I arrived to D.C. in the middle of June. Not long after I’d given my college graduation commencement speech, I packed my bags to take a leap on faith. I’d supposed to stay in Michigan and finish out the traditional route: move back home, complete my year-long student teaching, and obtain my Michigan certification. But it was not a fiscal reality. So instead, conflicted, I joined Teach for America.
Before joining TFA, I’d been “talked to” about the horror stories and the bad rep teachers get for being apart of the organization. Michigan State University’s College of Education even banned Teach for America from doing in-class presentations of any kinds to their students in 2014. During the first week of TFA orientation (there’s a fancier name that I can’t remember), I thought that joining wasn’t such a bad decision after all.
I attribute this change to the heart of Teach for America: the people. The people who run Teach for America, specifically the D.C. region, had shown me a sheer passion for tackling educational equity that was absent from my traditional program. I’d spent four years at Michigan State trying to get white women to understand the teaching profession was more than adorable kids and cute lessons. During the TFA on-boarding process, there was an understanding of teaching as activism and structures in place to interrogate this meaning. All of the TFA staff members, most of whom are alums, brought their authentic truth to the work. Their sheer vulnerability about how a teacher’s identity influences their interactions with their students and schools, how TFA teachers aren’t saviors, and how culturally responsive teaching is crucial (the first time I’d heard this term was at my TFA orientation) made me fired up to teach in the D.C. Region.
Secondly, I’d made friends in my region fast, some of whom I still call friends to this day. We clicked instantly. The “white people from Ivy league schools” stereotype was not a reality in the D.C. region this year. I remember sitting at round tables surrounded by folks who looked like me, reflecting on how our power and privilege would make an impact on our students. We went out and drank. The experience of joining Teach for America created this instant bond that can’t be explained or understood by ‘outsiders’.
There were two issues that came up during my time preparing to enter the classroom for the first time that it’s important to acknowledge:
1) Aside from making us feel all good inside and mentally prepared to enter the classroom, TFA’s main priority was getting everyone hired. The true reality is that just because you join Teach for America does not mean that you will land a job by the end of institute. At the time, TFA had a strict first-offer policy. The first school to interview you and offer you a position you’d have to take. The first school that called me and offered me a job was a charter school whose Uncommon School copy-cat policies and particularly low-salary left me dumbfounded. I talked to every TFA staff member and everyone else I knew to protest what I called an injustice. But TFA’s problematic optimism and my own attitudes about being a first-generation college graduate who returns home after moving away for 5 days, led me to taking the job anyway. This moment taught me that though the interpersonal moments in TFA were strong, there were still systematic issues that made my relationship with the organization strained.
2) We traveled to Philadelphia for our Institute. Teach for America institute is a six-week, sink or swim, summer camp where several regions of well-meaning college graduates come together for a marathon of professional development to prepare novice teachers to confidently take their place come Fall. I taught a small fourth grade class with 4 other teachers at a dual-language school in North Philadelphia. The strongest part of the institute were the daily PDs centered around diversity and equity. But, this is not enough to be strong teachers. What was missing from Institute was hard-hitting PD helping teachers, with no experience in child development or the science of teaching and learning, learn pedagogy. The truth of the matter is we’d only received training in No-Nonsense Nurturer (NNN), a problematic behavior management system that strips away teachers and students’ humanity. While TFA corp members may have walked away with a stronger teacher identity, it was clear TFA didn’t give us much formal training on modern education philosophy to help them with pedagogy. Some teachers taught a different subject in Institute than their placement assignment. Luckily, I had my teaching degree. How helpful are we truly being to education equity if people aren’t familiar with the University research? (It’s important to put this in there because Charter schools will call anything they do research based)
One of the biggest takeaways about TFA I’ll take is that the people on the ground are overlooked. The national organization’s controversies completely overshadows the great things that the happen in the local regions. My Teach for America coaches gave me feedback on my lessons and processed my plans when my schools failed to do so. TFA-DC provided inclusive spaces to build community in the region with alumni and corp members regularly. TFA eliminated their First Offer policy after I sent emails about how that policy contributed to my awful first year of teaching. But, this does not shy away from Teach for America’s commitment to supplying man power to dehumanizing charter management organizations, recruiting and not properly training unskilled teachers, and it’s problematic and secret funding structure.
The truth is Teach for America is not going anywhere. TFA’s continued existence is built on and continues to foster educational inequity. And the real question is, will Teach for America’s “woke” staff members be able to continue changing the organization from the ground up? Or, will the problematic systems in TFA continue to outshine the staff and the work and needs of the corp members.
I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without the support I’ve gotten from the TFA-DC staff and my fellow corp members. Thank you Kimberly, Andrew, Teneea, Jae, Adele, Nashrah, and Nick. I appreciate the feedback on my lessons. Thank you for listening. And thank you for pushing me. So much of what I believe to be possible for our kids have been born from our conversations. Ben, Tequila, and Davian yall too have been shining examples from afar. Shaquise you are the most legendary teacher I know. You’ve found your footing and your calling. I’m always in awe of you. Thank you Quay and Dias for being my ride or die. You two alone have made joining Teach for America worth it.
This post is apart of a series called “Thank U, DC”. I’m deciding to post my reflections as I prepare to depart in the upcoming days. This should make for some interesting content.