Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive

alum

Letter to the Editor: Why Teach for America

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

Shawn Sheehan is a career teacher from Oklahoma who cares about her students, but simply can no longer put her heart and soul into teaching without a living wage. Her dilemma is one felt and lived by many teachers in Oklahoma, the state where I grew up. Since high school, I had been aware of the plight of public education in my home state. Currently, Oklahoma leads the nation in funding cuts to public education, forcing administrators and teachers to find other jobs. Having failed our last public referendum in November, my state ranks 49th in the nation for teacher pay. All of these factors affect the quality of education given to students. When I started teaching last August, there were 1,200 unfillable teaching positions across the state. Now, with budget shortfalls cutting into teacher pay and education resources, I fear that the gap between the number of teachers willing to continue to teach and the demand for qualified educators will only widen.

The current crisis in education in Oklahoma is why I want to encourage Swatties to re-evaluate the role of Teach for America (TFA) in schools and communities. I understand TFA can promote a neoliberal agenda that can be detrimental to social justice. But in a place where the organization provides much-needed educational resources and research through collaborating with schools and districts, TFA is one solution, albeit an imperfect one,  toward the educational equity of underserved school districts. During a time of severe teacher shortage when Title One schools face sequestration, the choice to use TFA gives community leaders a chance to provide their communities with the opportunity of education, far from the ideal educational equity it may be.

What is causing such problems in schools in Oklahoma you may ask? First, I would consider the effect of legislation from the last decade, such as No Child Left Behind that used standardized tests from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to hold teachers and schools accountable through legal and fiscal ramifications for poor performance. Teachers are responsible for making their students pass standardized tests, or risk losing federal funding for their school. Administrators and schools also jump on this bandwagon by purchasing test-prep materials and technology that orients students toward testing strategies and learning. For underserved schools, poor test grades strip schools of even the most basic resources to support teachings. Such is my case, as I only got two class sets of textbooks to begin teaching three subjects. And the cumulative effect? My students’ test-taking behavior is flawless, but the same cannot be said about their test-taking abilities. It is regretful that such well-intentioned legislation can generate results that could not be further from its intent.

Second, the day-to-day experience of working with kids who may not have had the opportunity or environment to develop academic habits presents an ever-recurring mental and emotional obstacle. When I experienced teaching at my school first-hand, I started to understand the many challenges of teaching at an underserved school in 2017. I quickly learned that students can, and do, refuse to do work, listen to instructions, or partake in academic instruction. Disciplinary action often left me drained and deprived of any control of my class as other students watched on in amusement. The entire experience of the daily grind is overwhelming socially and emotionally, and colleagues tell me a good day in my placement school is a bad day anywhere else—so just imagine what a bad day was like. The tragedy of the situation is that students refuse what it is that you know they need the most to be successful members of society, begging me to ask whom social justice is for; it is dismal that I have recently developed a sense for picking out students who have “mastered the art of abusing the system” to shirk ever further from leaning,

These are just a handful of challenges teachers and administrators face day after day, week after week, and year after year. With such high academic expectations, little support, and classrooms of students who act apathetic toward academics, who would want to work in such an environment? Teachers are ready to leave the profession, and I have had many conversations with veteran colleagues who want to leave the profession because of all the issues with teaching, discipline, funding, and resources. Due to these challenges, proficient teachers I know have stopped caring about teaching: they are too burned-out from being unsupported, underpaid, and putting up with the daily “disrespect.” It can be a demoralizing experience to work through a year with classes of students whose actions and behavior indicate their apathy towards academics, and with broken tools to discipline students in the hope they adopt a more academics-prone behavior, and for many older teachers, with paychecks that cannot pay their bills. This is my conclusion on why teachers leave: they cannot financially, mentally, and emotionally afford to teach anymore.

It is no coincidence teachers who leave will adversely affect the educational opportunities of students, but what can administrators and school districts do in the wake of dwindling funding? Therein lies one role for Teach for America. When the challenge simply is trying to find teachers who want to teach, TFA provides a solution to a long-term substitute. While I understand the drawbacks of my two-year commitment, having a career science teacher for my students is not currently a reality for the community or students whom I teach. Perhaps my contributions may not be the closest option to educational equity and social justice, but the alternative is not having someone to teach my students. When comparing the choice between not having a teacher and having someone who wants to do his or her best to teach students, like myself, considering TFA as an option becomes paramount.

Having gone through the controversy of joining Teach for America from Swarthmore, I understand full and well the implications of being a teacher from the organization. I have heard and deliberated the arguments about TFA, but still decided to become a TFA corp member because I do not believe sacrificing the education of those today will bring about a better educational revolution tomorrow. Yes, I have heard the claim that TFA actually hurts underserved communities and that TFA co-opts community and resources for neoliberal school reform. Yes, these are all legitimate arguments, but they are only speculation without a concrete study of the role of TFA in each school and community. When my TFA friend’s first graders cannot tell her why they are important, perhaps my role, and hers as well, may be as simple as showing the students that some strangers really care about them enough to devote two years of their time trying to teach them. Just perhaps, I might suggest that these simple intentions are social justice too.
The more I teach, the more I believe teaching is becoming an unsustainable profession. Too often teachers are blamed for the faults of our schools and failing education system. I love my students, and I want to be their teacher and try to teach them something every day at school. Yet, the extra duties, responsibilities, and accountability of teaching strongly discourage me from pursuing it as a career. Of 15 teachers at my school, I will not see six of them next year, and three of which have already left before the end of the year. Yes, I could have selected a better program to partake in the education of students, but my school, like many others out there, do not have the privilege of receiving the assistance from such programs. This is where my and TFA’s reformed, broader definition of social justice begins to take form.

Swat alumna displays sculpture in Philly

in Arts by

Stepping through a clustered archway of magnetic cyanotype blue butterflies, one comes face to face with one of the iconic ram skulls central to Tasha Lewis ’12’s art installation, a thought-provoking project that uses faux-taxidermy to reimagine the relationship between humans and animals. Her work is on display at the Philadelphia Art Alliance as part of the exhibit “A Curious Nature,” which also includes work by other female artists Linda Cordell, Caitlin McCormack, and Emily White. Although life-sized and hanging, the three ram skulls on the back wall appear not as ominous skeletons but as beautiful relics, their horns adorned with pink and orange yarn and their heads constructed out of cloth. There is an assortment of other colorful stuffed animal bodies mounted on stands – falcons, snakes, and a surreal blue fox at the center of it all, suspended in space with its body climbing through a clear display box. It is as if the room is part history and part fantasy, or something in between.

Lewis began to express freely her interest in sculpture during her time as an Honors student in studio art and English literature, under the instruction of art professors, including Randall Exon and Brian Meunier, who worked closely with her during her time at the college.

“My senior thesis was really about me trying to subvert traditional taxidermy and capturing this essence of nature through totally hand-created, hand-crafted forms. I want viewers to connect at a deeper level with my work. I want to reflect the human impulse to create relics and treasures,”  Lewis said.

At first glance, some of her themes in the installation appear gruesome. In a piece called “The Carcass,” she creates an elk carcass decomposing into a large pane of Plexiglas surrounded by seven ravens suspended from the ceiling. The bones of the elk’s rib cage protrude out of the stage while the body is covered in red and peach cotton patches. The drama is intensified by scarlet cross-stitching. In presenting the embroidery so visibly, Lewis invites us to look at the carcass as a relic of nature that has been distinctively modified by human hands.

Lewis elaborates, “Underneath the exterior, there is no real skull, muscle, or bone and no desire to achieve some type of anatomical correctness. I want viewers to contemplate how humans inflect their interpretations of the natural world in their work.”

While she uses stitching techniques to dramatize the mangled form of “The Carcass,” Lewis also uses embroidery methods to adorn objects and make them what she calls, “more precious.” Using the same beads from her other project called “Full Fathom Five,” in which she creates sculptures of human forms based on the Venus de Milo statue by Botticelli, Lewis embellishes some of her animal carcasses with pearls by stitching them around the skulls. In doing so, she captures how human interpretations of nature can equally sway toward the grotesque or the divine.

The Philadelphia Art Alliance is a certainly a well-suited venue for her new series of animal sculptures. In its citywide initiative Craft Now Philadelphia, the PAA seeks to unite artists who showcase the “City’s rich legacy of craft, its internationally-recognized contemporary craft scene, and its important role as an incubator for arts based in wood, clay, fiber, metal, and glass,” according its website. This focus on craft is one focal point of Lewis’s work, and this installation demonstrated a range of important artistic methods.

On the one hand, she loves to use the cyanotype process, in which a photographic image is printed onto paper or cotton using a mix of chemicals and UV rays, giving the finished product its signature cobalt blue color. Although many blue animal cotton sculptures in the exhibit have been colored using the cyanotype process to create 3D illusions of fur, Lewis seems to be shifting toward new handcrafted techniques.

“My work is more about the labor I put into it and less about the materials,” Lewis states. “My materials are fairly simple: cardboard, tape, and fabric … I want to start relying less on photography to create illusions.”

Indeed, Lewis is shifting toward using more embroidery and stitching techniques to create textures. Unlike some of the other artists of the exhibit who focus on creative mediums, Lewis explains that points to her piece “The Carcass” as embodying the future direction of her work because it relies less on photography and far more on handiwork. In a way, Lewis’s work helps to reimagine the value of employing the traditionally female craft of embroidery and stitching.

Lewis is now based just outside New York City, where she juggles a number of personal projects, including exploring the self-portrait through the lens of Egyptian Canopic Jars, illustrating James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and most recently, using faux-taxidermy methods to craft animal skulls. Her installation will be available to view at the PAA until Dec 4th.

Go to Top