This question was left by a Corps Member in a recent Diversity session I facilitated.
Given the nature of the high need and sensitivity of working in low income communities through Teach for America, do you personally feel that TFA (institute) adequately prepares corps members to enter classrooms in August?
A corps member left this question for me after our latest diversity session, working with families. I am left thinking this question at the end of 13 hour days seeing corps members planning at 11pm and later throughout the dorm. I think about this question when I walk into destructive and unruly classrooms at the beginning of week 2, when corps members first enter the classroom. And I am left thinking, no it does not, but what can?
Diversity sessions are meant to push us to examine ourselves and the mental “baggage” that we bring into the classroom. These sessions are based in the premise that your mindsets, the archetypes and biases you have that are formed by your own personal history, directly affect your actions in the classroom with students and in all interactions in life. We are pushed to examine how the “smog” of our everyday existence seeps into our minds and inadvertently affects how we interact with everybody in our lives, but most importantly with students and their families. In the same vein the decisions that we don’t make are also shaped by these archetypes and the biases they create. Within diversity sessions you are not being asked to wallow in the guilt of negative thoughts and actions based on a lifetime of negative messages fed to you by the media, friends, family, and your own experiences. Rather, to find the space to reflect on who you are, what events shaped who you are, and how that will affect yourself and your students.
Within the session in question we read a piece by Dyan Watson “Letter from a Black mother to her son.” The article expresses the hopes, dreams, and aspirations Ms. Watson has for her son and her son’s teachers. She expresses many multifaceted hopes and fears throughout the article. She expresses her fear of sending a young Black boy to school in a society that “over-enrolls them in special education” which “criminalizes them at a young age” and “view them as negative statistics on the dark side of the achievement gap.” Ultimately, she shares a story from her first days in school when a teacher found her unique gifts and utilized them to inspire and teach others. She was so moved by that experience that it pushed her into teaching, she shares “That, my son, is my hope for you. I hope your teachers will love you for who you are and the promise of what you’ll be.”
Throughout the discussion of race and class in schools is the underlying current that what we do as teachers makes such a small impact when compared to the larger impact of the negative messages students hear, see, and unintentionally internalize through the media. Beverly Tatum calls this the “Smog” of racism. She writes ““If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorizations of those groups that form the basis of prejudice.” Within this continuous bombardment of negative messages we are pushed by our own calling, to serve the students for whom these negatives messages are meant to subjugate and who are the receivers of these lowered expectations caused by this relentless onslaught. So, what are we to do?
As a white man I know that I am beneficiary of these negative messages about people of color, women, sexual-orientation, and class. As Jack Donaghy says on 30 Rock “He’s a white man with hair Lemon, the sky’s the limit.” Because if one set of people is subjugated than the natural and unfortunate flip side is that another set of people is pushed upwards and benefits from that subjugation. Through my own reflection and self-examination I have come to an understanding that through none of my own intelligence, hard work, or talents I receive certain privileges at the expense of others. Taken by itself and seen in isolation this fact could weigh me down to the point of complete and utter exhaustion and inaction. At times I feel like why should I as a white man try and help the students and families that my own privileges have subjugated?
Within my day to day existence I know that I have archetypes for people, situations, and systems that affect how I interact with those same people, situations, and systems. I also know that because I work in an inner city school in Baltimore a rust-belt city on the East Coast that those same archetypes are often negative and do not serve to better the actions I take in front of my students or as a school leader. I am, however, aware that they exist and that for me is the first step. I know that I am not perfect, will never be perfect, and really don’t strive for perfection. What I do strive for, however, is continued betterment for myself and those around me. This means that I examine who I am and what I bring into a situation and interaction on a daily basis. A New York DJ named Jay Smooth likens this idea to bathing. He says that people are not simply racist or not racist, but that we all have small pockets of prejudice in our psyche. The only way to interact positively with these prejudices is to clean ourselves daily just like we clean ourselves daily. As a white man this is of vital importance to my success with students and families. This I learned from my CMA at institute. She pushed me to analyze who I am and what I bring to every interaction especially when it comes to the schools and students I serve.
After seeing this comment I started reflecting on my own time at institute and the struggles and growth I experienced as a corps members. I thought about my own development as a teacher. I was placed at Martin Luther King, Jr High School in North Philadelphia and the struggle I went through that summer: my inability to truly connect with students, my inadequacy with my colleagues, and my true failings as an educator and role model. I was reflecting on a particular student named Muttalib and my complete and utter failure to engage him in the class I was teaching and, in my own estimation, his own education. My time at MLK taught me so much about students and my own “baggage” that affected the actions I took with my students. I don’t think I left an amazing teacher, but I did leave amazingly changed.
Does Institute adequately prepare you for the classroom in the fall? Only if you let it. The true power of institute, like anything that is difficult, is that you get double what you give. If you give yourself to the process of learning, growth, reflection, and change you can become the teacher who is able to empower students to change their life trajectories. I am a white man from Minnesota who teaches at a truly diverse and unique school in Baltimore. I am different from them and they are different from me. Many of the easy privileges and assumptions people make about me will never be made about them and nothing I can do can change that. What I can change, however, are the opportunities they are exposed to the, I can empower them not with the cliché “you can be whatever or whoever you want”, but with the real opportunities that will allow One Day to be true for them, if not for all students.