Teaching Profession Opinion

20-somethings and TFA

By Sara Mead — August 23, 2010 4 min read
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I can’t help finding the juxtaposition of this weekend’s much-hyped NYT Magazine piece on “What’s the Matter with 20-somethings?” and today’s big WaPo article on Teach for American a fascinating one.

On the one hand, NYT writer Robin Marantz Henig’s digs aside*, the tremendous appeal and growth of TFA seem to disprove the conventional wisdom that today’s recent college grads are postponing and even fleeing taking on adult responsibilities. As the WaPo story illustrates, joining TFA is more like rushing headlong into adulthood and adult responsibilities. Like most other first-year teachers, TFA corps members are expected to start out as full-fledged adult professionals, taking full leadership of their own classrooms and responsibility for the educational progress of a classroom of students (a personal responsibility for results that TFA selects for and aggressively reenforces in its recruits). Not to mention that when you have to be at work at 7:30 and interact with 30 kids all day, going out all night and coming in hung over is not really an option. While their peers in other fields may be getting coffee, providing administrative assistance, and occasionally getting to tag along to meetings with their bosses, new teachers are from day one expected to fulfill many of the same job responsibilities as 30-year veterans. In a market place where recent liberal arts grads typically need to clock time in fairly menial assistant-ships and entry level gigs in order to get a crack at more substantive jobs in fields like journalism, politics, or the nonprofit sector, it’s easy to see the appeal of Teach for America as an alternative post-college pathway. Not to mention that the $49,000 salary WaPo reports for first-year TFA-ers is significantly more than a lot of recent college grads in D.C. make.

On the flip side, if it really is true that young people in their late teens and 20s are going through a phase of “emerging adulthood” characterized by inquiry and trying to define one’s self, that also helps explain part of the appeal of Teach for America. The traditional route to becoming a teacher in this country--and the traditional construction of teaching as a profession--expects young people to commit to teaching as a career around age 18 or 19, if not before, to devote 4-6 years of college to preparation, and then to continue in this profession for the rest of their adult lives. That vision of professionalism and how people enter the profession seems horribly out of step with the form of “emerging adulthood” the NYT article describes. And programs like Teach for America that provide an option for young people to pursue teaching and find out if they’re good at it and if it provides a compelling answer to the question of “what will I do with my life?” before making a long-term commitment make a lot of sense--particularly since the evidence doesn’t indicate that new teachers going through this route have a negative impact on students when compared to those from more traditional routes.

*Henig writes, “The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.” What’s up with the inclusion of Teach for America here, and the implication that TFA teaching jobs are somehow not real jobs? A lot of people who dabble in social commentary seem to be under the false impression that TFA corps members are some kind of volunteers. They’re not. They’re full-fledged classroom teachers just like other teachers in the schools where they work; they have the same responsibilities; they are paid the same. And they can, if they choose, make long-term careers in teaching--as many do! People who imply that TFA jobs are not real jobs are basically saying that teaching itself is not a real job, with which about 3.5 million teachers nationally would probably beg to differ.

On a different note: I also found the juxtaposition of NYT Magazine’s big 20-something piece with yet another article on redshirting (can the NYT’s affluent parent readers ever tire of this topic? apparently not!) an interesting one. Doesn’t anyone else see the connection between parents pushing off children’s entry to kindergarten and grown-up redshirtees’ delayed completion of their schooling and entry into adulthood and employment? (see here for my take on redshirting debates.)

UPDATE: Per all this, Sherman Dorn raises an excellent point: Henig’s analysis is constrained by a narrow historical view that uses the post-World War II babyboom years as a benchmark, and ignores the broader historical context. Unfortunately, this type of historical myopia is a common problem in social policy writing and debate, particularly on issues related to gender, marriage, and childrearing, and it certainly colors the current debate about gender differences in educaitonal outcomes.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.