I've been planning this post for some time, and then postponing indefinitely both because it feels scary to write and scary to put up online (while I have no problem with solipsistic navel-gazing, I missed the memo to millennials about unashamedly baring my life to the internets), but it also feels increasingly inescapable. The more I wrestle with some of the oppression-and-representation critiques of Teach For America (as opposed to the preparation and growth and political critiques, not that these are entirely separate), the more I need to publicly acknowledge that I am Teach For America. So, even though I find it much easier to interact with other teachers and teacher educators as a "fellow educator" and allow them to judge me on what I have to say rather than who I'm affiliated with (thank you, #mtbos, for being so gracious over the years; I wish other journalists/bloggers/writers/educators I've met were as similarly generous), I think it's time to be upfront.
I've asked myself many times why I'm so reluctant to identify as Teach For America, and while there are far more complex reasons, the simplest is that I'm conflict-avoidant and prefer to run away from even the slightest risk of confrontation-- like the anti-TFA vitriol that exists in other corners of the internet. There's also the part of me that's an eternal rule-follower and grateful paycheck-receiver that doesn't know whether I'm allowed to publicly admit that I don't agree with everything we do or say or think or are, which creates lots of fun cognitive dissonance . But I've made my peace with working here, warts and all, and I think it's time to come clean-- at the very least because I think it'll be easier for me than skulking around in the shadows preemptively apologizing for what I do, and in the event that there is something useful I can contribute to the conversation.
I joined the corps right after graduation, and taught high school math (no, that wasn't my college major) in a charter school in the middle of a peanut field in rural North Carolina, in a school, district, and county where teacher shortages are still very much a problem. My initial motivations were mostly a mix of self-righteous indignation and an intellectual understanding of justice ("how could the country that I owe so much to be treating others so inequitably?"), curiosity ("can I actually put my money where my mouth is?"), and the desire to honor the choices my parents had made and continue to make in their careers, volunteer work, and lifestyles. I'm not sure I ever drank the TFA Kool-Aid, maybe in part because right away our institute pre-work made it clear that I wasn't fully welcome (yes, there's a story behind this; no, it doesn't belong here).
I'm college-educated, and the child of two college-educated parents. I was born a US citizen to immigrant parents and attended a public high school in a mid-sized Midwestern district with high property taxes, and one of my parents had stable professional employment (as a unionized educator) for most of my life. In many senses, I am incredibly privileged. I've also received a substantial amount of public assistance, both in the form of WIC and state university tuition grants, don't have any grandparents with more than an elementary school education, did not speak English as a first language, and identify as AAPI. There's much more to it than that, of course, although these are the aspects of my identity that seem to be most salient in my day-to-day work.
One of my colleagues often talks about how TFA's mission, that "one day all children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education," sometimes appears to have two unspoken words at the end: "like mine." And that was in large part what I originally thought: even though my education was mediocre compared to that of my friends who attended private schools, boarding schools, or even public schools in metropolitan areas on the coasts, it gave me a solid academic foundation and opened doors to many opportunities, and didn't I want that for my students-- foundation and opportunities?
I left the classroom because I wasn't doing enough, and because I was too burnt out to do more (although that's not what I said when I left). Now I'm in my fifth year on Teach For America staff, doing a job I often feel underqualified for but am thrilled to have, and when I look back on my teaching experience, I see much that I'm proud of, and much that I wish I'd done better. In particular, I think I was teaching my students to be successful the way that I'd been successful: put your head down, work hard, exceed the expectations of those around you, and don't expect too much (attention/empathy/support) from anyone else. If what others want from you means you can't be yourself, build up a great big wall between your personal and professional selves, your family and your friends/colleagues, your inner and outer lives. After all, society has taught me that assimilation (not even code-switching, but full on internalization of the dominant culture's norms, expectations, and ways of being) is the only way for people who look like me to be accepted, and that's what I believed, unquestioningly, for the first 25 years or so of my life-- or at least, that's how I operated. But in the past few years, I haven't been able to repress my inner cynic quite so much, and I think had I realized this sooner, I would have been closer to the teacher my students deserved.
And this is perhaps (currently) my biggest beef with Teach For America, and the one I'm most eager to tackle from inside as part of our teacher preparation and support design/innovation team. What does it look like to recruit, select (okay, I have zero influence over those first two), train, and support our teachers so that they make their instructional choices with a deep understanding of their own identity, their students' identities, and how these identities-- and the way they're influenced by, situated in, and reflected in society-- affect the relationships they're able to build and consequently, the mathematics (my business card still says "secondary math," so I had to stick that in here somehow) that students are able to learn?
If you have an answer, or would like to excoriate me for my affiliation, please leave it in the comments.