Yesterday, I drove to Selma to facilitate a session for Teach for America’s Alabama cohort. I was never in TFA, but I taught in Birmingham with a bunch of corps members and was happy to see some familiar faces. More than that, I was happy to share some ideas that might help these smart, overworked, under-experienced teachers to help their students connect with math.
I’ve spoken to many people who have strong feelings about TFA, either positive or negative. From my experience, TFA teachers are almost uniformly dedicated, empathetic people who genuinely want to do right by their students. I don’t think that TFA is a long-term solution to the challenges of high-poverty school districts, but I also don’t know what the long-term solution is. The state of Alabama graduated one physics teacher in 2015. One. We have 67 county districts and about as many city districts. If Perry County gets a physics major from Duke for two years instead of a long-term sub from a substitute contacting service, that is fine by me.
My perspective on TFA is also informed by my own struggle to teach in a high-poverty district. I spent my fourth year of teaching in Birmingham, teaching 7th grade math in one of the most challenging schools I’ve ever seen. Because I was young and white, lots of my colleagues assumed I was TFA. I overheard the librarian once as she admonished a colleague: “Mr. Haines isn’t Teach for America. He’s Teach for Real.” That made me feel good. But on the other hand, at least TFA teachers last for two years. I only made it through one.
I left that job because I could feel myself curdling into a person I didn’t want to be. I taught procedurally because it was the only form of teaching that I could get to work in my room. I said things to students that I’m ashamed of. And most importantly, I failed to teach most of my students a good math lesson every day. So I left.
I go grocery shopping on Sunday mornings when most people are in church. It’s a nice contemplative time, even when I have the kids with me. Lately, I’ve been on the lookout for Sam.
Sam bags groceries sometimes on Sunday mornings. I don’t see him a lot because at age 15, he’s not allowed to work more than a couple of hours at a time. So his dad drives him 20 minutes across to start his shift at 8am and then picks him up again at 10am and drives back. It’s quite a family effort for him to make $14.50.
I almost didn’t recognize Sam the first time I saw him because he’d grown so much since 7th grade, when I taught him math. He’s tall now, and athletic. He was a little bashful about saying hi at first, but we struck up a conversation easily. He was all smiles, telling me about his academy at Woodlawn High School and updating me about his twin sister and old teachers.
That’s not the way I remember Sam. When he was my student, Sam was scrawny, loud, and angry. He was so disruptive that I sat him alone in the room for the entire school year. Sam stole things from my classroom, intentionally broke my supplies, tried to incite people to fight each other, and regularly stormed out of the room in a flurry of profanity. And I hated him.
I could hardly teach when he was in the room. When he was suspended, his class felt like a breeze, and I dreaded the day he would return. I hated how smart he was. He could glance at an equation like 4x – 7 = 37 and immediately recognize that the value of x was 11. It burned me up to watch him waste his talents.
I remember the second-to-last week of school, when Sam got in trouble so badly that he was suspended for the remainder of the school year. I remember the glee that I felt, watching him walk out of my school for the last time. Like I said, I was curdling into someone I didn’t want to be.
So who is this tall kid standing in front of me, smiling and telling me how all his friends are doing in high school? Was he faking it? No, he seemed genuinely happy to see me. The most shocking part of my conversation with Sam was that it was utterly normal. He was just an ordinary kid, and I was just an ortinary teacher. We caught up, we said bye, and I made it all the way to the car before breaking down in tears.
Because of course Sam was just an ordinary kid. He was just in an extraordinary situation. He spent every day of his 7th grade life being yelled at by adults, from the moment he walked into the building to the moment he left. I yelled at him every day, because I yelled at everyone every day. And I yelled because I looked around and saw the veteran teachers yelling at their students. And even if I wasn’t yelling, my voice was always tinged with venom. In that building, the teachers and the students were adversaries.
The problem with that school wasn’t Sam. And the problem wasn’t me. The problem was poverty. The problem was that the white people of Birmingham had fled the city decades ago, leaving economic devastation in their wake. The problem was that when you put that many children with that much pain in the same enclosed space and yell at them for seven hours every day, they start to fight back. Hurt people hurt people, and everyone in that building was hurting.
I left because I could. Sam didn’t have that option.
A couple of weeks ago Sam mentioned that he was struggling in Geometry, so I gave him my email and told him to get in touch if he wanted some tutoring. He hasn’t emailed, but I hope he does. I’d love to be a good memory in the mind of at least one of my students from that year.