We spend a lot of time with TFA discussing minorities and their role in the organization. A post just came out last week stating that 14% of TFA’s corps members this year are African American, a 7% growth since last year. In my affinity group discussion yesterday, we talked some about this.
When I was in the process of applying to Teach For America, I heard a lot about how important it is for students to be taught by people who come from the same background. To be real, true models for the students. At my in-person interview, my interviewer talked a majority of the day about how important it was to her to recruit and hire minorities. It was during that interview that I, a white, upper-middle-class female, accepted that I probably wouldn’t get hired because I was none of the things my interviewer was looking for.
Now, apparently I must have said something right during that interview to end up here. And I should say that I am incredibly glad that I did. TFA has already opened my eyes to the world as I had never seen it before, in good and bad ways. But consistently I have faced this same issue of basically being told that TFA teachers should be a minority from low socio-economic backgrounds. They should be everything that I am not.
This isn’t a means for me to complain about my privilege. I am saying this here because Teach For Us is about documenting the TFA experience and discussing important issues. We spend days studying minority oppression and how we can close the “achievement gap” between high and low income societies. At each and every one of these meetings, the message I always end up receiving is: you shouldn’t be here. I consistently feel like an outcast in TFA. Not to say there isn’t a fair share of corps members who are from similar backgrounds to myself, because I have met quite a few. But there is always some dividing line between myself and many corps members.
Take, for instance, this summer at Institute. In one session, our session leader mentioned how we all feel connected over paying back student loans and dealing with the debt we are all in. I looked around the room and saw heads nodding in agreement, while I myself felt completely lost into what we were supposed to be feeling. I am in no way complaining that I don’t have student loans to pay (side note: I always feel the need to excuse myself with “this isn’t to say…” or “I am not complaining…” because as an upper-middle class, white person, society tells me I have to be sorry for my privilege). But I saw bonds forming between corps members in this session as they discussed financial hardships and how they deal with them. Sure, I found other things to bond over, but this is an issue that has come up a few times.
In a different session, we were discussing what it means to be an advocate and what it means to be an ally to a cause. I don’t really agree with what was said, but the gist of the message was that to be an advocate you had to be part of the group that was oppressed. To be an ally, you were outside the group but still supporting the cause. Our session leader asked us to share where we were on the spectrum of advocate or ally in a given situation. I shared that, by her definition, I was an ally. Because I was not from a low socio-economic background, I was an ally to the cause we were discussing. Immediately I saw in our session leader’s face that I said something wrong. Here she was, trying to build up this camaraderie between us, and by admitting my privilege I became the enemy. OK, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but I could see she thought less of me than when she thought I was from the same background as herself.
I discussed some of this with my MTLD this afternoon. I am working on building student-teacher relationships in my classroom, and I know an important part of that is sharing some of my story with my students. But, as I mentioned before, I am told to be ashamed of my privilege, and I don’t know how to bring that side of myself to my classroom. The fact of the matter is, my students will have to work extremely hard in life to get where I am, simply because they were born into a different society than I was. And that sucks, and I want to do everything I can to make that path easier for them. But they have to know that it will take lots of work on their part. They can, and should, feel angry that this is the case. Heck, I am angry that this is the case! I don’t regret having privilege, because it brought me here to this wonderful class of students where I really feel I can make a difference. My students have in them the ability to do amazing things in the world, but they are told on a near daily basis that they can’t. I grew up with the goal of graduating college. Many of my students are just hoping to make it through high school. That in itself says what different worlds we live in.
I don’t deserve to be made to feel bad for how I grew up. My students don’t deserve to feel bad for how they are growing up, either. I agree that students should have role models from their own communities. I also believe, however, that they need to be exposed to people from all different walks of life. My students didn’t know how to react when my MTLD, an Asian Pacific Islander, came into my classroom. They asked rude questions, but didn’t understand that they were being rude. They need exposure, and to understand that everyone has different privileges. They have some privileges I don’t have, and I have some that they don’t and may never have. It’s the understanding, and how we react to that knowledge, that makes a difference.
It’s hard for me to write this, knowing I could get some backlash from people. I hate that I have to put in disclaimers that I am not complaining, and I know I should feel blessed for the life I’ve had. I don’t think this situation is unique to Teach For America, but it has certainly become more prevalent in my life since joining the program. People bond over hardships. Friendships are made over hating the same people, as my best friend and I used to say. By not having faced the same hardships, I can easily be written off by others. And that isn’t fair.
I’m not saying feel sorry for me because I had a good life. I’m saying keep in mind, with everyone that you meet, that you don’t know anything about them until you take the time to know their privilege and their struggles. Maybe this post doesn’t really make sense to anyone else, but what is important to me right now is that I have finally put into words what I have been struggling with all summer.