Tag Archives: NYC Teaching Fellows

The Smart Kid’s Burden: The “Raj” of Teach for America

“Take up the White Man’s burden—
    Send forth the best ye breed—
Go, bind your sons to exile
    To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
    On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
    Half devil and half child.” – “White Man’s Burden”, 1st Stanza, Rudyard Kipling

Inner city children of America, “half-devil and half-child,” fear no more.  Dr. Livingston is here and he’s got a protractor.

The good folks at Teach for America are here to give you the education only privileged children can obtain.  Why, in only two years, your little urchin can rise to drink gin fizzes at the Porcellian Club at Harvard, hobnob at the eating clubs of Princeton, or stand around Yale looking morose.  All he/she needs to do is sit up straight, throw his/her cultural identity out the window and do exactly what these fresh-faced go-getters tell you to do.

Why does it work?  Because even though they have no certification, no teaching degree and a grand total of five weeks of training, they are better than your teacher.  They are better than your principal.  They are better than you–because their bachelor’s degree has more Latin scribble on it than other people.   

Utter nonsense.

I have had a huge stick in my craw about TFA for quite a while.  When I was undergoing summer training as a New York City Teaching Fellow, I’d run into these guys every once in a while.  They were all glassy-eyed and full of chants and whistles and sunbeams–as if Cat Stevens taught freshman English.  Many of them looked down on us because we were pursuing teaching seriously, as a profession, while they were enjoying their two-year safari among the natives teaching them stuff without making sure the kids are actually learning something. 

I often ran into these folks later in the year, at seminars and such.  They all have that look like Michael Caine at the end of Zulu.  One more massive attack by the Zulus and they’d be sprawling on the floor with spears in their bellies.  The look of horror in their eyes–I felt bad for them, but also kind of pleased.  Those preppie punks had it coming.

The Boston teacher’s union agrees.  Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a letter sent to TFA from the union in Boston, urging them to not send recruits into their school system, citing that their personnel unfairly take positions away from tenured faculty who have been excessed due to the financial situation.  Boston schools will have anywhere from 100-200 openings due to retirement and resignation, yet there is still the threat of layoffs because of the numbers of “surplus” faculty available.  According to the union, TFA would only make matters worse.

Many critics of the union say that this is simply a tactic to keep unqualified, failing teachers on the payroll and maintain union membership.  They also cite studies showing gains in performance in schools that hire TFA personnel.  The program got a huge boost from President Obama’s call for public service, as applications to the program rose 42%  this year.

Let me be clear: I am not in the business of defending the union blindly.  If the teachers proved to be substandard, or “failing”, then they probably should go, provided all avenues have been exhausted.  Even among veteran faculty, there are those who have survived in the system by doing just enough to not get hassled.  Obviously, these people do the profession no service.

However, if enhanced teacher quality and teacher retention are the goal, then Teach for America is the wrong way to go.  President Obama, I admire your zeal for improving education, but TFA is an antiquated “colonialist” relic.  It is simply a stopgap measure to fill vacancies where more qualified people do not want to go.  It is not designed to produce highly skilled or effective teachers, but rather intellectual missionaries sent to preach to the unwashed masses and hand out Norton’s Anthology of English Literature before going to an investment banking  job readying the next recession.

Teach For America is inherently flawed for a number of reasons.  Let’s begin with recruitment.  While the program attracts the best and brightest college seniors, it does not necessarily choose people who will be good teachers.  Education is not solely about knowing the material in a textbook–otherwise, we would just have students in massive rooms with headphones listening to James Earl Jones reading a trigonometry book (wouldn’t his voice lend weight to Pythagora’s theorem?).  Teachers wear many hats: lecturer, facilitator, disciplinarian, actor, storyteller, etc.  A good teacher understands his/her class and adapts to meet the needs of the students.  Not every brainiac or J. Crew-wearing co-ed can do this.

The two-year commitment is a joke.  I have been teaching for five years, and am considered a “master” teacher, according to the education establishment.  Yet I’m still clueless about lots of aspects of this vocation.  Ask me to schedule a field trip…I’ll guarantee something will go wrong.  And this after FIVE years of study and on-the-job experience.  These TFA guys are out the door before they even begin to realize what they entered in the first place.

Another fault lies in training.  TFA recruits go through an “intensive” program for five weeks in the summer.  This will prepare them for decorating their room, writing in their plan book, taking attendance and getting kids to and from lunch.  It does not prepare them for teaching.  Teaching is a craft that takes years of study and apprenticeship to master: you cannot take a crash course for this.  Not only will it make the TFA-er look like a fool, but it hurts the students by depriving them of quality teaching.

Many deride the program as “Teach for a While” for good reason.  There is no incentive to retain teachers in TFA after their commitment is done.  I’m lucky in that I entered a program where the city payed for my Masters Degree–a huge incentive to stay in education, plus a requirement of a certified teacher.  Furthermore, I’ve met people in different aspects of education that have helped foster lasting connections to improve instruction and programs for children.  The TFA’ers have no such thing to keep them here, hence their reputation as hired mercenaries who enter corporate America after their stint.  If the President was serious about education, he should be invested in programs that not only train teachers efficiently, but also provide benefits to stay in the profession.

Yet, the last is probably the worst flaw of all–and President Obama should be ashamed to back TFA because of it.  Harkening back to Kipling and the rest of the pith-helmet crowd, TFA is often a divisive influence in education because of its very culture.   For many years, Teach for America has instilled in recruits the sense that they are better than the teachers in their schools, who often have years of experience, simply because of their educational background.   If George W. Bush is any indicator, an Ivy League education can be obtained by both brainiacs and boneheads–depending on the trust fund.

This attitude trickles down to the students, as TFA recruits lord their knowledge over underprivileged students who couldn’t care less.  Why won’t Jose read the material?  Why can’t Johnny solve a simple algebra problem?  The answer is simple: TFA’s chauvinist mentality places an extreme disconnect between teacher and student.  These run-and-gun intellectual missionaries never bother to get to know the areas or the students they encounter every day.  Why should they?  They’ll be making six figures at Swindle & Embezzle, LLC or some other bloated bank soon, so why bother making sure these “savages” learn?

I’ve learned one immutable fact in my years in the classroom: You learn just as much from your students as they learn from you.  If you just listen to your kids, look at what they do and see what they see, they will tell you what they need to know.  Not only that, listening to students will tell you HOW to teach them–and not to lord over their ignorance. 

Lastly, this is like being a priest or a cop.  Teaching is a vocation–if you’re in it, you better be in it for the long haul.  If not, you’re of no use to anyone. If TFA’ers cannot make the commitment, they are no help. 

Maybe they should actually do something more constructive, like killing lions in Kenya wearing a monocle.


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