“…ther is many a man that crieth ‘Werre! werre!
That woot ful litel what werre amounteth.”
LET ME BE THE FIRST TO SAY, at least in this public fashion: I hate Teach for America. And because we all know, if we follow current educational debate, that Teach for America candidates are way smarter—and so are going to save us all—let me try to say what I mean in the most erudite fashion. I don’t hate people in Teach for America.
I hate arrogance.
I don’t hate the concept either. I think we can applaud the idea behind TforA: That is, sign up top graduates from top schools like Harvard, Stanford and Yale and clear a path for them to follow to the front of the American classroom.
I taught for 33 years. So, I know that, all else being equal, smart teachers are better than dumb teachers any school day of the week.
Why, then, do I hate Teach for America?
Personally, I loved teaching and in all my years in a classroom would never have allowed myself to hate any child. I don’t use the word “hate” loosely. The young people I know who are in or have tried to get into the TforA program are wonderful young men and women.
What, then, is wrong? To begin with, we have a serious problem in this country when we start from the premise (now accepted by some of the most obnoxious education reformers in America today) that the big problem in schools is idiot teachers.
I see stories about the shooting at Chardon High, here in Ohio, for instance and wonder, “Does anyone believe that all that blood was spilled because some teacher was stupid? You don’t have to be all that gifted intellectually to notice that most problems in education have nothing to do with the mental capacities of the men and women at the fronts of our nation’s classrooms.
Certainly, it’s a gross oversimplification to argue that smarter people can fix all of society’s ills. One might even point out that sometimes the smartest people, i.e. Wall Street leaders, cause our most serious problems. It’s a gross insult, too, to dedicated “regular” teachers, to hint that we could save every child if these garden-variety educators weren’t so infernally ignorant.
If I were to meet a Teach for America candidate on the street today I would wish him or her happiness and success from the moment they first enter the classroom unto the last, thirty years down the road (if they stick it out that long) and they walk out going the opposite way. I would say, “You enter a noble profession and if you give it all you can, if you strain every nerve and sinew, you can shape lives.”
But I would also caution them to remember that just because their SAT scores were higher than average that they should not assume they’re going to be the best teachers. In fact, if your IQ is 130, and the regular teacher’s IQ is a mere 113, but they’ve been fighting the battle to save children for seven years, or fifteen, or thirty-seven, and you only signed up for two, which is all TforA asks, then, I would say, be humble, be humble.
Don’t talk about what a hero you’re going to be until you prove you’re a hero.
It’s a long war we fight to educate the young and bravery is not the exclusive preserve of the most intelligent.
Perhaps you believe I’m over-reacting—nothing more than a crotchety old fart venting.
|I'm not anti-intellectual.|
I have a daughter at Yale. (Note the hat).
I know what Chaucer meant, however.
So: I'm anti-arrogance.
On the contrary, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I saw a comment in a column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times. In an article about the declining economic fortunes of America, which he pinned in part on America’s failing schools (and I say, “ergo,” to highlight my own academic credentials, or maybe “presto” or “pesto,” or would it be “Lego”), he turned to Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, for guidance. Kopp told him applications to the program were up in 2009, in part because brilliant young people want to save the day, because “students [are] responding to the call that this is a problem our generation can solve.”
I’m an old history teacher; and that last word, “solve,” reminds me of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, probably the smartest man ever to hold that cabinet position, a man who thought he knew best how to win the Vietnam War, because, though he never spent a minute in combat—well—he went to Harvard.
Today, Teach for America candidates make up roughly .2 percent of all U. S. teachers. And now somehow those two out of 1,000 are the key to salvation?
It reminds me of old Westerns I watched as a kid. In the climactic scene, we find the wagon train surrounded by redskins. (In today’s more enlightened world: Native-Americans). Arrows fly in all directions. There must be a million Native-Americans circling the pinned down travelers. Suddenly, the sound of a bugle is heard. Thank god, the cavalry is riding hard to the rescue! Look, up over that rise they come, the boys in blue.
Wait a minute. What movie is this? There are only two soldiers. One is the bugler.
Still, they break through the swarming Native-Americans. The pioneers are incredulous. Their leader fumes, “God a mercy, we need more than two crappy soldiers to save us.” To put a point to his sentiment an arrow strikes him in the chest and he dies a gruesome celluloid death.
The bugler reassures the settlers, “Don’t worry, we’ll save you. I’m a graduate of Cornell and my comrade here attended Princeton.”
In the final scene the camera pulls back to reveal all the concerned white faces. This is Hollywood, 1960. So, black and Hispanic pioneers are totally absent. You can see though: with all those arrows flying, that the travelers are dubious.