As a teacher, I believe that the general public experiences a level of concerning comfort when criticizing educational policies or teachers in general. Society conditions us to believe that teachers are the most docile and intellectually feeble among us, which manifests in think pieces and memes with the punch line that classroom educators aren’t cerebral enough to conceive their own policy solutions. I say all of this to say that this post belongs to a large family of criticism of Teach for America, much of which is trite and unjustified. TFA’s blunders have been used as scapegoats to avoid permeating policy issues that are much more complicated. This is not one of those pieces. I write this as a TFA alumni and current staff member. My perspective is borne from my experiences; in many cases, the most rigorous and dope classrooms I’ve ever witnessed belonged to TFA teachers. I write this with the optimistic determination that the organization can do a better job of vetting teachers who miss the mark.
Setting the Scene
TFA corps members are given a five-week, summer preparation course dubbed, “institute” before leading classrooms in their placement regions. Starting in 2017, general education classroom educators were given scripted lesson plans for the first two weeks. These plans are meant to be exemplars in the field of culturally responsive pedagogy, meaning that they are infused with anti-racist texts and perspectives. For example, the secondary ELA curriculum uses Barrack Obama’s remarks after the murder of Trayvon Martin to teach students to cite claims with evidence. Perhaps it is worth noting that a white man wrote this curriculum or that this lesson about police brutality occurs on the second day corps members are in front of students. I’ve heard experienced teachers debate the merits of this curriculum and call into question its coherence and trauma informed lens.
This example embodies the macro environment of institute. Corps members are encouraged to broach highly sensitive topics embedding in race, class, and equity before building a foundation of trust with their students and surrounding community. If any of my readers share my financial background, I invite you to explore a risk/reward analysis of the climate. At best, a TFA teacher spends five weeks empowering students to equip themselves with important activism tools. At worst, a TFA teacher inflicts emotional pain on minors as the teacher stumbles through a text that contains the, “n word.”
In this high risk-high reward situation, all of these topics are filtered through a teacher’s mindsets and biases. I posit that the success of the TFA teacher is highly correlated with the quality of the diversity, equity, and inclusivity training offered and the corps member’s engagement with this material.
DEI at Institute
TFA’s DEI sessions are mandatory and implemented by a trained facilitator. These core sessions are given throughout institute and for many regions, throughout the corps commitment. As I’ve connect with alumni as far back as the 1992 corps, I’ve come to learn that TFA has been able to respond to criticism and grow with respect to the DEI curriculum. Although education inequity has always been about race, there was a time when TFA did not bring up the topic of race during its training. While this is no longer the case, injecting race-based conversations into the institute model requires frequent and intense reflection.
The Racist Corps Member
The organization recruitment model has evolved and devolved over the years, choosing to prioritize potential corps members with varying skill sets. At one point TFA sought after highly organized individuals, then people who had a track record of gritting through difficult experiences, and finally the activist-teacher model. Searching for teachers that have a demonstrated passion for activism and meaningful connection to the cause certainly improves the likelihood that teachers will be able to complete their corps commitment. However, a recruiter must keep in mind that teaching can be an act of resistance at a very micro and under appreciated level. The activist, fuck-the-man educator is then forced to grapple with some of the most nonsensical and blatantly racist policies and conditions in US history.
Under any recruitment model, the potential exists to select and hire racist teachers. The resume boosting potential of a TFA stamp is strong enough to attract people hailing from all ranges of caucasity (see also: problematic whiteness). There are people with enough emotional and social intelligence in to parrot back vague remarks about social justice during an interview. In my own region, I had the displeasure of serving alongside a woman who was personally invited to the White House on the night of Trump’s inauguration. I’ve witnessed racist acts that ranged from micro-aggressive body language to overt declarations of white supremacy.
- How does Teach for America’s recruitment team vet teachers for problematic beliefs?
- At what point will Teach for America dismiss corps members who have demonstrated problematic mindsets?
- What is Teach for America’s approach to handling the problem white fragility?
Given that I’ve never held a TFA staff position in which I’ve been tasked with hiring or firing, I’m focusing on the third question. I’ve run white affinity spaces for TFA, which gives me a particularly unique insight into the organization’s orientation toward white fragility. For those who are unaware, white affinity spaces are required components of the DEI curriculum, in which all corps member must select a space that aligns to their racial identity. The two spaces offered at all national institutes are for people that identify as white and people who identify as a person of color.
This structure is introduced to corps members during a DEI core session. Facilitators are trained to state a variation of the fact that racism is an omnipresent, negative force and that this exercise may bring up negative feelings. When I first heard this, I thought that this statement was meant to prepare white people for a challenging experience involving cognitive dissonance. This is not the case, yet.
The next step of rolling out this structure is to explain the purpose of creating mandatory race-based affinity spaces. The slide deck given to facilitators states that the overarching goal of both spaces is to create an “intra-group alliance.” This is dangerously vague, as we send a group of white people tasked with teaching students of color into a room alone. History provides us with a selection of all-white groups who were successful in forming an, “intra-group alliance,” while performing acts of violence, colonization, and gentrification.
While the language from national curriculum writers is weak and unclear, I have found that the individuals who volunteer to lead these spaces often are able to articulate goals that are much more defined and aligned to an anti-racist mission. Perhaps it is a self-selection phenomenon, but the leaders of these spaces that I’ve interacted with have been able to design compelling exercises that force reflection on internal biases. For example, one leader of these spaces created an activity in which corps members closed their eyes and were asked to raise their hands if they were guilty of certain racist behaviors and thoughts. Corps members were then given space to reflect on their connections to their thoughts in small groups and make action-oriented commitments.
These reflections center on my experience leading a white affinity space during the pilot year that this piece was introduced into the curriculum. As TFA re-examines this decision, they supplied current staff members with an aggregated snapshot of data about corps members’ responses to these spaces. I was not surprised to find that these reactions to these spaces were highly critical. I do not consider my cohort of about 40 white corps members to be a highly representative sample but I was able to witness first hand the mental gymnastics that white people are willing to engage in as they avoid discussing race. I’ve seen women challenge me on not being a feminist because my space didn’t force discussion around gender-related issues. There were queer people who wanted to talk about their experiences with homophobia. Some of my corps members wanted to center their experiences battling anxiety and depression. We talked about the prejudice encountered by people who require emotional support animals. There was a corps member who wrote a lengthy response to an open-ended survey question in which she demanded that we allow space to examine Jewish heritage. Italian-American oppression also breached my white affinity space.
Believe it or not, a collection of white teachers who self-selected into an organization tasked with disrupting educational inequity wanted to discuss anything but race. We had everything from tears, walkouts, and anonymous letters.
This is why I falter before joining TFA as we examine corps members’ reactions and responses. All forces in this country, both powerful and benign are impacted by the thoughts and feelings of white people. Imagine how refreshing it could be to make large-scale organizational decisions while ignoring this fragile force. TFA seems to understand this at some level, because in the same training in which we examined the reactions to the affinity spaces we were introduced to the Kirkpatrick Model of evaluating staff training. The graphic delineates the different levels in which a training program can be examined, with reactions being the most superficial and results being the most meaningful.
In an act of unintentional irony, TFA proceeded to examine only the reactions of these affinity spaces. Did their implementation correlation with improved retention rates, test scores, or other quantifiable measures? We didn’t explore these questions.
What we did explore was a paradigm meant to cultivate a space that will lead to increased learning. We did this by discussing the Discomfort Zone from Training for Change. The graphic below will be presented at all TFA institutes during the 2018 institute.
Before I address the comical ways that I can foresee corps members using the term, “alarm zone,” I will admit that pushing a person to reflect on their mindsets and internalized racial superiority is a complicated practice, both science and art. These interactions must be grounded in mutual trust. White people are especially fragile in this arena. I have leveraged my privilege to generate the greatest degree of change in people’s behavior is when I’ve approached people with the belief that have an inherent desire to be the best teachers for their students. It can be an agonizingly complex process but my experiences confirm the importance of a generous spirit in these situations.
Even so, I believe that this methodology of naming for corps members – that they have the right to a self-directed, completely relative, “alarm zone” – invites fragility. Neither the parameters of these zones or the benefits of experiencing cognitive dissonance are specifically named for corps members. Many of my students who have entered my classroom in an, “alarm zone” state have done so because of trauma caused by years of racist policies.
Until Teach for America is ready to disband its adored practice of surveying corps members and alumni and making changes based on these reactions, we continue to empower slacktivism and other mimes of activism. Incoming white educators do not need to be given an alarm zone flag to raise when conversations get uncomfortable, they need the a tougher version of the warm/strict, “No Nonsense Nurturer,” practices we are told to use on children.