Step One

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I’m at the Detroit airport waiting to board my flight back to Dallas after a weekend of interviews. I spent Saturday at Teach For America’s beautiful downtown Detroit office meeting with principals and HR directors from across the city. One by one, my peers were pulled aside in the waiting room to be informed of their offer from a district. Smiles abound, they pounced out of the office with a very tentative future somewhat determined. Hours later, I still had no offer and I began to get anxious. Did I speak about Dallas too much? Do they want Detroit natives? Was I too humble? Too pompous? Two too many years of work experience? I swept away my doubts and simply determined I wasn’t a good fit – for whatever reason.

My last interview was with a charter network that spans both Detroit and Dearborn. Student demographics vary, but they attract a lot of Arab families given that the leadership is Arab as well. A TFA staff member saw me pacing around the bagels at the kitchen counter and chatted me up. “What’s wrong?” she softly inquired. With a shaky voice, I told her: “I don’t know if I’ve resolved my own cultural identity to be at a school like this.” I tried to smile but she knew I was anxious. “You’ll be great. Those kids would be lucky to have you.”

A couple of hours later, I got tapped out of the waiting room to be informed of an offer – an offer I was somewhat dreading. For months, I’ve been mentally preparing to teach who I considered to be traditional Detroit public school students. Now, I will be placed at a campus with kids and staff who look like me. Some may think it’s a blessing. What could be easier than being with your own people? Teachers need to connect with students and the fact that I will look like my students will likely cut down a lot of barriers, whether I like it or not.

And here I am, trying to make sense of my tears and anxiety from the last 24 hours. It could be the experience that will finally allow me define myself culturally. It could be a transformative, empowering experience for my kids. Based on the data, these kids are in need. They are not proficient in math or reading or science or social studies. Only 4% are ready for college. These kids ARE the kids that need excellent teachers. They’re just not the kids I drew out in my mind. They aren’t poor African American kids in Detroit. They are Arab American kids from 30 different nationalities who live in Dearborn or Detroit because – as everyone in that community knows – if they had the means to move, they would have already.

Because I’m human, uncertainty makes me nervous. A very low-performing charter makes me nervous. An under-resourced, 600 student K-12 school makes me nervous. A staff made up entirely of Arab Americans makes me nervous. Every other peer of mine in TFA is probably more or less in the same boat. We didn’t sign up to be in superbly resourced and staffed schools with excellent results for kids. But I did not envision this. I did not envision working with the Arab American community. I did not envision how anxious it makes me to think about working with the Arab American community. I’m still trying to put my finger on it. I’m not sure what about this community worries me.

 

As strange as it sounds, I’ve concluded that perhaps sameness is scary. We are now wired to appreciate and humbly learn about diversity. Believe it or not, there’s little I know about living, working, and teaching with my own people. In any case, I’ll be ready for the challenge. It’s just like everything else – a mind shift.

This can be a very good thing.

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