Rebecca Radding was a Teach For America corps member in New Orleans. She left her school in part because she objected to what she saw as “contrary to child development, and culturally insensitive” discipline and teaching to the test. “Eliminating play and drilling 4-year-olds,” she says. “That’s where it started, in my pre-K classroom.”
She joined a group called New Teachers’ Roundtable, composed mostly of young newcomers to the city who speak out against “no excuses” charter schools. The phrase comes from the title of a 2000 book published by the Heritage Foundation about building high-performing schools for high-poverty populations. But the original meaning — that students’ circumstances should be “no excuse” for lowering expectations — takes on a connotation of rigidity in the mouths of critics.
As the targets of much of the student anger and resentment, many of these new teachers acknowledge their inability to relate to their students. Hannah Sadtler came to New Orleans in 2008 as a Teach for America recruit. At her school, there were only four veteran teachers; the rest were new arrivals. Like her, almost all were white.
“I knew so little about my students’ communities or culture,” she says. “The way I was being taught to teach had really nothing to do with actually getting to know people or seeing children as individuals, or taking time to connect with their families. It was all about what I was saying, and not at all about listening.”
Sadtler helped found an organization called the New Teachers’ Roundtable, which seeks to address some of the challenges highlighted by the student protests. She is bringing new teachers together with veteran teachers, parents and students for in-depth dialogue.
The child in Rebecca Radding's kindergarten class at a New Orleans charter school was struggling. Her student understood Spanish, but little English. As the boy's behavior problems worsened, Radding knew her lessons and his new environment "didn't make sense to him."
Sometimes, he would dissolve into tantrums. One, in particular, was a blessing. "I saw in his mouth that he had a rotten molar," recalled Radding, a relatively new teacher who moved to New Orleans from California a few years ago. "You could see through it to his gum." Radding, who now teaches 3rd grade in a public school, understood one reason her student was struggling. "I cannot fathom that kind of pain," she said
In July 2013, we were two of the facilitators of the “Organizing Resistance to Teach For America and Its Role in Privatization” people’s assembly at the Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago. Our goals were to learn from those fighting for equity in communities and help connect the myriad resistance efforts to TFA—in communities, among TFA alumni, and on college campuses where TFA participants are recruited. The planning committee included parents, community activists, veteran teachers, and TFA alumni. Together, we learned more about TFA and made some important advances in resistance. We also made some mistakes. Here is our story so far.