The Original TFAer

Way before Wendy Kopp made her plan at Princeton to send graduates of elite colleges to Teach (briefly) For America, at least one wealthy American spent a brief time as a teacher before moving on to his “real” career. In Philadelphia, Roberts Vaux (yes, with an -s. Family name.) began his career as a philanthropist and man-about-town by teaching at the Adelphi School for one year.roberts vaux

For Vaux and his family, it wasn’t a TFA thing, it was a Quaker thing. The idea of self-sacrificing service was a strong one among his religious group, as it was (and is) among a lot of religious groups. So, at the tender age of twenty, Vaux taught briefly at the Adelphi School, a Quaker school for low-income kids. For him, the experience was transformative. After he completed school and established himself as a successful merchant, Vaux devoted himself to improving his city.

One of Vaux’s causes was public education. He was the first president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Schools and the first president of the Board of Controllers for Philadelphia’s public schools.

Just as Wendy Kopp hoped it would do for a later generation of well-to-do young people, Vaux’s early experience teaching low-income children sparked a lifetime of interest in education and philanthropic work. As I read through his voluminous correspondence, it’s clear Vaux’s dedication to education for the poor was more than a whim or a hobby.

Lane letter schools work

We can’t tell if they really meant it or not, but lots of students wrote letters like this to Vaux.

Though it’s easy to mock the implied arrogance of Kopp’s Ivy-League TFA scheme, it’s hard to dislike Vaux. By the 1820s, Vaux was basically a full-time philanthropist, leading and participating in a million causes. He led the fight against slavery, even protesting against Quaker abolition societies for not going far enough. He also never did much self-promotion. That’s why there aren’t a lot of “Vaux-” named streets or buildings in Philly, even though he as a pillar of the community two centuries ago.

For Vaux at least, the experience of working as a teacher–even for just a short time–seemed to energize him for the rest of his life. Wendy Kopp would be proud.

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