Over 60 students and community members packed into Davis Court Monday night to witness the Teach for America Truth Tour, an event put on by the newly renamed MacSEE (Students for Educational Equity). The organization, previously known as SFER (Students for Education Reform) prior to their disassociation with the national chapter, hosted the panel as a kickoff to their Education Week.
According to Hannah Johnson ’14, a MacSEE the week’s goal is to spur awareness about the organization and involve individuals who might not have had opinions on these matters.
“We’re trying to engage more people on campus in conversations—that’s definitely one of our goals,” Johnson said.
The Teach for America Truth Tour is a nationwide series of panels hosted by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), and is designed to influence the narrative around Teach for America on college campuses.
“What USAS is trying to do is show that there’s an ugly side to Teach for America, and TFA is a part of that corporate education world,” said Leewana Thomas ’14, a USAS organizer who helped bring the panel to campus.
The panel consisted of three individuals speaking about their experiences in the education world and their perceptions of Teach for America as an organization. Nick Faber, the Secretary of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, spoke first, followed by Neha Singhal, a former Corps member of Teach for America, and Fran Lawrence, the Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers.
Panelists share different perspectives
Faber spoke from a union perspective, discussing how the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has been successful at empowering and strengthening its teachers and students on its own without the presence of Teach for America, despite them having similar values.
“We don’t want to teach next to someone who’s struggling,” Faber said.
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers just entered into a new labor contract with the school district. The union was successful at winning concessions designed to strengthen teachers and classrooms. Some of those included agreements to have smaller class sizes, less testing, home visits, and more librarians and nurses.
“Our community heard that we were frustrated … so [those ideas] became a contract proposal,” Faber said. “This is the power of what unions can do.”
Following Faber, Singhal spoke about her own experience as a TFA Corps member. She prefaced by saying the purpose of the panel wasn’t to attack alumni or staff of Teach for America, but rather to draw attention to the structural problems with the organization.
“This is not about the people as individuals. This is about an organization that is destructive to the future of public education,” Singhal said.
While Teach for America sells itself as a socially conscious, social justice-oriented organization committed to addressing educational inequality, Singhal said, the reality of the situation is much more complex than that.
According to Singhal, the training session that Teach for America members go through was very abbreviated and rushed, and threw them into actual classrooms very early on with little preparation. In addition, their training brushed aside discussion on structural racism and xenophobia.
“They oversimplify social change. It can’t be done in that time,” Singhal said.
Singhal continued by discussing the personal impact that Teach for America’s presence has, saying that being placed with Teach for America teachers on a regular basis, rather than permanent, committed teachers, sends a negative message to students.
“The high school students knew exactly what was happening. We as [TFA members] all had our blue lunch boxes, and we all came out of the same yellow school bus, and every time they thought, ‘Cool, another student teacher. We’re the experiment, we’re the guinea pig.’ Can you imagine what that would say to you every summer? What kind of message does that send?” Singhal said.
Lawrence’s presence on the panel was unique to Macalester, as most panels at the TFA Truth Tour only had a former TFA Corps member and a representative from a teachers’ union. As the Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers, Lawrence said that a teaching career must be built in a strong grasp of the subject matter and knowledge of how to teach successfully.
“These [educational] issues are complex, and they can’t be addressed well by people who join us only for a few years. Education is a career. The most lively schools I’ve been involved in are a combination of younger teachers and veterans, ones that blend problems too difficult to solve on a temporary basis,” Lawrence said.
Conflict in the Q&A
After the panelists had spoken, the floor was opened up for questions. Crystal Brakke, the executive director of Teach for America’s Twin Cities branch, was in the audience and offered a sharp disagreement with Singhal’s characterization of Teach for America.
“There is much you shared that I found highly unrecognizable in my experience as a Teach for America alum,” Brakke said. I taught in North Carolina and now have the great privilege of working with our 77 teachers in the Twin Cities. I invite you to get a sense of our program here and get a sense of how it’s quite a bit different than what you described,”
Kenneth Eban, the State Captain of SFER’s Minnesota branch, was also in the audience, and criticized the panel’s organizers for failing to include a voice from Teach for America on the panel.
“There was little room for discussion between SFER and Mac,” Eban said. “Why is the executive director of Teach for America here [in the audience] and not up there, and why can’t we hear that perspective?”
Johnson responded directly to Eban by saying that TFA already has dominated the narrative on college campuses, and alternative voices need to be heard.
“TFA recruits on campus, they come to our classrooms, and we hear all the time TFA’s perspective on why we should work with them,” Johnson said. “This is the first time we’ve had this discussion on Mac’s campus on the negatives of TFA.”
Macalester and SFER separate
A few weeks ago, MacSEE formally separated from SFER, amidst disagreements over the direction of the organization.
Jennie Kim ’15, a co-chair of MacSEE, said that SFER was trying to steer individual college campuses into a formalized set of opinions, which conflicted with the mission of Macalester’s chapter. According to Johnson, they piloted a statewide charter which chapters would have to sign.
“SFER claims to be bipartisan and student-led, but they advocate for a neoliberal, pro-TFA, anti-union agenda,” Kim said. “SFER wanted to just discuss these issues rather than take up in arms over one political issue the national organization was trying to get us to take up. At SFER Macalester, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible.”
Kim also said that they had attempted to communicate with SFER about their concerns, but were repeatedly brushed aside.
Every vote that then-SFER took on disassociation was unanimously for cutting ties, Johnson said. That spurred her to write an op-ed to The Mac Weekly outlining MacSEE’s reasons to disassociate, citing the organization’s increasing strictness in contrast with her evolving views on education policies.
The national organization of SFER raised some concerns about their disassociation, saying they had been kept out of the loop and their disassociation came as a surprise.
“It would’ve been nice if they would’ve come to us, if they came with their specific problems beforehand,” Eban said. “There are some claims [in their letter] that aren’t necessarily true, and a lot of members saw that and were racially offended by some of the statements made in that op-ed. A lot of people felt personally attacked.”
However, Johnson disputed that, claiming they weren’t made aware simply due to a clerical error and a leadership transition underway.
“It was literally a mistake,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I think it’s a complete lie for them to say they’re surprised by our disaffiliation.”
Education Week and response
To some in attendance, the panel was successful at moving the conversation forward on Teach for America.
“I thought it was great,” said Luke Mielke ’16, who helped USAS organize the panel. “AFT is concerned that Teach for America won the battle for hearts and minds of college students, so it’s important to show the other side of the view.”
Brakke, while disagreeing with much of the content of the panel, enjoyed the chance to be in attendance.
“I appreciate the chance to be in conversation with lots of people that had different opinions, so I’m glad to be here,” Brakke said. “However, I understand the perspective to feel like there’s only one part of TFA and there are other additional conversations — I wish that panel would have allowed that.”
Following Monday night’s panel, MacSEE hosted a panel on Tuesday regarding alternative education experiences, a screening of the film “Papers” on Wednesday, and a keystone address by Deidre Whiteman on Thursday, regarding indigenous education.
“We’re really excited to move forward, and we’re thankful and happy to receive all the support that we did from students in the community,” Kim said.