Some Thoughts on Teaching (for Two Years)

We had the most amazing premiere weekend at our first festival-- and I will share details and photos soon-- but today I'm thinking about a question I am often asked: for how many years did I teach?

Maybe the question is asked out of curiosity, but more and more often it feels like the questioner is trying to catch me on something; when I say I taught for two years in South Central, I get "Oh. Two years." Then, the knowing nod.

I was in Teach for America's charter corps, which means I signed up to teach for two years. (It also means I was part of the original group that had no clue if the program would be good for our resumes or not, nor did we care, or at least I didn't. I wanted to give two years of my life to helping others before I went to grad school or jumped into journalism, my original plan). 

Teach for America (TFA) was modeled after the Peace Corps. But I doubt anyone has ever asked an expert on, say, water scarcity issues or malaria control how long they were actually on the ground helping to build wells or treat malaria victims...or if they do ask, I doubt they would scoff at the answer "two years" (which is also the commitment required of the Peace Corps).

But in the education reform arena, critics often point to the fact that many TFA members do not teach beyond the two year commitment as if they've unearthed some big secret or pretense.

The irony is that I would likely be teaching today if the system wasn't so utterly dysfunctional and unfair towards children like the ones I taught. I love to teach. I'm great with kids. I'm organized and creative. My grandmother (whose DNA I definitely inherited) was a teacher, including in Baltimore public schools. But I learned enough in two years to believe that my efforts could have more of an impact outside of the classroom if I used my voice to fight for those kids who are being systematically denied a decent education. And so that's what I (and a lot of other former TFA teachers) do.

I think part of the reason why two years of teaching in under-resourced schools is allowed to be portrayed as a negative is because, today, the whole profession of teaching is structured around longevity, not ability nor performance. You are not paid well for twenty or thirty or forty years, but then, if you stick it out until retirement, you receive a pretty remarkable pension and benefits starting at the age of 58-60. And a lot of people do stick with it even once they're burned out: they've come this far, better to get through a few more years and retire. It's a rational decision based on the system as it is structured today.

But if teachers aren't enjoying the work, or are just showing up to get a paycheck, of course this has a horribly negative impact on the students that are dependent on them for learning. And it was beyond clear that I brought higher expectations and more energy to the job than many of the other teachers in the school where I taught.

How clear? One teacher in my school turned on a tiny black and white tv every day and had the 6th-grade students watch Reading Rainbow while she slept. Another showed up several hours late every day, if at all. A third forced a 4th-grade girl to put a (full) trashcan over her head and stand in the corner. Then he dragged her down two flights of stairs. (He was never fired but transferred to a school with "older kids.") This is just a sample of what happens every day in schools serving low-income, minority students.

Was I as good as I could have been had I taught for three more years? Probably not. Would I have been a lot better thirty years later? Research suggests that, actually, no. After a few years a teacher's effectiveness plateaus. 

I wasn't the best teacher at my school, but I was good. And because of that experience, I have committed the rest of my career to improving our education system.

Next question? 


Posted on November 14, 2011 .