River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 11 2011

“I Don’t Have a Science Teacher…”

This time last week, I was watching an inspiring program about ther American Dream at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, salivating at the thought of the scrumptious soul food I was about to eat- and boy, was that Amy Ruth’s good! I recommend fried chicken, waffles, and macaroni to anyone. This week, I’m coming off the high of having our boys basketball team improve to 3-0 and I don’t mind that it’s 10pm and I still have work to do. Clearly, or I wouldn’t be writing.

However, I’m also dismayed. I’m dismayed and more than a little upset because I saw a former student at the game who scored the highest on the 8th grade science test last year. As I congratulated her, she let me know she has a B in science this year. “Who’s your biology teacher?” I asked. Her response: “oh, I don’t have one. We have a long-term substitute.”

SHUT THE FRONT DOOR! This, ladies and gentlemen, is the achievement gap. This is why Teach For America exists. Or is it? Wait a minute…

TFA has been getting slammed recently for taking the jobs of traditional-route teachers. Technically, traditional teachers have been displaced in some regions (mostly urban) either directly or indirectly. However, don’t indict all regions. In places like the Mississippi Delta, we still face shortages of certified teachers. Not just highly effective teachers, but teachers, period. I could go on and on in elaboration but we all know the socio-economic forces at play.

However, TFA is becoming complicit in this unequal allocation of talent as it continues to place more teachers in charter schools. Charter schools may very be “the future” but I’m not ready to jump on the bandwagon. As a society, we privatize gains but we socialize risk. You don’t need to read the New York Times but once a week to read an article making this claim.  We see it every day: bankers are getting bonuses as countries go bankrupt. We criticize government programs, but non-profits and these programs exist to alleviate the social ills that no profit-seeking corporation wants to bother with. Now, I don’t mean to condemn capitalism, that just how the system works, but it is entirely disingenuous to compare organizations tackling a different set of issues as if all problems were created equal. If it were easy, you can bet your bottom dollar that a private company would have capitalized on the venture. #OpportunisticNation

What does this mini-rant have to do with public charter schools? They are technically public schools after all, right? As it stands, many charters reap the benefits of teaching smaller numbers of more motivated children while the traditionally public schools are still responsible for the remaining children who are often at greater risk and of greater need. Moreover, TFA effectively has developed a secondary training model, where, essentially, corps members have two years of “training” at a low-performing public school only to be plucked up to teach at a charter school as they gain their stride in year three.

I’m not complaining, per se. I have a number of schools I could leave my placement school for if I chose to do so (and if I haven’t just nailed a coffin on my prospects of getting hired ;) ); furthermore, this is a very efficient and effective recruitment model for the multiple charters founded by TFA alumni. In fact, my brain logically sees very little wrong with this increasing trend. It’s my heart that strongly objects.

Interestingly, my three-day absence reminded my students, community members, and colleagues, as well as myself that I’m not actually from here and have deeper roots in the north. When parents bring up that they appreciate TFA but wish it required teachers to stay at least 3-5 years, I agree with where they are coming from. I love the fact that I’m more established within the community this year and that cousins of my current students and random students alike will come up to me and say: “I want to take you for science next year!” They all have their reasons, but I am grateful regardless. At the same time, I hate when the more discerning students add onto their statements: “will you be teaching here next year?” I hate that they are so conditioned to teachers coming and going in and out of their lives. They deserve better.

It wasn’t like that for me. When I volunteered at my little sister’s field day last June, over two-thirds of the school staff were the same caring, compassionate individuals that were there when I was in 5th grade. That says a lot. I want that stability for my students. What will it do to my top student’s psyche if she returns to her middle school next year to visit her teachers and realizes: “Hmm, I didn’t have a 9th grade science teacher, I had a 7th grade science teacher for five months, and now my 8th grade science teacher is gone, too.”

Am I a part of the solution, or merely a part of the problem? Sometimes, I just don’t know.

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    Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

    Mississippi Delta
    Middle School

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