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. This fall, I went into my 12 year old niece’s math class at parent’s night. Her math teacher, a 20 something, young Asian 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.
And Teach for America is one of the worst offenders because it sells itself on the self flattering notion that recent Ivy league 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. Going to Yale or Harvard, being hired by Teach For America means you don’t need expertise. You’re smart enough to wing it. In the TFA paradigm, young Ivy League Brahmin are hard at work reforming an educational system destroyed by the less intelligent and less talented castes… otherwise known as ordinary teachers. 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 labors in obscurity, is devalued across America and who can’t point to TFA credentials to lend status to their choice to teach?
Here’s my question: What’s the plan? How can the TFA paradigm be the answer 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? If there were lots of TFA teachers wouldn’t that require the TFA gatekeepers to devalue the exclusivity of their brand? That can’t possibly be the plan. TFA only works as a privilege system. Will there be outer circles and inner circles and inner, inner circles of TFA privilege? Or will the successful TFAs just move smoothly and quickly into positions of authority sidestepping ordinary teachers and expertise like the sons of the boss? What happens to all the ordinary teachers in the trenches? Are they going to be fired and replaced by wave after wave of temporary TFA 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 visionaries whose failures will be obscured or recast as success?
Meanwhile, who won’t be heard? Well, I won’t, for one. I am merely a committed, hard working, middle school English teacher without a TFA credential. I’ve had the good fortune to be excited and challenged by my students and by my work on a daily basis for 22 years, and my students have been taught well. I’ve taught in a variety of settings over those years, from private school to the NYC schools, and for the last 13 years, in the school I call home: an urban/suburban middle school in a district right outside of New York City. My students have hailed from all economic and social classes, all races and religions. In my classroom, they have written dictionaries, studied etymology, made Wikipedia style encyclopedias, made full 4 color magazines, analyzed advertising to the youth market, critiqued visual literacy, made video book trailers, interviewed people in various professions, wrote literary analysis. They’ve learned grammar and rhetoric, studied debate, given speeches, analyzed amendments and legal cases. They’ve learned how to parse multiple choice questions and respond to an essay question.
Of course, my commitment is not relevant to the greater picture except to the extent that it is anecdotal of the good work that is done by many, many ordinary teachers all over this country in classrooms everywhere. But, it may be worth noting that ordinary commitment comes with a price. Ordinary teachers have to give up achieving many of the milestones that most people identify with success. Up until the last five years of my career, I made less money than most of my peers and both of my siblings. I regularly get underestimated in terms of intellect and talent the minute I confess to being a teacher. I have none of the casual bragging rights that people take for granted because, let’s face it, who really wants to know what goes on in the classroom? And now, I can look forward to taking a beatdown for being a teacher at all.
Up until recently, I had made my peace with all of this. I have a job I love and a partner that supports my efforts. I have benefits that some people think are unwarranted: a very recently livable salary, health insurance, and a pension to make up for not making enough money for most of my career. I lack career mobility; there’s really no place to go with a teacher’s experience, but I have well deserved tenure to protect me from being tossed the minute I started making a livable wage. And I have time off for good behavior: those enviable, if unpaid summer vacations teachers have to recoup after each year of service (all afforded by membership in my union). I’ve felt like I’d done okay. Nothing spectacular, no one admired me. But, my work was honorable and my lifestyle was decent: I was in the middle of the middle class.
I still love my job, but I have to say, I’m a little exhausted… not by the classroom, but by the attacks, the testing culture and the anxiety of wondering how long I can continue to teach a rich curriculum. Some people will say that frustration with the test is just my effort to avoid accountability, but it isn’t true. I know I teach well. And I know what the TFA franchise does not: that privilege is only that. It will not solve what hard work, commitment, and experience has not: the face of poverty in America. Nor will it solve the fact that there will not be enough jobs for everyone in a fin de siecle service economy. But that’s another issue.
Dear Teach for America, I am sorry to have taken your time. I just wanted to put a single, ordinary human face on the hard work that is being thrown under the bus with the Educational Reform (read that as Rejection of the Troops in Place) movement. Let me let you get back to the work at hand: creating opportunity with loan forgiveness for Ivy League graduates in America.