Education Opinion

Dear Abby...

By Nancy Flanagan — April 09, 2012 3 min read

So--I’m out for breakfast on a sunny Saturday morning, reading the paper while waiting for my omelet to arrive. In the Body & Soul section, Dear Abby is providing sensible, mainstream advice for regular Americans, as she does every Saturday in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Letter #1) A teenager discovers that her father is having “sexually explicit conversations” online--and knows this has been going on for years. She is crushed, feels that he’s betrayed her mother and her siblings--and thinks her father cares more about his fantasy life than his real family. She also thinks she should talk to someone about this, but isn’t sure how to do it without raising her parents’ suspicions. She is “Conflicted in New York.”

So Abby sends her to the school counselor, who will help this poor kid sort out her options.

My first thought was that Abby is making the assumption that there actually is a counselor in Conflicted’s school, and that the counselor could schedule the time necessary to help with a delicate, multi-layered family issue that, on the face of it, has little to do with education. Many school counselors are buried under the master schedule, college applications, special education rules, data management and coordinating standardized testing--and in some states, the ratio of kids to school counselors is now 1000 to one.

Not a lot of time for sensitive problem-solving. Especially if the issue involves a weasel Dad who could go after a school counselor for nothing more than providing the name of a good therapist and the means to pay for treatment, while protecting the student’s confidentiality.

Let me pause here and note that the overwhelming majority of school counselors went into counseling because they like kids and want to help them solve their problems, so they can be successful in school. I don’t know a single counselor who hasn’t stuck his/her neck out occasionally to help a student with a touchy problem, like this one. Good counselors are also thoroughly familiar with the ethical rules for these situations, and do what they can.

My point is that Americans reflexively expect schools to step up to do everything from checking students’ vision and spinal alignment to reporting suspected familial abuse. The list of things that schools are responsible for hasn’t stopped growing--nor has the tendency for citizens to blame schools for sticking their noses into family business rather than dispensing knowledge.

Letter #2) “Gypsy Soul” is a college student nearing completion of a double major in English and education. Gypsy is having second thoughts about careers--welcome to the very large club of pre-graduate doubters, Gypsy--and is now thinking about a more “adventurous” career choice. Gypsy wants passion! And discovery! And evidently doesn’t think the logical career path here--teaching English--provides those elements.

Abby’s advice: Join Teach for America!

Actually, Abby also makes two other worthy suggestions--teaching in a foreign school or the Peace Corps. But think about the structure of Abby’s answer: Yeah, teaching school is a boring career. But you could spice it up by turning it into a grand adventure or missionary work.

Like applying for Teach for America. Which Abby calls “thinking out of the box.”

Abby evidently doesn’t know about the fierce competition to get a coveted TFA slot, nor the organization’s pyramid structure of two-years-and-out “corps members” who go to work for TFA, recruiting the most desirable candidates at the most prestigious colleges. The current acceptance rate into Teach for America hovers around ten percent.

Furthermore, Gypsy Soul is already in an undergraduate education program. TFA does accept applications from actual trained teachers--but why would a carefully prepared educator pursue the TFA short-termer path? If Gypsy Soul wants to teach in a challenging district, there are plenty of them that need teachers, all across America. No need to spend five weeks in “summer institute” when you’ve already done an internship in a real classroom.

OK. I know this is Dear Abby, advice-giver to the masses, not someone who’s spent most of her life in public schools, like the Teacher in a Strange Land. But Abby represents mainstream thinking, and her advice made me queasy.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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