After writing my last post, I got a lot of questions from folks asking me why I didn’t quit Teach For America during my first year. I’ve thought about this question quite a bit as I enjoyed the shortened 4-day-week capped off by professional development with the Delta corps yesterday. When I’m around my fellow CM’s, I’m reminded of the need for and the power of like-minded youth working together towards a common goal. Granted, many of us joke about CM’s “drinking the Kool-Aid” and I’m guilty of making my fair share of jokes, but I’ve long-appreciated TFA diehards who truly espouse the values of the movement TFA is trying to build. Moreover, with the low quality of water in my community, you need to drink a little Kool-Aid now and then to avoid dehydration.
Really though, I do appreciate TFA’s attempted support structure but it’s actually the individual connections you make, rather than the institution itself, that keeps a CM going. This year, I can’t readily identify much TFA has done to make my life any easier, but there are amazing people within the higher levels of the organization who have been invaluable to keeping me here, and to helping me drive student achievement in my classroom.
Likewise, I gained a lot of insight from non-TFA teachers. Don’t be that high-and-mighty TFAer who comes in thinking you know everything and the reason the “achievement gap” exists is because traditional teachers suck at what they do and have no clue about education. First of all, extrapolating from the small amount of validity in that perspective makes us all look bad and fosters resentment. Secondly, it’s bullsh*t. We all have something to learn from each other and I gained many pedagogical insights and also inspiration from seeing true learning happening in the classrooms of many non-TFA colleagues. You will obviously have some duds, but there are some TFA duds, too. I know, I was one- might still be… #TFAil
For first years who are struggling and on the verge of leaving their position as I was this time last year, find someone with whom you can relate to and share your hopes and dreams- both in-progress and realized, dashed or otherwise. This person could be your PD/MTLD (officially or unofficially), your current roommate or institute buddy, a colleague from school or even someone who doesn’t teach and is indifferent towards TFA, but cares about you and your well-being. Whoever it may be, just don’t suffer in silence alone. Take the time to talk it out, so you can work it out.
Aside from compassionate friends and family, I didn’t quit because to quit would be to admit defeat in the greater fight against educational inequality. When I was originally placed in Tunica, I was upset because I didn’t feel like teaching in a place with a new school building, great facilities, and the ability to pay me $5,000 more than anywhere else would be impactful; I wanted to be somewhere that needed me more than that. While I probably should have been careful about what I wished for, I now don’t want to leave Greenville until I feel like its truly being turned around. I recently read an article detailing the supportive, amazing community of Greenwood, MS, and I think that’s awesome, but I don’t want to pack and move somewhere already up-and-coming; I’d much rather see this commitment through and feel like Greenville, too, can be a successful district. I also can’t see myself teaching in a charter school somewhere anytime soon because I’d know that I’d have turned my back on a community that deserves to be great too.
I won’t sugarcoat things and pretend that I don’t feel bitter and borderline resentful at least once a week. Last year, I just wanted to be given a break. I understood what I signed up for, but felt like things would have been better if I could change just one variable: either a different subject on the same hall, or a different hall in the same school, or a different school in the same district, or a different district in the same region, etc. While I still believe there’s some truth to those first-year feelings, being able to stop making excuses and gaining the resolve to work with what you have is crucial to being successful. During a come-to-Jesus moment last spring, the hard realization set in that I did not want to become another black man who gave up on black children.
The sooner you stop asking: “why me? What did I do to deserve this?” and, instead, start asking: “why them? What did my students do to deserve this?” the sooner you’ll regain the pragmatic, if not optimistic mindset you need to affect real change in your community, whether you teach in Greenville or Greenwood, Lake Village or Ruleville, Tunica or Hazlehurst. Simply being born is not grounds for a death sentence- maybe somewhere else, but not in the United States of America. That’s cruel and unusual; our children deserve better than that. All children deserve better.