The other day I was interviewing an applicant who wanted to tutor with my company. She had a strong résumé, and I was interested in hiring her, but I noticed she mentioned in her cover letter previously teaching in an inner-city public school, and in her interview, had expressed several times her commitment to helping those students get to college.
I have a certain policy when I interview anyone who’s worked with TFA, AmeriCorps, or any state-funded teaching program that’s led them to work in lower-income public schools; essentially anyone who’s chosen to work specifically with kids who aren’t rich. My policy is to warn them. I figure the fairest thing is devote thirty seconds of the interview to checking in with these applicants, and making sure that they have accounted for the fact that this is a very different environment with very different students: namely, the super-rich. The kids who are definitely going to college. I check that their mission is one that includes our demographic, or if their mission is to serve the underserved, that they understand that this simply has to be their day job. I do this quickly and only in so many words. Not only does it seem right to make sure our applicants understand this before they dive in, but it’s a good way for me to gauge whether or not they understand our business and still think it isn’t evil.
Most candidates nod knowingly, visibly relaxing when I make clear that I understand the distinction between their past work and ours. “I get that,” they tell me. “But everyone deserves an education, right? Everyone needs to be taught,” the most self-possessed applicants tell me. It’s a small moment of honesty in which, ideally, I can get the sense from a candidate that they know this isn’t the work they want to spend their lives doing, but that it can be good in its way. Good for now.
The applicant the other day, though, interrupted me. “I really admire the work you’ve done in the past,” I told her. “I just want to be honest about the fact that this is a somewhat different demographic of students—"
“No, I know,” she cut in. “They’re driven. Don’t worry, I’ve worked with highly intelligent students in the past who wanted to really push themselves.” She went on to describe some of the extremely competitive students she’d worked with in the past, and how hard they were to please until their scores were perfect.
I kept trying to back track and make her understand what I meant in vague, vanilla terms. “Well, not that, exactly… I mean to say that these students come from an entirely different background, and that our clients tend to be fairly demanding…” But, no matter how I tried to phrase it, she still seemed to think I was speaking only in terms of academics, not economic ethics.
I know you’ve been trying to save the world, I wanted to say, but I need to make sure you understand that this is as FOR-PROFIT as companies get.
But I balk, and back down, feeling sort of dirty and not knowing why.
Thinking about it later, I realized what had bothered me so much about the moment. I withered at the idea that anyone could leave my office thinking that I’d made the point that the major difference between our students and the ones in inner-city public schools was that ours are smarter. That ours want it more. That our rich kids from the right part of town are simply the ones willing to do the work. It felt like even allowing that notion to go uncorrected was a slap in my own face. That maybe I don’t have 100% of the self-righteous self-awareness I love to feel anointed with.
My direct colleagues at work (i.e. the people I don’t report to) and I don’t crunch the numbers much—it isn’t part of our jobs. Whenever we’re made to deal with them, though, it’s pretty unanimously everyone’s least favorite part of the work. “Who can afford all this?” is a commonly asked question among us whenever we look closely at bills or revenues. Seeing as most of us come from education, as a group we keep fairly up- to-date with news about our city’s school system, the failure and poverty it’s becoming famous for in the state. “We’re part of the problem, aren’t we?” a colleague once asked me in her car as we listened to a story on the radio about high school drop out rates.
“Yes and no, I guess,” I responded.
It’s that age-old question of whether or not it’s better to know you’re doing wrong, or act in ignorance. Which, to be fair, I think everyone pretty much answers ignorance. But I look around and see my colleagues spending their free time volunteering at after-school literacy programs, college-readiness classes for the underserved, free summer camps for kids from dangerous parts of town. It’s not as though they’re sealing themselves in a vacuum where they can pretend their not bending their own ethics. But one can’t shake the feeling that we’re all trying to undo the damage we feel inextricably a part of. And what’s there to say about an educational business at which a critical mass of the employees feel a debt to society for the work that they do?
To my knowledge, we’ve never had a new employee quit because they found our business distasteful. The rude awakening has never been such that someone has left the job altogether; we are, after all, still teaching young people, not feeding them arsenic. And there are definitely instructors in our employ who care, who are talented, who are “teachers” more than “tutors.” But the number of conversations I’ve had with tutors and managers and employees at my company where one or the other of us has said “I can’t imagine doing this work alone—it’s just funding what I really care about.”
When else have you ever heard a teacher say that?