This Isn’t Dangerous Minds: The Problem With Teach For America
During my daily Internet perusing, I recently came across an article in the Atlanta Black Star titled “Teach For America Accused of Sending Idealistic Young White People Into School Districts They Don’t Understand” posted by Manny Otiko, a response to NPR’s article, “2 Teach For America Alums Say TFA Has Big Problems When It Comes To Race.” As a former TFA applicant, I was immediately intrigued and decided to read the article in its entirety. Apparently, two TFA alumni have come forth, accusing the organization of sending young, White, and fresh-out-of-college teachers into underperforming minority school districts with little to no knowledge about serving the students in the schools they’ve been assigned to. The article goes on to give an account of a current corps member, as well as a past one, who said that TFA encourages young people who take part in the program to believe in the ‘hero teacher’ idea.
According to Otiko, it’s “the idea that all minority children need is a dedicated teacher and hard work to succeed.” But as the article also points out, “This idea ignores some of America’s structural racism.”
This ‘hero teacher’ concept is particularly problematic considering a great deal of the teachers being sent into these communities are young White men and women, fresh out of school, who don’t end up being that dedicated after all.
And here we are again, confronting the great White savior narrative. This idea that White people are the ultimate superheroes swooping into our neighborhoods, schools, jobs, churches, and political offices to save the little Black children, or better yet, the entire Black race, makes me nauseous. And it makes me even more queasy considering that TFA encourages such foolishness by going after a majority of White applicants.
When I graduated from graduate school, I was seriously considering joining either the Peace Corps or Teach For America. It was shortly after Hurricane Katrina had occurred, and I desperately wanted to do something to help in the city of New Orleans, so I decided to apply to Teach for America. Having spent all of my grade-school years in public schools, I thought this would be the best way to give back what had been given to me.
Plus, I had also spent the majority of my years in college taking liberal arts classes, so I was feeling really earthy and ready to heal the world.
So I applied and made it all the way to the final stage of the interview process. The final stage was an in-person group interview and then a one-on-one interview.
When I arrived at the TFA office, I was the only Black person in my group. Both interviews went well. Some of the applicants in my group even came up to me afterward and raved, saying, “You did really good. You are definitely going to get this.” Needless to say, I wasn’t chosen. However, the other applicants in my group that I kept in contact with after the interview, majority White and female, were offered positions.
I followed up with the TFA counselor with whom I had begun the journey, and I was told that because I already had a master’s degree I was “overqualified” for the program, as TFA corps members receive their master’s degree as a part of the program.
But they knew I had a master’s degree from the very beginning because it was on my application. Why did they even bother to call me in for an interview? And how can you be too overqualified to educate children?
According to Otika, 80 percent of teachers in this country are White women. And, according to TFA, 49 percent of teachers in the program are White. Who benefits?
Race has nothing to do with whether or not you are and can be a great teacher. But if an organization prides itself on going into poor communities and serving minority students, then it would make sense to serve them fairly. It is just as beneficial to those children to have teachers who look like them and have experienced the same things they are going through as it is to be exposed to teachers from different cultural backgrounds.
Furthermore, this White superhero agenda has to stop. This is not Dangerous Minds. White folks
are not the savior. They never will be. Instead, if people are really serious about effecting change, stop giving poor school districts much less money than suburban school districts are given. Build modern buildings in the inner cities where wholesome learning environments can be created. Stop sending teachers into schools with students they aren’t comfortable with and don’t really want to work with to positively impact. And most importantly, start practicing equity instead of just preaching equality.