The other day I was in J Crew buying my Teach For America T-shirt. As the sales rep was going through the motions of ringing me up I detected a lack of enthusiasm. Being someone that always has a better idea, I said to him, “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about your job today.”
He replied, “oh you know, its the holidays. Been working 12 hour days and its all just non-stop.”
“Well”, I said, “If you were a little bit more enthusiastic I bet you could sell a lot more of these t-shirts and then a lot more children could be guaranteed a quality teacher in every room.”
“Yea, well I’ve got more to sell then just those shirts. A lot of people come here with a lot of different needs. Taking care of them is a full time job. People trying to fit into styles that don’t fit them. People trying to get quality clothes without paying what their worth. Trying to keep my teammates engaged. There’s a lot going on around here.”
“You know what?”, I told him, “I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got some Jr High students that would be perfect for here. They’re super smart and they’d be so excited to help out. They’d have everybody so pepped up around here, these shirts would be flying off the shelves.”
“I don’t think thats such a great idea. I already told you there’s more to this this job then just those shirts. I mean these kids wouldn’t be trained or anything. They don’t know our customers. We’ve already got sales people fighting for hours.”
Pointing at a tired looking fellow stocking shelves I incredulously replied, “Who him? He’s like 35. Not smiling. I don’t think he’s sold a shirt since I been here.My kids would run circles around that stick in the mud. He’s hurting your customers you know. They deserve a high quality experience every time they walk in this store.”
“Sam’s one of our best salesman. He’s won national sales awards. Been with us for 10 years. He’s a little extra tired today because he was up last night with a sick child, but he’s J Crew to the core. We’re not replacing him with some kids.” he replied starting to get irritated.
“Pshaw. He’s cheating your customers by not bringing his A game every time he walks through the door. Just think about how many people are walking away not getting the full J Crew treatment because he’s a little distracted.” My voice rising as I warmed to the subject. “Best part of the whole deal? You only have to pay me $20 a year to hirer my Junior High kids.”
With that he completed my sale, handed me my receipt and with an insincere smile said, “Thank you sir. Here’s your shirt. Have a wonderful day.”
Conversation sounds a little ridiculous doesn’t it? However, that is the conversation that is going on all over America today. In fact just today, Metro Nashville Public School District chose to renew their contract with Teach For America for the next three years. A school district that has been sounding the alarm on a 23 million dollar budget deficit next year has agreed to spent 750K a year to utilize a temp agency. The head of Human Capital says that TFA recruits and trains new teachers at a level that the district can’t match and nobody says why? The mayor says they’re better then the teachers that our three local teacher colleges put out and the local union heads say ok. I’d bet they’d have an issue if the mayor was out waiving apprentice requirements for out of town pipefitters to come take local jobs though.
I come at this subject with a little skin in the game. My wife is from a family of teachers. She is a teacher. She arrived at the decision to pursue teaching as a profession after graduating from Vanderbilt University. That’s right, one of those exclusive schools that TFA recruits from. After deciding to become a teacher she enrolled at TSU. Probably should have just called the TFA recruiter.
At the time she decided to pursue a degree in education, we’d just gotten married. I was managing a bar while she worked at Chili’s. The next 3 years were spent by her scraping money together for tuition and her taking classes and working 40 hour weeks. It wasn’t easy but she had to much respect for the proffession to try and take shortcuts. My wife understands and has made me understand that teaching is not just something you do for a couple years and then move on to your real life’s work. To truly be a profession, those who wish to practice must be willing to dedicate and sacrifice.
We made it through those years but it often wasn’t easy. There were times when we argued over money or we wanted to do something that we couldn’t because of lack of time and money. My wife has been teaching now for 6 years and I couldn’t be prouder. I’m probably a bit of a groupie to be honest. The journey to this degree also made my wife a better teacher. The year of student teaching helped make her an exceptional teacher.
What I’ve come to learn is that her story is not unique. All across this state, and country are individuals who found a way to dedicate the prescribed amount of years to do what is required to enter the profession. They realized the dedication and sacrifice that was needed and made it. These are people that felt a real calling to educate our children and realized that it takes some prep work to do it right. Being smart and enthusiastic isn’t enough.
TFA and policy makers apparently don’t think thats necessary. By their actions they suggest that the job be left to the smart and enthusiastic. Now they do make one concession to corp members. The state kicks in 9k while the district ponies up 5k so that they can use our kids to learn the profession that others have used their time and resources to master. My wife and her peers, they get nothing but a salary. What about if that 14K was used to hire the interested as teacher’s aides with that first year countable towards student teaching credits for a degree if they decided teaching was for them.
What we are subtly doing now is changing the face of the teaching profession. By trumpeting the perceived value of TFA we are turning teaching into something you do for a couple years and then you get on with your life. At a time when we are telling children how important education is we are sending a message that you can get what you want without putting the time in. Kids aren’t stupid. They are very capable of reading between the lines. Anybody who has worked with them knows that its when you think they are not watching that they pick up the most on what you do.
So as I read about another contract being renewed or about what a great job recruiting and training TFA does, all I can think about is the clerk at the J Crew store. I think about how you would react at your job if I showed up and proceeded to claim that I could do it as well as you, without any of your training. I think about all the teachers that have amassed degrees and experiences only to be told, you’re kind of a stick in the mud. The only thing I can do is smile and say, “Here’s your shirt. I hope you have a wonderful day.