Teach for America executive on confronting the achievement gap

By Rachel Adler

A common post-grad plan for Macalester seniors is applying to Teach For America. Garrett Bucks, Chief Creative Officer for Teach for America, talked with The Mac Weekly during his visit to Macalester on October 20. After graduating from Earlham College in 2003, Bucks joined the Teach for America corps in Crown Point, New Mexico. He talked about teaching on a Navajo Indian reservation and whether Teach for America is only a “band-aid” for systemic problems. The Mac Weekly: Where were you placed as a corps member and what was your experience like? Garrett Bucks: I am from the rural West, but I am not from New Mexico, and I am definitely not from the reservation. However, I was unbelievably privileged during my two years in the corps to be a guest in not only a beautiful community, but also a sovereign nation. I worked in Crown Point, New Mexico that was 99% Navajo. I taught fifth grade to a brilliant set of 11-year-olds, but I taught in a town where if everything remained the same, only 30% of my kids would graduate from high school. I taught in a town that had such a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, leadership, and cultural traditions, but had a 60% unemployment rate. I was not just lucky to be a guest in a town like Crown Point, but I was even luckier that I was allowed to be a guest doing the work that was most important to the future of the town. They wanted to believe in their schools and in my little classroom. And that meant that I had a pretty simple job. I mean, it’s the hardest job in the world, but a pretty easy job. I needed to figure out how I could be worthy of being in that classroom in that little town because if I didn’t do that; if I didn’t take Garrett Bucks, college student with opinions and turn him into a Garrett Bucks that wouldn’t just be decent or wouldn’t just get a pat on the back, but would be transforming lives for his kids. If I didn’t do that quick, I didn’t deserve to be there. And when you go somewhere with that kind of mission, you’re going to do it because failure is not an option for you or your kids. So my experience in New Mexico was by far the toughest, deepest learning curve I’ve ever had. I am full of faults, but I’m also full of tenacity. My kids ended up disproving a lot of odds; they went up three grade levels in math in a single year, and two grade levels in their reading ability. And for the first time in their lives, they went up to middle school after a year with me actually on grade level and able to engage with the world the same way as a kid in Santa Fe or a kid in suburban Albuquerque, or the wealthier communities in our state would. Can you tell me a little bit about your current role as Chief Creative Officer? So here’s the cool thing I get to do. Like I said, I am someone who passionately believes that everyone in our country that every single person has the equal potential to be brilliant, and every person can be smarter than you, no matter who you are. Intelligence, wisdom and leadership, and the ability to lead our country does not sit in certain income areas or zip codes, with certain races and not others, and to believe anything else is absolutely racist, absolutely classist, and absolutely evil. I believe every person in our country needs to believe that. My current job is to do that, and in order to do that, I get to play with every single means through which Teach for America can communicate who we are and what we believe, other than when two people talk to each other. Hopefully, if you go to our website, it should make you feel that way. Hopefully when you read a new story about the achievement gap, you get the sense from that newspaper story that kids are brilliant, and we can do it. I have an awesome job that allows me to shout from the roof top for the kids I love in Milwaukee and the kids I love in Crown Point New Mexico. To shout that poverty has no place in this country. How do you respond to criticisms that TFA is a band-aid, or only a temporary remedy for closing the achievement gap? So this is one of the fun parts of my job because if you only understand a partial version of our story, and if you understand a sloppy version of our story, then that’s where that sort of critique stems from. If you’re like, “Oh, Teach for America, that’s for guys without teaching degrees going into communities for two years and then leave, right?” Well that sounds like an awful big band-aid. If that were true, then yes, we would be a band-aid solution. My response is to describe who we actually are. Who we actually are is a network of up to 30,000 individuals, 10,000 of whom are currently in their first two years of the program right now. 30,000 individuals who came from very diverse backgrounds, with probably diverse reasons for joining, but who have committed to two things; one, that they are not tourists in the classroom, but will put their kids on a different life path. The second thing we ask people to do, that I think is often missed, is deliberately ask you to deeply critique while you’re in the corps as you’re finishing up. What is actually systematically and structurally preventing your kids from learning? We ask that question and match it to who you are as a person; your skills, strengths, passions, etc.; and have the answer to what you do with the rest of your life be the intersection of what structurally needs to change versus what your aptitude is. We have 30,000 people, and of that–I know thousands of them personally, and that’s a pretty good cross-section of folks with a good Teach for America experience, and a less than good Teach for America experience, and none of them has taken the easy way out. What’s beautiful about us, is that by allowing alumni the free will to ask that question in a lot of different ways, I think we’ve gotten farther in getting the structural change than we would have otherwise. And we have alumni taking this up to the school level, beyond just a single classroom , and we are up into the hundreds now of schools run by Teach for America alumni that on a systematic level prove this is possible. Some have said, “I’m going to run for office to make this happen.” This next year, we will produce more people into our next corps of alumni than ever before, adding their voices. So I actually would point the question back and say, “If that’s not a dispersed but determined movement for structural change in our generation, then what other movement is?” If you could sum up your experiences with TFA in one word, what would it be and why? Hungry. What’s awesome about TFA is that the organization I get to be a part of and that I get to communicate about has really done more generational change than anyone else has, but there is nobody who is satisfied with where we are. That feeling of “I can do more, we need to do more; there’s no choice but to do more.” I’m just proud that I get to spend my time around people who think that way. I like a quote from Martin Luther King from the Birmingham jail in response to the question, “Why are you in Birmingham?” He said, “I’m here because injustice is here.” And that’s what my organization is about.