The Danger of Treating Teaching as a Form of Service

This past year, retired four-star general turned Yale professor Stanley McChrystal began pushing for a new culture of national service to take root in America.  To that end, he suggested that several common denominators form the foundation of a national service program – including the notion that service must involve a firm commitment for a specified period of time (in his mind, at least one year).  This sort of sustained service implies full-time involvement and sincere dedication of such a variety that, when undertaken on a large scale, could certainly bend the selfish will of American culture toward service.  McChrystal has said that he will know a new culture has taken root “when a solider stops a teacher in a train station and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’”

For years, Teach for America (TFA) has been lauded as a national model of nonpartisan service in the field of education. In its literature, TFA uses rhetoric centered on justice, equity and opportunity to move students from elite universities to serve as teachers in low-income communities for a specified term of two years.  To fill these positions, Teach for America recruits “a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement” in the hope that their service will fuel long-term impact on the landscape of American education. In the years since its creation, TFA alumni have received countless commendations and accolades for their work; these individuals have certainly been thanked and even praised for their service as teachers.

Nonetheless, criticism has followed on the heels of this praise. Recent data mined from three large-scale, longitudinal studies conducted in Houston, Texas and New York City by a group of respected researchers found that teachers entering the classroom without full preparation are significantly less effective than fully-prepared beginning teachers.  Otherwise stated, teacher training seems to matter; content expertise and general giftedness do not compensate for a lack of training.

The abovementioned data has significant ramifications for our understanding of the relationship between teaching and service.  Specifically, it should force us to ask the question, “What happens when service is detrimental to those being served?”

Consider the somewhat oxymoronic concept of “orphanage tourism”, wherein those looking to satiate their conscience use their vacation time to volunteer at institutions for parentless boys and girls rather than hit the beach.  Such tourists undoubtedly depart feeling pretty good about their service.  On the other side of this exchange, however, the orphans are often exploited as do-good tourists serve for a brief period of time, only to leave the children heartbroken upon their departure.  These children don’t need service – they need consistency, reliability and stability.

Teaching is no different.  No matter how well-intentioned, temporary teachers who are uncommitted to the profession are inevitably ineffective. In the case of Teach for America, a constant turnover of new teachers into low-income schools does not change the landscape. This form of service is akin to orphanage tourism and does nothing to further TFA’s stated mission.  In fact, as previously referenced, it may exacerbate the problem.   Truly, treating teaching as a form of service makes American education worse, not better.