In today’s paper of record, The New York Times, there’s an article on the increase in applications to Teach for America and the competition for spots in that program among ivy-league grads. Teach for America is a well-funded non-profit that recruits and trains our best and brightest for placement as teachers in public schools in high-poverty areas of the United States. A quick visit to the TFA website will tell you that the organization’s philosophy is that the best leaders make the best teachers. They seek applicants with “leadership” potential. The program involves a two-year commitment. It’s been compared to the Peace Corps, and the program’s website encourages that comparison by referring to itself as “the corps.”
America’s top ivy-league grads competing to teach in America’s worst schools — isn’t that something to celebrate?
Uh, not exactly.
Most of the TFA’s will leave teaching, if not after their two-year stint, then within another couple of years. Anyone who has taught will tell you that no matter who you are, there’s a big learning curve those first years. While the program provides a lot of support and professional development, there’s no evidence that the participants are staying in the classroom and reaching their potential as educators.
But why should they if teaching in public school is not being viewed as an end in itself, a valid career choice, but rather as a stepping-stone — something to do to prove one’s mettle before doing something else — sort of like the military, but with no guns (one hopes)?
Make no mistake about it, TFA offers several benefits besides the honor of service. First off there’s two years of employment in the middle of a recession, and if you find a job in a city like New York that will mean union benefits and a starting salary of 45k or more. The program also allows access to a social network ideal for a twenty-something new grad. Here’s a description under the Corps Culture section of what those placed in the Big Apple can expect: “Despite living in the country’s largest city, many of our corps members live in the same apartment buildings or neighborhoods and frequently run into each other at the gym, on the subway, and in the city’s countless restaurants and clubs.” Beyond that the site boasts of its partnerships with several large corporations and prestigious graduate programs happy to offer post-TFA opportunities.
Not bad when you compare it to the actual Peace Corps where you live off a stipend in similar conditions to those you serve. There might not be plumbing in your village, let alone restaurants and gyms. Certainly, you won’t be hanging out with other young people who are just like you. And then there are those other annoyances like malaria and yellow fever.
But why should teaching in a public school in America ever be compared to joining the Peace Corps? Do we really want to think of teaching as something one does for a couple of years to serve society before moving on and getting a real job? When exactly did it become comparable to building latrines in a third world country? What does this say about how we think about public education and those who choose careers as educators?
How is it that someone who teaches at a public school for two years through a program like TFA gets lauded for their service while those who wish to spend their entire working lives toiling in a classroom are viewed suspiciously as though they weren’t up to other challenges or just really enjoy those long summer vacations?
More and more American parents are abandoning the public education system. And who can blame them for wanting the best for their kids? But for many years, the public school system in the United States was the best. Certainly in New York City, generations of immigrants sent their kids to schools where they graduated with either real world relevant job skills or preparation for college. There are plenty of leaders who came to us through that system and were taught by people who didn’t go to ivy-league schools themselves and weren’t picked by special programs, people who were simply doing their jobs and loved to teach. Frank McCourt taught public school and didn’t complete Angela’s Ashes until after he retired.
I understand why the Obamas did not want to send their own children to a public school. But what an example it would have set if they had! What if our First Lady didn’t just drop in to public schools for visits, but advocated for reform as a concerned parent?
One of the differences between poor countries and rich industrialized ones is that the wealthier nations offer compulsory, free schooling that’s more or less equal for all their children and the poor nations don’t. School could and should be the great equalizer, one that represents the American ideal that it’s not where you come from that determines where you are going.
Hiring inexperienced teachers, however earnest and bright, to work as glorified temps in our most impoverished schools, is not the way to create a more equitable system. The way to start bringing our schools back is not to view them as charities.
Respect for teaching as a profession is one of the many things that needs to be addressed in reforming and equalizing America’s school system. School budgets that support hiring and keeping experienced teachers have to become the standard. Recruitment and incentive programs to attract the best are great, but not if they view teaching as a way to kill time during a recession or pad a resume. Professional development and mentoring programs should focus on helping teachers improve and gain skills over time. School systems need to examine why teachers leave and develop their own best practices for keeping the good ones.
As a society, we have a choice. We can either choose to respect, even revere, those practice the noble vocation of teaching as a life-long career, or we can view it as something one does for a couple of years “to give back” to those less fortunate.