My road to understanding what it means to be black in America: Becoming a Teach for America Corps Member

By:Kristina Rochester

I was born in the United States of America and raised entirely in the small island nation of Jamaica. I was born into the privilege of being a light brown skinned middle class person in the city of Kingston. In my formative years I knew nothing of what it meant to be a minority. I grew up in the happiest and healthiest of circumstances and was afforded every educational opportunity later when I moved on my own to continue my education in the United States. I finished high school at a boarding school in New England and then went to an Ivy League University. Somehow I walked through these experiences without ever really taking note of my difference and minority status. If I had difficulty in finding friends or was somehow treated differently in the very white American cultural context in which I spent my final years of high school, my first assumption would be that it was due to my own awkwardness. My last thought or reasoning would ever be that it was due to my skin color. I was always taught the stereotypical immigrant view of America as the land of opportunity where all one had to was pull oneself up by the bootstraps. My parents came to America worked hard and found the success they sought and returned to Jamaica. I always assumed that work ethic and focus was all that was required to be successful and that there were no roadblocks in my way.

Upon graduating from college, I decided to apply to become a Teach for America corps member. Despite my unhampered path through high school and college, I could sense my incredible naivety about life and I also had an overwhelming desire to do something that mattered since I, like most recent college graduates with a Political Science major, had no idea what next to do with my life. I chose Teach for America because it seemed like an experience that would force me past my naivety, to learn how I could truly be of help and do something that mattered.

After completing the Teach for America training institute which is a summer training program meant to give you all the basic skills necessary to be a public school teacher; I went through the hiring process for a high school Spanish teacher position in Los Angeles. After landing a position at a high school in Watts, my future principal told me that he hired me because he liked the fact that I was black but spoke Spanish. He loved the mental work that students would have to do to get their minds around this concept. I was explicitly hired because I was black and a challenge for the entirely Hispanic and African-American community that was divided among racial lines.

An assumption was that because I was black and spoke Spanish I would be a good fit for this community and would likely have more in common than my white female and male peers who interviewed for the position. Initially, I was deeply disturbed by my principal’s assumptions based on my skin color about the potential impact of having a teacher that both reflected her students’ backgrounds and challenged their notions. I had never consciously taken notice of being typecast in a role before because of my skin color. What is more, it felt that I was being offered this position not even because of my ethnic background (which was incredibly different than that of my future students; probably more so than for my white peers) but purely because of skin color.

I later learned more about a Teach for America diversity hiring initiative that I was not aware of during the hiring process and the initial months of teacher training institute. Teach for America has developed an initiative they have called “potential for additional impact.” Teach for America describes this initiative as follows:

“While we value all forms of diversity, we place particular emphasis on recruiting individuals who share the racial or socio-economic backgrounds of the students we teach, 90% of whom are African American or Latino. Corps members who share their students’ backgrounds serve as powerful role models and have potential for a profound additional impact based on their personal experiences.”[1]

After much reflection, I can understand the power of sharing a shared background with one’s teachers. My entire pre-school through high school education in Jamaica I was taught by people who looked like me and understood and lived in a similar cultural context. I lived as a member of the overwhelming majority in Jamaica and I thrived in all my educational experiences there as a well-adjusted, productive and happy student. However, in the context in which I was hired, I in fact had very little shared background with my future students as was assumed by Teach for America and my principal based on my skin color. I in fact had very little experience with what it means to be black in America as a person from the Caribbean.

Working as a high school Spanish teacher in Watts, I had an incredibly difficult time in my first few months teaching. My African-American students were separated out into a Spanish as a second language class. In these classes it was readily obvious that the mere fact that my skin color was the same as the students’ was not going to give me some magical easement to march effortlessly toward the requisite place of trust necessary to be able to teach them. My students immediately picked up on my difference just as they might pick up the difference in ethnic background of a white teacher. I had much the same problems connecting with my students as any first year teacher in the difficult context of Watts. In my Native Speaker classes in which all but a handful of my Hispanic students were placed, my students were distrustful of my very different Spanish accent and quite vocally announced their displeasure at the fact of having a black Spanish teacher instead of a local Hispanic teacher from the majority Hispanic area. The unfortunate truth is that while there is a large Hispanic population in Los Angeles, Spanish teachers are in short supply, as this position requires a college degree and successful completion of a series of state tests for teachers. Those who are qualified seem to seek more lucrative careers while many who are interested struggle to complete all the stringent qualifications.

I was very uncomfortable with my principal’s justification for hiring me. I am still uncomfortable with the Teach for America “potential for Additional Impact” diversity recruiting model as it relates to my recruitment with Teach for America and some of the assumptions that were made about me based on my skin color. However, having taught two years in Watts and seeing the substandard education granted to black and Latino students in that community, having completed two years of law school to understand more about the systematic ways in which brown and black people are still denied equality and after witnessing the injustice of the Eric Garner and Mike Brown Grand Jury decisions; I feel that I am learning and living more of what it means to be black in America. Students deserve to have the stability that comes from feeling like one has teachers that understand them and teachers that they can trust. In my limited experience as a Teach for America corps member, I do think that the mere fact of having a teacher look the same as a student can make a profound difference to a students’ sense of possibility and capacity for initial trust. Although I think it is possible that Teach for America made some incorrect assumptions about my background, and me I think in so far as we are able to diversify the teaching force and gain reform with all deliberate speed; I will support any and all efforts to march toward the future and it is not my place to harshly criticize efforts at healing and progress in these communities.

[1] http://www.teachforamerica.org/why-teach-for-america/the-corps/who-we-look-for/the-importance-of-diversity

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