My Own Vision of “Transformative Teaching”

One thing Teach For America is really good at is making you feel guilty all the time.

I’m sure that’s not the real intention of the organization, but that’s what happens.  It is easy to feel like crap if you are not working twenty-four hours a day.  The poor and minority children are getting a substandard education, and that translates into another generation of poor, powerless minorities living day to day in the United States of America.  So if you’re not working yourself to the bone at all times, are you really committed to the cause?  Some days it seems like that is the question.

When I joined this organization, I thought that continuous work was what was going to be required of me.  But it wouldn’t be “work” it would be… life.  I thought I would end up in the Mississippi Delta or a reservation somewhere, and literally every second of my existence would be dedicated to educational reform in our struggling country.   I thought I was joining a movement, implying forward motion, or at least the domestic Peace Corps.  I would be a simple gear or sprocket in the fast-moving reform machine. I thought I would be surrounded by people who had spirit and drive and I would be connected to them and to some greater mission.  And we would be in the textbooks someday.

But when the dust settles on Teach For America, pretty much what it is is an important, well-intentioned corporate job.  I don’t think they expect 24/7 effort, but I also don’t think they have any answers.  They certainly don’t know what to do with outliers like me, who want very badly to do something “great” but don’t want to go through corporate channels to get there.  They are a corporation who thinks they are a movement.  Full of good intentions, and certainly doing many wonderful things, but still… largely disappointing.  And not a good fit for me.

Those first few months of teaching went by like a blur.  I thought I was “part of something” and so I worked all the time to keep my membership card.  Soon enough however I realized I was miserable, I was inefficient, and I was constantly getting shat on by the very people I wanted so very much to help.  Those kids were evil, and they could tell I wasn’t very good at teaching them.  I worked every day, all day, until I was ready to drop and I slowly got better and better.  I thought that my entire life was required of me.  Every drop of blood for the cause.  I completely lost sight of my purpose as a teacher-for-life, and I felt alone and unsupported and not at all a part of “Tulsa”.  I definitely did not feel like I was part of a “movement” to end racial inequality in my country.  I put in months of devastatingly hard work only to feel alone.  And frustrated.

This experience has led me to the conclusion that the “educational reform movement” is not, for first year corps members like me, a movement at all, or at least not the kind of movement I was expecting to be part of.  There are no marches.  There is no figurehead like Susan B. Anthony or Harvey Milk or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  There is no buzzing network of volunteers carrying signs and transforming communities.  There are only kids who go to school every day even though they hate it, even though they don’t understand it or want it.  And there are the teachers who attempt to teach them.  And I am one of them.  And we are many.  And we are invisible.  This is what educational reform is really.

As long as this country devalues the lives and the potential of black and hispanic children, nothing I can do in the classroom can turn the tide.  But I can make a difference in the lives of a few children.  And I can keep my eyes and ears open for something that fits me.  Maybe I could even help to start it.  I want Teach For America to step up, to dig into the community, to be vocal and visual and to make everyone accountable.  I want Tulsa to take care of its own.  I want TFA to be more than a bunch of hard-working young teachers, I want them to be activists and organizers on a much larger scale.  But TFA is what it is.  It’s a wonderful thing.  But it’s not me.

I’m reminded of high school.  When I was 17 I pretty much dropped out of religion, and all my born again friends were very disappointed in me.  They knew that telling me I was wrong outright was never going to re-convert me, so they asked me a lot of questions, hoping that I would come to “the truth” eventually.  The biggest question was always, “How do you expect to live a moral life if you are not led by the Church?”  They had a definition of what morality looked like, but that definition was never me.

Well it’s been eight years, and I think I am doing fine when it comes to moral living.  I feel like a humble, flawed, good-intentioned person that no longer feels compelled to adhere to the hypocritical evangelical idea of what makes a good human being.  I’m grateful for the Lutheran upbringing I received, but I’m also glad I decided to go my own way eventually.  It feels much more authentic to me.

I have to trust that three years from now, having passed up my chance to become a TFA superstar, I will feel grateful for my TFA upbringing but also content with my decision to do things my way.  To teach indefinitely, though maybe not indefinitely at such a difficult school, but to spend a lifetime making small gains for my community in some capacity.  I guess that’s my version of “transformative teaching.”

I have to admit, TFA probably doesn’t think much of me.  I don’t participate in seminars and leadership opportunities.  Honestly, I don’t work as hard as other TFA teachers I know and know of.  I work from 7am to 5pm most weekdays, with an occasional 8 or 9pm night.  Weekends, I maybe put in two or three hours max.  And to a TFA eye, that might make me look like a slacker or somehow uncommitted.  I read books.  I watch Parks and Rec on weeknights.  I go for walks and play with my rabbit.  I crochet and stitch.  Hell, it’s 6pm on a Sunday and I’m blogging.  Unbelievable. I cook, I write in my journal, I phone friends.  I try very hard not to talk about work with my boyfriend after 8pm.  And you know what?  I think it makes me a better teacher.  A better person!

I can’t speak for anyone else.  There are “transformative” teachers in our corps, I’m sure, who work continuously and live for their children.  They will do great things in their two years, and then they will go on to the business world or graduate school or something else I just want no part of.  Part of me still wishes I could  fit into that mold.  But I’m no suit, no “thought-partner”.  I don’t want to go back to school.  I don’t want to become the Secretary of Education.  I want to teach forever, and to start a family, and to own some land, and to work hands-on to support my community for the remainder of my simple life.

Whatever I do, it’s not going to start at a conference or in a board room or via satellite conference call.  It’ll probably start on my couch or over coffee with someone wearing a sweater they knitted themselves.  Because that’s my style.  And it won’t be one big idea that comes to me.  It’ll be a series of little ideas and actions made humbly over a lifetime of opportunities to do the right thing.  And I guess the judge-y part of me thinks that this corporate leadership style that TFA has mastered is the same style that keeps our kids down in the first place.  Competition and leadership.  Capitalism.  The race to the top.  I mean, not really.  It’s not like TFA is some evil machine.  But still… not me.

We can’t all be “leaders.”  Some of us have to be content with anonymity and grassroots planning and quiet, long-term activity that involves literally getting your hands dirty.  And wearing skirts and blue jeans.  Or maybe that is leadership, just not the type that TFA can give me.

So I guess what I’m saying is spring is here, and I’m forgiving Teach For America and moving on.  I’m going to try something else.  Or maybe I’ll stick with it and do something with TFA… but I’m done waiting for this organization to become what I’m looking of its own accord.  Whatever that means.  I’m done competing and I’m done feeling angry, those are the big things.  TFA has given me everything–a job, a purpose, a reason for living really.  It’s taught me how to “vision plan” for a better community.  But I’m 17 year old Rachael all over again.  I have to be confident that I will live a purposeful life even if I am not part of the corporation.


~ by Rachael on March 11, 2012.

6 Responses to “My Own Vision of “Transformative Teaching””

  1. many of your thoughts are my own. I actually had to see a therapist to deal with the guilt trip! I am just not a “TFA” person — ambitious, or whatever they are. But I AM ambitious, just not in a TFA way. Meh. It’s hard to put into words. I knew this from the beginning though – I felt like I tricked them on the interview day into thinking I’m someone I’m not. The struggle for me has been knowing I am an imposter and trying to keep “them” from finding out. Is that the textbook definition of living a lie, or what?

    • I’m guessing they saw something in “people like us” that they wanted on interview day, I’m just not sure they know what to do with us now that they have us :) But yeah, the impostor feeling, I understand that. You’re not alone Betsy!

    • Oh, and I like what you said: I AM ambitious, just not in a TFA way!

  2. Rachael,
    Not only are you a wonderful and thoughtful person, but you are an excellent writer. One of my biggest regrets since joining the corps is the fact that I have lost the ability to write beautifully. You captured many of the concerns that I have experienced. However, I hadn’t the verbiage to express it. Thank you for putting this on paper… in text… in print? Eh, whatever.

    The point is, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to the tfa umbrella that tries to harness wildly different kinds of leadership into a very specific kind of mold. I also feel that I don’t fit the mold, try hard enough, or care enough. I think how you’ve described yourself makes you sound like a true leader–one that doesn’t just try to fit the mold and do what has always (and somewhat unsuccessfully) been done. I’ve wanted to fit the TFA mold at the expense of actually figuring out how to be a good teacher.
    I can’t say that I’m going to be own kind of leader within the classroom. I can’t even say I’m committed enough to carry signs and march to end educational inequity.

    I hope you really do find happiness in your path. I envy your approach. Stay true to you. Because of this, I will begin blogging again.


    HJH Teacher

    • Reading your comment makes me feel much more happy and confident that I decided to post this! Thank for all the warm things you said, HJH (I will find out who you are :)

      I’m pretty sure that anyone who has the privilege of not living day to day, like so many of our kids will have to, but instead has the ability to makes choices can choose to have the courage to meet their independent destiny when they find it.

      Or in other words… we’ll figure it out. Don’t worry. :)

    • Well written and thought provoking thread, and I echo hjh teacher in saying, “I think how you’ve described yourself makes you sound like a true leader.” However, I need some clarification on how activism around educational reform would look in your eyes? I would love for their to be an Abbie Hoffman type planning rallies and marches to draw attention to educational inequity and efforts of educators to fight it. A figurehead to align the community and teachers in the fight against student apathy (my name for students not caring to learn or try to understand because they are malnourished, haven’t been given the opportunity, have a horrible home situation, insert economic/social variable here). I think it’d be great if tfa were active on this front, but tfa feels the way to getting there is through the classroom, so that is where we are.

      The one part I disagree with you on, and maybe think you should disagree with yourself on is your admission that “tfa probably doesn’t think much of me.” First off, who gives a flip what tfa thinks of you. Your students are lucky to have, the English dept. is lucky to have you, the school is lucky to have you. I think tfa is lucky to have you, because tfa is what you make it. Yes, there are a lot of type-A personalities, some that are successful at making kids care, some that are good at making their kids seem like they care when they don’t, some that are constantly struggling, and some that are going through the motions. Yet within that mix are the gems like yourself that have a different vision for what tfa should be, and those are the people you need to gravitate and will help make the experience you want to have in Tulsa. I guess what I’m saying is thanks for starting this conversation; we should hang more often.

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