Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 13 2012

#46: Levelling the charge of ageism

“Everyone here is so young and dynamic!”

This was something I overheard at Institute last year, and it was definitely a declaration of pleasant surprise.  For each corps which is predominantly early 20-somethings, you go through most of your schooling in environments run by…old people.  Not old people, but people indeterminately older than you.  Then you get to Institute, and it’s run by people in their mid and late 20′s.  Finally, you can bust out Facebook jokes or old Nickelodeon references in a professional environment and most people are gonna get it!  THIS IS THE DREAM.

Then you notice the TFA staff as a whole is young, too.  And you, welling with TFA pride, come to admire these plucky, energetic go-getters and you, too, may work in these environs once your two years of teaching are up.  After those two years, you’ll finally have the experience necessary to tell a bunch of newbies the ins and outs of teaching like a pro(1).

To spare you any additional glibness, the longer I teach the more I question the wisdom of staffing teacher support positions overwhelmingly with young, two-years-and-done TFA alumni.  My first year of teaching was completed with a non-rigorous alternative teacher certification program, but my advisor was a veteran teacher of  30 years experience and about a dozen more as an advisor.  When she visited my classrooms, she had seen it all before and guided me with tangible points for improvement.  My growth as a teacher and as a behavior manager would not have been possible without her steadying hand.  By the end of the year, I was far removed from any claim to expertise (as I remain to this day).  But I had the confidence and a set of skills that would help me swim and not sink in the face of similar challenges in the future.

The bevy of 20-somethings that constitute the bulk of TFA’s MTLD’s and CMA’s were still mastering their craft when they stopped teaching.  To get to their positions, they have certainly demonstrated above-average if not exceptional skills considering their inexperience, but their limited time in the classroom means something to me.  It means their growth was stunted.  They haven’t put in the reps for those teacher skills to crystallize into muscle memory.  They dove into curricula for two years, perhaps the same one both years.  They haven’t been at one school long enough to see how it evolves, what needs might arise or be fulfilled as the years pass.  Some of them may have been department chairs, but for how long?  Were they around long enough to be held accountable for (or bask in the glory of) the long-term ramifications of their decisions?

This is something that troubles me.  What does it say about TFA’s support model from Institute onwards that the majority of the TFA staff you work with directly will be people more or less young adults like you who did TFA too?  Are older veteran teachers not valued by the organization?  Are their experiences less desirable and subsequently their services less sought after?

And as I’ve talked about on this blog before, why do corps members need to be recruited so extensively from the ranks of recent college grads?  There are a lot of talented middle-aged Americans with professional experience looking for work.  Why is there not more effort and human-power going towards finding them teaching placements?

Perhaps the older you get, the more likely you will be called by family commitments and less willing to put in 60+hours a week.  Perhaps TFA is just looking for the best people for a job which demands a lot of time and energy.  But this is troubling, too, for it sends a message to corps members about what the teaching profession requires in order to succeed.   It says that veteran teachers who have to balance work and home lives are compromised and can’t deliver what their students really need because they have other commitments.  It devalues the contributions of older teachers who have to draw those lines in the sand and say “There is no way in hell I am staying past 4:30, I need to get dinner on the table.”

This is where I level a charge of ageism on TFA.  Their disregard for older professionals is self-evident by their staff hiring practices, as well as applicant and recruitment preferences(2).  I think TFA could do a much better job of making the needed long-lasting connections if they represent the wider set of experiences and identities that exist in our schools and in the communities we serve at large.  I feel this work is undermined when our organization is almost exclusively represented by a single generation of Americans.



(1) Note to veteran teachers: this is the part of our program where I loop some canned laughter to remind you this is supposed to be funny and not some perverse and horrifying joke of a reality.

(2) I.e., TFA’s omnipresence at college campuses.

2 Responses

  1. Cal

    Ageism isn’t just TFA. Second career teachers are always the last to be hired, particularly since the slowdown. It’s a well-known secret. So one reason TFA doesn’t get second career people is because they’d have trouble getting schools to hire them.

  2. G

    Thanks for this post…seriously!

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