I did my student teaching at a Minneapolis Public School. I taught a freshman class and two sophomore classes. You could walk in the school and see the multiple shades of brown that make up the student body in inner-city public schools. When you walked down the hall you would hear the typical teenage conversations, with the typical teenage language. When you walked in the classroom you would see the typical level of disengagement that has come to characterize the typical teachers inability to resonate personally or through curriculum. I did my student teaching here.
One day, during prep, my supervising teacher and I were talking about this or that and somehow I must have started ranting about how wack I found a lot of what I saw at schools She, without missing a beat, gave me the only advice I remember her giving me: “Give them worksheets. They really like worksheets.”
I had to take out a loan to pay tuition for that semester, all 19 thousand dollars of it, and worked 40 hours a week, for free, to come away with that sage advice.
I’ll be real honest: I used to hate Teach for America. I didn’t know one person from TFA, but I was sure they were hacks who were leaching jobs from well trained teachers like myself. Then I met some TFA folks.
The best teacher I have ever seen is a TFA alum. The best instruction coach I have ever had, yup, TFA alum. You know what else, they both support organized labor.
On Friday we gave our freshman their end of year assessments: the ACT. Today I sat down with a student whose reading subscore grew 12 points. Twelve points. This year. On the ACT. Her reading subscore is now a 24. She, as a freshman, scored higher than many of the seniors I recommended for college acceptances. Guess how much she cares that her reading teacher was trained at TFA.
When Jamar Clark was shot I was vocal in my condemnation of the police and of the system of capitalist white supremacy which creates the need for such brutality. One of my old coworkers who had taught Jamar Clark direct messaged me with a cautionary message of Clark being no angel. I told him just how wack and out of line he was, his response was “I’m not the one working for a charter school.” He is currently a member of the teachers union.
A good friend of mine, also one of the strongest teachers I know, is not going to teach next year. After years of being “let go” and then rehired she was finally on the verge of tenure and her position got cut. Instead of starting all over she is simply done teaching. It took a toll. I can’t say that I blame her. I know the real loss is the schools.
My first “real” teaching job was at a contract alternative school in Minneapolis. I remember being beyond excited to have my own classroom. I was going to develop the most relevant and engaging curriculum. I was going to be the best damn teacher that ever walked into a classroom. Pretty much what every first year teacher thinks. One day I wore a Free Mumia shirt and my principal stopped me in the hallway to discuss the “cop killer.” We disagreed, civilly, and I moved on. Within the next month I had been written up for “sitting on the counter,” to this day I’m still not exactly sure what he was talking about. The end of that year my principal, who had never been in a classroom himself, told me he preferred I not use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in my class. I remember wishing I had a union to protect me.
Teacher tenure laws in Minnesota are currently being challenged via a lawsuit that was filed last month. I can’t help but feel this is shortsighted. It is not tenure which introduced the Reading Horizon’s curriculum. It isn’t tenure which suspends students of color at horribly disproportionate rates. It isn’t tenure that is pushing standardized testing down our throats at the sake of everything else that actually matters. Will getting rid of tenure make it easier to get rid of bad teachers, yes. Are there bad teachers, yes. Will they be the ones being cut, doubt it. What is more likely is that the teachers we need the most, the ones most dedicated to challenging the established way of thinking and being, will be fired by their more conservative and conforming principals. Principals matter.
The truth of the matter is if we don’t get to the root of the problem, if we don’t fundamentally change the way we think about and position education none of the rest matters. Teacher for America or four year university teacher training program, tenure or no tenure the systemic inequalities will persist. Neoliberals can only position TFA members for their benefit because we have a hallow and pathetic commitment to racial justice as a country and have failed communities of color by turning public schools into pipelines to prison. This is the issue, not TFA. Tenure is only a problem when it is protecting the colorblind white teacher who refuses to acknowledge the reality of racism today. When it is protecting the young black woman who wants to teach Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah it is a God send.
This is not a simple issue and there is no simple solution. We need nuance and vision. Let’s not confuse ourselves about what is what.