Teach For America Mixed Messages on Diversity and Equity
Guest post by Kailee Lewis.
The homepage for Teach For America is an interesting one.
As a student of the English language, it's a great sales pitch.
As a member of "Education 4 Justice," a pre-corps development program that prepares Teach For America (or "TFA") Corps Members to teach in low-income communities different from their own backgrounds, I look at their sales pitch and know it's a lie.
Sure, the basics are real: "You'll teach for at least two years in a low-income community." Logistically, it's truthful.
But it's the next part that is not just false, it's a dangerous lie to tell "... where you'll show students what's possible when they work hard and dream big."
There are several issues with this concept that are dangerous to both those students taking that future Corps Member's class, as well as to the corps member and their expectations.
The TFA rhetoric that we must show students "how to work hard" implies that they aren't already doing so or that they don't know how. This condescending view of students in low-income areas is extremely common in middle-and-upper class neighborhoods, schools and places of higher education. This idea that 'hard work' can create something out of nothing neglects the fact that often in low-income communities there are multiple forms of oppression stacked against a child even before birth.
Education 4 Justice was teaching future teachers these things! Education 4 Justice was a program that allowed future corps members from all backgrounds, lifestyles, and cultures to recognize their privilege and their oppressions. In doing so, the program brings a level of understanding and awareness to the corps member with a realistic understanding of what lies ahead, not a skewed and overly "happy" expectation of success for their future classroom.
After TFA's low applicant numbers caused them to reprioritize their programming, things like diversification and in-depth training about educational equity seemed to take a back burner to getting those numbers back up. As an incoming corps member, I have so many questions about why an organization whose employment is based on a certain level of sensitivity and diversity training would cancel programs that address those particular issues.
For example, if you're applicant numbers are down, why not better prepare the applicants you have coming in (through programs like Education 4 Justice) and work to establish a more genuine connection to regions? If you have low applicant numbers, why not look at the regions where TFA isn't doing well integrating into the community and consider cutting regions indefinitely? If the genuine goal of TFA is to bring about educational equity, then why not be more conscious of the success rate of the teachers that you're putting in the classroom? Seems to me that the TFA system is working harder and not smarter.
Not only was Education 4 Justice teaching corps members amazing lessons with immeasurable value, it was the answer to a lot of the criticisms that TFA received. When I think about the fact that no future corps members will go through this program, I'm enraged. Not only is this program's cancellation a disservice to corps members, it's cancellation is a disservice to TFA itself.
More importantly, though, it's a disservice to the students who are going to have to attempt to learn from a corps member who can't understand the community they have stepped into because TFA didn't keep the programs to teach them how.
If there is one thing that we as 2015-2016 Education 4 Justice members learned in the final culminating event, it's that we need to keep fighting. We learned that there is no running from oppression. This program's cancellation is indeed a form of oppression.
This program was starting to awaken people to the histories and realities of education and the oppressive systems that are set against people of color, especially people of color in low-income neighborhoods across the country. These are the same communities that Teach for America's Corps Members will enter. To think that they don't need to be aware of those realities in order to teach the members of the community is both oppressive to the community and a disservice to the Corps Members.
Education 4 Justice taught us that in order for movements of actual pure justice to continue, a fight is not an option, it's a requirement. We decided we will fight, regardless of the setbacks, because this is what the communities we will serve have done. What type of educators would we be if we didn't continue on as they do?
So, while I'm still enrolled in Teach For America and gearing up for institute and my first year in the classroom, until this program is returned and those who have made this vision happen are reinstated, I will not be referring anyone to the program and definitely won't be speaking about it without the acknowledgement of it's shortcomings and the removal of one of the best programs I've ever experienced.
I will document my Teach For America experience quite intensely and will be brutally honest for the sake of future corps members. I will not do what the organization does and hide behind flowery language and promises of success. I will be honest so that people don't enter this program thinking that they can "show a child how to work hard" or that they can leave feeling as if they "saved a community."
Kailee is a recent graduate of Central Michigan University and is planning to teach Secondary English in Stockton, California. She's a lover of all things Jurassic, WWE and 'The Boy Who Lived'. When she's not dreaming about being the best teacher ever, she's with her daughter, Aaliyah, and husband, Jason.
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