Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 13 2012

#45: Service

Lately, when I hear TFA described by anyone not already involved in it, the phrase “national service organization” leads the description.  I’ve been unsure how to word it myself.  Most of the time, I’ve said something to the effect of “It’s this thing where mostly recent college grads get placed in urban and rural schools for two years.”

I think of my inelegant version as more accurate and the TFA version as more aspirational.  But I began to see a possible philosophical mutation TFA can take in the coming years when it has grown weary of making scabs of their corps members and they actually want to make a positive impact(1).

I don’t meant to discount the many great projects and initiatives spearheaded by corps members already, but I have a difficult time looking at being a corps member in itself as “service.”  I feel this line of reasoning is what leads the uninitiated to assume TFA teachers are volunteering or at least are making huge sacrifices.  We aren’t doing either of those things.  Teaching is a wonderful career, and I do feel that I make a difference in my work, but I don’t feel I am doing much in the way of service outside of just doing my job for which I am compensated (sorta, see note 2) fairly.

The notion that TFA teachers specifically are net service-providers as opposed to net service-receivers is also complicated by the additional funds allocated for our training and support(3), not to mention the Americorps award given to each of us each of the two years we are corps members(4).

If I am a prospective district listening to a TFA sales pitch about taking on corps members to fill future vacancies, I would want some assurances that the additional monies I’m investing to hire TFA teachers as opposed to teachers in the community are going to do something more for my district than hopefully maybe might could make them screw up less in their first year and then hopefully maybe might could want to stay after their second year.

And this is where I think a pivot needs to happen.  I think Teach for America should slowly get out of the new teacher game and get into the service game. Right now, because of the additional monies diverted to our development, most corps members are net service-receivers and not net service-providers(5).

Our mission to provide a more equitable education is confounded by the myriad ill effects of poverty.  The current model is parachuting mostly white, mostly non-native teaching novices into low-income communities and requiring two years of teaching.  We then give thousands of dollars of resources, invaluable prestige, and access to the channels of power in government, the private sector, and media that most regular teachers never get.  This is an inherently elitist, top-down model of change, quite contrary to the images we see of thousands of fresh-faced corps members down in the trenches.  This model requires the belief that real change will come when the elite have experienced teaching in low-income schools and will change domestic policy to better serve those communities they once taught.  So far, the record suggests that TFA alumni who do get to those lofty positions are mostly interested in changing policy to implement more test score-based accountability measures at the burden of educators rather than address poverty(6).

I would like to suggest an alternative.  I think it’s possible for TFA to recruit community-based teachers to undergo training in community leadership and leverage their intimate knowledge of their neighborhoods to address their needs.  I can imagine the thousands of dollars we invest in total novices with little to no prior knowledge of their region to instead go towards developing community leaders from the bottom up.  Applicants with an interest in addressing food scarcity and nutrition or in delaying young women’s first pregnancies until adulthood or in making college more affordable or whatever could be equipped with the tools and access to make those changes while they continue to teach or many years afterwards as second careers.  TFA’s primary role would be to serve as community-based service coordinators and their work would attract attention to the mountains of concerns facing our kids as they grow up and are educated.

When I think about service in the context of our armed forces, faith groups, or simple freelance volunteers, the purpose of service is to provide a need that is not being fulfilled already.  We can serve the world through our professional work, certainly, but the type of service I’m thinking of suggests a measure of selflessness.  In the absence of a teacher shortage, TFA no longer provides a service in this sense.  What they provide is an alternative.  An alternative to unionized teachers, an alternative to the typically less glamorous career teachers who are just trying to do their jobs well in the face of seemingly endless circumstantial challenges and increasingly hostile pressure from the current “reform”-minded policy regime.  If service is what we seek to provide, TFA should consider a shift to empower those in  communities already who are in the most immediate position to advocate for our kids.



(1) Burn.

(2) I earn a living which helps support my family, though teachers are not remunerated in the way that similarly-educated professionals are in other industries.  More an observation than a complaint, though if you wanna toss a soon-to-be-new-dad some dollars maybe?

(3) My understanding is that this is around $20,000 per year per corps member.  Correct me if I am mistaken.

(4) Varies, but valued at $5,500 for the 2011-12 school year.

(5) I certainly include myself in this group.  That is to say, above and beyond one’s contractual professional duties, what kinds of additional services am I providing?  I serve as UIL Coordinator and debate coach, and the long-term effects of that could be big or negligible; it’s difficult to quantify.  Even then, I am compensated for my time.

(6) See: Rhee, Mike Johnston, et al.  Read more here.

3 Responses

  1. Kate

    I’ve always wondered about where this “service organization” title came from. My impression was that it stemmed from the idea that bright college grads taking merely a teacher’s salary meant that they were doing a *service* as opposed to starting a career/occupation like most first year teachers.

  2. For a national service organization that is more true to concept, you should check out Cityyear.org. That’s not to say that TFA is without merit of course:

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