The following is adapted from “Perpetuating, Committing, and Cultivating Racism: The Real Movement Behind TFA” my chapter in the forthcoming book Teach For America Counter-Narratives: Alumni Speak Up and Speak Out (in press, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.).
People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you. –Samuel L. Jackson
When I joined TFA, I was not the typical corps member. I was already certified with three initial years of teaching. I also had just earned my M.A. in instructional strategies. So why did I join TFA? I thought that I could change the world by teaching in “tough” schools where underprivileged students (mostly of color) did not have access to excellent teachers. At my core, I was attracted to being part of a movement to improve education for low-income students since I myself came from a low-income community.
In August of 2001 I began my corps experience a savior eager to level the field. Armed with knowledge and “grit,” I taught hard and my students learned. They recited facts, discussed texts, and defined science and geography terms. Their achievement scores increased, but my students undoubtedly learned something else, something much more powerful:
I unintentionally and quietly taught my students that something must be wrong with them so much so that White teachers would cycle into their community, do their time, and then be gone. I taught them that who they were and where they were from were not good enough. Not a single one of my lessons focused on my students’ rich history, the necessity and beauty of their dialect, or the strengths of their community. I did not teach them about systems of oppression or about colorblind racism that cuts deep and is internalized but is hard to see and to describe, especially for adolescents. My students did not learn how to respond to or to redress inequity. While TFA was telling me to be a transformational teacher, TFA was encouraging me to assimilate students and perpetuate the status quo.
Yes, my students learned; and yes, I closed the achievement gap for some, but at what cost? No, I did not go into my students’ homes and lynch them, but I may have killed their souls little by little, day by day, for two years.