River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 30 2012

Pluses and Deltas: Why I Did TFA, And Why I Don’t Think This Was a Bad Thing

It’s been a challenge finding time to blog as I make the transition from Mississippi to Massachusetts and attempt to settle in. I will catch up on my travels and new experiences soon, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a post I wrote for the ServiceNation blog exactly one year ago. This post was part of my motivation for starting a blog as 2011 CM’s told me that the staff at Delta Institute used part of it in a training session. I’m not sure how, but I think it was positive!

Growing up as an African-American male in a rural, white community in Maine, I didn’t realize there was a racial achievement gap in education; I did not know that I was supposed to fail. With the support of my family, I was fortunate to enjoy and excel in public school. However, upon entering college, I had the achievement gap slap me in the face. From my experiences taking classes with talented students from America’s top private schools to mentoring disadvantaged Boston middle school students on the outside-looking-in of Harvard’s ivy-covered gates, I quickly saw that America’s disparity in educational opportunities are both racial and socio-economic; and these factors agitated me. I knew that there were gifted students in low-income communities across the country- why couldn’t those students be here at Harvard? [see update below]

Throughout college, the frustration I felt towards the injustice that circumstances of one’s birth determined their quality of education, and ultimately, quality of life haunted me. Through our Institute of Politics I interned with Be the Change the summer after my junior year. While working with the robust ServiceNation coalition to expand our country’s public service opportunities, I was on the lookout for progressive non-profit organizations with an education-focused mission:

One day, all the children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” read the tagline of Teach for America.

“Eureka- I’ve found it!” I thought as my grade school ambition to become a teacher was granted renewed life. At the encouragement of my incredible colleagues/mentors I applied to TFA and was ultimately placed to teach 8th Grade Science in the Mississippi Delta, a region shaped as much by its historic struggle with racial discrimination as it is by the mighty Mississippi River.

Without a doubt, the life of a first-year teacher anywhere is a challenging, uphill battle and the tremendous poverty and limited resources that most racially segregated Delta public schools face have made student achievement seem at best a distant dream and even caused me to at times question my two-year commitment to TFA and my life-long commitment to an ethic of public service. Nonetheless, with each test passed by myself and by my students (not necessarily multiple-choice), I am reminded of the essential need for good people to become the change they want to see in the world. I would have no grounds to say anything about the pervasive opportunity gaps in the United States if I wasn’t willing to do “whatever it takes,” in the words of the inspirational Harlem Children’s Zone CEO, Geoffrey Canada.

Having worked with organizations such as the New York-based Agenda for Children Tomorrow, BTC, and now TFA, I recognize the importance of a bottoms-up / top-down approach to tackling society’s most persistent problems. It takes teachers and principals, politicians and citizens, parents and grandparents, all of whom must commit an unwavering dedication to bettering the educational opportunities offered to every child in the United States.

In addition to how to cook the perfect breakfast in under 10 minutes because I’ve slept through my alarm, I have also learned that it is rarely wise to discount your own passion. Maybe I’m not the perfect Black male role model for my students, and I’m certainly not the world’s greatest teacher, but I am here working to make a positive difference in my kids’ lives where, unlike the rising waters of the River, we don’t need a levee to hold back a flood of positive male figures in the lives of my children. Wherever you go, whatever you do, strive to leave that place better than it was when you found it. True passion paired with skillful strategy can lead to significant gains in an individual’s growth, in a community’s empowerment, and even a better world. I, like my fellow corps members and other passionate individuals, see a condition that needs to change; who better to be that change?

2012 Update: If you have time, I recommend you read this article about a really talented TFA-Delta CM’10 who has a student attending Harvard this upcoming year.

3 Responses

  1. Moseis

    What about the thousands upon thousands that don’t have “parents,” that don’t have “fathers,” and don’t have principals that care about the most important factor, the teacher, influencing student achievement? I’ve realized it’s not about the kids, their favorite line! Oh, and many of the Teachers: An oppressed group, a passive-aggressive lot that have abdicated not only their responsibility to themselves, but to hundreds and hundreds of children. Why don’t they stand up and cry out for change?

    Parents? We have too many lost generations of parents to dwell on “them” being a force for change. I’ve seen countless parents come to my urban high school to dis-enroll their students so they could get a job! Education: a love of learning, a love of reading, a love of writing, and enough silence to understand the importance of questioning this world should be the focus. This train has left the station; I don’t have time to worry about the parents who are hanging out at the station. I embrace those on board while I and some of my colleagues try to scoop up the kids running alongside, those kids trying to get onboard.

    It’s still not a lost cause. Education is the key! Authentic thinking may be the last hope to crush the numerous legacies that enslave these beautiful kids.

    “…unlike the levee…we don’t need a levee to hold back…male figures…” Bravo! You get it! Thank you for not being “typical” and part of the problem.

    • Thanks for the encouragement… I think. A lack of pay, prestige, relevant training, and respect definitely brings down the teaching profession.

  2. Moseis

    I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but I love it. I have shared it with my students:

    “Respect can take you places that even an education can’t.”

    As Dr. Royal surgically declares, “…here to serve, not to save,” I continue to appreciate teachers like you who stand in the truth, teachers like you who do not stand in fear.

    So many teachers (new and experienced) “buy into” calling teenagers their “babies.” Babies? Really? Helpless like babies? Hmmm? Ok?! Just last week, a TFA’er (sweet yet delusional), when asked by her students, “Do you have any kids?” responded, “Nooo, you’re my babies for three weeks.” Her students, intelligent and savvy, straight from gangland USA, just stared. Seconds later, when she asked them to share their names, they all proceeded to give her fake names. David suddenly became Enrique and Jovani became Drake, shaking their heads and grinning as she giggled, thrilling in the mist of how she excelled in “community” building, “relationship” building.

    In this field, the paternalism I see on a daily basis would make any “conscious” human being vomit, so yes, for you– encouragement and appreciation was my intent :)


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