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TFA alums don’t vote, and other half-truths

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A week or so ago, I clicked on a link on a teacher friend’s Facebook page and ended up on a New York Times article. The article was informing me of something very strange. Apparently, working in education is no longer a civic duty!

That’s right: according to a recent Stanford study, "In areas like voting, charitable giving and civic engagement, graduates of [Teach For America] lag behind those who were accepted but declined and those who dropped out before completing their two years."

It’s not the results of the study that rankle me. Actually, I probably could have predicted that.

A colleague of mine pointed out that TFA corps members tend to be quite transient in the years following their commitment; many have deferred other graduate programs to be in the corps, or they move back to where they came from, or perhaps their two years in a new and unfamiliar region imbues them with wanderlust. (My colleague spent her first year after TFA traveling and teaching throughout South America.)

Whatever their path, these life decisions present obstacles to establishing residency and permanence, two factors which go hand-in-hand with voting. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason.

Furthermore, on the subject of charitable giving, I’m still a teacher, and you may have heard that we don’t exactly make a whole lot of money. Particularly when you consider the additional grad school debt I’d accrued during my time in the corps. I don’t have piles of cash to donate to others. I just don’t. I donate to UNICEF, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army when I can, but after putting in a 60-70 hour workweek (par for the course in teaching), I have to take care of myself too. Again, not an excuse, but it’s a reason.

But it’s that third item on the list that I find most dumbfounding. So let me get this right: the education-focused careers that many TFA graduates pursue after the close of their commitment is not considered a civic duty? Lovely.

The article goes on to quote Monica C. Higgins, a Harvard professor of education: “To find that Teach for America graduates are more involved in education but are not serving in soup kitchens is interesting but not surprising — it’s consistent with their current mission…They’re not trying to make global citizens. They’re focused on education.”

Higgins’ words are controversial and, considering her background, baffling–almost to the point where I wonder how much of her original quote was actually used. For a professor of education to suggest that being a global citizen and focusing on education are two separate actions is worrisome indeed. Isn’t contributing to a global community the entire point of educating our youth–at least, in theory? We teach students to read, write, and manipulate data so that they may have these tools to become fully-functioning adult members of society. How is this not performing a civic duty?

I suppose I could use my free time to volunteer more. But I look at it like this. My cousin is a sous-chef in Vail. She loves to cook–if she didn’t, she wouldn’t be a chef. She is good at what she does. But once she is at home, she is not cooking anything. Because it’s her job.

As a teacher, you are serving others’ needs all day long: your administrators, the parents of your students–and of course, your students themselves. A very dedicated teacher might even make herself or himself available to these people outside of their contracted hours. I’ve accepted parent and student phone calls on my personal cell after 9 p.m., and one Friday, I stayed until 7 p.m. to help a student with an essay. At the end of the day, I have to focus on myself and my own life. My job is 70 hours a week of civic duty. How many people put in that much volunteer time a week at the soup kitchen?

It’s an important study. I will concede that. The information it yields is valuable and I hope it leads to something exciting, whatever that is. But it’s also dangerous, because it unfairly tarnishes the image of public service. I worry that studies like this only give more ammo to those critics of public service initiatives, particularly at this time in American history. This article creates a brand-new forum for TFA criticism and scapegoating that should not exist in the first place.

By comparing and contrasting the data of TFA graduates and those who did not finish or accept their commitment, we heap negative attention upon a large group of individuals who deserve far more of our respect and thanks. For the moment, set aside your personal feelings about TFA and the politics surrounding it. You have to agree that the man who quits his well-paying desk job, the college senior who walks away from a $90k annual salary with a big-name i-banking firm, and the girl who puts off a promising stint at NYU’s law school all to pitch in where they’re needed at schools in need are some of the last people who should be the objects of our derision and scorn.

Rather, we should be asking ourselves about that subsection of the population which does not ever apply to Teach For America or even think about teaching or education. The article briefly mentions that "Teach for America graduates remain far more active than their peer group". Rather than smirk at or squabble with each other over the merits of TFA as a leadership machine, let’s focus on mobilizing to action those who are not mobilized at all.

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