Observers like to point out that TFA is a cult. We have bounteous acronyms that only we, as CMs, know. We all have identical–or, at the very least, extremely similar–views on the achievement gap. We all go through the same indoctrination process, the same rites of passage. We all have, as a result, similar teaching methods and philosophies. When, in our summer travels, we cross paths with another CM, the first thing we ask is “what corps were you in?”
Some find this “cultishness” off-putting. But I happen to like it. I happen to like working in groups composed of individuals who have a laser sharp sense of purpose; who can immediately understand one person’s problem because everyone has, more or less, gone through the same experience; who, by consequence of holding the same views on education, can use the power of synergies to discover solutions that could not have been conceived alone. And what’s the hurt in robotically chewing up the same teaching method if that method is the synthesis and product of all the best aspects of different methods out there? TFA’s cultishness is valuable to me.
Of course, I don’t let the cult stifle my open-mindedness. I like to hang out with “non-TFA” people (I apologize for categorizing people into in- and out-groups, but I guess that inevitably comes with being part of a cult). No, I love to hang out with non-TFA folks; it’s just hard to do that when your life so fully revolves around teaching. I read many and accept some of the criticisms leveled at Teach For America, whether as a bogus concept, wasteful organization, or ineffective method of improving our nation’s public school system. I read widely on education and how to improve it; even those whom appear to stand as far away as possible from me on the plane of educational beliefs are on my Google Reader (examples: The Washington Teacher and GFBrandenburg). I read widely on things outside of education, since I know the issue is one that is intertwined with many others. The last thing that I would want from being a CM is to become narrow-minded.
So there you have it. An open appreciation for the cult of Teach For America. I drank the Kool Aid a long time ago, I’m aware. But I am the better for it.
I mentioned rites of passage as an essential part of any cult. For many CMs, there is an Induction of another kind that receives less attention than the one that begins a CM’s experience. I’m speaking of Alumni Induction–that moment where the 2-year commitment is up and the gate that separates the fish of the TFA ilk from the vast oceans of the world is lifted up, providing further evidence that entropy does exist.
Let me be clear–I didn’t “graduate” early. But I was able to attend the ceremony for the 2008 corps. It was truly a fantastic, uplifting event.
A large part of what made it so special was hearing CMs share their reflections on their experience with the entire DC Region corps.
Another special part was when Chancellor Michelle Rhee of DC Public Schools gave the keynote address. This was special, because she spoke to us about her experience as Chancellor of a major urban school district through the lens of being a TFA alum–as someone who adheres to the same set of values and principles.
I was able to record most of her address. It is below (I attempted to embed it but the function doesn’t seem to be working):
Here are the learnings as well as some select quotes (if 13 minutes is too long):
(1) “Go get a boyfriend.”
“This is the loneliest job you can possibly imagine…you need someone at home who loves you unconditionally.” -on the need for love.
(2) “You have to lead from the front.”
“If you ever want to become the least popular person in the city, all you have to do is to tell someone you are closing down a school, much less 23 schools.” -on how to become unpopular–fast!
“Sometimes, as a leader, you have to be able to see things that other people might not see at that moment, but know that eventually people are going to see it if you are doing the right things. And so sometimes you can’t be afraid to be out in front.” -on vision.
(3) “It is hard to be liked.”
“For far too long in this city, and in this country, we have tried to make people feel good about what was going on and about themselves and the jobs that we were doing and we weren’t willing to talk about the hard stuff. And look at what that’s produced in the Washington DC public schools…I’m going to talk about the bad stuff, I’m going to talk about the hard stuff. And if what that does is make people feel a little uncomfortable, but also gives them a sense of urgency about the changes that need to happen, then I’m okay with that.” –on the problem with softening up.
“If you want warm and fuzzy I am not your girl. But if you want results and rapid change and transformation, though it may make some people uncomfortable, then you should…[help people] understand that change does not come easily. –on getting to the business of the work.
(4) “It all comes down to courage.”
“The courage that I’m talking about is on the part of our Mayor, Adrian Fenty…And he has supported me at everything that I have done 100% percent. The man has not blinked or flinched once.” -on the courage of Mayor Fenty.
“If you have to cut everything a little bit deeper so that you can protect what is most important, that is what a priority is.” –on the meaning of priority.
“I believe that public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in our country. It’s supposed to be the thing that ensures that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor. We have public schools so that every kid can have an equal shot in life. That is not the reality as you know it in Washington DC today. As you know in Washington DC today, if you had grown up in Georgetown versus if you had grown up in Anacostia, you’d get two wildly different educational experiences. That is the greatest social injustice imaginable because essentially what that means is that we are still, in this day and age, allowing the color of a child’s skin and the zip code that they live in to dictate their educational attainment levels and, therefore, their life chances and their life outcomes. That goes counter to everything that we believe in as a country, every ideal that this nation was founded on, and it is time, now, to make sure that we reverse that trend, so that every single child growing up in this city and this country today can be assured that they have that equal chance in life, that they can live the American Dream because they’re getting an excellent education in a public school.”
TFA Alumni Role:
“[Wherever you end up] every single person in this room will continue to play a significant role in this society in terms of whether or not we can deliver on that promise for kids or not. But you cannot forget the last 2 years of experience that you’ve had with these kids, because I know that you have met countless numbers of children who, through no fault of their own, are being robbed every single day of a decent education. And it is our obligation to make sure that that does not continue.”
What do I think her address reveals? Here are a few things:
- Michelle Rhee can be funny. What she shows in her speech is an ability to take herself less seriously than most people expect. She’s not always Braveheart and she’s not always Ms. Sweeper-Upper; sometimes, she’s a normal human being (shock!).
- Michelle Rhee is eloquent. Not a single word is wasted. We get the gist of her lessons. She tells stories with ease. They fascinate, they enrapture and they enlighten. Brilliant.
- Michelle Rhee is focused. Everything she says loops back to her commitment to student achievement. Even her jokes serve to set up broader points about improving education. When she explained how closing a school is the fastest way to win an unpopularity contest, she certainly aimed to make us laugh (and we did). But, in finishing her explanation, she showed that, by closing some schools, she had provided every student in DCPS with an art teacher, music teacher, PE teacher, librarian and nurse. That’s use of lighthearted language with a purpose.
- Michelle Rhee is proud to be a TFA alum. She spoke fondly of her corps experience in Baltimore. They were formative in many ways. It’s not surprising, then, that she appreciates what the current generation of CMs is doing.
In closing, I’m proud to be working alongside Chancellor Rhee, both as a fellow member of TFA, but also as part of the broader movement to improve educational opportunity for every child in this nation. I’m going to have to say it again: TFA is a cult–but I like it.