The need for harsh truths: one ed major's story

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The following editorial is by Meagan Staffiere, a former NCTQ Fellow.

"Oh, you're from an ed school?"

Mind you, this question usually wasn't asked with hostility, but with surprise. Few of the many people I met in Washington this summer could understand why someone like me--that is, someone who had earned a traditional undergraduate degree in education--would want to come work for an education reform group.

I too was surprised but for different reasons. I thought the fact that I was an actual teacher would be a novelty. Instead, I encountered all sorts of people who had teaching experience. But I was still an exception. Most had gained that experience through Teach For America.

Few people in ed reform circles, it seemed, had ever come across a teacher who was a product of an undergraduate education school, even though that's how about 70 percent of all teachers enter the profession. I reflected quite a bit over the summer to figure out why people like me were a rarity in the policy world, while TFA alums were rampant.

Most teachers are drawn to the classroom for common reasons: we love being with children, we appreciate the value of education, and we want to have an impact on future generations. These values anchor us to the profession and could be a valid explanation for why so few of us leave the classroom to do a stint in Washington. Nevertheless, I came.

Why I came had little to do with being at an ed school, but a lot to do with the experiences I had while I was there. Those interests in turn were part of where I chose to teach--in an urban North Carolina school where more than 70 percent of the children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and 80 percent of them are minority. In short, my time in the university and in the classroom echoes the experience of a TFA alum much more than that of most ed school grads.

How did it end up that way, given that as I started my undergraduate training I began with no particular intention to seek less comfortable school surroundings than the ones I knew from the suburbs?

Like most undergraduate ed majors, I had blinders on, impervious to the dual system of education in the United States: one for poor kids and another for the rest of us. As a student, at first I had little interest in learning about anything other than gathering some useful tips that would make me a better teacher.

In the course of my formal preparation, there were attempts. We all had to take a course called "Social and Civic Contexts of Education." But faced with the requirement of an education theory or foundations class, we would whine and complain: "This is pointless, how will this help me in my classroom?" Understanding the predictive value of a kindergartner's vocabulary knowledge for his future didn't seem nearly as important as learning how to build that vocabulary.

While most people can point to a teacher who changed their life, I can point to a photocopier. During my freshman year I got a work-study grant that assigned me to a clerical job in my school's graduate department in education policy studies. I started reading what I photocopied and asking questions. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, no longer pulled only by the tasks of lesson planning but by the important issues found in education research and policy. With encouragement from professors and doctoral students in the department, I organized a discussion series on the No Child Left Behind Act and focused my senior research project on policy study in teacher prep programs.

As I rebuilt my understanding of the education system with its inequities in mind, I questioned if my initial purposes for becoming a teacher still made sense. They did, but only with a new and much clearer focus--urban education.

For my first teaching job, I purposefully sought out a high-needs school. After reading books like Savage Inequalities and The Black-White Test Score Gap, it would have been almost impossible for me to go back to a white, middle class suburban school like the one I attended.

I now get what it is I almost didn't get as a student in an education school, but which TFA and programs like it provide so well from Day 1. By making their practical training always rest on a broader perspective, TFA gives their fledgling teachers an understanding of educational realities that push them across the boundaries of their own largely successful school experiences. Over two-thirds of TFA alumni stay in the field of education, and many in that group are having an impact outside of the classroom. There were four of them last summer in NCTQ's office alone.

Education schools, especially ones that draw well-prepared undergraduates, have an opportunity. Looking back, I was every bit as interested as any TFA corps member in having an impact and making the world a better place. Someone just needed to turn that key, and not by shielding me from harsh truths about how this country's schools deal with poverty and race. What future teachers need most isn't any single course, however policy-oriented. It is an all-around sociological awareness of the experiences of far too many children as they traverse the American educational system. That was what I nearly missed in my own formal education. Without it, I would not be teaching in a school where I truly make a difference or looking forward to a return to Washington, where in the policy vineyards I hope to positively affect even more lives.