Unlearning "These Kids Need You"

In solidarity with teachers, administrators, parents, and students in Louisiana who feel oppressed and frustrated by state standardized tests that are being administrated this week, I'm posting an essay a day about unlearning what I was taught in my first two years of teaching. Click here to read the full introduction.

My senior year of college, I had my mind made up about what I was going to do, but no idea how I was going to do it. I was going to move to New York and become a journalist, somehow. I had spent some time working at The Nation Magazine the summer before, and i wondered if maybe they would rehire me to do some kind menial task (after all, I'd been a diligent fact-checker, and I wore such quirky outfits to the office). So there I was, perched on the edge of the vast unknown of a freckly job market, determined to succeed at find a profession in a dying industry, when I got an e-mail from Teach for America.

The e-mail was short and sweet, but specific. It said that the organization had heard of me (me!), and that they thought I would be a great fit for their program. Did I want to meet with them in the basement of the student center? They would love to find out more about me and my work as the editor-in-chief of the student paper. 

Obviously, TFA had done its research on me, and it's all any college kid wants to be individually recognized. TFA is good at making the people it recruits feel special and elite -- which is something I would come to understand in greater potency over the next few years. I went to the student center basement to talk to the representative, not because I had any interest in teaching, but because I was flattered that they thought I was special.

In the basement of the student center, a healthy-looking blonde woman who managed to look simultaneously put-together and hip sat waiting for me at a round table. She was sipping a latte and rocking her 18-month-old baby who slept soundly in a chic beige rocker that was miraculously stain-free. She looked like an ad out of an IKEA catalogue, and everything a girl my age could hope to grow up to be: happy, calm, breezily managing a career and a family. I was intrigued.

The woman (her name was Jen Lastname, but I could call her Jen) showed me a bunch of pie charts and line graphs that illustrated the severity of the education gap in America. She spoke with unruffled urgency: this problem was enormous, and unfortunately, there weren't enough good teachers to fill all the holes in this desperately-lacking educational landscape. Luckily, Teach for America was there, and its mission was to place hardworking, smart, thoughtful people (like Jen could already tell I was) in communities that needed them the most. Don't worry, Jen assured me, you only had to teach for two years, and then you were free to leave. Don't worry, Jen assured me, TFA would show me how to be a good teacher -- there was a training intensive the summer before the program began that was five whole weeks long. Then Jen showed me a map. She pointed to New Orleans. This was 2008 -- Hurricane Katrina was nearing its three-year anniversary, and its wake, education reform was booming. 

"We especially want to place teachers here," said Jen. "I know the storm was horrible for a lot of people, and I would never say it was good, but in some ways, it was the best thing that could have happened to New Orleans, because the education system there was completely broken before the storm hit. Now, America is really looking at New Orleans. We have the opportunity to rebuild this system the right way, from the ground up." Then she looked at me with the sort of direct acerbity that told me that she had been a teacher once, and said, "These kids need you."

Jen was convincing. I had never thought about being a teacher, and I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, but she had been pretty clear that Teach for America wasn't going to force me to stay anywhere past my two-year commitment. I'd still have plenty of time to go be a journalist in New York, and I'd have more stories to tell and experiences to draw upon. I decided to fill out an application. This decision shocked everyone in my life: "But... you don't want to be a teacher," they kept saying. The people in my life had clearly not met Jen. I assured them that I wasn't going to be a teacher. I was just going to spend two years giving my time to some kids who really needed me, before I went off and became a journalist in New York, just as the plan had always been. 

I liked TFA institute. The people I met there were passionate about educational equity, and were generally no-nonsense, let's-make-this-world-better-types. I liked working to the bone every day to fast-track my way to a teaching certificate. I felt like I was learning a lot. I trained in Phoenix, Arizona, where I woke up at 4 every morning and went to bed at midnight every night, and spent every waking hour reading, planning, or teaching. I felt like I was a part of a big machine, and it was weirdly comforting.

But then I got to New Orleans, and the rhythmic lull of the carefully-constructed system Teach for America had laid out in Phoenix was immediately unmoored. I was thrown into a school with one of the last remaining locally-raised African-American principals. She was aware of the changing tide in the educational arena, and she didn't like me. At the time, I felt unfairly oppressed by her. I felt like she favored the other black veteran educators at the school, and didn't care what I brought to the table. I probably felt that way because she did favor them (although in hind's sight, she made a valiant effort to be outwardly nice to me). It's just that at the time I wasn't able to contextualize what was going on in New Orleans, and I was unable to see my place in all of it.

The story I was told (and the story I that made me feel the best about myself and what I was doing) was that the kids in New Orleans needed me. They needed me because there was a shortage of "good" teachers, and I was going to be a "good" teacher. Here is what actually happened after Hurricane Katrina: the state used the storm as an opportunity to wrongfully fire all 7,000 teachers who worked in the school system. If you think I'm exaggerating, here is the first paragraph in an article that recently ran in the New Orleans Times Picayune:

In a lawsuit that some say could bankrupt the Orleans Parish public school system, an appeals court has decided that the School Board wrongly terminated more than 7,000 teachers after Hurricane Katrina. Those teachers were not given due process, and many teachers had the right to be rehired as jobs opened up in the first years after the storm, the court said in a unanimous opinion.

Before the storm, the majority of educators in New Orleans were African-American women, and no, they were not allowed to return to their jobs. For the most part, their jobs no longer existed, because (just as Jen told me), the state had taken the "opportunity" granted by Hurricane Katrina to bulldoze the current school system and replace it with a charter model. They've done it so successfully that in September, New Orleans will become the first city in America to have a fully chartered structure. There are a lot of people who really believe this new system is a better one. There are statistics that say that this system is a better one. Sixty-five percent of schools were deemed "failing" by the state before Katrina; now that number is down to six percent. Those statistics, however, fail to mention that since the storm, the standards for what constitutes a failing school have dramatically changed, making it more difficult to fail. And they also don't mention that the charter system makes it easier for schools to shift children who suffer from behavioral differences or learning disabilities to alternative schools, so test scores look better on paper.

I have talked to a lot of people -- parents, teachers, children, administrators, custodial staff, community members -- and have not heard one consistent answer about whether schools were better before or after the storm. Everyone has an opinion on that, but what seems to be dependably true is that everyone wants better things for kids. I can believe that schools in New Orleans weren't good enough before the storm. But, having spent time in dozens of charter schools across the city, I can say with absolute certainty that schools in New Orleans also aren't good enough now.

There was a pivotal moment for me in my time in New Orleans, where my perspective on all this changed. I was attending a roundtable conversation about community action and eduction in New Orleans. The room was filled almost exclusively with young, white teachers from out of town, who had an inkling that the education reform movement was not all it was chalked up to be. There was one African-American man in the room -- a relative elder who had been born and raised in New Orleans, and had devoted his life to community action and preservation in his home city. Everyone had been speaking politely and somberly about the state of things in New Orleans. "No one really knows what's best" was a popular sentiment; "I want what's right for children" was also prominent. Suddenly, the African-American man said, quietly, severely, "We didn't ask you to come here. We didn't need you. We can fight for ourselves; the people of New Orleans are strong. You think you can come here and fix this system? You are breaking it." And then he got up, and left.

In that moment, I was angry. I had put my entire life on hold to come down here and teach, and yeah, someone had asked me to come! But then, all of a sudden, I realized the person who had asked me to come was not a person from New Orleans, whose life was wrapped up in the changes that were made here. The person who had asked me to come was Jen, from Seattle, Washington.

The people who argue that education reform is changing things for the better are rarely community members, or people who are most affected by the change. There are exceptions to that rule, sure -- TFA and charter organizations find the exceptions and make them their poster children. But the more I have spoken to local teachers and parents, the more I am finding that the people for whom education change is most integral -- the people whose children go to the schools TFA teachers teach in -- are often not thrilled with the world they see emerging

But, look. Lots of the people -- if not most of the people -- I know who have come to education through TFA are well-meaning, hard-working, very good at what they do, and very passionate about doing right by children. If I'm being honest, my biggest role models in education were one-time TFA Corps members. Some of the people I look up to the most in the field even work for TFA. So it's not so simple as, "TFA is evil and bad, and everything that has come from it has made the world worse for children and families everywhere." 

This much, however, is true: when we come into communities that were not ours to begin with, we need to practice a lot of humility. We have to be listeners. I really don't think you can be a good teacher in two years. I think you can be a results-driven, hard-working, charismatic teacher in two years, sure, but I don't think anyone who has spent just two years in a classroom has the skills that are necessary to lead teach. Teaching is hard -- it's one of the hardest, most impactful things a person can be tasked to do. It's as hard as practicing medicine; it's a science and an art, and children deserve people who want to give their lives to being good at it. In a letter to the Washington Post titled "The Problem With Teach for America," Diane Ravitch provides the following useful analogy:

In 2009, a surgeon proposed in The Wall Street Journal that medicine needed something similar to TFA, which he called "Heal for America." After a brief training period, the members of his HFA would be qualified to advise patients about diet, hygiene, and exercise; they would know how to take patients' pulse, temperature, and blood pressure; they would tell them the correct dosages of prescribed medicines.

But, he warned, members of HFA should never be allowed to substitute for physicians, physicians' assistants, or registered nurses. TFA, however, does not share the doctor's understanding of the importance of deep training and experience.

Something wonderful is happening in New Orleans, and I can say this with absolute certainty: there are a lot of people here who really, fundamentally care about the lives of children. There are a lot of people who want all children to have an excellent education. That is a good thing.

The problem is, we don't always agree about what that means. Actually, that's not the problem. The problem is that we are not talking to each other about it. People who have come from out of town with personal histories of privilege are especially bad at listening. We use the word "urgency" to allow us to believe that our way is the right way, and we have to move forward with it, now. 

It's been seven years since I met with Jen in the basement of the student center, and I am not a journalist. I am a teacher. Every year, I am a little better at being a teacher, although I am still not a great teacher, as my job constantly humbly reminds me. I have done things in my career as a teacher that I am ashamed of, because I believed my students needed me. I believed that I knew what was right all the time, and I was too big-headed to think of myself as a beginner. But every day I return to the classroom, even after making mistakes, I am so graciously welcomed back. There are parents who help me understand the context of what I'm a part of by being willing to be honest with me about their frustrations. There are veteran educators who remind me what to worry about and what not to worry about. And most of all, there are kids who are willing to love me no matter what I do; who are unconditionally able to let me be learning alongside them. 

I had thought that these were kids who needed me. They probably didn't. But I definitely needed them.