Stir Up the World

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 23 2012

TFA’s myth of meritocracy

One of the biggest things TFA claims to fight against is the myth of meritocracy in the U.S.: the belief that anyone can be successful/climb the proverbial ladder if they only work hard enough, and that those who are not successful must be lazy and unmotivated.  This is a classist, very dangerous view, and TFA is right to fight against it.

I’ve recently come to the conviction, though, that while TFA claims to fight the myth of meritocracy, we are also perpetuating it in some ways.  We acknowledge that the systematic oppression of our country is preventing our students from succeeding in life, but we say that education is the best way to fight this, mostly (though not completely, I know) ignoring the other dysfunctions in our students’ lives that will prevent them from succeeding, dysfunctions that even the best teachers can’t overcome.

TFA also has a myth of meritocracy with its corps members, I think. Maybe they do it on purpose, but, much like the United States does, TFA pumps its CMs full of idealism and lofty ambitions, then dumps them into a situation with so many factors working against them, then expects them to be incredibly successful.

At Institute we are shown video after video of these miraculously successful teachers and (basically) told we can be as successful as they if we just work hard enough.  But, like our students, we are blind-sided by so many other issues, both on our end and on our schools’ end, that prevent us from being as successful as we are supposed to be, even though we are working as hard as we can.  We are given completely inadequate training and resources, and to be thrown into a profession with the training/resources we are given is a joke not to mention an insult to the world of education.

To continue this line of thought further, TFA must believe that teachers in the United States are ineffective because they are lazy.  The notion of people who work 60+ hours a week for a salary that barely pays the bills are lazy is as ridiculous as saying that my students’ parents who work 3 jobs to pay the bills are lazy.  Sound familiar?

While there are some bad teachers out there, almost every teacher I’ve ever worked with is there for the kids and truly wants the best for them.  Adding more good teachers would help the situation, but there are so many other factors to consider that it is impossible to predict success in the classroom based on sheer personality.

As a CM, if you’re not successful, it must mean you’re just lazy.  I struggle all day every day with the belief that I’m not working hard enough.  I succeed in ignoring that niggling little voice most of the time, but it’s still there in the back of my mind all the time.

By how little training CMs receive, TFA must think teaching isn’t that difficult, or is something you can “just figure out” if you work hard enough.  I know that no training can adequately prepare a teacher for his or her own classroom, but 5 weeks?! Really?!

Instead of addressing all of the other issues that make educating children a difficult task, TFA oversimplifies our roles by just saying “work harder! make fancier powerpoints! track your data!”.  And if you don’t jump through all of these hoops and, God forbid, get more than 6 hours of sleep a night, you’re just lazy.  This myth of meritocracy thing, both in TFA and in American society, is glossing over a myriad of issues that must be addressed if our kids are to truly be successful in life.  Like health care, for example.  I don’t care how good you are at differentiating instruction; that kid whose parents don’t have health insurance and can’t get him glasses will not succeed in your classroom if he can’t see the board.

I’m tired of being told that if I work harder, I’ll be successful.  I’m starting to understand a small facet of the cycle of poverty.  Wouldn’t it be better to just say “Hey, teaching is incredibly difficult and there are innumerable obstacles you face; just try to stay alive.”?

Ugh.  I could write about this all night.  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about.  4 more weeks of school.  I’m starting to think about how I’m going to do next year differently in general, but I’m too overwhelmed with almost being done with my first year of teaching to go there yet.  4. more. weeks.


8 Responses

  1. “I’m starting to understand a small facet of the cycle of poverty.”

    MINISCULE. It took me a long time to realize that right now, after almost two full years living in my community, I still understand SO LITTLE of it. I expect myself to have these awesome relationships in and out of TFA down here, expect to understand my kids and their lives, expect to understand how to make the “biggest impact”… but all I can do (and do do) is trial and error, hoping that SOMETHING makes a difference on someone.

    Innnnnteresting thoughts.

  2. Veronica

    Blog posts like this one make me want to quit TFA before I even get to Institute.

  3. Olivia

    Amen! You speak the truth so eloquently; I’ve beent trying to put this into words recently. I think you make an incredibly perceptive parallel between the two meritocracy myths–yes, on the one hand we are told to appreciate the fact that failing/falling behind are not inherent markers of personal work ethic. On the other hand, though, this is pretty much all TFA tells us, and it leads to constant guilt-tripping. I’m so incredibly sick of it, and I want to email this post to everyone in the TFA office. And Veronica, sorry if this kind of thing is depressing to hear…who knows, you might have a great year. But you should take these sentiments seriously, because they are the general rule rather than the exception (based on what I’ve seen in my own experience and that of the other CMs I know). This job is the hardest and most dysfunctional thing I’ve ever been asked to do, and a lot of it has been outright ridiculous, unfair, and sometimes impossible. I’m still glad I did it, though, because I’ve been forced to grow up this year, get over my fears/doubts/hangups, and hold myself to the absolute highest standards…in order to survive. It’s up to you if you want to take that on for yourself.

    • els

      I agree with your agreement of me :). This job is insane, but for some reason I love it.
      And the interesting thing is that I am actually very successful in my school’s eyes, and I’m having a relatively good first year of teaching. But TFA would tell me otherwise, I think, because I don’t jump through their hoops.

  4. KC

    I agree. When I’ve felt ineffective or needed support, I’ve looked to veteran teachers, TFA alums who AREN’T employed by TFA and are still in the classroom or are in grad school and other CM’s rather than regional leadership. These resources have been more “real” with me about my teaching and situation. I felt like I got honest answers, helpful suggestions, and wasn’t told that spending 4 hours on excel making a new tracker and crafting another vision would fix my instructional lapses. I also work as hard as I can for my kids;but I refuse to feel like a failure if I have a bad day.

    • T

      Sounds like the right attitude to me :)

    • CC

      ^^This. My mentor teacher has been amazing. Every single effective thing I’ve learned has been from her. I never bought into the TFA slave mentality and learned to work smarter, not harder. I don’t feel the slightest amount of guilt because I don’t spend countless hours working on a daily basis. I learned to manage my time and, consequently, I have a very full life outside of the classroom. You just have to know where to draw your line in the sand.

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"If one desires to 'stir up the world,' it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story's end can forsake its beginning and its middle." -Joshua Wolf Shank on Abraham Lincoln