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When Teaching is Service

/ Published September 12, 2013

This summer, thousands of our best and brightest college graduates were trained with Teach for America for short-term teaching assignments in low-income communities. Teaching as temporary service work has a long history in this nation. Now, and for more than a century, such a mindset has allowed our culture to avoid confronting the real, ongoing problems with the profession—including low pay and poor working conditions—and to perpetuate the poverty and inequality in our educational system. It’s a cynical strategy and, arguably, an immoral one.

To truly restore this broken system, teaching must instead be seen as a serious profession that affords a kind of prestige not based on asceticism, sacrifice and service, but on talent, expertise and skill.

The idea of teaching as service work started with the feminization of the field, a shift that accompanied the rise of the common schools in the early 1800s and then quickly became endemic. As communities confronted massive teacher shortages, reformers launched a vigorous campaign to sell the idea of the female teacher: here, they argued, was a steady stream of cheap labor. Women could enter the profession before marriage, stay for several years and then leave when they found a husband. Unlike male teachers, women were considered to be modest, self-sacrificing and naturally subordinate. Their piety and self-abnegation would serve a “Christian nation” in ways that could only be healthful to the moral development of children. The campaign was an extraordinary success: At the start of the 19th century, roughly one in ten teachers was a woman; by the first decade of the 20th century, nearly nine in 10 were women. Similarly, 18th-century descriptions of the teaching profession did not refer to it as a “calling,” but by the 19th century that idea became pervasive in popular magazines, newspapers and novels.

Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Today, this campaign to identify teaching with service has found a new and thriving home in the form of programs like Teach for America. Using targeted public relations strategies and a campaign that taps into the idealism of young people, TFA has convinced many that a Peace Corps approach is the solution to America’s public school problems. As in the 19th century, this strategy targets a cohort of cheap labor and then convinces struggling communities of the inherent superiority of recent graduates.

For potential recruits, Teach for America has engrafted onto the profession two key characteristics of “prestige” work: difficult entry and the opportunity for résumé building. Make the job hard to get, and then guarantee that it will serve as a launching pad to something better. Supporters brag that Teach for America is “harder to get into than Harvard,” making it all the more enticing to ambitious, talented students.

The problem is that Teach for America has erected this alternative image of teaching at the expense of the profession itself. Many critics have noted that the high-needs students served by the organization are those who most need veteran teachers. Teach for America’s goal is not to enlist career-professionals but to return teaching once again to the status of a way-station, this time not for women awaiting marriage but for high achieving and ambitious scholars.

Teach for America argues that its graduates, moving on to other professions, will carry their activism into philanthropy or enlightened policy work; that these rising “captains of industry” will in turn appreciate the real value of teachers and work to support the schools. It seems just as likely that a smart young person’s stint in Teach for America will simply scare her away from enrolling her own children in public schools—or worse, that she will come to see teaching as sacrifice of a sort that does not suit her own goals and temperament. That kind of thinking perpetuates the type of rationale for defeating school funding referendums: “If they don’t like the pay and conditions, then they should just get out of the field.”

Just as the new corps of Teach for America educators was being trained this summer, a group of the program’s alumni and critics were holding a summit in an effort to mobilize against the organization. Yet more work is needed to truly rehabilitate the teaching profession. We need to dismantle the insistent expectation that teaching is service, and replace it with the notion that teaching is intellectual work of the most creative and appealing sort, that it is a lifelong profession that affords ongoing pleasure in learning and exploring new ideas.

As William James famously asserted, “Faith in a fact can help create the fact.” In the 1970s, a massive campaign to end litter and pollution transformed people’s behavior and their perception of the planet. In the 1980s, a similar campaign to end smoking changed the habits and health of Americans. Now we need a sea change surrounding our perceptions of teaching.

Rosetta Marantz Cohen is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor of Education and Child Study at Smith College.

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