Saturday, August 12, 2006

This Job Is Not Your Service Project

In the most recent Washington Monthly, Avi Zenilman reflects on the manner in which Teach For American (TFA) has made the concept of service a desired undertaking for the nation's emerging elite. The article's subtitle reads: How Teach for America turned national service into a status symbol. Issues of scope aside, I do not disagree with the central premise, (although the extent to which this is really about service is itself open to question, as Zenilman spends a great portion of his essay lauding the future career opportunities afforded to corps members, and concludes the piece thusly: "And as any savvy student will tell you, Teach for America looks fantastic on your resume"). No, I don't really disagree, but neither do I share in the author's appreciation and enthusiasm for this development.

Zenilman suggests that TFA has become such a sought-for undertaking as a result of its selectivity: 19,000 applicants of which 80% are rejected, heavy recruiting from Ivy League, "white-shoe investment bank" style marketing, etc. We are to celebrate the fact that more and more, the hard-chargers from Cambridge and New Haven elect to postpone their eventual matriculation to law school and Wall Street's hallowed corridors in the name of service. We are to see this as a rejection of the malaise and torpid ambition David Brooks brilliantly outlined in a 2001 Atlantic Monthly piece entitled "The Organization Kid." In TFA, Zenilman sees America's elite undergrads moving beyond a mindset in which they care only for, as Brooks puts it, "new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform."

What Zenilman bizarrely fails to grasp is that TFA did not cure the empty achieving of Brooks' Organization Kid ("good, but not great"), rather, TFA became embedded within that lifeview, itself just another test and another club.

Through TFA, teaching is increasingly seen as service, not vocation. Volunteerism, not professionalism. The arena for the missionary, not the visionary. Teaching continues to be degraded as this thing you tried for a little while and then moved beyond, like writing for your college newspaper, taking that yoga class, or spending your last vacation hammering away for Jimmah Carter's favorite charity. Through networking opportunities, the ubiquitous résumé bullet, and the acquisition of liberal street cred, teaching is reduced to a means, and never an end unto itself. And those ends are becoming ever more selective and high-reaching.

All of this may be very good indeed for TFA, but it remains to be seen whether it is of any benefit at all to the profession of teaching or the development and improvement of America's public schools.

Ultimately though, this is really not about the relative merits and shortcomings of TFA. It's not about how corps members stack up against their colleagues, how long they stay in the profession (or that statistic padding TFAspeak phrase about continuing to impact low-income communities), or how many principals would rehire them. Personally, I think they do pretty well in all those areas.

The merry-go-round of TFA effectiveness is almost beside the point. The real issue is how teachers are perceived and indeed how they self-conceptualize their roles and professional undertakings. Teacher needs to be redefined from someone who works with kids, to a highly trained, highly skilled professional. Teacher needs to ground its prerequisites less in a warm disposition and ability to create eye-catching bulletin boards, and more in verbal elasticity and mental rigor. Teacher needs to stop being the province of those who are called, and become a place that is chosen and selected, not for an extended summer of do-gooding, but because it is a place of unending challenge, creativity, and impact. In other words (and to paraphrase someone who probably tires of seeing our conversations expanded and referenced in this space), the résumé with "camp counselor" needs to end up on the bottom of the pile, not the top.

Service is worthy and noble, and a movement for true educational reform is necessary and long overdue. Neither is accomplished through the creation of a more benign Skull'N'Bones, a place of secret handshakes, an ever-expanding web of connections, an insular community of incredibly talented individuals who refer to teaching as something they "finished," as if there were no longer any children in need of powerful educators.


Blogger posthipchick said...


I was a camp counselor!

2:52 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Oh man, I knew that was coming...

3:01 PM  
Blogger Mike in Texas said...

One thing that is often overlooked when discussing TFA is the fact there is a research that shows teachers don't reach their full effectiveness until after 5 years. This alone should suffice to prove the points you stated; teaching is hard and it should be viewed as a profession, not a resume builder.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mrs. B said...

...not to mention the fact that they are taking positions from those of us who have chosen teaching as a profession.

8:33 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

I don't think you can say that they're taking jobs away. No one has a claim on a job by virtue of ideology, and the places TFA corps members are hired are generally understaffed and from the perspective of the profession as a whole, undesireable.

9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coming from you, and understood as a call to TFA to emphasize teaching as a career, this may be fine. In other contexts, 'professionalization of teaching' seems to be a code word for 'make teacher preparation so involved that only career teachers will even think about it'. In and of itself that may also be fine, as knowing more before starting to teach is always useful. In the real world, however, stricter entrance requirements are operationalized as extended 'seat time' and a greater number of 'reflection papers'. Which neither serve to prepare teachers better nor help keep the right people in and the wrong people out.

What exactly do you propose that TFA should do to attract as brilliant candidates as now while recruiting for career teachers?

H (from your summer job class)

8:57 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


When I talk about professionalism and redefinition, I'm not really thinking about entrance requirements. This may be a product of my own alt-certification route bias, but I wonder how much the best preparation can actually provide true preparation. What I'm really thinking about is what happens next, as well as who chooses to become a teacher and why those choices are made.

As far as TFA goes, they are attracting the candidates, they just make zero effort to keep those teachers teaching in public schools, and in fact, take actions to push them out. It's not an issue of trying and failing, or an issue of not knowing what to do; I've come to believe that it is actually against the TFA model to continue teaching.

9:35 PM  
Blogger jonz said...

As a teacher who came into the public school system through a less selective alternative certification route (the New York City Teaching Fellows), I don't think the true benefit of TFA is the permanent teachers that the system gains. Rather, it gives America's future leaders a sense of perspective that will guide their future priorities (as well as their charitable donations and campaign contributions).

Leave teaching as a lifelong vocation to me (and the rest of us who truly want it). But let's not shut the door to the young Republicans and Democrats just because they want another notch on their belts. **They** just might learn something. And they certainly won't be any worse than many public school students are currently getting.

12:59 PM  
Blogger magnolia avenue said...

It’s funny that TFA corps members are afforded so much prestige when, as New York City Teaching Fellow, I attend the exact same graduate program and teach in the same schools as TFA teachers. But whatever.

I’m not sure if “it can’t be worse than what those kids are already getting,” either. The situation remains dire in New York City (which is all I can personally speak to), but it might be a failure of imagination to be content with a swelling corps of teachers who see teaching as a Peace Corps gig and not a rigorous profession worthy of an end in itself. When the going gets tough, it is difficult to persist in this job if you see yourself as a visiting artist. No matter how brilliant you are, your first (and second) years are a wash. I do not believe all TFA teachers treat the profession like this; it just seems from the Washington Monthly article that TFA actually cultivates the attitude in the culture of the program.

There is something about the whole premise that makes me a little squeamish: privileging Ivy Leaguers as teachers. The NYC Teaching Fellows recruits “career-changers,” people of varying ages from diverse careers, with the idea that teaching might be a rewarding endeavor after years in marketing. It strikes me as perhaps a surer bet, but I can’t quote any statistics off-hand—it’s only been six years. Time will tell.

7:06 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Here's my thing Jonz,

When you make teaching the service project of the elite, you're shutting off the possibility that teaching will ever be the pursuit of those same (so-called) elite. You've sent a message that if you're high-end, well-connected, affluent, from an elite school, teaching is a step-down UNLESS you're doing it under the umbrella of the uber-select TFA, and then only for a little while, because you have bigger and better things to do.

TFA has not always been like this. It is now, and it was an intentional shift. If this wasn't the end result -- service
for the privelged and powerful -- the model would be entirely different. You'd recruit locally, find the strongest kids coming out of all schools, not just the evil eight, look for the kids who themselves beat the odds and were products the very communities you look to serve. This is demonstrably not what's happening, and that's a shame, because TFA has so much potential otherwise.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's extremely interesting to see the comments of people on this blog. TMAO makes several excellent points, but I think it's important to address one of them-that TFA only recruits from elite schools and from students with privileged backgrounds. In fact, Teach For America actively recruits at over 400 schools, and the Ivy League schools have NEVER been in the top three in terms of corps members over the years. This year, only 8% of corps members are from Ivy League institutions.

In addition, Teach For America actively recruits and measures the number of corps members who receive Pell grants, an indicator of students who come from a low-income background. This year, 25% of the corps received this type of aid in college. As someone who helps fund TFA (and who admittedly has a slightly anti-Ivy elitism bias), these statistics are very important to me as it shows a commitment to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

It is often convenient to cite Teach For America as an organization for the elite, and in some cases it is marketed that way, but the true statistics show that it is more inclusive than you may think.

While there are certainly issues with retaining teachers for more than two years through Teach For America (as Mike in Texas pointed out), there are many who remain in teaching, and there are also many who continue to work in public education. I agree that there still needs to be more work done to keep people in the schools where they are needed most.

10:19 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Thanks for your comments.

You make some good points, but it is the perception of TFA that Zenilman's article highlighted, and it was this I was focusing on. I hear you on what the statistics may reveal, but was the NY Times headline: "TFA is ever more inclusive" or was it "n% of Harvard Apply?" There are times when perception does not matter, and there are times when it does, and I think this falls in the latter category. And I think the perception, and the ramifications I've discussed elsewhere, are significant.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Commander Salamander said...

Teaching, like any true profession is saturated in the area of inexperience, and relatively arid in the upper rungs of expertise. Teaching by necessity is a place of “earning your stripes”. How many highly motivated new teachers come into the profession because they “have always wanted to teach”, only to discover how difficult it is, and give up, burn out, or turn sour? Yes, certainly it would be nice to see teaching as a profession filled with highly skilled and competent individuals, but by the very nature of the learning curve, this is an impossibility.
However, I do agree strongly that it should not be viewed as a “service opportunity”. We are not here to do anybody a favor, rather we choose this profession because of the challenge, because of the opportunity to excel in the face of often insurmountable issues.

3:27 PM  

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