Some Historical Perspective

I went down to Georgia this past weekend for a family reunion that included a lot of family history.  Interestingly enough, much of it had connections to my experience teaching.  I’ve often felt that teaching must be harder now than it was in the past, because my experience was so brutal.  Well that might be true of the recent past, but there was a time not so long ago when things were far more difficult in many ways.

As part of our tour of the historical archives of a town in Georgia that is the historical home of much of my family, we learned about the school that blacks attended in the area from the end of slavery until the end of segregation.  School for blacks was held in a one room school house and education from 1st to 7th grade was provided simultaneously by a single teacher.  The only supplies provided to the school from the county were hand-me-down books and a single chair, for the teacher’s use.  Education ended at 7th grade, at which point, kids were big enough to go pick cotton.  There was no option for high school, let alone higher education.  And yet, some of my ancestors did manage to attend historically black colleges.

While the proprietor of the archive spoke, relatives of mine nodded their heads in affirmation and mentioned their own memories.  Obviously, all of this is old news to anyone who has ever taken a class on US history, but hearing about it from people who actually lived through those times made me really think about it.  Reflecting on the fact that there are still people alive today who were educated in these completely unequal conditions, it made me think, of course we’re still struggling with the education gap, you just can’t fix the effects of systematic discrimination overnight.  We learn a lot from our teachers, but we also take in a unquantifiable amount of information from our families and our societies.  How much of a disadvantage is it to a child to be raised by parents who never had the opportunity to go to high school at all, let alone a good high school or college?  How much is that disadvantage compounded when it’s the norm for an entire community?  We’re only a few generations past segregation.

I think that what makes education so difficult today is that we are finally starting to take the challenge of educating these urban kids seriously.  It has only been within the past 10 years that No Child Left Behind forced educational standards upon every school in the country.  Until then, kids were graduating from inner city schools, but it was a lot easier to pretend that they were actually getting an equal education.  I wonder how long it will take for the country to realize that “equal” will not be achieved until “separate” is done away with.  In the meantime, I think teachers face a different sort of difficulty than they did during segregation.  Then, there were no resources, but I doubt there was much in the way of standards and scrutiny either.  Now, teachers have a lot more resources, but also the pressure of working under a magnifying glass.

The Cycle Continues

As I am no longer a teacher, I will no longer be fueled by as many ideas or experiences, and, I imagine, my impressions of inner-city education will become decreasingly current.  So, I probably won’t be writing much more on here, besides the occasional commentary.  In a moment of boredom, I took a peak at http://teachfor.us, a website that provides blogs, and although it is for obvious reasons, it did strike to see on the front pages a whole new set of users with recent posts.  The changing of the guard has occurred.

Sadly, because I was packing for vacation, I missed the opportunity to go to the welcoming reception for the incoming 2010 Baltimore corps members a couple weeks back.  As much as I would have liked to be there to see what the next generation of TFA people looks like, I didn’t really feel all that bad missing out.  It’s weird, but just a handful of days after the end of the school year, a sort of separateness from TFA has settled not just on me, but on pretty much everyone I know from my corps.  People (including one of my roommates) have already relocated to other cities.  Just a year ago, we did our best to prepare the 2009 corps for what they would encounter in the placement process, Institute, and the first year of teaching.  Now most of us have left the picture, and they are the seasoned veterans (of one year!), carrying the mantle of the Baltimore Corps.  We taught them what it meant to be part of the B’more Hard Corps, just like the 2007 corps taught us.

And to extend that thread of moving on, the process doesn’t seem to be limited to corps members.  There’s also a constant shuffling amongst the regional staff.  Besides a couple people who become institutions for a few years at a time, most people are in and out.  This year, our executive director, who is a long time Baltimore institution, is moving on up to join the national leadership staff.
I guess it’s just the nature of things.  And of course I can’t fling blame around, because I’m making moves too.  It’s probably all just part of the overall trend in our society of rapid movement between jobs and careers.  Still, there’s something about all this churn that just seems too rapid, too frantic, and too brutal.  You approach the machine with good intentions, and it chews you up for two years and spits you out.  How many people have the stones to linger in a system like ours in Baltimore?  My girlfriend does, but most of us don’t.  Even of the people from my 2008 corps that decided to stay in education, most either change schools or they are proceeding tentatively, eying future prospects outside of the classroom.  Simply put, teaching is a difficult job and I don’t think it’s a job that nurtures new talent and rewards people for sticking around long enough to be really good at it.

Missing the reception was just symbolic of the fact that I’m no longer part of the current Baltimore Corps.  I’m one of the mostly nameless, faceless conglomerate of Alumni, that abstract group of people that supposedly went through the madness of teaching in Baltimore in some distant, irrelevant past.  One of my roommates had a close friend from high school end up in the 2009 corps.  I remember my roommate telling me last year that although he was excited about reconnecting with his friend, he had very mixed feelings.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that he wouldn’t wish upon his good friend the abuse he had endured during his first year of teaching.  In many ways, I feel similarly toward the 2010’s.

I would never say that the TFA experience is on par with serving in the military in wartime, but I think there are parallels.  I put any job where someone’s immediate survival is at stake on a tier of its own in terms of difficulty and stress.  But inner city teaching–and, by extension, the TFA experience–have to be near the top of that next tier.  At this very moment, the 2010’s are about a week into Institute, experiencing their first hours in front of real students.  It almost gives me chills to think about it.  There’s no way they can possibly imagine the highs and lows they are about to experience.  God bless them.