Voices from the New Teacher Underground: Change From the Inside, Change From the Outside

A reflection from a member of the New Teacher Underground.  Sarah Solomon is a special educator who teaches English and World History at a high school in Manhattan. She is also a 2010 Teach For America corps member.

When I decided to join Teach For America (TFA), I more or less knew what I was getting into.  I knew that many Teach For America corps members did not end up remaining in the classroom.  I knew that I did not agree with several policies and practices of the organization. And so on. However, I ultimately decided to join anyway for several reasons: 1) I wanted to be an educator 2) I figured that if I didn’t, someone else would, perhaps someone who did not intend to remain in the classroom, someone who did not have a commitment to social justice, etc. 3) I thought I could make needed changes to TFA from within the organization 4) I was graduating from college – scared shitless – and I needed a job.

As I went through the intensive summer training institute last summer, I felt fairly unsettled. During one of our first days in training, the “alumni placement team” discussed all of the ways in which they could help us corps members after our two year commitment was over to get accepted into law school, find jobs with hedge funds and corporations, get on the fast track to become school leaders, and on and on. The first “diversity and cultural awareness” workshop that I attended did not mention the word race – not once. The incredible amount of corps members placed in charter schools, and the seemingly romantic relationship between huge charter networks and TFA, put me off as well. Once I got into the classroom, my advisor’s tenacious attention to my data above all other aspects of teaching (many of these aspects are those for which I could have used some guidance and support) put me off further. So did the way that TFA advocates – Michelle Rhee, David Levin, Doug Lemov – used the language of corporations when speaking about schools, students, teachers, and communities.

It was not until I sought out other like-minded TFA corps members and folks in organizations like NYCORE, sat down with them and spoke with them, that I really starting to question: what are we, organizations like Teach For America, really saying? What are alternative certification programs really doing? What impact are they really having on children, and on education policy? The answers that I ultimately came up with (and am still trying to come up with) are very different from what a TFA recruiter or their literature might say.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that I am so grateful to have found folks within TFA who are willing to put themselves on that line with me, ask questions, resist, and make me feel like I’m not crazy. I’m grateful to have found the folks who are organizing the New Teacher Underground with me to find ways to organize and mobilize new teachers, and to resist policies and practices that are toxic to education. I’m grateful for all of the people who have come out, or plan to come out, to the New Teacher Underground events, for engaging in what is such an important conversation in education right now because of the magnitude of alternative certification programs, and the volume of their voices heard in policy discussions and the media.

Really though, from my experience it is just in finding one another, in the questioning and talking to each other, that is the first step to making real change.