This Job Is Not Your Service Project
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.