Dear Teach for America,
Allow me to appreciate you for your efforts for children. Okay. Now that we’ve done that, let me tell you why I don’t appreciate your efforts for children.
Let me start with an instructive story of being on the other side of the desk. Several years ago, I went into my 12 year old niece’s math class at parent’s night. Her math teacher, a 20 something, young woman in a pert little dress stood in front of the classroom of parents (and one aunt) talking about the year in math. People were concerned because it was a new school with a new philosophy, one that did not believe in homogeneous grouping for math. It was worrisome. Would the children be positioned for high school advanced placement classes if they were expected to go at a pace that would serve everyone? Her teacher allayed our fears by saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to be like those public school teachers.”
I said, “But, you are a public school teacher.”
Her response? “Yes, but we’re not like them. We’re more like charters. We work hard.”
Of course, being a public school teacher myself, I responded with, “Well, that’s offensive,” at which point my sister kicked me under the desk, and I came back to reality. This is my niece’s math teacher. I can’t afford to have her dislike my niece so that I can make a political or personal point. I shut up and went home demoralized. When a young teacher distances herself from public school teachers to let parents know that she’ll do her job, we’re in trouble. The teachers are eating their own. Update: She lasted three years and then left teaching.
And Teach for America is one of the worst offenders because it sells itself on the self flattering notion that recent Ivy league and first tier graduates belong in positions of power where they can accomplish for the country what a nation of clearly less able, ordinary (and probably lazy) teachers could not.
Let’s call this what it is: Marketplace Hinduism. It’s privilege’s answer to everything… a caste system where privilege trumps expertise and experience. If you went to Yale or Harvard, if you were hired by Teach For America … that means you don’t need expertise. You’re smart enough to wing it. In the TFA paradigm, young, attractive Ivy League Brahmin are hard at work reforming an educational system destroyed by less intelligent and less talented castes… ordinary teachers (you can recognize them because they actually stay in the classroom). And I guess it must be true, because I’m feeling pretty untouchable these days. What could be less worth being than an ordinary teacher who stayed in the classroom and can’t point to TFA credentials to lend status to the choice to teach? Let’s face it… if you went to a first tier school and got a TFA credential (which you were promised could be a great resume item for your real career aspiration), you don’t have the stomach for laboring in obscurity year after year. You have other fish to fry.
Here’s a question: What’s the plan? How can the TFA paradigm be the answer to better teacher performance when it rejects and underplays the expertise and hard work of ordinary teachers? Will there someday be enough TFAs to save the system from those ordinary teachers? Not sure how that could be; TFA only works as a privilege system. If there are lots of TFA teachers wonn’t that require the TFA gatekeepers to devalue the exclusivity of their brand? Maybe TFA work like a pyramid scheme with outer circles and inner circles and inner, inner circles of TFA privilege. Will the successful TFAs just continuously move smoothly and quickly into positions of authority sidestepping ordinary teachers and expertise like the sons of the boss? There are some wonderful TFA graduates out there who do great work. I know and work with some. If the credential alone is sufficient for entry, how will we know how to distinguish between those TFA visionaries with earned equity, who really know what they are doing and those like Michelle Rhee whose abysmal failures will be obscured or recast as success? What happens to all the ordinary teachers in the trenches? Are they going to be fired and replaced by wave after wave of temporary teachers on their way to greener, less arduous pastures? Or will they still be there in trenches directed along paths determined by small cadres of TFA and Broad visionaries subject to continuous churn and changing top down reform measures as one unvetted idea after another fails?
Recently, Chelsea Clinton (the famous Clinton appeal in a new generation) did a clever, funny ad for CityYear which aims specifically at recent grads who give up a year of their lives to do service and then move on to their real careers. It sounds great, and I realized how destructive the cynical use of idealism can be. I love the idea of a year of public service. I think it matures kids and gives them some new ideas about how to be in the world. Ask not what your country can do for you… But, when I went to the site, I was looking for the link. And I found it. City Year links to TFA as an ethical partner. And I struggled with my ambivalence. These days, it seems that service in America is exactly about getting your country to do for you. And it reminded me that John F Kennedy idealism is counterbalanced by another kind of idealism… that of John Locke in which society has responsibilities to its members… responsibility to fund its infrastructure, provide opportunities, fair workplace rights and reasonable wages. TFA doesn’t feel like a fair deal in America. It feels like a cynical tool aimed at decimating public education and undermining fair labor practices. It feels like a tool for the entitled… service with literally no expectation for staying in the classroom… just an army of recent grads changing their own lives through
getting useful connections, a door opening resume item and smooth social justice plus street cred cocktail conversation changing the lives of others. Is Chelsea Clinton’s ad about service in that idealistic sense or is it about ignoring overcrowded classrooms in underfunded schools by sending in an army of temps? Is it just a signal to those not in the know that Hillary is going to get with the program? Don’t be demoralized, teachers in schools. Think of it as a win-win (for somebody). You didn’t expect really talented people to stay in the classroom, did you?