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TFA teacher gets angry response from Ackerman

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Celeste Lavin

When the young teacher attending a panel discussion about men of color and education stood up to tell Superintendent Arlene Ackerman that the School District’s constant bureaucratic requirements impeded her ability to teach, she hardly expected what happened next.

Ackerman blew up at her and, in essence, told her to quit.

“What we need are teachers who don’t make excuses,” said Ackerman. “I don’t want to hear about bureaucracy. We have always had bureaucracies…. We are looking for people who say ‘I can teach a rock to read.’… If it is not the right place for you then you should find another place to go.”

The audience of about 400 people was stunned.

The event, at the University of Pennsylvania, was hosted by Teach for America and the Makuu Black Cultural Center at Penn. The purpose of the forum was to discuss ways to improve the educational experience of men of color and entice more into the teaching profession. Notebook blogger Samuel Reed also attended the event and is working on wrote a post about the forum’s topic.

Approached later, the teacher said she was a Teach for America corps member in one of Ackerman’s Promise Academies. Understandably, she did not want to give her name.

“Did you see that? Did you see her tell me to quit?” she asked a friend after the panel discussion broke up, still incredulous. Other teachers encircled her in support.

When she addressed Ackerman, she said that she and other teachers are under “pressure to increase numbers [test scores] in a way that isn’t necessarily meaningful – in a way that isn’t necessarily giving our kids better education.” She complained that teachers are “pressured to give make-up packets” of schoolwork so students can pass with Ds. But those Ds “don’t mean [the students] have [learned] those skills,” she said.

“How are we supporting these teachers … to give a student a meaningful education when we have these barriers that really shouldn’t be barriers?” she said, citing the endless paperwork associated with referring students for the Comprehensive Student Assistance Program (CSAP) and filling out IEPs for special education students. She said that while these program are supposed to support students, teachers get little support in creating classroom environments that "give our students a really meaningful, powerful, impactful education that can lead to a real future and a real freedom.”

The audience, about a quarter of whom were young teachers themselves, offered the teacher the longest round of applause of the night.

Then things got tense. Moderator Omari Todd – the vice president for regional operations for Teach for America – told the teacher that he’d pass the question to the panel but did not want to “lose the spirit of what we were hoping to do tonight.” At that, an audience member in a City Year uniform jumped up to interrupt.

“Excuse me, how could you not lose the spirit when there are three young Black African Americans sitting right here in front of you – since you said you were taking questions, you never called on any one of us.”

After an exchange with the City Year participant and his companions about programs for Black male students and outreach programs for men of color to enter the field of education, Ackerman responded to the young female teacher, who appeared to be of Asian descent.

The superintendent started by recalling how, when she was in school, one of her teachers had a sign on her door saying: “If my students do not learn the way I teach, then I will teach the way they learn.”

Then she told the teacher to stop making excuses.

The Notebook asked Ackerman’s office if she wanted to comment further, but she did not reply.

We will update this post if we receive a response. Check back soon for Here’s Reed’s take on the topic of educating young men of color and bringing them into the teaching profession.

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