Where Do Teachers Come From? (Other than the Stork)
Recently, skoolboy’s students had a spirited discussion of Subtractive Schooling (SUNY Press, 1999), Angela Valenzuela’s wonderful book chronicling the social relations between teachers and students in Seguin, a Houston high school serving a high concentration of Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American youth. A central theme of the book is that teachers and students often fail to understand one another’s orientations and values, resulting in a kind of mutual alienation. Valenzuela, now on the faculty of the University of Texas-Austin (and founder of a blog on educational equity in Texas) demonstrated that students often felt that their teachers didn’t care about their family, community and national histories as Mexican immigrants with a strong attachment to Spanish language. In turn, many Seguin teachers felt that their students didn’t care about doing well in school. Both groups calibrated their effort and engagement with the other based on these perceptions. A particularly vivid quote from a teacher is: “’As if teaching were not enough to preoccupy myself with’ she sighed, and then continued in a more defensive tone, ‘It’s overwhelming to think that this is the level we’re dealing at, and frankly, neither was I trained nor am I paid to be a social worker.’”
In Seguin, it seemed that the teachers were often of a different social class and cultural background than their students. The process that yielded this outcome, and what might be done about it, were of great interest to my students. Students were particularly intrigued by the finding of the Pathways Project researchers, reported in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management in 2005, that most new public school teachers take their first teaching job near to where they grew up or went to college. In New York state, at least, 61% of the teachers starting their careers between 1999 and 2002 taught within 15 miles of their hometown (defined as where they attended high school or their home address from their college application). Eighty-five percent of new teachers in New York State began teaching within 40 miles of their hometown.
Alternate-route programs such as Teach for America pose an intriguing contrast, and the recruits to such programs probably weren’t very prominent in the Pathways data. TFA is highly selective, recruiting bright, energetic, and committed young people to teach for two years in a high-needs area, often some distance from where they grew up or went to college. (This should not be surprising, since many TFA recruits are graduates of elite institutions, and the high-needs communities that TFA serves send relatively few students to such colleges and universities.) But TFA’s practices create an interesting tradeoff: the recruitment process may select novice teachers who are predisposed to engage in the kind of caring teaching practice that Angela Valenzuela champions, while simultaneously parachuting these teachers into settings where they have little understanding of the cultural practices and values of the local community. The bounded commitment of TFA may be particularly problematic in such instances, as there seems to be little hope of cultivating an experienced corps of teachers with a deep knowledge of the local community if most of the novice teachers leave after their two-year commitments expire. Some TFA recruits do continue, but I haven’t seen data documenting how many stay in the same schools in which they began, building up the local knowledge that might enable them to sustain mutual caring.