What Teach For America Could Learn From Peace Corps

In 1993, when I was a shiny new Harvard grad with no career direction except a fervent desire to help people, I joined Teach For America (TFA). It was a brand new organization then, modeled at least in part after the Peace Corps. The plan was to send smart, idealistic, young people to teach for two years in school districts that were difficult to staff. It has since succumbed to extensive mission creep, as Gary Rubinstein has eloquently explained, but that was the idea at the time.

My TFA cohort of Corps Members (CMs) met that summer in Los Angeles for training. My memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember living in dormitories, observing classes, and sitting in circles for self-reflective discussions. There was a little bit of student teaching, too.

When training was over, we were placed in groups and encouraged to spend a lot of time together. Four of us were sent to the same very small town in Louisiana. One of the other CMs and I shared a house, and the other two shared an apartment. We saw other CMs in our region often, to share teaching ideas and for emotional support.

The most difficult thing for me was the unexpected culture shock I experienced. I had spent a year as an exchange student in Thailand, so I knew what it was like to try to navigate a foreign culture, but I was unprepared for the degree of cultural difference there could be within the United States. I was overwhelmed by teachers yelling at students, parents encouraging children to fight, and most of all by blatant racism. I had never experienced any of those things, and I was at a complete loss. I ended up reacting mostly by feeling superior, trying to model kinder behavior, and being woefully ineffective as a teacher.

I tried a number of other career paths, didn’t particularly like any of them, and fell almost accidentally into teaching English as a Second Language, which I loved. In 2005, I joined the actual Peace Corps, and I was sent to Macedonia as a high school English teacher. I was surprised to discover that the way Peace Corps operates is almost the exact opposite of the way TFA does.

During training, each of us lived with a different host family. We had technical training for the jobs we would have, and lessons on language and culture. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) work under something similar to the Star Trek Prime Directive. They are never to interfere with, try to change, or disrespect in any way the cultures in which they are placed, even if they disagree with the values reflected there. This is reiterated constantly throughout training. We were taught to begin our time at our sites by being polite and observant, by listening more than speaking, by getting to know people in our communities and letting them get to know us.

Each PCV is assigned a Counterpart, usually a colleague, in my case a teacher at my school. The PCV and the Counterpart work together, and the Counterpart introduces the PCV to other people in the community. There are unlikely to be other Volunteers nearby. Peace Corps purposely does not send multiple PCVs to the same locations, so that they are not tempted to spend all their time with each other. The whole point is to integrate into the community, to come to know and befriend people there.

Trying to understand an unfamiliar culture is a long process with many stages. I had experienced something similar during my year in Thailand. After a few months, you tend to feel that you have a pretty good grasp on it. You start to explain it to people back home with the air of an expert. After a few more months, if you have continued to listen and learn, you realize that you have been wrong about almost everything, that what you thought were deep insights were just surface observations colored by biases you didn’t know you had. After about a year you begin to be able to understand how things really work in your community. There is a sort of running joke among PCVs about this: at the end of the first year of your two year commitment, you start to understand how things actually function; at the end of the second year, you may finally be able to provide some real help; just at the moment when you are becoming useful, they send you home.

There are some things I would change about Peace Corps. For example, I would like it to become a mutual exchange program, in which people from other countries come here to help us too. There is an inherent power differential in an interaction in which WE (the powerful) help YOU (the powerless). If it’s a reciprocal relationship it is more like friends helping each other. Some people think the commitment should be longer, but many PCVs extend for a third year, as I did, or even a fourth, and the third of Peace Corps’ three goals is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans,” which is hard to do if you don’t come back to the U.S. Some think the commitment should be shorter, but that is a terrible idea. There are more minor changes I might also like, but I think Peace Corps is one of the relatively few organizations that are actually making a positive difference in the world.

As a PCV I witnessed many development projects by many organizations, and they generally followed the same pattern. The organization offers to provide something new (computers! wifi connections! training in new methodologies!) They spend a lot of money and take pictures to put on their websites, where they report the great success of the project. Within a few months or a few years, the computers are broken and there is no money to fix or replace them, the wifi is of no use because the electricity is always going out, and the new methodologies have made no appreciable difference, if they are even still in use. Those generous people never bothered to find out if their gifts would actually be useful, and they are long gone, but their “successful” project lives forever on their website, and no one outside of the community they “helped” ever knows what happened after they left.

This pattern will be readily recognizable by anyone who has worked for more than a few years in public education. I imagine people in all kinds of tough circumstances have suffered through multiple well-intentioned attempts at “help”. Something I learned as a PCV that I never had the chance to learn as a CM is that people who have lived a long time in a difficult situation know a lot more about it than people who have just arrived, and that if those people (let’s call them “veterans”) are cynical and jaded and seem to have given up, they may have good reasons.

That is not to say we should accept that cynicism as inevitable, just that rather than condemning people for it, we might want to look into the conditions that created it. I discovered as a PCV that the best way for me to be of actual help to the people in my community was to support them in trying their own solutions, to be more cheerleader than instructor. The most rewarding moment of my time in Macedonia was when some students, at the end of a project they created and managed, said that the best thing about it was, “You made us feel worth something.” They didn’t need my ideas. They had plenty of good ones. What they didn’t have was a sense of agency or confidence that their ideas were worth trying, and there I was able to help.

People don’t choose to be cynical and jaded. It is something that happens to them after repeated experiences of frustration, of not being heard, of no-win situations. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It happens because they do. Hidden beneath what is really exhaustion may be brilliant ideas and the strength and wisdom to carry them out. Real solutions to a problem have to come from the people with the problem. People from outside don’t know enough about the situation, and their “solutions” will work at best temporarily, and more likely not at all. They may even make things worse.

TFA is an excellent example of good intentions making things worse. The TFA narrative is that the neighborhoods it serves have “failing” schools, implying that the teachers there either are not smart enough or don’t care enough to teach the students well. There is explicit talk about how terrible the culture is in those schools. The idea is that if you come in with a better culture, one of “high expectations” and “no excuses” and “rigor”, everything will be better. No one asks how the culture got that way. If there is a “bad” culture in a school, it is a result of bad conditions, not of bad people. I believe most people at TFA truly want to decrease inequity in our society, but their faith in their good intentions blinds them to the fact that they are actually maintaining or even increasing it. T. Jameson Brewer has documented this very well.

TFA and Peace Corps both take in young, idealistic people with a zeal for helping others (although Peace Corps is making admirable strides in recruiting more experienced Volunteers), but they train and place them in nearly opposite ways. TFA nurtures the idea that CMs are a select group, smarter, more driven, and more altruistic than most, and keeps them close together so they reinforce each other in those beliefs. Peace Corps, on the other hand, gently leads PCVs to understand that they know much less than they think they do, that difficult situations are more complicated than they initially appear, and that there is often wisdom underlying what may at first be baffling behavior. TFA encourages CMs to achieve, to make measurable change as fast as possible. Peace Corps encourages PCVs to listen, to show respect, and only then to contribute what they can to the communities in which they are placed. To put it in data-centric terms, the inputs may be similar, but the outputs are very different.

I find it sad that TFA has become one of the forces contributing to increasing inequity and the degrading of teaching as a profession. It started out with such promise. Perhaps there is still hope, though. On the TFA website, it says that about ten years ago it added “respect and humility” to its list of core values. So far I have seen no indication that anything is different, and I suspect that the size, wealth, and power of the organization will prevent its making any radical changes, but I am lucky enough not to have become cynical or jaded, so I still believe that anything is possible.

6 thoughts on “What Teach For America Could Learn From Peace Corps

  1. This reminds me of a story from a friend of mine, Don Moseley, who was a PCV in Malaysia in the 1960s. He worked with a local community to build a fish farm that PC saw as a huge success and wanted to promote it. After Don left, PC went in and had the community build a 2nd and 3rd fish pond which within a year became unmanageable by the local community and caused all the projects to fail.
    Now we know that helping others is the best way for us to learn about ourselves, but not always the best way to be useful. I love the idea you propose of an exchange where privilege of context is revealed and relationships given priority. AFS may be our best model yet!


  2. Very well put, Erika, and right on the mark – as far as Peace Corps goes, at least. We had a very similar experience in Zrnovci. USAID spent a lot of money installing a recycling and composting facility before we arrived (“the first in Macedonia!”). All the locals asked for it to be electrically powered, but the Irish consultant for the project insisted on using diesel power. Guess what happened when the grant money ran out and they couldn’t buy diesel fuel…? Yep, a giant USAID labeled empty shed (“the first in Macedonia!”). For the rest of our two years there, it was amusing to watch our friends from the village plow their fields with the USAID labeled tractor.


  3. Interesting. I also think a mutual exchange would benefit all countries. I wish Macedonians could visit and work in America. Incidentally, I experienced culture shock in Macedonia, regarding blatant child abuse, principally in the Roma community in which small children are put on the streets to engage in aggressive bagging, etc. Also, there was a general lack of respect for privacy, this is a strong cultural value of mine. So it goes. I take some exception to the experience of the volunteer in Louisiana regarding blatant racism. As a native southerner, I know what she is talking about, but I experienced cultural shock on moving north when I found the same racism there. Reminds me of one of my favorite Bible passages, St.Luke, that I paraphrase: “How is it that you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and do not see the log in your own?”


    • Your point about racism is well taken. I think it exists in various ways all over the country. In the particular parts of Southern California where I grew up, it tends to take somewhat subtler forms. It was the blatantness (is that a word?) rather than the racism itself that surprised me. One could argue that less blatant kinds are in some ways worse. I certainly don’t think American racism is confined to the southern states. Thanks for commenting!


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