Teaching: Missionary Stint or Profession?By Denise GelbergCreated Oct 9 2009 - 4:02am
In the past two months thousands of newly minted college graduates from our finest colleges and universities became teachers of our neediest children in urban and rural schools across the country. These novices entered the classroom via alternate, fast-track routes such as Teach for America, committing to teach for two years. TFA and its brethren are highly selective programs, screening applicants for disposition, intelligence, a premier education and a vision of social justice. The premise that underlies the movement to put the best and the brightest of our new college graduates into our most challenging classrooms is this: Smart, energetic, innovative novices will, during their two year tenure, be able to succeed where others have failed.
Bringing our brightest young people into the classroom is a compelling vision. Why then, do I worry about the ultimate effect of programs such as TFA?
35 years ago I was such a novice. A top graduate of an Ivy League college I was certain that the only thing I needed in order to become a good teacher was the opportunity to shadow an experienced teacher for a few weeks. I reasoned that if I could earn As in nearly every one of my courses at a highly selective, high pressure college, I could certainly figure out how to run an elementary classroom without breaking a sweat.
As is so often true, experience would provide the needed correction for my faulty thinking. Despite my best efforts during my first year of teaching I made many serious, fundamental errors and did not serve my students well. My second year, though better, was still a learning experience for the teacher. Those two years of teaching can be summed up as follows: I worked hard, did the best I could and was performing adequately for a novice by the end of the second year.
Two years comprises the entire teaching career of a typical Teach for America candidate. The vast majority of the TFA teachers complete their two year commitment and move on to things bigger and better; careers that pay more, earn higher status and allow bathroom breaks as needed. In a sense, the TFA experience is reminiscent of the two year mission young Mormons engage in when they reach young adulthood. Like young Mormon missionaries, the TFA candidates are called to serve through teaching and undergo a short training period before being sent far from home. The mission is a rite of passage. Once completed, the young Mormons begin their adult lives and careers.
In my case I chose to make teaching my life’s work rather than to leave after two years. In time I grew into a successful, and, reputedly, a master teacher. My journey from bright young novice to seasoned professional emboldens me to offer counsel to education reformers who aim to revolutionize teaching by bringing wave after wave of bright, well educated young people into the nation’s classrooms for limited stints.
First, two years does not a teacher make. The idea that teaching does not require professional expertise — just a top-notch education, a good heart and youthful enthusiasm — has somehow developed currency in the contemporary education policy debate. How else can one rationalize the idea of dropping novices into the most difficult teaching environments such as are found in our inner cities and poorest rural areas? I can say, after teaching some 28 years past my first two, that I continued to develop expertise throughout my career. There is no accelerated path to becoming a master teacher.
Second, the constant teacher turnover generated by programs such as TFA is not in the best interests of our most vulnerable children. Few middle class parents want the “new teacher” when class assignments are made for their child. Why, then, is it OK for poor kids to be assigned a novice teacher year after year after year?
Third, continual teacher turnover handicaps efforts to make schools more effective. After working in six schools and three school districts I can testify to the fact that it takes time to build a team of teachers that pull together to realize the overarching goal of improved student performance. Unremitting teacher turnover works against long term, sustained school improvement.
Finally, the job benefits that keep people in teaching — tenure, pensions, union contracts that provide medical insurance and other protections — are not anachronistic relics of a distant past as characterized by many reformers. Rather, they allow and encourage people to stay in a difficult career that provides many challenges and limited financial rewards.
Two year teaching stints may be gratifying for the bright, well-meaning young adults who sign up for them. They may learn important life lessons that will guide them for years to come. But if socially aware, good hearted, intelligent novice teachers really want to help our neediest youngsters I suggest they sign on for the long haul. Only by remaining in the classroom can they develop into the master teachers they may very well have the potential to become. And in time that may ultimately lead to a genuine revolution in the quality of our schools.
Denise Gelberg ’72, Ph.D., ’93 taught grades K-3 for 30 years in New York State. She is the author of The “Business” of Reforming American Schools (SUNY Press). Guest Room appears periodically.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Corporate Missionaries vs. Professionals
Denise Gelberg cuts right to the chase in this essay about TFA and the role of fast-track temps with Ivy League degrees. Gelberg is also the author of, "The 'Business' of Reforming American Schools," a worthwhile read detailing education reform efforts of the business community during the past century. From The Cornell Daily Sun:
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