CMs reported feeling disgruntled that they were required to complete any traditional education courses grounded in the core foundations of education, including history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Likewise, many expressed frustration that methods courses, which they believed could potentially be relevant, required irrelevant assignments that seemed like busy work:

Ralph: There was a lot of work required, but it seemed like, just like, busy work . . . assigning, you know, just whatever, because that was what Greenwood’s catalog said you were supposed to assign. And so even if it was irrelevant and we hadn’t been given the proper guidelines to do it, we [Greenwood] were going to assign this, and you had to turn it in by this date.

Isaac attributed his instructors’ inadequacy to the presumed fact that “they didn’t have teaching experience themselves.” Though we heard of one adjunct instructor at Greenwood University who may not have had PK–12 public school teaching experience, this remains unconfirmed and would have been a rare, isolated case.

Of course, “teaching experience” varies considerably across contexts, a legitimate concern raised by Catherine. She was a first-grade teacher at a charter school targeting African American boys and felt that course relevance was further diminished because of Greenwood faculty members’ lack of previous teaching experiences in low-income communities and/or in communities of color:

A really, really, really, really huge issue that I saw was that the majority of my professors did not teach in low-income communities and did not teach in the communities that we are teaching in. And that was really hard because they’d say, you know a lot of the methods and tools that they’d give, they’d give like, “And then you can use your Smartboard to do this and then you can have your parent volunteers cut up all these little teeny-tiny slips of paper so you can do this with all these little. . .” And I’m like, “What Smartboard, and what parent volunteers?” And it’s just that they are coming from very different experiences and trying to teach to us.

For Catherine, this perceived divide suggested an immense disconnect between what she was becoming and what she was being.

Relatedly, Martha felt that one instructor “was lost, kind of because she had never taught TFA [CMs] before,” indicating that it was not a lack of teaching experience at the K–12 level, but a lack of experience working with CMs and other synchronous-service teachers that led to a disconnect between course content and novice teacher practice. This comment signals two important issues pertaining to synchronous-service teachers. First, early-entry programs (like TFA) may have such powerful influence that they “bend” the educational spaces around them to fit their vision, which in turn creates cognitive dissonance for teachers caught between them and traditional licensure programs. To illustrate the degree of embeddedness, for example, CMs are often recruited by TFA alumni or current CMs to join TFA; taught by TFA instructors at Summer Institute; mentored by TFA content area mentors; and, in many charter school placements, managed and supervised by staff who are TFA alumni. Thus, it is sensible to assume that Martha expected graduate instructors at Greenwood who worked within the TFA system or, at a minimum, who understood how TFA functions and the remarkably consistent organizational discourse it uses, such as the “relentless pursuit of results” (Thomas & Lefebvre, 2018, p. 856).

Second, her comments highlight the fissure between this particular early-entry program and more traditional teacher education programs. Though perhaps specific to our context, Babette, for instance, felt that the relationship between TFA and Greenwood was “contentious.” She went on to explain, “At least a lot of professors—through the experiences of my friends, of fellow corps members, and um, my own experience—Greenwood professors were really, um, sort of unfair about Teach For America.” Arguably this contention—and teacher educators’ limited understandings of TFA’s unique program, discourse, and culture, as Martha suggested earlier—further exacerbated feelings about the irrelevance or disconnectedness of coursework at Greenwood.

What was curious about our discussions with CMs was that in some instances, their beliefs about what they assumed to be most relevant—content focused on more immediate, management-related issues (Carter et al., 2011)—betrayed their inexperience. For instance, one CM working in special education complained about having to learn unimportant information, such as what an IEP stands for, instead of other, presumably more useful, information:

We would go over things that were very elementary, like kind of 101, where[as] I feel like I’m dealing more with how to deal with kids who can’t read . . . students who can’t read in high school. That’s what I’m worried about, not, like what an IEP stands for, or, like, what all the acronyms are. Like, I have kids who can’t read and they’re trying to graduate, so how do I deal with that?

This quote illustrates the conflated expectations and pressures experienced by CMs. With little grounding in teacher education and minimal teaching practice, this CM clearly wrestled with competing demands on his attention and multiple gaps in his knowledge base. In opting for specific and actionable reading strategies over procedural special education information, this CM was selective in prioritizing some forms of knowledge over others.

CMs did report an appreciation for a few parts of their coursework, however. Most particularly, many enjoyed opportunities to commiserate and collaborate with fellow corps members who took the same classes. For example, Martha said, “It was good, too, to have a space to be able to, umm, hear from different corps members and their experiences in the classroom . . . I thought that was really valuable.” Leslie similarly commented that the most valuable part of her teacher education experience was “honestly time with other corps members . . . to talk in an academic way, rather than social. I mean to be able to do both.” Ingrid called this “some of the best therapy,” as “showing up to Greenwood class” enabled CMs to say, “Oh my gosh, like, let me tell you about my day!” and then share their experiences with “someone who understands it.” This was something both of us as teacher educators sought to cultivate. In fact, another Greenwood faculty member commented to Matthew before his first TFA course that CMs needed time to discuss with each other, to process their experiences, and to share together as a form of reflective practice. Another, more senior faculty member suggested devoting the first 30 minutes of class to open discussions about issues or problems they had been having. Again, this finding suggests the importance of attention to the distinct needs of synchronous-service teachers as well as a potential opportunity for adaptation on the part of traditional teacher education programs.


These interviews highlight a further challenge faced by programs that intend to serve those who are being and becoming teachers. The combination of an instructional imperative of immediacy and a perceived lack of rigor and relevance resulted in a paradox: CMs dismissed coursework they felt was too easy, while also protesting that their assignments, readings, and indeed grades were based on unreasonably high expectations that did not match the demands of their synchronous-service reality. Some CMs explicitly acknowledged this tension between a desire for rigor and an inability to put forth more effort, or a lack of interest in doing so. Comparing his experience as a synchronous-service teacher with someone who might be able to complete a more traditional, college-recommending master of arts in teaching program full time, one CM commented,

And if someone did that [MAT] program full time, I imagine again that they would have invested much more than I did, and would have gotten much more out of it than I did. But I also know that it wasn’t particularly difficult to get high grades, and it wasn’t particularlyyou know, if you asked me to write a paper about what I learned in a couple of my classes, I wouldn’t have enough to fill four pages. . . . And I know that part of thata huge part of thatis on me, but you know, that was one of your requirements. That you are the teacher [educator], you know? . . . I would want, again, just expectations to be higher. And I know that expectations need to be higher and then you need to push yourself to do more, but it is one of those things.

Another CM, Calla, explained, “It comes across as, like, being really very disdainful about like Greenwood and, I don’t, I know that a large part of that is just because, like, I was just so crazy busy that, like, no matter what it was I would have been grumpy about it” [emphasis added]. Other CMs commented later that they only realized the utility of some courses, such as those focused on educational foundations, well after the end of the semester. Thus, their experiences may have been representative of the old adage, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

In many cases, this led to frustration not only on the part of CMs, but also on the part of their instructors. Martha remembered a day when “this really nice professor . . . then all of a sudden, just like, flipped out” on all the CMs, who were working on their laptops rather than paying attention during class. Although Martha felt bad about the instance, she ultimately excused the students’ behavior:

But it was also, like, give me a break here. Like, I stilland I know that is really bad listening skills to be on the computer while you are in class, and I probably didn’t learn as much, but I was still learning the bulk of it and I thinkI guess I don’t remember anything specific that I learned necessarily in that class, but I felt like there were some things that I learned that were important.

While not all instructors “flipped out,” other CMs reported spending most of their class time engaged in other activities; as Calla said, “Laptop up, gonna make my lesson plan for the next day.” Isaac explained, “I would be bummed if we couldn’t have our computers out because it means I wouldn’t be able to get work done for my classroom.”

What is perhaps most vexing about this paradox is that for many CMs, these experiences reinforced their negative perceptions of colleges of education (and thereby the teachers trained in them) as being insufficiently rigorous to prepare exceptional teachers, leading some to exit the graduate program earlier than anticipated (as Babette noted earlier in this article). By constructing their identities as having worked harder in undergraduate courses, CMs also set themselves up as likely “better” (i.e., more intelligent and capable) than others who had gone through traditional training programs, reaffirming existing and negative stereotypes of the teaching profession.

This is not to suggest that all CMs were blind to this paradox or that they perceived negatively all the courses they took and the instructors with whom they had interacted. Leslie, for instance, said,

Some of them [Greenwood classes] have been, like, really, really good. And, like, really fun. And it’s super awesome to be able to take classes with other corps members. But my biggest problem, honestly, is how negative corps members are in class and that they don’t appreciate it. And, yes, we have to pay for it, but you knew that you were gonna have to take classes . . . and, like, people show up late all the time and they’re just really disrespectful, and I have a very big problem with that.

Other CMs expressed to us that their appreciation for the courses we taught grew when they were able to take the time and space to sit and reflect on the content. These participants noted that they wished they could take courses after their two-year commitment, knowing they might be better able to focus and engage. Yet to be qualified by the state to teach, and indeed to meet the needs of their students, CMs desperately needed training and support from the outset. These comments from the participants speak to the chasm that currently exists between traditional teacher education programs and TFA and that is reflected in and reified by the context of synchronous service.


Moving forward, we discuss several implications for and contributions of this research to broader understandings of synchronous-service teachers and the programs that serve them. As noted earlier, this study builds on other research related to synchronous-service teachers’ perspectives of teacher education coursework required for certification. Recent studies have found that teachers from traditional education programs rate their preparation more highly than those from alternative routes (Carter et al., 2011; Feistritzer et al., 2011), and some newer work has compared TFA and non-TFA teachers’ perspectives of graduate courses (Torres & Chu, 2016). These studies find related notions of disillusionment among synchronous-service teachers. In particular, several of the themes derived from our interviews with CMs support those found in the study by Carter et al. (2011), who analyzed university course evaluations but in a different university and regional context.


One novel aspect of this study is the analysis of teachers’ paradoxical desires for both more rigor and less time-consuming coursework, a feeling that largely seemed to arise from their struggle to keep up with the competing demands they experienced as both teachers and graduate students. Together, these findings suggest that the challenging load of synchronous service may be a barrier to effective professional learning and classroom teaching. It is worth noting, however, that Torres and Chu (2016) found that the majority of the teachers enrolled in alternative certification coursework in their study were “highly satisfied with the instruction in this clinical program” (p. 231). Although this difference concerning overall student satisfaction could perhaps be accounted for by programmatic differences, there seems to be some agreement that synchronous-service teachers have different needs than those entering the profession through college-recommending routes. Qualitative studies, like this one, also add to extant research by exploring more in depth the experiences that synchronous-service teachers have in the programs in which they enroll.

Indeed, for this reason, we aim to conceptualize the synchronous-service teacher, a potentially useful and more descriptive category for designating and theorizing the work and learning of the early-entry teacher who is teaching full time while completing certification requirements. We suggest that they are unlike novice preservice teachers in college-recommending programs who are engaged in coursework that is enmeshed with exposure to classrooms over an extended period, all before full-time teaching. They are also unlike teachers who are already certified and may participate in various in-service or continuing education opportunities but who are then, by nature, more experienced teachers. Resting in this liminal space, and experiencing frustration with graduate-level certification programs, synchronous-service teachers may understandably prioritize their students and day-to-day teaching responsibilities over the demands of coursework, especially as they seek to cope with the substantial challenges of their simultaneous roles.

So, where does this leave teacher education, which in some cases seems to be struggling to alter its coursework and accommodate these growing alternative routes that now prepare upwards of 40% of new teachers? The findings highlighted earlier suggest that some “universities are trying to fit a square peg of traditional teacher preparation courses into a round hole of alternatively certified needs, and it just does not fit” (Carter et al., 2011, p. 886). We personally felt this phenomenon as instructors at Greenwood University, where, in many instances, and especially at the beginning of the partnership, CMs took courses alongside other non-TFA students. Indeed, in the earliest cohorts of CMs, minimal differences existed between the graduate-level MAT courses and those offered to CMs even though traditional students enrolled in the MAT program would complete nearly all their coursework before entering schools, even for supervised practicum experiences. Conversely, CMs sometimes began their certification coursework and classroom teaching the same week—therefore, they were already working full time, already participating in IEP meetings (see Thomas, 2018a), and, presumably (or ideally), already differentiating instruction to accommodate their students, typically in severely underresourced environments. As such, their needs were quite different from those of the preservice teachers in the Greenwood master’s program, and this created challenges for both the CMs and teacher educators.

Compounding the effects of this disconnect, the challenges CMs perceived with their coursework ultimately led many to disregard its potential utility for their own professional development as novice teachers. As one example, Calla expressed an overall “disdain” for her graduate experience, a sentiment that will likely stay with her. This matters because teacher education programs—like the one at Greenwood—are often a first point of contact between synchronous-service teachers and the formal (teacher) education community; consequently, it stands to reason that the institution’s faculty and curricular approach play important roles in shaping CMs’ perspectives of the profession. These graduate school experiences may not only frustrate synchronous-service teachers but also leave lasting impressions of teacher education that are perhaps quite dangerous. CMs’ feelings that they were punching a card or jumping through a hoop suggest a concomitant potential for disdain for university-based teacher education writ large.

Given the growing role that TFA plays in the education community, and in policy making (e.g., Kretchmar et al., 2014) in particular, it would behoove the education community to carefully (re)consider these relationships and related sentiments. TFA alumni and other synchronous-service teachers are increasingly becoming educational leaders and policy makers (cf. Trujillo et al., 2017), and TFA is quite proud of alumni accomplishments. Indeed, this is part of its theory of change: give “the best and brightest” citizens some teaching experience so they can effect change at the highest levels of education policy (Clement, 2018; Maier, 2012), and subvert long-standing structures and institutions (Baxendale, 2020). Thus, when state-level policies mandate that synchronous-service teachers “become” something they are already “being”—and CMs interpret this obligation as “doing time”—it is not unreasonable to expect them to later work toward the deregulation of the teaching profession and the decommissioning of teacher education programs (as one example, for a discussion of TFA alumnus Michelle Rhee’s policy agenda, see Bulkley & Gottlieb, 2017).

Finally, related to this potential disdain for traditional teacher education programs and policies is a question regarding how and in what ways alternative routes such as TFA influence existing teacher preparation. Many of the CMs’ comments reflect TFA’s predominant educational philosophy, which is characterized in general by a more technicist approach that assumes that teaching is a series of discrete tasks performed by objective technicians (Crawford-Garrett, 2012; Kretchmar & Zeichner, 2016). Assignments and in-class discussions at Greenwood University as well as mentoring and conversations with other teachers at their schools serve as varied sites through which these TFA corps members may enact this approach and also (in)directly engage in education debates regarding pedagogy and the role of the teacher. It stands to reason that their continued interactions with teacher educators (like us), feedback to university administrators, and perspectives of teacher education programs—influenced significantly by their enrollment in various alternative certification programs—will in turn influence the future of America’s colleges of education, arguably (re)orienting them more toward practice. Future research might explore this reciprocal relationship in greater detail and the cross-pollination of philosophies and pedagogies that result.


This “square peg, round hole” scenario presents teacher education institutions with two primary options. One option is to reject university partnerships with early-entry organizations such as TFA. Indeed, some of the relationships between TFA and its partners have been contentious (Cohen, 2013; Meyers et al., 2014), and in a few cases, new partners are sought every few years. This has occurred internationally as well, with programs based on TFA that fall under the Teach For All umbrella facing challenges in establishing and maintaining partnerships (Crawford-Garrett, 2018; Crawford-Garrett & Thomas, 2018; Thomas et al., 2021). Yet, given declining teacher education funding and enrollments, increasing teacher shortages, an economic environment that encourages career change, and the growing role that philanthropic organizations play in funding education reforms, it seems likely that, rightly or wrongly, many higher education institutions will continue to partner with early-entry programs. Moreover, without any cooperation, “parallel education structures” (Mungal, 2016, p. 2) that circumvent teacher education institutions, such as the Relay Graduate School, may further displace traditional teacher education. And of course, in some states, TFA has become its own certification program (see TFA, 2019). A second option, therefore, might involve curating a more carefully orchestrated teacher education program specifically geared toward synchronous-service teachers, as some clinical programs have aimed to do (Torres & Chu, 2016). Moving forward, these programs for synchronous-service teachers would need to be distinct from more traditional programs, and here are some considerations.  

First, traditional teacher education schools might begin by assessing and building on synchronous-service teachers’ prior knowledge. For TFA CMs, for example, this might start with institutions and program designers attaining a deeper understanding of the amount and forms of learning that occur at Summer Institute (Schneider, 2014) to inform teacher education programming. What professional development sessions do CMs typically attend? How deep are their understandings of culturally responsive pedagogy, special education policies and procedures, and the vast bodies of research on teaching, learning, and schooling? In which grades, subjects, and summer schools were they teaching during their abridged training? For how long? And, finally, in what positions will they be working as full-time teachers? Knowing the answers to these and other questions could help teacher education institutions better tailor their programming to the specific characteristics of synchronous-service teachers and to build more explicitly on the work they have already done, even if these CMs were not able to process or make much meaning of this information (Steudman, 2015; Stoneburner, 2018).

Second, advanced professional development and communication with teacher educators is immensely beneficial. Although Matthew was invited to attend a meeting with TFA and Greenwood administrators, and subsequently warned by a more senior member of faculty that CMs were a “challenging bunch” (Thomas, 2018b, p. 189), in general, minimal guidance was provided about CMs’ profiles, or their understandings of educational equity, theory, or practice. This lack of awareness about CMs’ identities and experiences led to a decreased ability to create lesson plans that met these synchronous-service teachers where they were at in terms of their professional learning, or to preempt deficit thinking among CMs (cf. Sondel et al., 2019). Moreover, the initial syllabi and instructional materials developed for educational foundations courses taken by TFA CMs at Greenwood were based almost entirely on a traditional master of arts in teaching program (i.e., college-recommending) and, to that end, were somewhat inappropriate for synchronous-service teachers. Ralph’s comment about assignments and Leslie’s comment about accommodating syllabi suggest their awareness that not much had been changed by teacher educators to meet their specific needs. As teacher educators who taught across several cohorts, however, we did observe some changes made by Greenwood to better tailor coursework for CMs as the partnership progressed over time. Yet, the overarching sentiment from our data is that any accommodations were too little, too late. Unfortunately, through this research project and a careful reading of the literature, it seems that this scenario is not altogether unfamiliar.

The extent of this incongruity between traditional and alternative curricula need not exist, however. As Heineke and Preach (2013) posited, teacher education is in a “strategic position to bridge the two sides” (p. 497) of teacher training and the school classroom. They described an integrated approach to coursework in which they worked as “both instructors and classroom supervisors” (p. 497), making explicit connections between university work and teachers’ classroom experiences. Kretchmar and Zeichner (2016) similarly articulated a vision for “teacher preparation 3.0” that is based in local communities and integrates both theory and practice in meaningful ways. Teacher education for synchronous-service teachers, therefore, may be a hybrid of (1) the “educational tabula rasa” approach that assumes that preservice teachers have little familiarity with educational philosophy, theory, or practice, and (2) traditional in-service professional development that presumes that teachers have significant classroom experience. In short, this may help build connections between synchronous-service teachers’ experiences as becoming and being teachers.

In ensuring strong programming for synchronous-service teachers, perhaps we might address these teachers’ perspectives, challenges, and needs without contributing to further divisions. As deans of universities that partner with TFA, Koerner et al. (2008) noted that the best partnerships “require an openness that allows for serious reflection and discussion of practice, as well as the commitment to improve” (p. 727). Stakeholders in conversations between alternative routes and traditional teacher education programs should be vigilant about discussing improved ways to prepare teachers for their classrooms, including through collaborative research (cf. Meyers et al., 2014), particularly as teacher education itself continues to change in profound ways (Cochran-Smith, 2005). In sum, considering the roles of synchronous-service teachers and reflecting on the strengths of teacher education programs may yield improved means to ensure that these teachers achieve maximum benefits from teacher education programs, particularly given their limited prior exposure to the teaching profession.

Further research is necessary, of course, and this study is not without limitations. The CMs who opted to participate are not representative in a generalizable sense and were drawn from only one TFA region. Moreover, although the recruitment of former students has benefits, it also has drawbacks. For example, certain CMs and cohorts were not invited to participate, and our positionalities and identities as researchers may have influenced participants’ perspectives or self-selection into the study. Overall, however, we see additional in-depth qualitative studies as vital to the continued examination of TFA (cf. Anderson, 2020), synchronous-service teachers, and teacher education programming. In particular, we would be excited to see cross-regional studies that feature ethnographic observations as a means to better understand and compare teachers’ lived experiences in balancing their varied responsibilities. Additional longitudinal studies that examine the experiences over time of multiple cohorts of synchronous-service teachers are also warranted.


This article highlights the unique experiences and roles of synchronous-service teachers. The comments offered by the CMs in this study suggest that they have distinct professional development needs related to their status as full-time teachers and learners. While the teacher education programs that serve TFA CMs and other synchronous-service teachers vary across and within states, some may only make moderate adaptations of existing preservice preparation programs, as was the case at Greenwood University. Given the attitudes expressed by CMs toward their coursework, more extensive changes to teacher education programs may be warranted to better prepare and develop synchronous-service teachers.

More broadly, this article frames the professional experiences of synchronous-service teachers as different from those of preservice teachers, whose training enmeshes both learning and practice over an extended period, and from in-service teachers, who presumably have considerable knowledge on which to draw as they integrate new learning into the classroom. Specifically, we identify the competing demands of being and becoming teachers—namely, simultaneous classroom teaching and professional training—and argue that this conceptualization is essential to understanding, educating, and supporting the synchronous-service teacher. Drawing on synchronous-service teachers’ situational experiences would be a strong starting point for course activities and curricular connections that would be otherwise difficult to replicate. In contrast to traditional programs wherein theory is front-loaded in the hopes that it might later be practically applied, synchronous-service teachers have the opportunity to apply theory in ways that explain and improve their quotidian experiences. Reframed in this way, the instructional imperative of immediacy might be viewed as an asset rather than a liability.

In closing, although TFA and other alternative licensure programs may be gaining ground in their perpetual “competition” against teacher education to recruit new teachers (Labaree, 2010), this does not mean that they must win the debate over how best to prepare teachers. We contend that although synchronous-service teachers exist in a genre-bending category, teacher education is well positioned to lend its extensive expertise to ensure that they can become the best teachers imaginable. By balancing the demands of synchronous-service teachers for applied approaches that address classroom realities, with attention to foundational understandings of the education discipline and their relationships to practice, traditional teacher education programs might begin to bridge the gap that has heretofore beleaguered debates about routes to teaching.



We intentionally use the phrase “teaching quality” here instead of “teacher quality,” two phrases that are often used synonymously but have substantially different implications (cf. Connell, 2009; Knight et al., 2015; Mockler, 2014).


In addition, on the whole, alternatively certified teachers are also more likely to leave the teaching profession (Sutcher et al., 2016).


As of the NRC’s 2010 report, 75% of U.S. teachers were female and 84% were White, which is remarkably similar to our sample.


For more information on the research methods and findings from the broader project, see Lefebvre and Thomas (2017), Thomas (2018a, 2018b), Thomas and Lefebvre (2018), and Thomas and Mockler (2018).


See Kretchmar et al. (2018) for a discussion of how some alternative certification programs explicitly position themselves as offering nontheoretical approaches—as if anything can be devoid of theory—that could be implemented first thing Monday morning. For example, the Baltimore City Teaching Residency, part of The New Teacher Project Teaching Fellows, noted, “While traditional teacher preparation programs stress educational theory, our training is designed to transform talented professionals into great teachers through practical, classroom-centered coursework, with a sharp focus on the core skills and mindsets teachers need to be successful” (TNTP Teaching Fellows, 2019).


Anderson, A. (2020). Expanding the research terrain: Teach For America and the problem with one-dimensional research. Teaching and Teacher Education, 94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2020.103080

Baxendale, H. (2020). Teach for America as institutional subversive? New agents in the contemporary politics of American education reform [Doctoral dissertation]. University of Oxford.


Boyd, D., Grossman, P. L., Hammerness, K., Lankford, R. H., Loeb, S., McDonald, M., Reininger, M., Ronfeldt, M., & Wyckoff, J. (2008). Surveying the landscape of teacher education in New York City: Constrained variation and the challenge of innovation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(4), 319–343.


Bulkley, K. E., & Gottlieb, J. (2017). Policy images of teachers: How influential actors construct images of teachers. Teachers College Record, 119(4), 1–34.


Carter, H., Amrein-Beardsley, A., & Hansen, C. C. (2011). So NOT amazing! Teach for America corps members’ evaluation of the first semester of their teacher preparation program. Teachers College Record, 113(5), 861–894.


Clement, D. (2018). Legitimizing the dilettante: Teach For America and the allure of ed cred. Berkeley Review of Education, 7(2), 29–75.


Cochran-Smith, M. (2005). The new teacher education: For better or for worse? Educational Researcher, 34(7), 3–17.


Cohen, R. (2013, July 8). Teach for America struggles in Minnesota. Nonprofit Quarterly. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2013/07/08/teach-for-america-struggles-in-minnesota/


Comber, B. (2006). Pedagogy as work: Educating the next generation of literacy teachers. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 1(1), 59–67.


Connell, R. (1993). Schools and social justice. Temple University Press.


Connell, R. (2009). Good teachers on dangerous ground: Towards a new view of teacher quality and professionalism. Critical Studies in Education, 50(3), 213–229.


Consuegra, E., Engels, N., & Struyven, K. (2014). Beginning teachers’ experience of the workplace learning environment in alternative teacher certification programs: A mixed methods approach. Teaching and Teacher Education, 42, 79–88.


Crawford-Garrett, K. (2012). Teach For America, urban reform and the new Taylorism in public education. In P. L. Thomas (Ed.), Becoming and being a teacher: Confronting traditional norms to create new democratic realities (pp. 27–41). Peter Lang.


Crawford-Garrett, K. (2013). Teach For America and the struggle for urban school reform. Peter Lang.


Crawford-Garrett, K. (2018). Lacking resilience or mounting resistance? Interpreting the actions of Indigenous and immigrant youth within TeachFirst New Zealand. American Educational Research Journal, 55(5), 1051–1075.


Crawford-Garrett, K., & Thomas, M. A. M. (2018). Teacher education and the global impact of Teach for All. In Oxford research encyclopedia of education. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.417


Curran, F. C. (2017). Teach For America placement and teacher vacancies: Evidence from the Mississippi Delta. Teachers College Record, 119(2), 1–24.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Powerful teacher education: Lessons from exemplary programs. John Wiley & Sons.


Darling-Hammond, L., & Lieberman, A. (2012). Teacher education around the world: What can we learn from international practice? In L. Darling-Hamming & A. Lieberman (Eds.), Teacher education around the world: Changing policies and practices (pp. 151–169). Routledge.


Feistritzer, C. E., Griffin, S., & Linnajarvi, A. (2011). Profile of teachers in the US, 2011 [Report]. National Center for Education Information.


Foote, M. Q., Brantlinger, A., Haydar, H. N., Smith, B., & Gonzalez, L. (2011). Are we supporting teacher success: Insights from an alternative route mathematics teacher certification program for urban public schools. Education and Urban Society, 43(3), 396–425.


Fraser, J. W. (2007). Preparing America’s teachers: A history. Teachers College Press.


Grossman, P., & Loeb, S. (2008). Alternative routes to teaching: Mapping the new landscape of teacher education. Harvard Education Press.


Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. SUNY Press.


Heineke, A. J., & Preach, D. (2013). Integrating graduate coursework to prepare alternatively certified teachers. Teacher Education and Practice, 26(3), 496–514.


Hesse-Biber, S., & Leavy, P. (2006). The practice of qualitative research. SAGE.


Jenset, I. S., Klette, K., & Hammerness, K. (2018). Grounding teacher education in practice around the world: An examination of teacher education coursework in teacher education programs in Finland,  Norway, and the United States. Journal of Teacher Education, 69(2), 184–197.


Journell, W., & Webb, A. W. (2013). When one-size methods class doesn’t fit all: A self-study of teaching traditional and alternative licensure students together. Teacher Education and Practice, 26(1), 9–27.


Kee, A. N. (2012). Feelings of preparedness among alternatively certified teachers: What is the role of program features? Journal of Teacher Education, 63(1), 23–38.


Knight, S. L., Lloyd, G. M., Arbaugh, F., Gamson, D., McDonald, S. P., Nolan J., Jr., & Whitney, A. E. (2015). Reconceptualizing teacher quality to inform preservice and inservice professional development. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 105–108.


Koerner, M., Lynch, D., & Martin, S. (2008). Why we partner with Teach For America: Changing the conversation. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(10), 726–729.


Kretchmar, K., Sondel, B., & Ferrare, J. J. (2014). Mapping the terrain: Teach For America, charter school reform, and corporate sponsorship. Journal of Education Policy, 29(6), 742–759.


Kretchmar, K., Sondel, B., & Ferrare, J. J. (2018). The power of the network: Teach For America’s impact on the deregulation of teacher education. Educational Policy, 32(3), 423–453.


Kretchmar, K., & Zeichner, K. (2016). Teacher Prep 3.0: A vision for teacher education to impact social transformation. Journal of Education for Teaching, 42(4), 417–433.

Kumashiro, K. (2010). Seeing the bigger picture: Troubling movements to end teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1–2), 56–65.

Labaree, D. (2010). Teach For America and teacher ed: Heads they win, tails we lose. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(1–2), 48–55.

Lefebvre, E. E., & Thomas, M. A. M. (2017). “Shit shows” or “like-minded schools”: Charter schools and the neoliberal logic of Teach For America. Journal of Education Policy, 32(3), 357–371.

Lefebvre, E.E., & Thomas, M.A.M. (2019). Alternative routes to teaching. In M.A. Peters (Ed.), Encyclopedia of teacher education. Singapore: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_49-1

Linek, W. M., Sampson, M. B., Haas, L., Sadler, D., Moore, L., & Nylan, M. C. (2012). The impact of teacher preparation: A study of alternative certification and traditionally prepared teachers in their first year of teaching. Issues in Teacher Education, 21(2), 67–82.


Maier, A. (2012). Doing good and doing well: Credentialism and Teach For America. Journal of Teacher Education, 63(1), 10–22.


Matsui, S. (2015). Learning from counternarratives in Teach For America: Moving from idealism towards hope. Peter Lang.


Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (2nd ed.). SAGE.


McNew-Birren, J., Hildebrand, T., & Belknap, G. (2018). Strange bedfellows in science teacher preparation: Conflicting perspectives on social justice presented in a Teach For America–university partnership. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 13(2), 1–26.


Meyers, B., Fisher, T. R., Alicea, M., & Bloxson, K. M. (2014). Unfinishedness: Striving for a viable partnership between TFA and its university partner. Teachers College Record, 116(10), 1–32.


Mockler, N. (2014). Simple solutions to complex problems: Moral panic and the fluid shift from “equity” to “quality” in education. Review of Education, 2(2), 115–143.


Mungal, A. S. (2016). Teach For America, Relay Graduate School, and the charter school networks: The making of a parallel education structure. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24(17).


National Research Council. (2010). Preparing teachers: Building evidence for sound policy [Report]. National Academies Press.


Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice. SAGE.


Prigogine, I. (1980). From being to becoming: Time and complexity in the physical sciences. W. H. Freeman.


Prigogine I. (1996). The laws of chaos. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 19(1), 1–9.


Rubin, I., & Rubin, H. J. (2012). Qualitative interviewing: The art of hearing data (3rd ed.). SAGE.


Schneider, J. (2014). Rhetoric and practice in pre-service teacher education: The case of Teach For America. Journal of Education Policy, 29(4), 425–442.


Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.


Sondel, B., Kretchmar, K., & Hadley Dunn, A. (2019). “Who do these people want teaching their children?” White saviorism, colorblind racism, and anti-Blackness in “no excuses” charter schools. Urban Education, 1–30. doi:10.1177/0042085919842618


Steudman, M. J. (2015). Ignoring the ghost of Horace Mann: A reflective critique of Teach For America’s solipsistic pedagogy. In T. J. Brewer & K. deMarrais (Eds.), Teach For America counter-narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out (pp. 47–54). Peter Lang.


Stoneburner, J. D. (2018). Understanding teacher stress and wellbeing at Teach For America’s Summer Institute [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of California Los Angeles.


Straubhaar, R. (2020). Teaching For America across two hemispheres: Comparing the ideological appeal of the Teach for All teacher education model in the United States and Brazil. Journal of Teacher Education, 71(3), 307-318.


Sutcher, L., Darling-Hammond, L., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016). A coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S. [Report]. Learning Policy Institute.


Teach For America. (2018). 2018 Summer training schedule. https://www.teachforamerica.org/join-tfa/leading-classroom/training-and-development/2018-institute-schedule


Teach For America. (2019). Licensing & employment. https://www.teachforamerica.org/life-in-the-corps/licensing-and-employment


Thomas, M. A. M. (2018a). “Good intentions can only get you so far”: Critical reflections from Teach For America corps members placed in special education. Education and Urban Society, 50(5), 435–460.


Thomas, M. A. M. (2018b). “Policy embodiment”: Alternative certification and Teach For America teachers in traditional public schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 70, 186–195.


Thomas, M. A. M., & Lefebvre, E. E. (2018). The dangers of relentless pursuit: Teaching, personal health, and the symbolic/real violence of Teach For America. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 39(6), 856–867.


Thomas, M. A. M., & Mockler, N. (2018). Alternative routes and pathways to teacher professional identity: Exploring the conflated sub-identities of Teach For America corps members. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(6), 1–25.


Thomas, M. A. M., & Rauschenberger, E., & Crawford-Garrett, K. (Eds.). (2021). Examining Teach For All: International perspectives on a growing global network. Routledge.


TNTP Teaching Fellows. (2019). Baltimore City Teaching Residency: Training & Certification. https://tntpteachingfellows.org/baltimore/training-and-certification


Torres, A. C., & Chu, E. (2016). Preparation programs for alternate-route teachers: Teacher satisfaction with instruction aligned to clinical practice. Teacher Education and Practice, 29(1), 213–240.


Trujillo, T., Scott, J., & Rivera, M. (2017). Follow the yellow brick road: Teach For America and the making of educational leaders. American Journal of Education, 123(3), 353–391.


Uprichard, E. (2008). Children as “being and becomings”: Children, childhood and temporality. Children & Society, 22, 303–313.


Veltri, B. (2010). Learning on other people’s kids: Becoming a Teach For America teacher. IAP.


Zeichner, K. (2012). The turn once again towards practice-based teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 62(5), 376–382.


Zeichner, K., & Hutchinson, E.A. (2008). The development of alternative certification policies and programs in the United States. In P. Grossman & S. Loeb (Eds.), Alternative routes to teaching: Mapping the new landscape of teacher education (pp. 15–30). Harvard Education Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23321, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:29:24 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Matthew Thomas
    University of Sydney
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW A. M. THOMAS, Ph.D., is a senior lecturer in comparative education and sociology of education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. His research examines educational policies, pedagogical practices, and teacher and higher education. Matthew’s publications can be found in Compare, Critical Studies in Education, Discourse, Journal of Education Policy, and Teaching and Teacher Education. He is also the coeditor of Examining Teach For All: International perspectives on a growing global network (Routledge).
  • Elisabeth Lefebvre
    Bethel University
    E-mail Author
    ELISABETH E. LEFEBVRE, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of educational foundations at Bethel University in Minnesota. Her interdisciplinary research explores the mutually constitutive and historical relationships between schooling and childhood, as well as the ways in which the discourses and practices of schooling impact student and teacher experiences. Dr. Lefebvre’s work has appeared in Journal of Educational Policy, Discourse, and International Journal of Education Development.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue