Letterman’s Top Ten Tribute to Teachers Needs More than Teach for America

May 19, 2013 — 5 Comments

Tributes for teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week are welcome coming just as the school year comes to a close when very tired teachers are looking back to see student progress over the past eight months. Many of the tributes are touching, and some are comical. Comedy was the intent of the The Late Show with David Letterman, when the producers invited ten (10)  Teach For America teachers to deliver Letterman’s Top Ten List. In introducing the selected ten teachers, Letterman prefaced the performance with his own tribute,

“My God! If there is a future, it is in the hands of our teachers doing thankless work day after day (APPLAUSE) …..and by the way thankless is the wrong word… we should be grateful, eternally grateful, for the work these people do…”

After his heart-felt introduction, each of the ten Teach for American teachers stepped forward to deliver one entry on the list:

The Top 10 Reasons I Decided to Become a Teacher

  • 10. I hope to live up to the teachers who inspired me. . .like Ms. What’s Her Name
  • 9. It’s no fun saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day by myself.
  • 8. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention the first time through school.
  • 7. Kids need to know the moon landing was faked. 
  • 6. If I could make a difference in just one student’s life–well, that wouldn’t be a very good average. 
  • 5. The glamour. 
  • 4. You work long hours, but at least the pay is bad.
  • 3. Hoping to teach in an all song-and-dance high school, like on “Glee.” 
  • 2. In the summer, I can watch all you losers go to the office. 
  • 1. I want to help kids talk good. 

This very funny video was posted on the Teach for America website, listing participating teachers as members of the Class of ’13. Teach for America is a not for profit organization established in 1990 under a proposal by Wendy Kopp. The original objective is explained on their website:

We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.                 

Teach for America sent 500 teachers to low-income schools in its first year. To date, over 33,000 have completed the program, however, Teach for America has come under some criticism for the “temporary” nature of the assignments. Two years of teaching is not enough, argued David Greene in an editorial featured in the New York Times (4/30/13),Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching”:

Corps members should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher, then teach for at least four years, not two. That may discourage some. Good. We want career teachers. A “temp” work force does not improve education or erase the achievement gap. Rather it helps to create havoc in schools desperately trying to gain stability, a key factor in any school’s success.

Greene explained that he has served in the past as a mentor to Teach for America corps members, and that he has seen their “tears, anxieties, heartaches, successes and achievements.” He claims, however, that the preparation for these teachers now includes “simple, formulaic scripts” instead of letting these teachers be “creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending.” He noted:

Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom. In our anti-teacher world and scripted teaching climate perpetuated by corporate reformers, what room is there for the teachers we want for our kids?

Greene cautioned that the today’s Teach for America has “morphed into more of a leadership institute”, with too little classroom experience to inform the members as they move quickly from the classroom into higher levels in education administration and in educational reform.

Letterman’s producers must be applauded for focusing attention on teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, but in the future, they might consider a different group to represent teachers. Perhaps they could recruit seasoned veteran teachers who made this career choice, or if new teachers are what they want, they might look to spotlight new teachers who do not have the benefits of training and continuing support from Teach for America. Or, they might look to recruit the teacher described below in a letter published in the NYTimes written by Derl Clausen, a high school student, in a response to Greene’s editorial:

He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; they leave inspired.

He tells them about life: the challenges, the problems, the reason he’s half-shaven. He turns “Romeo and Juliet” into a lesson on love, algebra into a philosophy discussion, and science into an art appreciation class. Vocabulary, equations and historical dates will enter and leave children’s memories, but the inspiration, motivation and wisdom that he gives them will remain throughout their lives.

It’s that teacher who is worth the five-minute wait, the smell of coffee — and if anyone questions his half-shaven beard, he’ll learn a whole lot more about life.

Clausen’s describes a teacher who goes “off script”, a teacher that fits Greene’s observation that, “Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students.” Clausen’s portrait could be a choice worth of a Top Ten List, or maybe even a guest appearance. Clausen and the half-shaved teacher as guests on The Late Show with David Letterman for Teacher Appreciation Week 2014? Not a satirical list, but one real teacher-student relationship as part of a Teacher Appreciation Week “Top Ten”.

5 responses to Letterman’s Top Ten Tribute to Teachers Needs More than Teach for America


    I volunteer to tell him what I told people in thoseTimes letters….and a whole lot more.


      I regretted not responding to your letter in the NYTimes. When I saw this video, I vowed not to let the opportunity slip by again.
      I hope you get an opportunity to continue the dialogue, on Letterman or any other platform. You have a voice that should be heard in these contentious times for educators and their students.


        Thanks. There are many other voices as well. Barbara Veltri has written a great book on the subject, “Learning on Other People’s Kids.” We are trying to get someone to do a film. No takers yet.

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