Ashton Marra Published

Is Teach for America Right for West Virginia?


During the 2015 Legislative session lawmakers approved, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed, a bill allowing alternative training methods for teachers who head West Virginia classrooms.

While the bill sets forth specific requirements for those teachers, like having a bachelor’s degree and setting up a work agreement with the county school system, what it essentially does is allow the controversial program Teach for America to operate in the state.

Teachers’ groups lobbied strongly against the program during the session saying it allows unqualified people in the classroom, but those in favor of TFA say it could be the answer to West Virginia’s growing teacher shortage.

Shay Maunz with West Virginia Focus explored the debate in the magazine’s most recent issue. Below is an excerpt from that story titled “Multiple Choice.”

The road to Lawrence County High School in eastern Kentucky winds through the Appalachian Mountains, past strip malls and scenic overlooks and a few coal processing plants. It feels like—well, a lot like southern West Virginia. The high school is a lot like a high school in rural West Virginia, too: It’s the only one in the county, with 605 students, 68 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Last year about half of the juniors who took the ACT met the state’s benchmark in English, a score of 18. About a quarter made the benchmark in math.

And at first glance Michael Geneve, who taught math at Lawrence County High this past year, seems just like any other young high school teacher. He’s somehow both bright-eyed and tired looking and, in the classroom at least, his demeanor alternates rapidly between that of a harried head coach and a cheerful camp counselor. Sometimes he’ll kneel down beside a student like a cool kid. “Hey man, you’ve gotta subtract.” Or, if he’s feeling less affable, he’ll call them “ma’am” and “sir.” As in, “Sir, you’ve got nothing written on your piece of paper, let’s get on that.” He moves around the classroom constantly, checking students’ progress, answering questions, and generally keeping things running smoothly. When a cluster of freshman boys starts chatting a little bit too loudly he quickly swoops in, leaning over their desks to see how they’re doing. “Creeped right up on you, didn’t I?” he says. “Can you tell me how you solved number 10?”

There is one big difference between Geneve and the other teachers at Lawrence County High, though: Geneve doesn’t have a degree in education. His bachelor’s is in graphic design, his master’s in community development, and his formal training for the classroom was limited to a few months during the summer before he started teaching. He came to Lawrence County via a controversial program called Teach For America, which places teachers—usually recent college graduates who don’t have backgrounds in education—in low-performing schools, and bills itself as part of the answer to education inequity in America. “Coming in I thought, I know how to do math. I want to work in eastern Kentucky. I want to work with young people. It seemed like a win/win/win to me,” Geneve says.

Until recently, Geneve’s background in education—or, rather, his lack of a background—would have made it impossible for him to get a regular teaching job in West Virginia. He could work as a substitute, but state laws regarding teacher certification were just too strict to allow someone like him to make his way into the classroom full time. Programs like Teach for America were barred from operating here. But during the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill expanding alternate certification methods for teachers, loosening up those rules. There are more routes to becoming a teacher in West Virginia now, and TFA might soon be one of them.

The complete story is available at