Would you want to be a teacher?

I really liked Claus von Zastrow’s post this morning at Learning First about the rhetoric of education reform and its effect on would-be teachers. I especially like his “job description” for new teachers:

If you’re considering a teaching career, review the following job description:

  • You must have missionary zeal. This job isn’t just work. It’s a calling that demands self sacrifice.
  • You should expect to outlive your usefulness in five or ten years. You’ll end up being a drag on this system unless someone can figure out how to freeze your salary after you hit thirty-five or forty–and someone might just do that.

So–are you in?

As he rightfully points out, things haven’t actually gotten that bad, but the rhetoric we hear about public school teachers keeps moving farther and farther in that direction (including people who argue that the best way to fix the school system is to reduce teacher salaries and benefits because it’s just a short term job anyway).

That said, I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of the role of Teach for America (generally referred to as TFA or TfA):

Some might argue that Teach for America (TFA) is making teaching cool again, but I’m not sure that all or even most teachers’ stock will rise as a result. The TFA brand is certainly strong, but it’s not clear that most teachers can bathe in the reflected light of their TFA colleagues. Too often, pundits use TFA teachers as a foil for all other teachers. If you’re not entering the profession through the TFA door, your status may suffer.

TfA is an extremely competitive and prestigious two-year program, mainly for recent college grads. As a participant, you teach in a low-income school for two years and get a teaching license (and usually master’s degree, I think) in the process. Many participants leave the teaching profession after their two years are up (or before, lots of participants never finish). TfA reports that 34% of alumni teach at their assigned schools for a third year, though they don’t report how many stay longer than that, and that 63% stay in the field of education in some capacity. I worry that TfA is helping to reinforce the ideas that teaching is something you can do successfully with essentially no training (at least if you graduated from a sufficiently prestigious college and you’re teaching low income students) and that teaching is a short-term stop on the way to a bigger and better career.  TfA may do great things for its participants, and might (or might not) have a positive impact on students taught by TfA teachers, but I’m not convinced it’s doing great things for the teaching profession.

[I should add that I actually do support alternative paths to teacher certification. There are a great many people out there who are natural teachers and whose life experience makes them valuable additions to schools’ faculties, and these people should be able to teach without having to spend several years (possible mid-career) going back to school. That said, I worry when a program like TfA becomes the model for how the teaching profession should work.]

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