Post-script to “Professional!”

3 Nov

If you’ve been following me on twitter, you know that I am right now in the Philippines where I am involved in my employer’s response to the disaster caused by Typhoon Megi (locally, Typhoon Juan). I will publish a post or two about this disaster response in due course. For now, though, as a post-script to the previous post, “Professional!”, I’d like to share with you in it’s almost-entireity an email message that I received directly.

From my very own sister.

By way of context, I’ll tell you that she teaches English literature and composition to high school students in ____. It’s a place where pickup trucks outnumber hybrid Civics, where Confederate flags are a perfectly acceptible form of yard decor, and where time spent mastering subjects like, say, English is of nebulous value compared with, say, varsity football. Getting the picture?

She writes:

“…it occurred to me whilst reading [Professional? and Professional!] that a somewhat similar context/crisis exists within the field of education and may go some way toward reflecting (if not explaining) the current “push-back” you experience when you suggest that aid work is a profession, not a pastime. when one considers that  certain government initiatives within education, of which Teach For America is probably the most notable, are predicated on the notion that the average american citizen, armed with nothing more than a “passion for change” (why is the hyper-inflated expression of cliched sentimentality ALWAYS the  last refuge of the emotionally incontinent and the intellectually constipated?!!!! but i digress…) and some type of professional experience in ANY field, college degree preferred but not necessarily required, can march into any of thousands of this country’s high schools and get paid fairly well for a stint of teaching,  you begin to catch a glimpse into the “big, dumb galoot” quadrant of the american psyche. i mean, i love my countrymen like beer, but REALLY?!!!  When entire <air quotes>reality shows can center on the premise of washed-up actors (think tony danza of “who’s the boss” fame) re-inventing themselves as high school english teachers for a year of teach- for -america type community service (and sadly no, i am NOT making this up), i think it’s not too far a leap to the great beyond of public service that is The Rest of The World.
many of the new recruits who have to interview me as part of their educational training requirements seem genuinely curious and not a little stunned to learn that i think content expertise counts for as much if not more than their ability to manufacture a crossword puzzle for the scarlet letter or organize a cooperative learning experience for to kill a mockingbird. and that’s before they have any “experience.” apparently, this is a trans-profession attitude.
all this windy monlogue merely to observe that americans really are equal opportunitsts. we don’t seem to impose (m)any spuriously reasoned, poorly implemented strategies on the third world that we aren’t willing to foist off on our own children.
* * *
And my kids are just now starting school…  Fabulous.

15 Responses to “Post-script to “Professional!””

  1. Helena 3 November, 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    I like your sister!🙂

  2. Maria 4 November, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    As a former high-school teacher myself I feel compelled to say:


  3. lu 4 November, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    intelligence and clever writing obviously run in your family!

    • J. 4 November, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

      You’re very kind, Lu. Truth is, R. is more of both.

  4. Meg 5 November, 2010 at 11:09 am #

    I got out of teaching after 20 years when the principal changed students’ grades because of parents’ complaints. If the parents are able to determine their children’s grades, then what am I doing there? Retirement is so much more pleasant.

  5. L M 5 November, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I know you’re in the field now, but when you get back: I wonder if you have read or will respond to this:

    or the original article, linked in the post. (To be preemptive: I mean a response beyond the knee-jerk “Gourevitch is a Kagame apologist.”)

    The reason I ask is because Gourevitch raises much more urgent and compelling questions than the easily-ridiculed Kristof article, which had unfortunately attracted so much more attention. (Or Polman’s book, which I understand is pretty bad.)

    For the record, I am an aid worker and have worked in conflict zones – variously for NGOs, a UN agency, and a donor – for years and I appreciate Gourevitch’s raising of these sensitive issues for a wider audience.

    • J. 6 November, 2010 at 5:22 am #

      L M: Thank you for your comment and for bringing Gourevitch to my attention. I hadn’t been aware of/followed him previously. I’ll begin doing so now.

      My very initial reaction (based on skimming the article quickly) is that while he is clearly better informed and insightful (and therefore better able to raise the urgent issues), he’s not raising anything particularly new: It’s the by now old paradox of the possibility of causing harm when the intent is to help, and the subsequent dilemmas of how to prevent the harm and how to deal with it when it happens. And I’m not seeing from him a useable approach to dealing with those dilemmas (dilemmas that every serious aid worker in my personal sphere also deeply concerned about, by the way… not that those concerns matter any more than do good intentions) beyond a general and vague-but-punitively-emotional cry for more NGO “accountability.”

      Everyone seems to want INGOs or BINGOs or MONGOs to “be more accountable.” And in principle I fully agree that more accountability would be a good thing. But I have yet to hear a coherent description of what such accountability is in the wider context, much less an even remotely useable suggestion on how to achieve it, how to know when it has been achieved, or what should happen when an NGO fails to achieve it.

      I’ll re-read when I have better internet and possibly update this comment later.

  6. jina 6 November, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    I also love your sister. I went to school in a part of the world where pickup trucks were decorated with Confederate flags, and where we managed to make a few things as important as varsity football, and I’ll say I’m a better person for the teachers who had content expertise. I remember them all, even the math teachers, and I wasn’t good at math. And I remember what they taught me. (I still use percentage change, thank you Mr. Mezerski.) But the others…nope, no idea.

    But I have this question, which is very stream-of-consciousness so forgive me: Why do we do this in these sectors? Failing schools, failing states — send people with good hearts and go-get-em experience. Failing economies? Send in the experts!

    I might be reading too much into this, but I’m feeling a subtle gender bias (not by you or your sister, by the “good hearts/DIY” discourse). Victorian-era notions of feminism, which we’re still fighting in the US and around the world, suggest that the kinds of things involved in education and humanitarian aid delivery — caring and nurturing, in their different ways — are “women’s work.” (Cf. some the discourse around women’s involvement in the abolition movement.) But we never presume that being a good person is going to cut it for “men’s work” — building things, hacking numbers, running businesses, etc.

    Am I way off base here?

    • J. 6 November, 2010 at 7:53 am #

      Jina: Wow… well, I confess that I’d never ever considered a “gendered” angle to humanitarian work before.

      Responding in a similarly stream-of-consciousness fashion, I’m going to say that your comment does ring true for me. And so while I don’t have too much to add at this moment, I am inclined to think that, no, you’re not off base.

  7. Amelia 8 November, 2010 at 3:55 am #

    Just to add a little support for the ‘gendered’ notion of these things. When I was working in Brussels on lobbying for development aid, I spent most of my time amongst women. Until I spoke at the EU Budget conference where I was the only (um, youngish) female amongst a host of men in suits. Aid/Development policy = girly stuff, Budget/money/figures = chaps stuff! Except of course in emergency aid where I feel the blokes rather enjoy the heroic figures they cut, dashing about under fire, bossing people about at distributions… (Not you of course – J!)
    And on the topic of your sister’s views, I couldn’t agree more. It takes a different format in the UK system but the focus on ‘marks’ seems to have forgotten the purpose of education, which is to educate. Educating people is quite a skill, and enthusiasm – whilst often needed to overcome the daily grind of working with reluctant teenagers – is insufficient to teach well. It seems to me that we have all lost respect for expertise these days. As a quick glance through world media shows!

  8. Allison Jones 8 November, 2010 at 7:19 am #

    Your sister and I think alike. I work in the education field and after reading your post “Elitist” I found myself feeling the same way about conversations about education. Because education touches everyone in some way everyone feels entitled to comment on it, even if what they are saying is stupid–or, excuse me, not well thought out. The barrier of entry is very low. On the one hand this serves to include people who generally may be left out of these conversations-parents in underserved communities for example–or to get people more interested in what is not a very “sexy” issue.

    However, opening conversation should not equate to lowering standards, which is what we seem to be doing. This also affects the field by folks devaluing our work. When I tell people what I do I get “Oh, that’s nice.” Really??

  9. Meaghan 10 November, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    Here’s a longer takedown of Teach for America, if anyone is interested:

    An excerpt:
    “But let’s be clear: mostly I dislike Teach for America because it is not school reform and it claims to be. It is a neo-liberal romance about the ways in which volunteerism by elites can replace a political and fiscal commitment to lifting Americans out of poverty by supporting, and investing in, the schools that poor people attend. Worse, TFA is a spiritual extension of those internship programs that these eager young things with BA’s larded their records with to get into elite colleges and universities in the first place. The logic is: if it looks good for me, then it must be good for “them.” As Winerip comments, “Teach for America has become an elite brand that will help build a résumé, whether or not the person stays in teaching. And in a bad economy, it’s a two-year job guarantee with a good paycheck; members earn a beginning teacher’s salary in the districts where they’re placed.””


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