There was a time, not so long ago, when Teach For America was just a bookmark in Firefox and a non-profit I thought was too good to be true. While I certainly am the same person I was then (it was only two years ago), there are a couple things I’ve been noticing lately that are markedly different.
Before I was a part of TFA, I became fascinated by these demonstrations. I took the skin tone test three times in a row—the first two times I showed a “slight preference for light skin over dark skin” (I was determined to ‘beat the game,’ as it were, and my third test finally showed no preference). I ran into them again yesterday, and both times I did the demonstration, I came out with a “strong preference for dark skin over light skin.”
While I take these matching games with a grain of salt, I do think they’re interesting—and I definitely would agree that I’ve developed a great deal more positive unconscious associations with dark-skinned people as a result of my experiences during the past year (both teaching and non-teaching experiences).
I forget that I mused upon teachers and students and learning and responsibility before I ever considered becoming a teacher. In college, I paid close attention to teachers’ grading policies and wondered what was ethical and fair and what wasn’t (dropping the lowest test score? Curving tests? More extra credit in hard courses?). In the beginning of my junior year, one such musing included the following:
“Teaching is entirely dependent on learning. Ideally, a teacher would impart material in such a clear, interesting, easy-to-understand manner that no student would have unnecessary trouble learning it. Also ideally, students would work and study exactly as the teacher intended, in order for their teaching to stick. Then both teacher and students would be successful. But when they aren’t, whose fault is it?It’s got to be up to the student. You can learn anything, but you can’t teach anything. The best student can succeed even with the worst teacher, but even the best teacher has no hope teaching the worst student.
(Which brings up another question, though: does the teacher’s responsibility end at presenting information in a learnable way? Mustn’t they also inspire, engage, and arouse the desire to learn? If so, the best teacher should be able to transform the worst student into the best student, and then they COULD teach anything. To anyone. But that seems like an unreasonable burden to place on the teacher.)”
I had college professors and students in mind as I wrote this, but was extending it to all teachers and students (at the time, the distinction didn’t seem important). In my mind, while all students were certainly capable, not all students understood how to actualize their capabilities—and whether or not they did wasn’t the teacher’s problem. Now, that is THE single responsibility I take on most consistently.
While I still remember the sentiments behind these words, I’d never write them today—at least not about pre-college teachers. There’s a certain TFA-heresy in “the best teacher has no hope of teaching the worst student” and “that seems like an unreasonable burden to place on the teacher.”
It’s interesting that I’ve always placed the onus on my current role—when I was a student, it was students’ responsibility to figure out their own success; now that I’m a teacher, it’s the teacher’s job to ensure it. But do I really believe this is my responsibility as a teacher? Or is it my responsibility as a corps member?
… and how, if at all, does this extend to college courses?