Teach for America is not a ‘noble’ choice

Teacher turnover is an increasing problem across Wisconsin, creating instability for students in their neighborhood public schools. WEAC advocates for professional respect, support and resources for educators to attract and keep them in our schools.

Read what La Crosse teacher John Havlicek, president of his local education association, had to say at the suggestion that Teach for America is a valid option for our students.

Recently the Tribune published a column by syndicated columnist Leanna Landsmann, in response to a reader’s question about whether her college senior daughter should do a two-year stint for TFA before starting her “real career”. Ms. Landsmann’s response could not have been worse.

In her first paragraph, she asserts that teaching is a “great foundation” for other careers. No, it isn’t. Teaching is a highly complex, demanding profession that stands on its own as one of the most challenging, most rewarding, and most important fields one could name. It is not a stepping-stone toward something else, although it becomes clear later in the column that Ms. Landsmann clearly has that opinion of teachers and teaching. Becoming a master teacher takes years of honing one’s craft, not two years and then leaving for greener pastures.

Later, she states that many TFA alumni now have leadership positions in the education field. She is correct on that point, but she ignores how unfortunate that is. She brings up the example of Mr. Perez. After his two years as a TFA, he then became the education advisor to Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, TX. Rather than lament how unqualified someone with no education degree and only two years experience is to be the education advisor to the mayor of a major US city (all due respect to Mr. Perez), she states that this is an admirable career path. Why? Can you imagine someone with no qualifications being named the mayor’s economic development advisor? Would a summer course in marketing and then two years as an entry level office worker be sufficient qualification?

Further, she encourages a young accountant who wants to teach for a couple years, because she likes tutoring, and wants to use “data to help narrow the opportunity gap.” Tutoring is like teaching in the same way that Guitar Hero is like what Eddie Van Halen does. Also, we don’t need “data” to “narrow the opportunity gap”. We need proper funding for all public schools, instead of the regressive funding formula employed by pretty much every state in our country: schools in wealthy districts get more, while state aid decreases across the country, so that schools in poor communities get less.

Teach for America is the educational version of “voluntourism”, and TFA is making lots of people rich selling it. In “voluntourism”, people take a vacation of sorts and combine it with some kind of service. On the surface, it sounds good, but it frequently causes more problems than it solves, and it makes many situations worse. Often, an idealist with great intentions goes on vacation, spends a few days playing with kids in an orphanage, is shown around by a guide, and buys a few trinkets to take home. Although the sentiment is good, the voluntourist often has no idea of local customs, insults the locals by assuming they need his/her charity, in fact deprives the organization of needed funding because more money is spent on the “tourism” part, and departs without having made any significant improvements. Then, this person returns home and updates his/her Facebook status with pictures of the kids. Has this person really helped those kids?

For comparison, this would be like traveling to a developing nation, visiting some kind of rural development project, helping out for a week, and then coming back and applying for a job in the State Department. For some reason, I just can’t imagine that application getting a lot of attention: “I want to be Assistant Secretary of State to Mr. Kerry and I think I am qualified because I bought a hand-made bracelet in Bolivia and I think clean water is important.”

In the world of education, TFA does exactly this. College graduates, not teachers, get five weeks of training (as if that is somehow equivalent to my Bachelor’s Degree, my Master’s Degree, and my 30 credits beyond a Master’s Degree, and my 20 years of experience) and then are sent into very tough districts to work with challenging students who have needs that, in all likelihood, this college graduate has never experienced, or even considered, and will probably never understand.

As if this were not bad enough, this unqualified non-teacher is then often connected through the TFA organization to people who are at the policy-making level. So, the unqualified non-teacher is then put in a position to make decisions about teachers and education. Let’s be frank: TFA is not in the business of preparing people to teach. It is in the business of getting people into positions of making decisions. And, frequently, those decisions involve privatizing public education. Those decisions involve test, test, and more test, thus enriching standardized test writers. Those decisions often involve helping other people make profits off our children.

Finally, Ms. Landsmann equates teaching to “service to the country” as if it were a volunteer opportunity like Peace Corp or perhaps volunteering for the Red Cross. It is not. It is an estimable profession that should never, never be reduced to a five week training course and a drive through career. Ms. Landsmann even goes so far as to include the link to apply for TFA. This makes me wonder: Has Ms. Landsmann ever taught in a public school?

John Havlicek

President of the La Crosse Education Association