Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Is TFA a Volunteerism Succubus?

By on January 6, 2010

The New York Times recently published an article, which shares an analysis of the post-service Teach for America corps and their subsequent level of civil service. To those involved in TFA, the findings were somewhat cringe-worthy. To the rest of us, however, they were not so shocking.
It seems that when compared to those who never chose to take up the TFA mantel or with those who dropped out of the program before their term was up, the participants who go through the program statistically up-and-leave civil service after their two-year commitment is over. That is, fewer TFA grads are involved with acts such as “voting, charitable giving and civic engagement” then their uninvolved TFA counterparts. Hey, I coulda told them: teaching has the tendency to just suck the life out of you.

The Edutopia Headline News discussion group posted this article a couple of days ago and here’s what I wrote:

It’s hard to be surprised. I mean, it’s hard to ask someone who gives so much of themselves to continue that level of giving. Because let’s face it, in education’s case, volunteerism can just as well be abuse. Six of one, 1/2 dozen of another, and all that.

I think what happens to many teachers in personal or professional burnout is that they feel entitled to NOT give more. What more do they have to give? If I understand TFA and its program properly, they take relatively untrained and well-intentioned young people and put them in our hardest schools. Now, that’s controversial in itself, but the offshoot might be to cause, in a sense, premature burnout resulting in a lack of involvement later on.

There’s a lot about this study that is up for grabs. But it does bring up what we all know about education in general: it saps you. Great teachers are those who have learned how not to have their souls totally lost to the machine.

The real question is, How do we NOT get lost to the machine? What are the steps we put in place to ensure our souls are NOT sapped by the succubus of our job?

I, for one, continue to be a student. I am a student of those around me: my friends, my colleagues, and my students. And these are lessons that not only recharge my batteries, but make me a better teacher. It took me awhile to learn what did it for me. But I can’t help but wonder, if I were only teaching for two years, would I have developed these mechanisms of survival that actually enhance my teaching? Or would I have just coped, paddling to keep my head above water until I could reach shore, thankful and sputtering, “Thank God, I’m done!”

I forget the exact quote or who said it, but it’s something like, “If you knew you only had a limited amount of time felt in this world, would you speed up or slow down?” And it gets me thinking about TFA. If I knew I only had to make my situation work for a limited about of time, would I try my hardest or just survive? Maybe these young, inexperienced, and passionate participants are trying their hardest within the timeline of their committed position. But it has clearly sapped any remaining strength from them forever after.

And putting aside what happens after the TFA term (or sentence) is over, what does this mean to the students, and their quality of education, whose teachers are just paddling away, trying to make it to shore?

It just seems we aren’t winning the battle or the war.

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  1. David Cohen
    January 7, 2010

    Interesting speculation, Heather. I do think there’s a burnout connection, though that might be hard to quantify. And much of the TFA aura is about doing your part temporarily – not for the long haul. I expect that people at the highest levels who are must gung-ho about pushing TFA as a solution to urban school ills are pretty unlikely to have any connection to those schools. And I doubt they’d sign on to move their families to sheltered suburban districts or enroll their kids in private schools that boasted of their percentage of TFA interns on staff. They won’t invest in deeper structural improvements, won’t risk the political fallout of admitting that poverty matters in school performance, and have to become cheerleaders for the quick and cheap fix.

  2. tweenteacher
    January 7, 2010

    “And I doubt they’d sign on to move their families to sheltered suburban districts or enroll their kids in private schools that boasted of their percentage of TFA interns on staff. They won’t invest in deeper structural improvements, won’t risk the political fallout of admitting that poverty matters in school performance…”

    So true, David. This reminds me of the recent LA Times article about the bill granting parents the right to pull their kids from lower performing schools. Rather than fix the schools, they are granting people the right to bail on them, “leaving behind” as it were, the kids with the least amount of advocacy. So what happens to those kids who don’t leave the school? We’re now creating an even more tragic tier of performance and achievement while creating an exodus to other schools. So midguided!

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Nancy Flanagan
    January 11, 2010

    Volunteerism succubus! Ha. Best blog title of the week!

    I’ve been ambivalent about the results of this study. I mean–is the Peace Corps a volunteerism succubus? Do people who work at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit (many of whom were unemployed or incarcerated at one time) vote at a lower rate? Should we care? Your questions about how to keep teachers passionate and producing over the long haul are much more important.

    Once again, we’re trying to extrapolate widescale education policy-making on the basis of a small (and, IMHO, way overanalyzed) group of young, privileged possible idealists who do not, in any regard, resemble the millions of teachers who are “the profession.”

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