Friday, April 3, 2015

Teach for America: How America Preferences Elitism Over Logic by Desmera Gatewood

Imagine a society where those who occupied the most critical fields were only required to complete 6 weeks of training before applying their experience to vulnerable subjects. Imagine if your surgeon, your police officer, or even your hair dresser had only 6 weeks of familiarity with their craft before approaching you for service; you would be justified in cringing with disbelief.    A little over a month of experience and training would be unsatisfactory for any service we highly valued. 

However, we have some how excused this logic in regards to the Teach for America training model. Teach for America “corps members” are not required to have any knowledge of child development, pedagogy, and curriculum or classroom dynamics prior to being selected to teach and mold precious young minds.  In fact, within a 6 week training, the majority of the focus is shifted from understanding child development to instead crafting a lesson plan.  Perhaps that is because the age group that one may student-teach during their 6 week training is not necessarily the same age group or subject one may teach during the school year.  Or perhaps it is  because those facilitating teaching workshops hold no degrees in education or child-psychology themselves. 

My theory is that the entire group’s philosophy and application goes unchecked because the demographic that the majority of corps members represent is the same demographic that gets away with almost all of America’si llogical and irresponsible yet highly-funded practices: the white, “educated”,upper middle-class.  Though Teach for America touts an espoused mission of diversity and inclusion, the reality is that most corps members are from privileged white backgrounds (also, I’m aware over the last couple of years since they’ve “realized” this they’ve sought to “improve” it).  The narrative of a na├»ve young white girl who graduates from Harvard with a degree in finance, now having a conviction to dedicate two years of service to underprivileged children is so sensational, who could challenge it?

If Teach for America were a second-chance organization for African American males who obtained a degree after receiving  a GED, could we even fathom for a second that millions of dollars from state budgets would be allocated to funding to a teaching program that doesn’t even encourage or require teachers to remain in the classroom beyond two years?  If Teach for America were not founded by a Caucasian ivy-league female, but instead an African American female with teaching experience and identifiable similarities with the students she taught,could we guarantee that the public reception would be as positive?  

What I experienced in my one year as an African American female corps member, is that an overwhelming percentage of Teach for America’s corps members have no idea what the hell they are doing.  Not only do they literally have no idea how young minds develop, but they are admittedly culturally incompetent.  It shouldn’t be hard to believe that a young woman from suburbia who graduated from Vanderbilt would have little tolerance for African American children and parents that may be stricken with the effects of poverty and systemic racism.  I overheard the frustration filled rants ranging from “how do I pronounce the names” to “I hate talking to these parents on the phone” from my fellow corps members.   During the 6 week training I constantly had to serve as a liaison between black parents and frustrated/fearful white corps members during intense conversations. 

If we hold a standard of perfection, quality and competence for employees in other fields, why are we ok with excusing the most critical field from these standards?  If America is to ever seriously address social problems, we must first admit that we have allowed racism, classism and elitism to infiltrate almost every aspect of our intricately woven societal fabric.  Likea spreading cancer, we must radiate and eliminate every iota of these practicesbefore we can claim to be on a road to curing this infectious disease.

-         Desmera Gatewood


Peter Cook said...

"The demographic that the majority of corps members represent...white, “educated”,upper middle-class."

Sorry, that argument doesn't work anymore. Half of TFA's 2014 corps identify as people of color:

dandchef said...

As a New York city public school teacher, working with the TFA training program for years (these occur during summer school), I have witnessed many of the author's points. While these issues certainly exist, both philosophically and in practice, that argument sadly blames a symptom rather than the greater economic cause -- poverty in America.
Replacing the focus of "race" with "poor" both widens the challenges for TFA and focuses our efforts on understanding and addressing the real causes of our systemic problems.

The author rightly notes that 6 weeks and a stamp would never allow certain individuals to teach in certain schools, but focuses on race instead of class. TFA members go to Title 1 schools, not black, white or green schools. Overwhelmingly, they get jobs in public and inner-city schools rather than being hired by principals in "more desirable" districts. The relevant questions are:

Would parents from wealthiest districts really allow their own children to be taught by teachers with no experience whatsoever?
Does TFA create teachers our President, the Cabinet, and Congress members are comfortable having educate their own children? ... is this occurring?
How can we even have public education policy discussed at the decision making level by officials who all attended private schools?

"Poor" is leaving the collective discussion, being replaced by "aspiring to be middle class". Workers and unions are held up as hindrances to excellence - in education and industry. "The American Worker" is esteemed, so long as he/she is not collectively represented and demanding due process, living wage, healthcare, food security, rent stability, etc.

The author's argument is real, valid and identifies important discussion points and areas for change. Hopefully, this change will extend beyond the color line and include all the marginalized and disenfranchised, regardless of race.

It would be foolish to expect any real change so long as the majority of Americans continue to elect, sponsor, believe, and allow our leaders (who refuse to acknowledge both poor and working class citizens as fully equal members of our society with the same rights, responsibilities and privileges rather than an unorganized, silent, willing mass from whom taking resources is as easy as taking candy from a baby) and media to vilify and scapegoat workers, union members and the poor.

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