Monday, July 26, 2010


“My education was dismal. I went to a series of schools for mentally disturbed teachers.”

 Woody Allen

In the great debate about the deteriorating quality of American public school education, the quality and talent of America’s educators is often questioned. The answer to the headline question – is your kid’s teacher an ivy leaguer – is likely NO. Ivy Leaguers are meant for more prosperous careers. They are not only the best and brightest but also among the nation’s wealthiest college students. Many go on to top business and law schools, become captains of industry and our leading politicians.

Teachers more typically come from state colleges and universities. They are underpaid, overworked and much maligned. The quality of their training is questioned; as is their effectiveness.

I recently was introduced to a contemporary who had just retired from a 30 year teaching career. What an eye opener. Imagine, if you will, heading out for work every day with an absolute requirement that you be “ON” at 7:30. By ON, I mean ready for anything. Forget that long walk with your dog. Skip the trip to the gym. That third cup of coffee will have to wait until after 3rd period.

No matter if you are just too tired, too bored or just fed up. There is an honor student wanting to show her prowess; a malcontent disrupting your class; or, worse, a physical threat that must be contained.

Meanwhile, we read news reports almost daily that tell us about deteriorating student performance and Washington’s plans to reverse that course. Billions have been spent but the news keeps getting worse anyway.

A career in teaching is both physically and emotionally challenging. Why would an Ivy Leaguer want that job when a more luxurious future awaits elsewhere?

Teach for America.

Ignoring the national debate and foregoing government funding, a non-profit organization called Teach for America (TFA) has been working for the last 20 years to solve to improve education from the front lines.

Recently, the NY Times published an article about how difficult it is for graduates of Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth to be accepted by Teach for America. With only 4500 openings, less than 10% of applicants are admitted. Imagine if you will, America’s best and brightest college grads going into the teaching profession.

TFA doesn’t just drop these young recruits into the classroom. It provides a five week summer course in classroom practices before assigning its graduates to teach in inner city and rural schools. The organization sets goals for its teachers and assigns Program Directors to follow up and monitor the members of its “corps”. According to Education Week magazine, each of TFA’s corps members is expected to achieve at least one of the following goals: “…move student learning forward at least 1 ½ grade levels, close achievement gaps by 20 percent, or ensure that 80 percent of students have met grade-level standards.”

But, this blog is not about education; it’s about leadership. What struck me about the Times article was the number of Ivy League grads who applied. Eighteen percent of Yale and Harvard undergrads applied. Those rejected had to settle for alternatives like becoming a Fulbright Scholar, attending University of Virginia Law School or teaching at their alma mater.

TFA’s founder is Wendy Kopp who proposed the creation of Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis at Princeton – and then followed through upon graduation!!

So, when we ask the question that serves as the theme of this blog – Who Will Lead? – we need look no further than Wendy Kopp and the 4500 college grads who, this year, will dedicate their considerable intellect and energy to the task of improving student achievement throughout the United States.

Each sacrificed other opportunities to become teachers. Each dedicated themselves to making a contribution. Each of them will lead.


  1. I feel you very much summed up a couple of facts, but not all of them. A far majority of teachers "in training"--if you will, are very capable students and as such, quite the Ivy Leager. I think you have also covered quite effectively the emotional and physical draining that accompanies this profession. However, I do not believe that the best teachers are our smartest book smart students--those are just informational instructors. What we need is a respect to the education that doesn't currently accompany it. How about raising the standards of education to become a teacher? When I say raising standards, I don't mean raising educational standards, more degrees won't do it. It's "life" that will create our best teachers.

    As a prior teacher right out of college, I feel I might have some of my own opinions to share.

    Bottom line--the income doesn't outweigh the constant stress. Most young people today whether they are students of college or state universitites or even Ivy Leager start off their college career and/or their young life as a believer in humanatarian pursuits--much like a 4 year old wants to be a fireman or a police officer. However, life teaches very quickly in our ecomomy to get ahead one needs more than just their pursuits of happiness. My mistake was believing that my career would provide that happiness. I found out later in life that it was through economic stability I could find a sense of balance and the opportunity to pursue my passions. Teaching definitely provided me a sense of purpose and more importantly I felt I was making a difference, but not in my own life. It was quite the self-sacrificing position and financially the reward was just not there to spend a lifetime in it. I truly admire anyone who stays in the field, because it's certainly not about making money. I've now learned that my job doesn't need to be my passion. However, I'm also quite young, and have not experienced enough (yet) to feel I could become a true contribution to young minds. I need more life journeys, more life experiences first.

    I don't believe there is any amount of income that can really substantiate the work behind being a great teacher. My favorite teachers were those that seem to work beyond their expectations, those that worked well past the regular working hours of the day. It is only through those pursuits that we learn to admire others. I can firmly say there was a very small percentage of those that did this.

    As a young teacher myself, I found myself lost in a world of bitterness. I would avoid the teacher conference rooms where they'd sit around and complain about their own realities, whether related to that obnoxious student they couldn't control, or the honor student who felt she could do no wrong. I observed these behaviors and quickly realized I could become just that--an unhappy non contributing member of society and in turn, attempt to somehow teach the opposite to my students. I would much rather be an actor, at the very least a profession that would reward you for being something you may not be.

    The true test of our leaders are those that choose a non conforming path, those who can gain respect in a field not for their knowledge and smartness, but more so for their ability to turn heads and cause our young to think well beyond what they thought they were capable of.

    Education in the United States has never taught our youth about life--it teaches principles, but it doesn't teach our youth how to become teachers. If it were possible, our teachers should have experienced a full life first. It is only through wisdom--our truest compliation of our mistakes and choices that define what I believe to be the best leaders. Self-sacrifice (as you have stated in your blog) makes our best leaders, and in turn--those would make our best teachers.

  2. I concur with both of you. Wisdom is the precious offering of the gifted teacher/mentor. Like the plethora of talented managers in corporate America (and for that matter, local/state/national government), many teachers are just purveyors of information. But when you encounter the teacher who offers wisdom, your life changes forever.