Editor’s note: The Frontier is partnering with Teach for America — Greater Tulsa on Room 918, a series of blogs, podcasts and Facebook Live broadcasts focused on education and the Teach for America program.
This is a blog about the future. Sounds grandiose, I know. Teaching, though, could be described as an exercise in time travel. When I first walked into Room 532 as a new teacher in Tulsa Public Schools, I was instantly transported back to my own high school years. In Seminole, Oklahoma, I too had attended high school in a beautiful old building — not as ornate as the one I was teaching in now — but storied in its own way, with footprints worn into marble steps.
That year, 2009, I was one of 75 people from across the country who moved to Tulsa to teach as a part of Teach For America’s first cohort of corps members (what we call our teachers). My career in human resources, just seven years long but off to a promising start, was in my rear view mirror. As a young professional, I had felt time flying by, and I had made a decision to be intentional with my days ahead. Teaching in Oklahoma, investing in my home state, was an effort I was excited to throw myself into.
As I began training, teaching eighth grade English in the Bronx in the summer of 2009, and then teaching ninth, 10th and 12th-grade students in Tulsa, it became abundantly clear that my experience with school, my opportunities in life, were drastically different from those of my students.
Where were their AP classes? Why were there not enough copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for them to take home? Where were the pep rallies and school assemblies that had built community and pride at my school? And while some things were missing, others were newly present: the security guard who accused my black male student of having a gun, frisking him without permission in front of all his classmates, finding nothing; the “hall sweeps” that sent students scrambling into classrooms before they were locked; the frustration of being in the 10th grade and reading at a fourth grade level; schedule changes for whole classes of students five weeks into school, and the uncertainty of being an ambitious senior with lots of potential but no documentation.
These differences confounded me and I worked hard to be the best I could for my students, to counter the inequities I was witnessing. Why was their experience so different from my own? What would it mean for their future?
As any first-year teacher will tell you, mine was full of mistakes. But my students were full of grace and energy and creativity. They showed up and they asked questions and turned in assignments and cared for each other and for me. And at the end of the year, no one could convince me, after knowing the students in Room 532, that any child cannot or does not want to learn.
What I knew to be true was that my students, despite others’ perceptions, were more than capable. And my past, which I naively thought had been so universal, was simply my own past, with opportunities that had not been afforded to everyone. The invisible systems of race and class, the policies and history of my state and country, the inner workings of my school had all intersected with my own particular identity and shaped me without me even knowing it.
It would take more than excellent teachers, I realized, to provide every student with an excellent education. Yes, excellent teachers were vital, but it would also take a community. It would take an examination of and broad changes to entrenched systems. It would take innovation, courage, sustained effort, relationship-building.
Over the course of this blog, we hope to share our experiences and stories as we work to grow and learn, both as excellent teachers, and as community members helping to tackle systemic challenges. You won’t see perfection, and you won’t see a silver bullet in this blog.
Hopefully, you will get a glimpse into some of the challenges, see the light of our students’ potential, and witness ongoing efforts of individuals and communities — both TFA and not — to make the future a better, more equitable place for all of our children.
Leslie Daugherty is the executive director of Teach For America – Greater Tulsa: An Oklahoma AmeriCorps program that works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. Teach For America – Greater Tulsa’s network includes 180 corps members and 220 alumni. For more information, visit https://tulsa.teachforamerica.org/ and follow us on Facebook and Instagram.