At last weekend’s Professional Development Saturday, the CEO and Superintendent of Baltimore City Public Schools came in to give a whole group address to the TFA Baltimore Cohort of 2010-2011. I have always thought that Dr. Alonso was an interesting guy who had some sharp opinions on education policy (I like to listen to the speakers TFA brings us, especially ones directly connected to our region, because I feel like they occasionally fill in a picture of our particular district’s landscape that TFA has not entirely fleshed out for us). I’ve met him a few times, and found myself paying attention to his speech this time, too.
The one thing that Dr. Alonso said during this address that really stood out to me was a piece about pessimism. He advised us not to allow ourselves to become cynical. ”Cynicism is a disease of the soul,” he quipped, before pausing thoughtfully and then conveying that he was aware of the myriad circumstances within a district like Baltimore City that could make avoiding cynicism a rather difficult task.
In the few days that have followed this Saturday–spent like so many others, at this point, in Professional Development that is not strictly “helpful” in the traditional/any other sense of the word, where I do honestly believe that, despite our commitment to our students and to Baltimore, the majority of corps members would probably rather be spending their Saturday doing something a little different–I have considered Dr. Alonso’s words in the hopes of forcing myself into some sort of elemental reflection (the kind that has been so hard to achieve since I accepted this job).
Have I become cynical? I’ve never been that much of a cheery person, and consider sarcasm to be one of my greatest vices/assets, so being accused of cynicism would not be new for me. Sometimes I think that I’m a pessimist, but I know that if I truly were, I never would have accepted a position with Teach for America. No, I would have said I didn’t think I could make a difference, or that education will never change, or that a city like Baltimore can’t pull itself out of the hole that our government and its systemic racism and classism have shoved it into. But, I didn’t say these things. I accepted the job and I suppose, in retrospect, in doing so, I was affirming for myself and everyone else that I DID believe I could make a difference.
So, then, the true question I need to be asking myself is whether or not I have changed since January 19th, 2011, when I received word that I had actually gotten into Teach For America, and been placed in Baltimore, my top choice placement preference. Almost exactly a year ago, I pledged the next two years of my young life to do something that a lot of people don’t believe can be done–close the achievement gap, or at least try to do my part.
If I am honest with myself, it would be impossible to pretend that I haven’t become somewhat cynical about the mission we are charged with. It’s not that I don’t believe in my students. I do. I really do. It’s us–the adults–who I don’t believe in. Not Teach For America specifically, but, yes, Teach For America, too, sometimes. I didn’t realize how many ideological disputes I would internally struggle over between myself and Teach For America when I signed on. I didn’t realize how deeply corrupt and poorly prioritized a school could actually be, and the impact that would have on otherwise well-meaning, optimistic teachers. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get anything done within the school, or the district. I didn’t realize how many people in positions of power would make promises and allocate money and agree to do things that would just never come to fruition. I was naive. I thought that with a little love and 5 weeks of training, I could teach Pre-K in one of the roughest schools in one of the worst districts in one of the most dangerous cities in America. I was not prepared.
Like most corps members, at this point, I have seen things that I never even could have imagined and can much less accurately describe. Often times, when my friends from home or college (a life I still pine for but can somehow barely remember) ask me about the things I’ve seen, I try to change the subject because I know that nothing I can say can accurately convey the extremity and the gravity of what I have witnessed. The abuses of power, the disturbing priorities, the sweeping under the rug… things so astounding that my abstracted, cliched descriptors cannot possibly encapsulate what I’m trying to say. My friends usually respond that I’m lucky that I’ll be out in two years. What they fail to understand is that, although I can openly acknowledge my privilege in this way, this actually makes it worse on the day-to-day, because the reality of the temporality of what I’m doing, and how my “two year stint” reeks of privilege and elitism, weighs on me on the regular.
Sometimes people make jokes about how, while the students at my school may not be, I’m certainly receiving “an education” through this experience. This is undeniably true. I feel like I’ve aged 5 years in the past semester. But, of course, with this education has come a certain disillusionment that has me questioning, often, what exactly I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and if I think it truly matters. Can TFA close the achievement gap? It would be presumptuous and frankly sort of ridiculous for me to say yes at this point. As I have intimated in earlier blog posts, it just so happens that there are some schools that cannot be “turned around” or saved on the whim of an organization like TFA. We are too far in, too deeply entrenched and enmeshed in a system that relies so heavily on the inherently exploitative capitalistic structure put in place by our government for change to be rapid and, in some cases, for change to come at all. But I think part of me always thought that, all along, before I even applied for TFA.
Can TFA mitigate the devastating impact that educational inequity has had on country? Probably, in some cases, definitely. Do I feel like I’m making a difference? Well, enough so that I get up and go to work every day. Have I become cynical? Sometimes, I think so. I mean, this entire blogpost is questioning the importance and efficacy of what I do every day, so I would say that it’s pretty cynical. But, as Dr. Alonso said, cynicism would not necessarily be an irrational or unreasonable response to some of the things many of us have seen. With that being said, it would, perhaps, not be the best or right response to some of the things many of us have seen.
I studied philosophy and critical theory at length and with passion in college. I consider myself a relatively devout existential[nihil]ist. Essentially, this means I believe that man has to create and live his own meaning; that his reality is crafted internally and meaning can come only from within. You cannot expect to be any more than what you make of yourself. (Of course, this is purely theoretical and philosophical and is not supposed to be interpreted as a commentary on social, political, or power struggles in our daily society.) So, one of my favorite existentialist philosophers, and one of the most popular and widely-respected, Jean-Paul Sartre, once wrote
Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.
This quotation essentially sums up my first semester of teaching for me. It’s been quite a journey. One I am continuing, with the hopes of reigning in my pessimism and searching for signs that what I’m doing is right, and that I’m doing right not only by myself, but by my students.