Behind me in line were a group of people I remember thinking looked exceptionally out of place. While most people in line were dressed in casual clothing and union red, this group of about 4-5 people had on suits, and the women wore heavy make-up and heels. I think some of them may have been lawyers and business people. I overheard them mention words like KIPP and Teach for America (yes, I eavesdropped, I admit it.) Even their talk seemed different somehow. It was that 20-something, upper-middle class Lincoln Park sound (I know, right?). I tweeted, rather blurry-eyed in that early morning, “Standing in line for #CPS BOE meeting, people behind me from #TFA& #KIPP. They look like money-starkly diff from other teachers/parents...”
I ended up talking to a few of them, and they spouted the usual talking points. (Someone actually said to me “I don’t believe poverty is destiny” and “I think all children can learn”.) And some of them did go up and speak at the board meeting and unsurprisingly were all for school closings and turnarounds.
These types, these upper-middle class--and I will give them the benefit of the doubt—most likely well-meaning people were unequivocally on the side of the 1%. Their views, their dress, their worldview all aligned perfectly with the mayoral-appointed school board of millionaires and business elites. They were the voices of the moneyed powers that be.
In contrast, while I felt anger and disgust at the people behind me, I remember standing there with my buttons calling for the ending of school closures and support of neighborhood schools and feeling a powerful connection with the vast majority of people in line. The supporters of public education were every race, every background. They were people from every community around the city. And the issue of school closures and privatization had brought us all together.
In truth, I come from the hotseat of the powerful elite. I grew up on the North Shore of Chicago and graduated from one of the most affluent public schools in Illinois: New Trier High School. (Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader recently wrote about New Trier's connections to the elite in Chicago and CPS. He mentions New Trier grad Todd Connor. Todd and I graduated the same year. I remember sitting in French class with him. He's a nice guy.) Still, based on how our highly-segregated society works, I probably should not be where I am today, fighting with union guys and community organizers.
But here is my epiphany. It was my choice of professions, becoming a teacher, which allowed me access into this world. When I chose teaching, many people gave me the tired old speech “But you’re too smart to be a teacher.” Others encouraged me to go into those alternative certification programs like Teach for America with an implied, "at least you’ll be able to do something 'real' after you get this teaching thing out of your system."
Maybe it was because I had already taught for years in Japan, a country which holds teachers in high-esteem, but I refused those alternative options. I believed and still believe today that every child deserves a fully-prepared teacher and thanks to the experience I’d already had in the classroom, I knew I needed to expand my practice before taking a class of my own. And when I made the switch to Special Education, I was sure that preparation was absolutely vital in reaching these fragile children.
But back to that day in line, I cannot tell you the sense of pride and solidarity I felt standing alongside my brothers and sisters fighting against something Rev Jesse Jackson appropriately called “educational apartheid.”
It bothers me that many of my peers from high school have done TFA or support the program so strongly. It bothers me that they believe charter schools with non-unionized young teachers and turnarounds with few tenured teachers are the answer. It bothers me that they see no problem disrupting communities or show little care at the impact on children having to cross gang lines and the violence that ensues thanks to school closings. I don't like how they so easily dismiss the disgusting funding inequalities which are truly to blame for struggling schools, but callously place the blame on teachers and parents. More than anything, it bothers me that all of these "reforms" are things that they would NEVER let happen at New Trier. To them, uncertified teachers in underfunded schools with "zero tolerance" discipline programs are just fine for the poor--for other people's children--but never for the wealthy. It is their worldview, their idea that they need to "save" the poor, that their unproven business-model reforms are somehow what's needed, and that they can swoop in, remain completed isolated from the communities they are "helping", and then go back to their elite world which irks me the most. I certainly have been guilty of some of these assumptions and thoughts in the past. But I am starting to get educated.
Recently, on an internet debate on Gary Rubinstein’s popular post, a Teach for America supporter wrote:
TFA is the corporate sponsor of education. It brings people to the field who could’ve been something else that people are generally impressed by- a doctor, a lawyer, what have you, and in doing that invests people who make it their business to command respect and be successful if only in the most corporate, numbers-based sense of the word. One can debate whether that makes an effective teacher. I tend to believe that being that committed and analytical can’t hurt. But to me it’s doubtless that TFA brings people to the field that get results and, if nothing else, demand the attention and respect that is needed to make education in general and teaching in particular respected enough to command the salaries and esteem that will bring forth real educational reform.
And here is part of my response I wrote citing an event I attended the week before the Board Meeting:
I am always so upset when I hear the argument that TFA recruits are somehow a better kind of person. So let me tell you a story.
This past week, I attended a rally which called for the ending of school closures and turnarounds in Chicago. The rally was held in a Baptist church on the south side near one of the targeted schools in one of Chicago’s many highly segregated African American communities. One by one many of the affected schools’ teachers came to the podium to tell their story. Almost every teacher that spoke had tears in her eyes as she talked about the years and years she had spent helping, supporting, and most importantly educating her “babies”. And every single teacher was African-American. Many of these women had grown up somewhere relatively close to where they now taught and knew the culture of their kids intimately.
I felt such a rush of pride knowing that I got to stand in solidarity with people from all walks of life and every neighborhood thanks to my choice of profession. Unlike my sister who is a doctor–one of those professions which “commands respect”–my profession puts me on equal footing with colleagues that our intensely unequal society says I shouldn’t even know. And I love it. Teaching spans class, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in a way few other professions do.
Make no mistake, teaching to this day does not “command respect” because it is a traditionally female dominated profession and employs people of all races and classes. The lack of respect for teaching speaks to a deeply classist, racist, and sexist worldview that still cripples our nation. Which is why the types of qualities which make a great teacher: compassion, empathy, creativity, caring, humility are not valued.
I value those things. Those brilliant, talented, compassionate African-American women who have taught and inspired children for years are the ones being targeted for removal in my city. And districts today use TFA and other alternative certs, as a large pool of cheap, complaint labor. They are staffing the turnarounds and charters that go in the place of these closures.
Recently, Sabrina Stevens Shupe wrote an excellent piece entitled “'Bad' Women, Teachers, and Politics” which expands upon the idea that teaching is being demonized because it is a majority female profession
I would add that teaching is also a profession which allows people from a working-class background to move into the middle class. From the elite’s perspective, these women and minority supposedly "lower-class" people are considered “inferior”. When Teach for America or our politicians talk about bringing “better” people into the profession, I believe these assumptions are what they are (subconsciously or not) referring to. “Better” does not mean what’s best for the children they serve, but speaks to the perceived class and status of the profession. See more on the racist (and age-ist) termination policies being championed by corporate education reformers in this Huffington Post piece by Kenzo Shibata where he writes:
New staff at schools where drastic reform took place tends to be younger, more white, and less experienced. Teachers are also more likely to have provisional certifications... The percentage of African-American teachers at many schools dropped drastically, though the reforms took place in mostly black neighborhoods. The shakeups meant a 30, 40 even 60 percent reduction in African-American teachers at individual schools.Pretty appalling indeed. In fact, I would argue that too many of the “better” candidates being brought in through TFA and also being asked to staff charters and sometimes turnaround schools, are actually a terrible choice for the children they serve. Some of the best urban teachers I’ve ever seen, the ones who got those children to light up in the act of learning, who inspired kids to behave appropriately, who met the children where they were at, are the same ones being targeted for termination and being replaced by 20-something white women (or at least culturally upper-class, regardless of skin color) who know very little about the communities they are entering.
These numbers make me think that "reform" may be coded language for something pretty appalling.
I truly believe I am on the right side of this debate. I believe it because I know the other side inside and out. I understand how the elite upper-class think in our country because I used to be one. Those TFA and charter proponents at that board meeting must have felt unwelcomed, uncomfortable, and outnumbered...and rightly so! Their elitist views are not what the people want. The people want reform that addresses the inequalities in school funding, housing, policing, and health care. They want reforms that acknowledge the institutional racism and classism holding children back. They want reform that supports the teaching profession as it is one of the few avenues left to the middle class for many families. Ultimately, they want fully-funded schools staffed with experienced professional teachers and all the resources the kids at New Trier get automatically. They want, once and for all, equality in education.
I love teaching. And I also love being a part of this vast people’s movement. I love that I can stand behind giants in civil rights like Jitu Brown of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Rev Jesse Jackson, and Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union. I would not have it any other way.