Take Me To Church [On TFA, #BlackLivesMatter, and Education]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Whenever conservative pundit Michelle Malkin’s name comes up, you know it’s going to be a bloodbath of lies and obfuscation.

Her latest article, reposted by the diabolical folks at that news rag, poses Teach for America (TFA) as a once-well meaning do-gooder organization who’ve let the inmates run the asylum (yes, I know what I did there). She said:

“Teach For America has transformed itself into a recruiting center for militants bent on occupying themselves with anything other than imparting knowledge and academic excellence to children in the classroom. When a government-funded outfit abandons education as its mission in favor of social agitation, it’s time to cut off the taxpayer pipeline.”

This reflexive libertarian response to the surging resistance within TFA made me look at TFAers (and by extension, TFA) with another, more righteous lens. As someone who was baptized in the church of pro-public school, pro-whole child (i.e. anti-high stakes testing), I often see TFA as a neo-liberal Peace Corps, one that often pals around with the very folk that also support Michelle Malkin. We can’t ignore the years of no-bid contracts in major cities, two-year teaching commitments that drove out hundreds of experienced (and usually Black and Latino) educators, monopolistic relationships with Native American reservations and nations, and the droves of government officials making education policy on limited classroom knowledge as the narrative that TFA wrote for themselves.

Teach for America still gives their candidates pamphlets that suggest they have “alumni” who work in other places, as if teaching is not itself a profession, as if what I do daily is another notch on one’s belt.

Yet, as someone who also came through an alternative certification program (NYC Teaching Fellows), I see the need to support and offer different pathways to folks who came through this program and have the best intentions, especially those who did not fully understand their complicity in TFA’s neoliberal legacy. The folks I’ve gotten to know through the program, including one who was mentioned in the NY Post article, seem to have their proverbial “eyes on the prize,” namely equity for all students, and training others to take on the social justice mantle in a meaningful way. Plenty of other edu-activists who were once alt-cert either have worked within the system to make change or outside of it (you’d be surprised!), and both strategies have made enough waves to inspire a twitch or two from one of neoliberalism’s foremost cheerleaders in Malkin.

With the way folks from “both sides” have scurried to Malkin’s side in defense of her points, gutless and sensationalist in the way only Malkin can make them, I opted out of my religion once again and found myself gravitating towards my friends and colleagues who occupy the TFA space. If that makes me a social justice warrior, so be it. While Netta, DeRay, and co. literally put their lives on the line protesting injustices served daily to oppressed people right within our country, the “reform critic” side of things still hasn’t had the nuance and judgment to steer clear of Tea Party members and anti-federal government folks who don’t think people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community (amongst others) deserve the full spectrum humanity has to offer. Similar to education professors and pundits who write books and essays about the teacher life from outside the school building, these educators-turned-protestors might have felt like their best option to make change now is from the outside and on the streets. [Sidenote: *Of course, I think we should work inside the classroom, too. Teachers are political agents, regardless of how political we pretend we’re not.]

Black lives do matter, and that includes the classroom.

Malkin also reminds me of what happens when educators of color do exercise their right to protest and bring these ideas into the classroom. They face harsher penalties than their white counterparts for comparable offenses. They get harangued, maligned, and terminated with no foreseeable future in that district. They get doxxed by Malkin and dismissed from their districts repeatedly regardless of how many awards they’ve won. In fact, when teachers begin to collectively demand more and protest in the streets, we can fully expect the school district to enact a mass closings of schools where students of color learn and adults of color teach.

We shouldn’t have to wonder why the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that by 2020, we could see numbers as little as 5% educators of color. The sociopolitical will to keep us around ain’t there.

Most educational institutions, well-meaning or otherwise, have had a historical complicity with assuring our larger American status quo, including folks I pay dues to. The only way forward isn’t by dismissing racial claims as “separating our side” when the divisions are clearly already baked in. It’s not by telling by putting faces of color in front of your movement, but strip them of their agency. These protests don’t just matter when TFA alumni get involved or when any other education-based organization or individual decides to get selectively righteous about injustice.

Some of us are so busy with educational orthodoxy, we lose the spirit of why we do what we do: the students. The Ferguson protests didn’t start off a whim, but from the awful murder of Mike Brown. The #BlackLivesMatter protests are galvanized not by the abstract ideas of segregation, homelessness, unemployment, and the wayward policing the Broken Windows Theory has allowed. It was sparked by the murder of Trayvon Martin. It continues to matter in the murders of Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, and Jessica Hernandez.

In other words, children are the heart of these movements. We all need to catch some of that ghost. Take me to church.