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Coming From Cornell, Teaching For America

I'll dispense with the normal introductory anecdote about teaching in the inner city. I've had plenty of them so far: girls in rival gangs screaming at each other across the classroom, boys throwing textbooks out the windows, constant profanity and disrespect towards everyone and anyone, and students who get up and walk out of class whenever they feel like it.

I spend upwards of 75 hours per week in my classroom, and dedicate almost all of my weekend to working, but I never seem to get far enough ahead in my planning. I am ever tempted to simply photocopy materials from our textbooks (at least for my class that has textbooks) or give my kids word searches and crossword puzzles to do, but activities like those wouldn't close the achievement gap. Instead, I spend hours creating differentiated activities, putting together makeup work for students whom I haven't seen in two weeks, and struggling with the bulky responsibility of teaching seven classes.

Like 59 other Cornell graduates (third-most among all colleges), I joined Teach For America. Our organization, and our cause, has gotten more and more attention every year. No doubt every Northeast native in TFA had at least ten family members and friends send them the recent stories in the NYT and WSJ.

My goal in this post isn't to focus on conditions in my school in particular, or my personal struggles, but instead to discuss Cornell's role in this rapidly expanding movement.

Eleven percent of Cornell's class of 2010 applied to Teach For America. To those who - like me - have become troubled by the heavy emphasis among Cornell students on working on Wall Street or going to law school, this may seem to be good news. But I do not think that we are seeing a significant shift in the mindsets of these types of students. Yes, many of the pre-moneymaker students are applying to TFA, but I don't think that they're the ones who make it through. They are the pals of the Harvard student interviewed in the Times article who "says one of her closest friends wanted to do Teach for America, but was rejected and had to 'settle' for University of Virginia Law School." My hypothesis is that TFA's application numbers are being driven up in part by graduates who balk at the current business and law climates, but that TFA membership is still primarily filled by the idealistic, self-sacrificing types who are, in the end, the only ones who can actually make a difference in the worst parts of America.

As this is a Cornell-interest blog, I would love to be able to write that Cornell has prepared me well for this experience. While I'm not sure that much of anything could have prepared me, the stimulating seminars in McGraw and Goldwin Smith haven't been particularly applicable.

The best comparison I can draw involves those nights - familiar to many in A&S - when you have a paper due at 10:10 that you don't get around to starting until the night before. With the help of music, caffeine, whatever else, you stay up until 4, grab a few hours of sleep, and stumble into your class to drop off the paper. "Cornell is so tough," you think to yourself as you return home immediately after class to nap and rest up for that night's partying.

Now, picture that kind of stress on a nightly basis, when you have a tremendous amount of preparation to do for the next morning. However, you can't just drop off the work and go home to sleep. Instead, you wake up at 5 a.m. to stand in front of a succession of large classes of students who will expose your weaknesses and challenge your control of the classroom.

I do not wish to dissuade Cornell students - or anyone else - interested in teaching in a high-need area. We need more people working to close the achievement gap. Just know that as hard as you are working on that senior thesis, those problem sets, or that prelim, teaching would be much more difficult.

Cornell's emergence as a TFA pipeline is probably due to a combination of four factors. First, the poor outlook for jobs in business and law hits at two of the major areas of interest for Cornell students, and the perceived lack of jobs gets students interested in other options. Second, many Cornell students grew up near major East Coast cities and have seen the poverty in these communities. Third, Cornell has a large Greek system, and TFA seems to like applicants with Greek leadership experience. Fourth, this trend is compounding. As more Cornellians apply, TFA dedicates more resources to trying to get more Cornellians to apply, and younger students hear about older students who are applying.

I will close by offering two suggestions. The first is for the university. Since so many Cornellians are applying to TFA, why not offer a course specifically about the achievement gap, or about the relations at the district level between unions and groups like TFA? At least students might be better informed about the issues before they submit their applications. The second is to students who apply for TFA or similar programs. Before you make a decision, do your best to arrange an opportunity to observe a classroom in a high-need environment. It can be rough out here.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on September 12, 2010 (#)

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