In the summer of 2006, I sat in a elementary school classroom and cried, a little awkwardly, in front of a group of my fellow Teach For America corps members. I was feeling frayed by some of my TFA colleagues’ seeming indifference to the sessions focusing on diversity and culture. Our seminars on race were based on a somewhat simplistic curriculum, and more advanced and nuanced discussions were optional—most whites chose not to attend.
My tears came because it felt as if white TFAers got a choice about whether or not to care about racial issues, while their students never had that choice. Those students deserved teachers who understood and respected their differences, yet too many new TFA teachers weren’t preparing themselves to be those educators. I didn’t know it at the time, but I myself wasn’t prepared to treat students’ differences with respect; my own biases and assumptions about class went unchallenged during our pre-service training and confronted me during a very contentious first year. That fall, I entered the classroom as one of about 15 people of color in a Baltimore TFA Corps of about 75 teachers. This lack of racial diversity, and my own poor preparation in working with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds grated on me during my early years in the classroom.
Eight years later, when I look at TFA, I see a dramatically different organization, where diversity issues are an intentional part of the group’s communications, not an afterthought. Forty-nine percent of the 2014 cohort is made up of people of color. Rather than solely celebrating alumni whose students make significant gains on quantitative metrics, TFA is now highlighting the work of alums like Kayla Begay and Brittany Packett. Begay, who joined Teach for America in 2012, founded a school for Navajo students that embraces their culture, language, and traditions. In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown and the social unrest that followed, Brittney Packett, the executive director for TFA St. Louis and fellow alum Deray McKesson (N.Y. ‘07), began working as organizers and activists within the social justice movement.
Packett recently wrote about how the mission of TFA is a call to address the issues of structural inequality that she’s seen as a native of St. Louis. Other TFA Alums have formed The Collective—a group for TFA alums of color that offers opportunities for reflection and action.
Institutionalized racism is built an unequal education system, and dismantling that system will require a conscious dedication to anti-racism. If the goal of the organization is for all students to have access to a quality education, a discussion of race can’t be optional, like it was back in 2006. TFA, now 25 years old, recognizes the complexity of educational inequity.
When people ask me about my thoughts on TFA, I often say that one of the things I appreciate about the organization is its ability to evolve. TFA deserves credit for addressing its shortcomings on race and diversity. The organization has maintained a vision based on justice and educational equity, and has realized that race plays a central role in its work. While there is always more work to be done (particularly on class awareness), TFA’s evolution on this issue provides an important example of the good work that the organization is capable of.
The opinions expressed in Connecting the Dots: Ideas and Practice in Teaching are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.