Lyndsey Wajert: It’s the ends that count

By this point in our educations, most of us have been students for more than a decade. These days, more and more GW graduates are switching roles and finding out exactly what it means to be a teacher.

In a recent event in the Marvin Center, Rod Paige, the former U.S. secretary of education, urged audience members to get involved with education service programs such as Teach for America. But TFA carries its share of controversy. Debates have swirled over the effects of noncertified “teachers” working in underperforming schools and about whether two years in the corps is truly enough time for members to make a meaningful difference.

In his piece “Why I Don’t Like TFA,” professor Bil Johnson of Brown University takes the critique to a higher level, arguing that teaching is not meant to be “dabbled in,” and that TFA shows “disrespect for the profession by treating it as something one can do until something ‘better’ (read high paying, more prestigious, etc.) comes along.”

Johnson makes a point, especially because most members serve for just two years, with only a reported 34 percent returning for a third. But the relatively minimal long-term commitments, combined with the program’s financial security and national prestige, are exactly the features that make TFA so appealing to college grads. There is no reason why these bright minds cannot make a contribution while also improving their own future prospects.

From 2007 to 2008, TFA reported a 36 percent increase in applications, according to The Hatchet (“More grads seek service corps jobs,” Nov. 24, p. 1). With a troubled economy and entry-level positions in companies becoming increasingly scarce, many graduates are taking advantage of the fixed incomes, health benefits and relative security of a position teaching in inner-city or rural schools. Another incentive is that graduate schools and future employers respect this program because they know that former corps members have been challenged, have gained experience and have given to their community through their participation.

In an ideal world, perhaps, people would sacrifice their time, energy or money to help others in a purely altruistic fashion. But this is the real world, full of tax cuts for charitable donations and alumni who give to GW with the hope of getting a plaque mounted in the Smith Center in their honor – or a bench named after them, or perhaps even a building. This is not necessarily deplorable. Either way, the charity gets the money and GW gets to, say, fix up the locker rooms or fund a new tenured professorship.

The same goes for those who participate in Teach for America. Although GW and TFA alumna Miriam Epstein stated in a letter to the editor (“Teach for America is not résumé filler,” Dec. 4, p. 4) that “TFA and other service corps are not the place for aimless, unemployed college grads looking to beef up their resumes,” these schools are in too dire a need to question the motives of those who are at least making an effort – especially when some empirical research suggests that TFA teachers are helping, according to the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Also, those who are only concerned with getting into Yale Law may well be weeded out through the rigorous application process.

Questioning the motives for a charitable act is not uncommon. But is a positive action undermined if it is done for the “wrong” reason? If you give a dollar to a homeless man in the street to impress your date, does that dollar help the homeless man any less?

The world is not as simple as selfish or unselfish, and sometimes, actions can stand alone, without any underlying intentions. In reality, when someone does something for the benefit of another, it is not fair to suggest they should do so only if the act is done solely to aid that other person.

My guess is that most charitable acts are motivated by a complex mix of both altruistic and self-serving intentions. After all, Teach for America may offer benefits for corps members, but the ultimate goal is helping children.

The writer, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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