Blue Suede Shoes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 02 2013

The Critical Mass…

I was lucky enough to teach at a school with other corps members, who quickly became my support system and some of my closest friends in Memphis besides my roommates. My first year, there were 8 of us; my second year, 5. But while clustering was a massive individual benefit, I questioned – and still question – whether we as a group had any impact outside of the four walls of our classrooms or the dimensions of our fields and community pools, whether we had any impact on the culture of the school at all. Did we influence any other staff members – and if so, positively or negatively? How might we have influenced their perception of TFA?

I returned to Memphis recently to see my first classes of students graduate. Sitting in that convention center and watching dozens of students I had taught walk across the stage filled my heart with joy. The next day, I returned to my former school, and all the pride I had felt at commencement deflated in me like a balloon.

Nothing had changed.

I realized it had been beyond foolish and arrogant of me to think that anything would have, just because some bright-eyed, no-nonsense corps members had taught there for a couple of years. Corps members had been placed there each year since the region began, so the fact that there was little structure when we got there should have been a sign that our impact would be negligible. While we could all name names of students we had impacted individually, the uneasy truth was that it wasn’t enough for anything to be different once we left those buildings. Our students could have been perfect angels in our classrooms (“could have been,” not “were”), but they were still engulfed in the overall culture of the school, where there was little discipline and a low sense of urgency. TFA harped on building long-term traits and mindsets in our students, and God knows we tried, but it did always feel like swimming upstream.

I walked one of my best students, T., a real academic superstar, to her homeroom, and somehow it slipped that she had been skipping her social studies class a lot to go to a different teacher’s room. And she was still getting a high A in social studies. My feelings about the stifling atmosphere of school, especially for extremely bright children, aside, it’s unbelievable that she could not only get away with class-cutting, but that it also wasn’t affecting her grade in the least. To me, school is about learning both academics and social/professional norms, and T. was seemingly learning neither. Showing up regularly is a pretty crucial habit to develop, right? Of course, it’s on T. herself to grow into a mature young woman, but when teachers fail to instill values of responsibility and accountability, they can’t go blameless. I might have held T. to a high standard when I was her teacher, but I failed in guiding so many others toward adulthood over my two years, and that’s not an easy pill to swallow.

I keep wondering if there really is a critical mass of teachers at one school who can effect a change or a turnaround of the culture and what that critical mass might be. Most days, it didn’t seem like our numbers had made any impact outside of our classrooms. Would real change have depended on our seeking out leadership or administrative positions? Our second year, the five of us collectively coached or assistant-coached five sports and organized two clubs, but we still had little clout and mute voices, perhaps because we were seen as temporary. In my case, I had already experienced extremely frustrating and futile interactions with my administration about improvement, and so I resigned myself to being the master of my room only. (It’s worth noting that in late October of our second year, all five of us were considering returning for a third year at our school. For various reasons, including a serious lack of support and interest in our development, by January, none of us really continued to entertain that thought. Part of that is on TFA, too, in creating the assumption that corps members will only teach for two years, providing little incentive for principals to support exiting staff. Still, isn’t there some line about assuming things?…)

Teaching helped me realize that school culture depends on everyone, and it develops from the top down. Without a committed captain, the five of us and every other teacher dedicated to student learning were just bailing water on a slowly sinking ship, and ultimately, we just bailed on the ship itself.

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