Using Children as Career Capital: My Qualms With the Teach For America Model

Is it unethical for me to get “teaching experience” when I know my long-term, education-related career aspirations aren’t in teaching?

I’m pretty passionate about education. Working with children often puts me in a flow state. And in light of having just completed (survived?) the 22-year standard middle-class educational curriculum, I feel really motivated to “fix” education. I am motivated both by gratitude — I had incredible educational opportunities and many deserving others do not — and borderline-horror: higher education is broken, we need a ground-up redesign of the economics of education, and mental health issues across all ages are both rampant and ramping-up.

So, I’m strongly considering a career in education reform. And I believe in paying my dues. I know that young, idealistic Paul can’t fix education overnight. I know I have to earn my seat at the table. The problem is, I’m troubled by the common-sense way to get there.

Like many others, I grappled for a long time with the teaching question. I have done many teaching-like things in the past: tutoring, camp counseling, music lessons. I’ve enjoyed all of those activities; they have been extremely meaningful. As a kid, my teachers were some of my best mentors, role models, and heroes, and I admire them more and more as I learn to appreciate the many sacrifices they made for the sake of their students.

But after considering the teaching path for a while, I’m pretty squarely in the “no” camp. There are two overarching reasons, one good, one maybe not-so-good (but widespread).

The first reason is my ambition to contribute to systems change. Call it misguided, call it immature, but I feel a sense of needing to “do more” than teach. This isn’t to say that I think teachers have less value (see one of my favorite quotes below) but rather that the scope of influence is smaller. Both direct service and systems change are valuable and necessary efforts to tackle enduring issues such as education. I feel pulled in both directions, but aspire to greater impact. Who doesn’t.

“It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” — Dag Hammarskjold

The second, obvious reason is: I’m afraid of teaching. The lifestyle sacrifices. The long hours, low pay, under-appreciation, and lack of support. People who commit to a career in teaching are more noble than me, and deserve heaps of praise. But my justification of being scared away is: if I can make the teaching profession even marginally better valued by society, it will have been worth it. I feel the same about a lot of human services professions: nonprofits, social work, primary care, etc. It demoralizes me to see so many well-meaning people burnt out or turned away by the relative low social status, financial insecurity, and other demands of these paths (like me). I consider it a moral imperative to move the needle on this issue on an institutional, policy level. I believe that truly valuing such services in an economic and social way would be the moral apotheosis of the modern age. It would mean giving more than lip-service to our values on compassion, community, and equality.

I feel pretty good about these reasons. I’ve tasted enough of teaching to know what I’d be missing. At the same time, I think I’d enjoy it a lot in the short-term, and I think I’d do at least an average job. I’m enthusiastic, driven, and well-educated. Now, the only reason I’m considering teaching short-term is that it feels like a necessary credential for working in education reform. To best strategize behind-the-scenes, I feel like I have to first battle in the trenches. The reasoning is understandable — how can you fix a problem if you’re not intimately acquainted with it? I certainly am openly disdainful of the plethora of MONGOs out there being run by do-gooders who get involved with a cause just enough to justify their privilege and pat themselves on the back but have never walked a step in the shoes of the population they “serve.”

Would teaching then make me a hypocrite?

If I were to join an organization like TFA, catered to people like me who “don’t know what to do but want to make a difference” (and are mostly sure that teaching is not our future career), then here’s how the story goes: I dip my toes into the waters of a struggling school district, then wash my hands of the place and walk away with some good anecdotes about the great triumphs of disadvantaged children and my even greater personal sacrifice. Eerily similar to the MONGO-folks I so readily disparage.

Would that reduce the children I taught to fodder for career advancement? As means to an end? If my goal all along was to treat their education as an avenue for my advancement, rather than their own, is that unethical no matter how “good of a job” I can do? Or do we take a consequentialist bent and say that no matter what, if those kids got 1–2 years of instruction that nudged them towards educational success, that is a good thing. I genuinely don’t know. But I have qualms.

This is part of the big debate over the TFA model in general: how much does the longevity of the teacher-student relationship matter? Does a good teacher only ripen with age, or can an abundance of enthusiasm make up for a lack of experience? Would our education system be better served by diverting all the resources currently being funneled into programs like TFA into better supporting existing teachers?

I can’t settle that debate here. But I do know that if I, the teacher, were to walk into a classroom and view my purpose there as anything besides contributing to the flourishing of my students, I would consider myself a failure. I look up to my high school teachers because it felt as though they were there for me, not themselves. I felt the opposite about many of my college professors. Guess which environment made me feel more resilient? It’s not hard.

I know this is probably just making a big stink out of nothing. It’s certainly a bit of a stretch to compare my situation to most MONGO situations. Many people who start an NGO to do humanitarian work in Africa probably couldn’t name half of the countries on the continent, whereas I’ve spent the entirety of my life in the American education system. And it’s true that I could probably have a meaningful career in education reform without ever teaching for a year or two. And in the broad scope of potentially unethical behavior, what we’re talking about here is likely pretty innocuous. But I still think it’s deserving of scrutiny. These are pivotal, formative years of my life — career experimentation during these years is both natural and good, but a line must be drawn before treating other human beings as ingredients for those experiments.

Making small value concessions now in the name of a “future greater good” is a slippery slope. I’m afraid it only leads to a life of accumulated compromises and eroded values, with that greater good always dancing on the horizon.