Deferring six figures on Wall Street for teacher's salary

New York TimesJanuary 5, 2013 

FINANCE TEACHERS NONPROFIT 2

Zachary Dearing, one of 21 teachers in this year's class who deferred finance-job offers to join Teach for America, works with Cristian Alonso at Woodrow Wilson High School, in Dallas, Oct. 24, 2012. Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that recruits college graduates to teach in some of the nation's poorest schools, has garnered renewed interest among would-be finance professionals. (Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times)

BRANDON THIBODEAUX — NYT

Four years after the financial crisis, Wall Street hiring has remained weak, and many college graduates have searched for jobs and even careers in other fields. In the past several years, hundreds of such would-be finance professionals and management consultants have taken their high-powered ambitions and spreadsheet modeling skills to the classroom.

Teach for America, the 22-year-old nonprofit organization that recruits high-achieving college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s poorest schools for two years, in particular has garnered renewed interest among the business-oriented set.

Teach for America says that its 2012 class contained about 400 recent graduates with a major in business or economics. Of those with professional experience, about 175 worked in finance.

Those participants include Zachary Dearing, 23, a recent graduate of MIT. Two summers ago, he was an intern at McKinsey & Co., and the year before, Goldman Sachs.

Yet, he was one of 21 teachers in this year’s class who had deferred job offers from a Wall Street bank, a management consulting firm or another corporate partner to join Teach for America.

“If somebody had told me I was going to be a high school math teacher in Dallas, Texas, when I entered college, I’d be like, ‘No, there’s no chance of that being true,’ ” said Dearing, who has deferred an offer from McKinsey.

The teaching skills easily translate to office environments, he said.

“I’m effectively the leader, every day, for 46 minutes, in front of seven different groups.”

Teach for America also became a sought-after option for students like Eric Rodriguez, who was a senior at Harvard when the financial crisis hit. Rodriguez had completed two internships at Lehman Brothers and was expecting to work at the firm after he graduated. But as he started his senior year in September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and Wall Street was in a free fall.

A growing applicant pool

But that fall, Teach for America began to woo him to join its ranks.

“At Harvard, they harass you: ‘I’m going to be at this place, come meet me,’ ” he said. “It wasn’t until I was desperate that I said, ‘I’ll check this out and speak to this person.’ ”

In 2009, Rodriguez joined Teach for America and taught in an elementary school in San Francisco for two years. Afterward, he landed a job at Facebook in its user operations department. Teach for America said that its applicant pool had swelled during the recession and lackluster recovery. More than 48,000 applied for 5,800 spots in 2012, nearly twice as many as those who had sought positions for the 2008 class.

The relationship between the teachers in the program and those outside the program has often been tense. Critics of Teach for America say teachers, in general, are not at their best until they have been working for at least five years.

Teach for America contends that many of its teachers last beyond the required two years. Of its 28,000 alumni, two-thirds remain in education roles, including as principals and superintendents (about half of those educators are in classroom settings).

“It wouldn’t have the same appeal if it were for a longer period of time,” said Kaitlin Gastrock, a spokeswoman for Teach for America. “Two years is a reasonable ask to make of folks who are just finishing up their college experience.” Teach for America participants receive the same starting salary as first-year teachers in their districts, which is about $25,500 to $51,000 a year. That pales in comparisons to the six-figure salary and bonus structures that many elite college graduates can expect in finance.

‘A really strong name’

The previous internships in finance have proved to be effective teaching aids for some of the participants. Ross Peyser, a 2011 graduate of Cornell and a second-year teacher in New Orleans, was once an intern at Oliver Wyman, a financial services consulting firm. As a teacher, he still plays the role of data analyst, creating Excel spreadsheets to diagnose his students’ learning needs.

At the end of the day, he administers a five-question quiz to students to assess who understood the lesson. When class is over, he performs exhaustive data pulls in Excel, just as he did as a finance intern.

“I had a stronger basis to do my data analysis compared to all the other teachers in my school,” Peyser said. “It came more naturally just based on that one summer in finance.”

And more important, he and others do regard the program as one that provides essential job skills.

“TFA is a really strong name,” he said. “It seems as if going to work for McKinsey or something like that; they hold the same value.”

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