Education Opinion

Merit Badge

By Nancy Flanagan — January 19, 2010 2 min read

This blog is neither rant nor reverence for Teach for America. Plenty of that already--the TFA concept seems to be a magnet for commentary, from the sycophantic to the righteously indignant. There are hordes of people whose Google alerts are set for “Teach for America"--and a glut of blogs written by TFA corps members, who seem to be a reflective, navel-gazing lot, unafraid to jump confidently into high-level education policy discourse, a place where garden-variety teachers fear to tread.

Nor will this blog ruminate on core policy issues around TFA: how to recruit and retain quality teachers, optimum preparation for the classroom--or how to build a visionary leadership class for educational change--although these are the critical and substantive heart of the TFA debate.

I have been trying to figure out what bothers me about John Merrow’s Taking Note blog introducing a seven-part series on PBS Newshour’s Learning Matters: “Teaching for America.” Merrow’s e-mail teaser: “If you care about Teach for America...”

Merrow strives to be, well, fair and balanced. Some TFA teachers in the series, shot in New Orleans, overcome huge hurdles of student mistrust, erratic attendance and rowdy classroom behaviors to experience some success (video clips describe passing the end-of-year tests as both goal and victory). Some corps members never really improve. Some leave--or are asked to leave. There are no miraculous turnaround scenes out of Freedom Writers, so far.

The featured teachers do get titles: The Idealist, The Go-Getter, The Pragmatist, The Perfectionist. The Veteran (the lone teacher who actually stayed into year three). The Victim of Circumstance (who didn’t get the support he needed, although he “looked good on paper”).

The most telling part of Merrow’s blog is when he shares his personal story. Health concerns kept him from fulfilling a Peace Corps assignment to teach English in East Africa, in 1964. He deftly portrays himself, a Dartmouth grad, working late and creating imaginative plans in his fallback two-year teaching stint outside New York City --including an observation that veteran teachers there seemed to be putting in the hours, with no passion for the kids. With this tale, Merrow declares that he was, in essence, a corps member. He grants himself distinction--plus the inherent dispositions to lead and make a difference.

I wondered how Learning Matters would label ordinary teachers--those who pursue teaching as a long-term career--spending their first year in tough districts: The Mediocre? The Uninspired? The Frustrated? The Complacent? The Doggedly Egalitarian?

Why we don’t perceive all novice teachers as potential go-getters, perfectionists, idealists, movers and shakers? Why have TFA teachers been conferred with automatic distinction--as well as the disposition (a word that must feel deeply ironic to NCATE) to relentlessly pursue equity in America?

Distinctions are necessary in order for humans to make sense of their social landscape, to guide us through the practices and institutions of our society. In a world without status, we are without a compass.

(Harvard lecturer Kitty Boles)

Does status and distinction matter? What would happen if all admissions to the teaching profession were structured as rigorously competitive leadership opportunities?

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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