I know I think about it a lot, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted about this before: my beef with Teach for America and Peace Corps. I have a variety of friends who’ve done them/are doing them, and I certainly considered it for a while. But eventually I realized that I would never accomplish what really needs to be accomplished by doing either of them.
I’ll start with the Peace Corps. It’s partly why I went to Egypt. I was sure I wanted to work in the Middle East, and I wanted to start with the Coptic Christians who literally live in garbage, the “Zabaleen” (and yes, I’m using the word “literally” correctly in this case). While the Coptic Christians’ cause has gained more spotlight these days, I saw the people in this community acting for their own good. I eventually saw that, by volunteering in this community, I was hurting them because I asked for cab fare to go to and from Moqattam. Don’t get me wrong: I loved volunteering there, and I learned so much about the community, and I love sharing what I know with others, but ultimately it was wrong for me to ask to be paid to sit in a nursery with kids for a few hours every Friday.
I also studied human rights law and wrote a research paper about how the media affected Female Genital Mutilation legislation in Egypt. Before leaving for Cairo, FGM had been “my issue” (so to speak) since high school. If you don’t know anything about it, I suggest you take 5 minutes to read the quick summary at the top of the page on Wikipedia. I had always thought that opposition to FGM came from Western culture, and that it wasn’t entirely fair for us to tell cultures what they can and cannot do. All we can do is educate them and hope they make a healthy decision. But in my research, I found that there was an active coalition formed by Egyptian women to fight FGM and to change the minds of their own people. Why? Because regardless of culture, cutting up female genitalia to prevent them from enjoying sex is wrong. So who the fuck am I to tell another culture how to approach an issue that doesn’t really exist in my culture?
Amongst the many things I learned not only about human rights but also about myself was this: I have no reason to go half-way around the world when there are enough problems in my own communities. That was my realization about the Peace Corps. I realized I don’t want to go through another organization that will assign me to a country to do something teach people a skill that people in their own country could probably teach as well.
Which brings me to a slight tangent about teaching English in other countries. That was the next thing I considered after leaving Egypt: I could teach English in another country (preferably Cambodia or Vietnam). I can speak English pretty well, so I can probably teach it, right? Wrong. Through a program, I could take a crash course on how to teach English, stay in that country for a few months, get paid, and then be on my merry way, but why? I’m not a teacher.
Which brings me now to Teach for America. From what I gather, urban/lower income education suffers partly because young, idealistic, inexperienced teachers want to work in these districts, and then after a couple years, they’re burnt out and move on. Doesn’t TFA perpetuate this behavior? It offers recent college grads to teach in low income area schools for a couple years, so that they can earn some money and take time to apply to graduate school. There’s a chance that people who participate in Teach for America intend to be teachers, but from what I’ve gathered about the people I know, very few of them plan to be teachers in the long run.
My second beef, which is a point a friend of mine made to me, is that the system is already a mess, so how can TFA participants possibly improve it? If you’re teaching Algebra II, and your students don’t understand basic fractions, what are you supposed to do? Are you going to flunk your students to make sure they catch up to the speed they should be at? Or are you going to play into the system that the rest of the school has set up and help them as much as you can, but pass them in the end? Are you strong enough to tell your students that they aren’t smart enough to pass your class and need to work harder?
I remember hearing that students in my old school district graduated, went to public universities, but then a decent percentage had to drop out and attend community college in order to catch up to the proper math and reading levels. Granted, this was just talk as I was growing up, but are you going to tell me I’m wrong? Because a student can take the high school exit exam at least 8 times before graduating. 8 fucking times to take a high school exit exam that supposedly a sophomore in high school can pass. And if the student repeatedly passes, there are still other options for the student to succeed. I can go into how much of a giant, sand-filled vagina the California state government is, but that’s for another time.
My point about TFA is this: if you’re going to invest time in teaching, then be a teacher. If you want to dick around for a couple years before going to graduate school, then get a job or an internship related to your field. I will give you a great example while also praising a good friend of mine. My friend graduated with a degree in psychology, which we all know is one of the top 5 majors of college students these days. She found a job as a teacher’s assistant at a school back in the Bay Area. She pays to attend classes on new teaching skills. (From what I understand, she pays out of pocket – the school doesn’t pay for it.) This is her second year teaching. She is saving money to go to graduate school to study children’s psychology, and intends to continue teaching.
My friend isn’t dicking around. She teaches now and intends to go to graduate school because in the long run, she wants to be a teacher. I mean, really, it’s not just that she wants to be a teacher, she is a teacher. She doesn’t follow any sort of cultish methodology, or intend to study anything unrelated to teaching. Teaching should be taken seriously, and not as a past-time for 20-somethings. (And as a 20-something, I hate feeling like my generation doesn’t work hard enough to make the world a better place.)
In the big picture, any sort of work that involves the betterment of humanity should always be taken seriously. If you want to teach, then be a teacher. If you want to make the world a better place, start small – you don’t need to go half-way around the world.