Reboot Illinois recently published an article entitled, “Teach For America and AmeriCorps: Make Illinois Great Through Service”, in which co-authors Josh Anderson and Brandon Bodor, Executive Directors of Teach For America (TFA) and Serve Illinois respectively, made a compelling, and valid, case for supporting organizations that provide opportunities for Illinoisans to “give back to their communities” through volunteering and “service work.”
In it, they mention a recent report by the Corporation for National & Community Service, “Volunteering and Civic Life in America”, that notes that 2.73 million Illinoisans volunteered nearly 286 million total hours in 2012 – a contribution valued at $6.6 billion. Anderson and Bodor tell us that this volunteer activity only represents 27% of the state’s potential volunteers, and they ask us to imagine the benefits to the state if 100% of residents made a contribution.
Anderson and Bodor provide Teach For America, the often lauded, yet controversial, teacher recruitment and training program as an organization that provides Illinoisans a chance to support local communities. Now, while I completely agree that engaging more Illinois residents in volunteer and service work would be great for Illinois (there are hundreds of non-profit organizations all across the state working with shoe-string budgets that could use the help), I want to make clear that teaching is a highly skilled profession. It is not a temporary, volunteer opportunity.
Like law and medicine, teaching requires specialized, graduate school training and state certified credentials. Teaching is not “service work” in the sense of volunteering. By portraying teaching as a volunteer opportunity that anyone can do to “give back to the community”, like building a playground or cleaning up a vacant lot, it devalues the profession. Unfortunately, though full of well-intentioned people, Teach For America contributes to this devaluing.
Briefly, Teach For America recruits top students from top universities and young professionals all across the country to commit to teaching in low-income communities for a minimum of two years. A huge component of the recruitment pitch is the “give back” notion. The concept sounded so fantastic to me that I applied to the program, and participated in it, from 2011-2013.
Through my experience, however, I came to the realization that teaching is extremely difficult, and if we want a world-class teaching force in Illinois’ schools, we need to attract dedicated people who are called to make this their career, not a two-year dalliance to assuage a need to “give back”. Though many Teach For America recruits do continue teaching past their two-year commitment, studies show that over 70% of Teach For America recruits quit teaching within five years (the national average is 50%).
In a recent Huffington Post article, “Why Teaching Needs to Be a Career, Not Just a Career Starter”, Nicole Gillespie, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, explains:
True, some teachers are shooting stars, combining natural talent with youthful energy to provide a few years of dynamic and compelling classroom instruction. Even among the most ambitious Ivy-League 20-somethings, though, such stars are relatively rare. So recruiting those people, and, once they burn out and move on, recruiting more of them, won’t work to build stronger schools. What will is building a stable core of highly effective teachers who will stay put, provide stability to the school and the students, create and sustain a culture of high expectations and success, cultivate long-term relationships in the community, and provide younger colleagues with mentoring and advice grounded in years of experience.
Additionally, beyond promoting the myth that successful teaching is so easy that novice teachers can do it with just some brains and grit, Teach For America also contributes to the devaluing of the teaching profession through its partnerships with privately managed charter schools. In a recent article that I wrote that was reprinted in Salon.com, I describe how Teach For America provides charter schools a continuous supply of novice teachers who are mandated to accept salaries 30% lower than the first year salary of a Chicago Teacher Union teacher. I think this begs the question, how are we to attract intelligent, dedicated people to the career of teaching when organizations like Teach For America are helping the expanding charter school sector to actually drive down teacher salaries?
Teach For America might be a great way to deliver full-time teachers in areas of the country that have a teacher shortage, but in cities like Chicago that have plenty of qualified teachers already, Teach For America is not necessary. Furthermore, Finland, the country that is routinely cited as having the best teaching force, has done so with policies that not only attract top university students, but also retains them as career teachers. In fact, teaching is Finland’s “most respected” profession, and primary school teaching is the most sought-after career. Teaching will never become Illinois’ most respected profession, nor will it attract top university students to make it their career, if we keep conflating it with temporary, volunteer “service work”.
Chad Sommer was a 2011 Teach For America corps member, and taught 4th grade for two years at Chicago’s Rudyard Kipling Elementary School in Chicago’s Washington Heights community.