Dennis Ian, a regular reader and commenter on the blog, writes here about Teach for America:

Teach for America … little more than camp counselors without the pine trees on their shirts.

Imagine for a moment the instant promotion of butchers to surgeons … or deck builders to bridge engineers. Imagine Cub Scout troop leaders as military generals … or menu makers as the next classic authors.

Like any job, teaching is layered with misconceptions … and it’s further distorted by Hollywood fantasies.

Everyone is so seduced by Hollywood and tv-land that they actually think they could sail right into a classroom and every kid would sing the theme song of “To Sir, with Love”. And the world would cry because of their greatness.

Everyone seems to see that “To Sir, With Love” guy winning over the thuggery class and becoming a revered legend overnight. Or that Mr. Chips who seems to sweat wisdom … because he’s so over-supplied with it. Were that the case, I would have hung in the position until I was a hundred and my wisdom ran dry.. But it’s not.

Teaching is lots of stuff few imagine … and lots of hours even fewer acknowledge. It’s not a job you get very good at very quickly either … even with the best preparation. It’s not all knowledge either … it’s technique and personality and polishing a persona and perfecting a delivery … as well as knowing your subject inside out … and keeping current in the ever changing field.

It’s about intuition. And listening to that intuition. And acting on it with confidence mortared over years.

It’s about love … all sorts of love.

There’s easy love …for those kids that just joy you day-in-and-day-out. They’re great students, great kids … with great personalities and great everything.

Then there’s that hard love … for the kid with the green snot and the girl with the matted hair … and unpleasant aroma. Or for the boy who’s an accomplished bully at age 13 … and thinks this is his lot in life. Then there’s the broken child … who seems already to have quit life. And the loud, annoying sort … who’s probably masking a world of hurt. What about the invisibles? … the kids who practice invisibility because their daily ambition is to go unrecognized and un-included … for whatever dark reason. Prying them out of their darkness can take months … if it ever really happens.

There’s lots more to describe, but it’s unnecessary. What is necessary is to imagine engaging all of these kids in the right way day after day … and then seeing to it that they make educational progress as well. Making sure they’re prepared for the next level … the next challenges. Oh … and you lug all of this stuff around in your head and your heart … all the time.

And then, just to make this all even more interesting, weave in the mundane that actually captures most of your time … never-ending grading that snatches away your Sundays, faculty and department meetings, parent confabs, planning, gathering things you need and resources you want. Colleague exchanges and innovative thinking. Blend in some school politics and the usual work-place agita … and maybe some deep intrigue at times. Oh, and don’t forget your family … those folks you bump into when you’re half dressed. They want a piece of you, too.

I’m certain that five week preparation period offered by the Teach for America leadership is gonna arm those greenhorn teachers to the max. However, I’am certain of much more.

Here’s the real ugly underbelly of Teach for America … and the ill-prepared idealists they let loose on lots of youngsters: the schools that take them on are almost always the poorest of the poor … because authentic teachers will not take on that challenge without proper compensation. These are the children most in need of real teachers … with real preparation … ready to change lives and manage all that such an effort entails.

Please don’t dismiss the compensation issue. The public needs to understand that the same rewards that motivate others in varied professions also applies to teachers. They are not undisguised priests or ministers. They’re family men and women with all of life’s aspirations and obligations. If society wants the best-of-the-best in the most challenging circumstances, then this society should do what is done all across the world of work … pay the deserving salaries.

To foist these ill-prepared teachers on the most disadvantaged children seems like an over-costly outrage in order to soothe some young idealist’s commitment to mankind. These young learners need our most seasoned professionals … even if the cost exceeds the usual. There is no greater long term cost to a society than a child ill-educated for the complexities of this intricate world.

Teach for America is yet another “feel good” folly that’s become so voguey among those smugly satisfied with easy imagery rather than hard reality.

Denis Ian