Brittany Packnett

The air is thick here in Ferguson.

Here, in my hometown, only 12 minutes from my house, the air is thick with racial tension, mounting distrust of authority, flowing tears of a community in grief and civil unrest and frustration with consistent injustice.

The air is also thick with tear gas. 

By now, you’ve seen national news reports that tell you what I’ve known all my life: North County can be especially dangerous for black folk.  Black men.  Young black men. Young black men like Mike Brown.

Last Saturday, our young brother Mike, in whom his mother had placed her hopes and dreams, was murdered at the hands of someone meant to serve and protect, but who for decades has only been seen as one who intimidates and terrorizes.

Years earlier, my brother’s first encounter with police brutality occurred in a neighborhood with an eerily similar reputation, directly adjacent to Ferguson.  My father, a well-respected Pastor and College Professor was thrown against the hood of his imported car and beaten as my brother watched, screaming and crying from the backseat. 

My brother was 5.

That was 20 years ago.

In those 20 years, the story has remained the same.  Strike that.  The story has actually changed.  It is now deadly.

When I think back on my nearly six years in the U.S. Army, and look forward to continuing to serve my country as a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, I’m reminded of President Theodore Roosevelt’s oft-quoted “The Man in the Arena” speech.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles…. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause...”

This “man in the arena” is me. I am someone who believes that though there may be challenges – though I may stumble and fall along the way – ultimately I can make a difference.

 

He is also the 5,300 committed individuals standing beside me as incoming Teach For America 2014 corps members. No amount of naysayers can convince us that – by working in partnership with families and communities – we can’t help build a better future for our students.

We see President Roosevelt’s man when he is already in the arena. But I like to imagine his path there, and those who helped him become the best version of himself.  I’m excited to approach my classroom with individuals from all different backgrounds – while united in mission, such differences make us stronger as a whole.   

Fifty percent of us identify as people of color. One-third are the first in their families to attend college, and 33 percent have graduate school or professional experience. Like me, 100 are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

I’m grateful to my military experience for preparing me for the classroom. The Army is an institution built upon a shared mission of service, imparting upon its members  characteristics  particularly useful for educators. From day one of basic training, servicemen and women are immersed in goal-oriented, growth mindsets. We take on various leadership roles throughout our careers, and deal with high stress situations to move operations forward.

 

Photo credit: torbakhopper

A few months ago, as the weather warmed, a truth that the winter had been hiding was revealed. There is a woman at my church—I suspect she is unhoused or at least housing insecure. She takes the free meals offered and comes to church with what looks to be all of her belongings. The warmer weather meant that she wasn’t covered up in layers, and I confirmed what I thought I may have seen—she’s pregnant. Having just had a baby myself in the past year, seeing an unhoused pregnant woman was, in some ways, haunting. I thought about how difficult it is to be the mother of a newborn with the luxuries of health insurance, pre-natal care, a comfortable place to rest, security in my next meal, and every trinket and knick-knack. Then I thought about not only the challenges for this mom, but also for the newborn. The odds are already stacked against her.

A few days later, at a sandwich shop, I saw a family of four—a husband, wife, and their two kids. It was a school day at 9a.m., so I was curious why the kids, who looked to be around third- and fifth-graders, weren’t in school. Then I noticed what appeared to be many of their belongings piled on and around their table. It became clear: This family is unhoused. In this moment, school is likely low on their list of priorities. One of the greatest opportunities to expand their life options is one of the most compromised when faced with such physical insecurity. 

When the last bell rings at Middle School 223 in the Bronx, New York, students don't rush home. Instead, they stay for two more hours packed with extracurricular activities. The pioneering Bronx school is a leader in a growing push to extend school days given that research has shown the positive effects of afterschool programs on student performance.

Hoping to avoid the sometimes debilitating debt many students incur by attending law school, more people are taking interest in a less traditional route to enter the profession. In many states, wannabe lawyers can be trained as apprentices by a licensed attorney and then take the bar to become a licensed attorney. While this method reduces costs, students who choose this route have lower passing rates for the bar exams.

June marked my 15th year with Teach For America. At that moment in the summer of 1999, I was living in Houston, TX and teaching 10th-grade English at Jefferson Davis High School at TFA’s summer training Institute. (And please sit with that for a moment—a high school named after the president of the Confederacy and attended by predominately students of color.) On the first day of teaching, I got a cut-out heart from my advisor that simply said, “Teach your children with love.” On the last, I received a completion certificate from the veteran Houston Independent School District teacher that mentored me, proclaiming that I was a “natural” teacher—a gesture of kindness and confidence I’ve never forgotten.

This summer, I have incorporated what I learned then and across many years of experience with TFA—as a teacher, a campus recruiter, and a self-proclaimed Institute nut who’s spent eight summers working for the development of our teachers (as an advisor, school director, Phoenix Institute director, and ultimately vice president of Institute)—to implement a new evolution of our training model for our corps members in the Twin Cities. Excitingly, this evolution has not only happened in Minnesota, but also took shape in different forms in different places—several communities around the country, like mine, have launched a local training model in partnership with the partners we work with year-round. Our national Institutes, which continue to prepare the vast majority of all TFA teachers, have also adapted with community partners to best support student learning and prevent the summer slide, while still preparing teachers for their fall classrooms across the country.

In an effort to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline, the White House plans to expand the My Brother’s Keeper initiative for young black and Latino men. PBS speaks to the LA school district superintendent and the CEO of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services about the importance of this initiative.

A North Carolina school district has found a unique way to avert the dreaded loss of learning that occurs over the summer. To reduce the so-called "summer slide," school officials have rearranged the academic calendar to decrease the length of summer vacation. Although students complete the same amount of school days as their peers in other districts, they only get five weeks off for summer.

(Photo credit: John Ashley)

This fall, Teach For America Charlotte will launch its first-ever alumni teaching fellowship—a program designed to significantly enhance the classroom-level supports and ongoing professional development opportunities available to corps members who continue to teach past their initial commitment. As a member of the alumni affairs team that will help bring the program to life, I find myself excited about the program both for the educators it will help build and for the one to whom it pays tribute: Principal Leroy “Pop” Miller, a genuine hero in the history of Charlotte public education.

After starting his career as a teacher at West Mecklenburg High School, Pop Miller spent 37 years in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, serving kids and families and demonstrating an unflagging commitment to educational excellence for all. When he passed away last summer, thousands of Charlotteans gathered to honor his legacy. They remembered him as teacher, principal, and as the no-nonsense leader our city looked to when it came time to help navigate the complexities of school desegregation in 1970s. As reported by the Charlotte Observer upon his passing, local administrators viewed him as “an educator’s educator,” someone who “really knew how to get the most out of people.”

Yesterday, we gathered with nearly 1,000 members of our community in Las Vegas, Nevada at our annual Educators Conference for a special town hall event. Joining us were many others across the country who tuned into the broadcast online. We spoke about the current moment in our movement for educational equity, and the role our broad community of corps members, alumni, staff, and partners can play in moving it forward. 

We also had the opportunity to answer questions from the audience. Each of us came away from the event feeling truly energized by the dedicated educators around us, and we were reminded just how powerful this movement is.
 
Below is a video of the livestream, as well as the text of our speeches.

 

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