I’ve never blogged before, but I really wanted to share my experiences here at TFA because the stories I’ve heard and the things I’ve experienced are amazing. Institute (AKA teacher training) is rough; I’m talking about 12 hours days on top of homework and lesson planning…I barely have time to sleep, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep up with this so I can keep everyone updated!
I’m currently in Cleveland, MS. I just finished my second week here at TFA institute and the best word that I think can sum up what I’m feeling/what I have experienced so far is “uncomfortable”. Now, before you start thinking I’m miserable and hating every second of this experience, I want to acknowledge the fact that being uncomfortable is not always a bad thing. Sure, there’s the uncomfortable kind of feeling when you’re in the scorching sun, sweating, and no way to escape it–that’s one kind of uncomfortable; but the uncomfortable I’m experiencing here is different. It’s the kind of uncomfortable that every person needs, but sadly not everyone gets. It’s the kind of uncomfortable that inspires you. Let me explain.
I guess the first thing I need to explain is what Teach For America is all about. TFA is all about educational equality. This means we believe EVERY child deserves a quality education regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, etc. This is an issue that is very near and dear to my heart because some of the BEST students I have been blessed to teach have come from homes that struggled financially, were minorities, and quite frankly labeled as “future dropouts” or “bad kids”; those very students were at schools where their education was not considered a priority and therefore they were held to extremely low standards–pretty much setting them up for future failure. This is not okay with me and this will never be okay with me. So I came into TFA thinking I would teach at a low-income school for a few years, give my students a quality education, and then find another low-income school to teach at once my two year contract was up in North Carolina. I didn’t see the real issue at hand until I began my work here.
Discrimination. It’s an issue that is still very much alive, but it’s an issue that we’re taught to believe went away after the Civil Rights Movement. Reality check: it didn’t go away. It’s here and unless we open our eyes and acknowledge it, it will always be here. Now, before you roll your eyes and stop reading because you think I’m about to preach, I encourage you to continue reading anyways. Read what I have to say and maybe you’ll feel the uncomfortable feeling that I’m experiencing, too.
I could go on and on about how discrimination is alive in the media, books, stores, etc. I could give you countless examples of how discrimination is present in these places, but I won’t (for times sake and simply because I don’t want to turn anyone off with my strong opinions). But here is what I will tell you: I’m teaching summer school right now at an elementary school in Belzoni, MS (pronounced Bel-zo-na…yeah, I don’t know why they chose to spell it with an “i” either), to children who will be entering 2nd grade in the fall. All my students are black with the exception of one, and come from low-economic homes. In fact, the Mississippi Delta is known for it’s high level of poverty and minority population. Before I break it down for you, let me tell you that every single one of my kids has been promoted to the 2nd grade, so they’re just here in summer school for “enrichment”. Yeah, right.
After testing them all in reading and math I was shocked to find that the majority of my kids were performing at a Kindergarten level. My Kindergarten students from last year could read better than many of my current students and don’t even get me started on math. This past week has been the most upfront and realest form of discrimination/inequality I have seen. How the hell have these children been promoted to the 2nd grade when they are performing so low? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they are held to ridiculously low standards. They’re poor, they’re minorities, they already have a lot against them. Society does not believe in them, so they go undetected and progress until they are forced to enter the real world and can’t keep up. And how can they be expected to go to college or get jobs when they haven’t been prepared to do so? Does anyone else see the problem here?
During one of my classes here, we compared a state test from Mississippi to a test from another state that does not have such high poverty or large groups of minorities. The MS test was a walk in the park compared to the other one…no wonder students in this area are being promoted to the next grade level so easily. They’re not held to the same standards. They “get by” and that’s okay as long as they stay where they are, but once they enter the real world they’re at an unfair disadvantage. They’re not prepared. I mean, how can a child be in 2nd grade and not be able to do simple one-digit addition? Imagine the limited amount of knowledge they’ll have once they graduate high school–oh wait, I’m sorry, if they graduate high school, because when you’re in an environment that doesn’t care or provide you with a quality and EQUAL education, it’s hard to see the value of it. We need to raise the bar for these children. We need to prepare them the same way children from privileged places are prepared.
Being privileged isn’t a bad thing. I think I grew up pretty privileged and now acknowledge the blessing it was to have a mom who made education my priority, to have books in my home, to go to school where the teachers were excited to teach, to participate in after school activities, etc. I was blessed in a way that these children are not. I acknowledge my privilege and the opportunities it placed in my life, but I don’t want privilege to be the only way a person can be successful.
So to bring it full circle, I’m uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I have seen discrimination in a form that is close to my heart. I’m uncomfortable knowing that my students have a limited amount of people who truly believe in them and their future. I’m uncomfortable because I know my students are not the only ones facing this discrimination. I’m uncomfortable because we live our lives day by day without really acknowledging this truth. I’m uncomfortable because I know it’s not a problem that will be solved in the immediate future. After experiencing what I have experienced in this short amount of time, how could I not feel uncomfortable?
But there is a silver lining in any situation. I’m glad to be uncomfortable. This unsettling feeling pushes me to become a better teacher for my students. It pushes me to fight the battle of discrimination in a way that I know I will be effective: teaching and education. Let me make one thing clear–what I’m not here to do is to “save” my students; I think that description implies that I am better than them or more worthy than them (reinforcing discrimination and a divide between us). I’m here to empower them. I’m here to help them discover their true potential regardless of what society makes them believe about who they are or where they come from. I’m here to learn from them and to be humbled by the beautiful beings they are. Yeah, I might carry the label “teacher”, but one thing I’ve come to realize is that I’m more of a student for my class because I still have a lot to learn.