I want to share an incident I’ve been thinking a lot about in the week or so since it originally happened.
“Teacher ethics” is, of course, a loaded topic, a topic that could easily take on so many forms for so many people. And in this post I’m not going to refer to the basic black-and-white stuff like sex with students or cheating on tests or friending students on Facebook. To me this issue goes deeper. It goes right to the heart of what it means to be a part of Teach For America – the movement.
Also let me note that I’m speaking of TFA here because it’s what I’m familiar with. Non-TFA teachers are of course held to the same ethics as TFA teachers are, I just can’t personally speak to their experiences.
I read Relentless Pursuit a few years ago, when a mentor of mine (who was a senior when I was a freshman in college) bequeathed it to me before heading off to do TFA herself. In the end of the book the class of CMs hears a speech about “the gift, the power, and the responsibility.” And that’s what the ethics of being a part of TFA are to me. A gift, a power, and a responsibility.
I don’t think I’ve personally done anything in my life to have earned this gift/power/responsibility, and I only have it because I’m a member of TFA and am therefore a reflection of this amorphous/intangible organization. But it’s important to recognize I do have it. As a TFA teacher I’m, for many people, one of the only true tangible experiences they’ll have with Teach For America as a movement. This organization – which they have probably read New York Times articles about or heard discussed or maybe even not heard of at all – this organization comes alive for them in their interactions with me and my fellow CMs.
Back to the incident.
About a week ago, a few friends and I were working late at a highly-frequented coffee shop here in Houston. We were lesson planning and unit planning and Facebook stalking and all of those things 20-somethings are wont to do at 9:30 PM on a weeknight. And as we planned, we talked amongst ourselves, mainly about our classrooms (just in general) and our kids (in general, not specifically at all) and our visions for the year. I’m trying hard to remember exactly what we discussed but I honestly can’t. We weren’t complaining at all (I’m sure of this because I make a conscious effort to keep the complaining to a minimum, especially in public). We were just thinking out loud and bouncing ideas off one another, being thought-partners if I really want to use TFA-speak.
We rolled right along for about an hour and a half and then an old-ish gentleman next to us put down his paper and asked us straight-out.
“Are you all Teach For America teachers?”
We looked at each other for a few seconds, trying to figure out how to respond, when a friend of mine finally explained we were. She isn’t a Houston CM so her experience is obviously very different from ours but she was still the spokesperson for the group in this scenario. Which I’m grateful for.
Back to the old man.
“You know, it’s funny. I never hear non-TFA teachers talk this much about school outside of class.”
Awkward. We weren’t going to sit there and bash non-TFA teachers – or even be privy to his bashing – so we tried to dodge the statement and move it back to a more constructive place. Besides, his statement was probably more about the fact that we have no life outside of school (and thus talk about school in coffee shops on a regular basis) than anything else…I cannot speak to the validity of this man’s statement or his perspective so I’m just going to put this out there as nothing more than a chronicle of what was said.
The man continued.
“You guys seem to really care about your students. Do you like TFA? Do you agree with what they’re doing? Don’t most of you leave the classroom after your two years are up?”
Then he moved on to ed reform.
“You know, they’re making schools like prisons these days. So many tests and objectives. Too much standardization. Not enough recess. It’s a crying shame.”
He had lots of opinions. We engaged with him a little bit – carefully, yet genuinely. We shed light on some of his misconceptions about TFA and heard him out on his various ed reform viewpoints. I think he enjoyed the conversation and the chance to talk TFA with people actually inside the movement. At the end of the conversation, he kindly bid us farewell and went on his way.
That’s when it really sunk in for me.
Chances are, his opinion of TFA is formed entirely from what he hears, sees, and reads. He likely hasn’t had many chances to actually see TFA teachers up-close and in-person, much less in a situation where we’re out in public just talking about TFA. And so for that man, whatever we said – before our conversation and during our conversation – has helped him create an image in his mind of what TFA is. Our influence is actively building his perception.
I don’t mean this in a narcissistic sense; for all I know he has lots of contact with other TFA teachers, or maybe his opinion was already formed and we did nothing to change it in any way.
But even if his opinion was 99% formed, we had an active if not completely influential role in forming the last 1%, and at the time (pre-conversation with him) we didn’t even know it.
Which brings me back to the idea of the gift, the power, and the responsibility. Being in the TFA movement is a gift in that I get to see, up-close and personal, part of what this movement is/means/does. Being in the TFA movement is powerful in that I have the ability to, in some small way, affect how people both inside and outside the movement view TFA teachers. And finally, being in the TFA movement is a responsibility. Being a teacher in general is a responsibility. The way I conduct myself in private and in public is a reflection. For some people out there, it may be the only window they see into the seeming impenetrable collective that is Teach For America. And that’s a responsibility in and of itself.
So I guess this brings me full-circle, to ethics. In all aspects of my life – in bars, in museums, in coffee shops, in parks – I am a reflection of the teaching profession, whether I’m aware of it or not. It’s given me a lot to think about. I’m trying to hold myself to a far higher standard than where I held myself to in college; I wasn’t unethical or irresponsible by any means, just not very…self-reflective, I suppose. And to me, ethics goes far beyond the idea of not exchanging inappropriate text messages with students. It gets into very real and deep issues of where a public persona ends and a private persona begins (are these two different things if you’re a teacher?) or what responsibility we, as TFA teachers, have to the movement and to each other.
Lots of things to think about these evening. I’m interested to hear what y’all think. Have you found yourself in similar incidents and situations? To what extent – if at all – do you view yourself as a “steward” of whatever movement/group you’re a part of, whether TFA or non-TFA?