Swift to Hear; Slow to Speak: A Message to TFA Teachers, Critics, and Education Reformers

Philadelphians are strong. We endure. The school district of Philadelphia is the second oldest public school system in the United States of America. And throughout that almost 200-year history, our schools have faced some severe challenges.
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For new teachers, understanding what is expected of them and the context in which they work is essential for their success and for the success of schools, students, and communities. It is because of this belief that I accepted the invitation to speak at the Opening Ceremonies for Teach For America's 2012 Summer Institute to train its new teachers in Philadelphia. I was asked to speak as a Teach for America alumnus but also as a Philadelphia community member. I thought this was an awesome opportunity and responsibility to speak to the more than 700 new teachers who are being trained in my hometown to teach in various urban areas around the nation.

In preparing for this speech, I was both excited and nervous. After having given one of the closing speeches at TFA's 20th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C., last year, after having that speech unexpectedly reviewed and edited, after having my tone and demeanor critiqued as "angry" or "sound[ing] like a preacher" only to receive a standing ovation from the room and tears from my critics when the speech was over, I was hesitant to endure this process, again. Fortunately, I've earned some credibility that allowed me to give the Philadelphia speech without having it reviewed by anyone on Teach For America's staff. That also made me nervous. It's hard to be a responsible critical friend. But I gave this speech anyhow. I did it afraid.

I wanted my friends and family who could not attend Opening Ceremonies on June 26th to see the speech, and in order to put it on Facebook, I had to put it on YouTube. After being there for six days, I started getting messages that it had been viewed and was being blogged about by TFA critics as fodder for their fury. My speech was characterized as 'anti-education reform,' which is inaccurate and inflammatory. By no means do I suggest that the public education system in Philadelphia, as it exists right now, works for the majority of the students who attend them or the educators who work in them. However, I do not think the solution to this multi-faceted, multi-layered behemoth conundrum is the plan to dismantle the School District of Philadelphia (SDP), to release the education of its students to charter management organizations as is being currently touted by the mayor, the School reform commission, and the former Philadelphia gas works leader turn chief recovery officer of SDP. I realize this view is contrary to those espoused by many neo-liberal education reformers, some of whom are also TFA alumni. And perhaps earlier in my career, I would have agreed with them. But I've done too much research on charter schools in Philadelphia and the history and sociopolitical context of schools in Philly to think that this plan will be effective in the long-run for students, families, educators, or communities. This current plan to dismantle the District is not reform. It is refuse. It places financial concerns and constraints over the educational needs of people who need education the most, and it is, therefore, political and unacceptable.

But that wasn't the point of the speech. I shared that perspective because I wanted the new teachers to know that there is more than one way to think of reforming our schools, that simply eradicating the District won't erase our issues of politics and power. And the current plan for SDP's demolition will not yield greater learning in the short-term nor greater success for our students in the long-term. Teach For America recruits its new teachers under the notion of closing the so-called "achievement gap." Though I resist the inherent anglo-normativity of the so-called "achievement gap," I know that TFA's recruitment model has led to some its teachers approaching the communities they've been assigned to serve with missionary zeal and notions of martyrdom in efforts to close this gap. Addressing that mindset was the point of my speech. wanted our new teachers to know that respect and humility matter; that good things are already happening in Philadelphia's schools; that our city and its schools existed before they got here and will when they're gone.

As per the advice of the trusted colleagues in academia, I made the video I'd posted to YouTube private until I could get a handle on how I wanted my message delivered. No one from TFA's management was aware that I'd made the speech public. No one from TFA's management ever spoke to me about making it private. Now that the text of the speech is being published here, the video has been made public again. Here is the speech in its entirety. Barring an error I made regarding a date, no edits have been made to this speech. I said it. I meant it. And I'm not taking it back.

Good evening. I am Camika Royal, and I was a 1999 Baltimore corps member. After working as a teacher and administrator for several years, I decided to use my gifts and talents to be a teacher of teachers and to be an education historian and an academic. And last month, I had the great honor and pleasure of graduating from here, Temple University, with my Ph.D. in Urban Education. My research focuses on the intersection of the sociopolitical context of schools and school systems with their urban educators.

Also, I'm a Philadelphia native, and as an alumnus of the school district of Philadelphia, I am honored to welcome you to my home. I welcome you to YOUR new home, whether your stay is for five weeks, for two years, or for the rest of your life. This is your home, and you are welcome here. You may have heard and read some vastly different things about Philadelphia and we who live here, so tonight, I came to clear some things up about who and what Philadelphia is and what is expected of you while you're here.

Philadelphia is more than cheesesteaks and Will Smith. It's more than the Rocky statue, the Art Museum steps, and the Liberty Bell. I welcome you to get to know us. Our city is rich with opportunities and our people abound with joy. We are, indeed, the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection, even if that love is tough and our affection has an edge. Philadelphians are strong. We endure. The school district of Philadelphia is the second oldest public school system in the United States of America. And throughout that almost 200-year history, our schools have faced some severe challenges.

Recently, there has been a constant state of flux and reform producing lateral movement but little to lift us higher or take us forward. In the last 19 years, the district went from a budget surplus to a $300 million budget deficit. In the last 18 years, Philadelphia has had four different superintendents with an average tenure of four years. And in the last 11 years, the mayor-appointed School Board was disbanded and replaced with a governor-appointed School Reform Commission whose latest reform plan is to educate by abdicating its responsibility for the schools that have been most difficult to manage.

But this is not the first time Philadelphia's schools have faced challenges. Whatever challenges exist, this city and its people have always bounced back, will always bounce back. Our challenges are not permanent. We are resilient. Philadelphians are unrelenting. We are innovative. Twenty years before there were national measures for instructional accountability, it was happening here in Philadelphia. It doesn't matter what you see or read about schools and educators here, don't believe the hype.

Our schools are more than the lie of successful charters and failing district. Our educators are more than the false dichotomy of good versus bad, of us and them. By and large, educators here are not bad. Educators here are tired. Educators here are reform weary. Our students are more than test scores, graduation rates, and disciplinary issues. They are the babies that parents prayed for and over and read to and work for and dream about. They are people who want the best for themselves whether or not they know how to articulate it or how to seek it out. Our education is more than the failure rhetoric and the achievement gap misnomer. Our problems are systemic, and endemic, but THEY WILL BE SOLVED BY PEOPLE: resilient people, unrelenting people with an edge. This summer, you are the people we've enlisted to support our education efforts in this city. You are not here to replace educators or to reinvent educational opportunities. You are here to reinforce the work that is already happening. You are here to help us re-up our efforts to ensure that one day, every person in Philadelphia has the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

You have come to Teach FOR America, but in Philadelphia, that will only happen to the extent that you commit yourself to serving and learning. A teacher is a servant. And you are not here to save. You are here to serve. Whether you've been here for all your life or you will be here for the rest of it, whether your commitment is two years or five weeks, thank you for bringing your energy and excitement. Thank you for bringing your humility and your questions. Thank you for being flexible and gracious. Thank you for being hopeful and persistent. Thank you for being friendly and joyful. Thank you for your desire to learn much so you may teach well and be more. Thank you for leaving our city, our schools, our colleagues, and our student better for having spent time with you. While here, your job is to be swift to hear and slow to speak. Swift to hear and slow to speak. The most important thing for you to do is to invite and invest colleagues who are already here, to work alongside the strength and capability that exists right now. Encourage and inspire people to enhance what we already know and what we already do so that we can make it better together. Look for strengths. They are here. You aren't bringing light and hope. The hope is here. Walk in it.

Don't believe the hype. Everyday won't be wonderful, but that's OK because you create the weather. Therefore, choose to be happy. Choose to endure. Choose to rejoice over small victories and to work for larger ones. Choose to be resilient. Choose to love. Everyday won't be wonderful. But that's OK, because there's always another day coming. And another day. And another day. And one day, every person in this city and all of our cities, every person in this nation will have an opportunity to attain an excellent education. The conditions here in Philadelphia are ripe and waiting for you. Welcome home.

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