corps values

After welcoming almost 150 undocumented teachers, Teach for America starts planning for a Trump reality

PHOTO: TFA
Teach For America's DACAmented corps at its 2016 convening

Among the many people in America reeling from today’s presidential election results: The 146 Teach For America teachers who work in classrooms across the country but are not documented citizens.

Teach For America deliberately created this corps over the last three years — the work largely of one woman, Viridiana Carrizales, whose day today became a worst-case scenario she’d first charted over the summer.

Like many Americans across the political spectrum, Carrizales did not expect Donald Trump to become president. And like many immigrants, she hoped that he would not. But months ago, she began planning for what Teach For America — the national organization that recruits and trains teachers for schools serving poor students — could do if he did.

Her plan, which she expects to introduce to corps members this week, outlines responses to Trump’s vow to immediately end DACA, the Obama administration program that allows young adults who came to this country illegally as children to temporarily live and work without fear of deportation. Efforts could include helping Teach For America teachers relocate to be closer to their families and working with school districts to navigate tricky immigration waters, she said.

“I was hoping never to use this plan, but I knew we had to prepare,” Carrizales said. “I’m so glad that we did. Back in the summer I had a little bit of a clearer mind.”

Teach For America first got involved in immigration policy in 2012, when the organization lobbied for the DREAM Act, which would have created a path toward citizenship for people who came to the country illegally as children.

That bill failed, leaving Teach For America’s leadership and members deeply disappointed. “We knew that all children meant all children,” Carrizales said — and the group could not achieve its mission of helping every student succeed if large numbers of immigrant students could never go to college.

So when DACA became an option in 2014, Teach For America quickly lined up resources to help aspiring teachers go through the onerous and expensive approval process. The DACAmented corps went from two teachers in Denver to 146 across the country today, from 37 different nations.

Their status is weighing heavily on Teach For America’s top executive, Elisa Villanueva Beard. “When the executive order came for DACA for the first time, they walked the streets with their heads up and not hiding in the shadows,” she said. “And now with this, it’s a question. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But they’re terrified for their lives and for their families and for their security.”

Like the majority of Teach For America teachers, DACAmented members have undocumented students in their classes. They discuss the issues that they share in a private Facebook group and, once a year, when they all come together in person. And this past summer, the group members taught more than 3,000 new teachers about the challenges facing undocumented students.

Those are issues that Carrizales knows well — she came with her family from Mexico illegally herself, when she was 12. After graduating from college in 2010, she considered joining Teach For America before realizing she would not be able to work legally. Instead, she spent three years working as a babysitter and doing odd jobs before marrying a U.S. citizen.

Now, she is safe from changes to immigration policy. But she has family members who remain in the country illegally, and she worries about the 146 DACAmented teachers and their families as well.

Late Tuesday, DACAmented’s Facebook group buzzed as members shared their sadness and fear. One reported crying from the floor of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s election party in New York City.

“Many of them decided not to go to school because they didn’t know what to tell their kids today,” Carrizales said. “So many of them just had no more strength.”

But she said she also heard from one teacher who forced herself to go to school because she worried that her students’ fears might be stronger than her own. And on Facebook, DACAmented teachers laid bare the resilience that Teach For America famously values.

“I am so hurt by this election,” one teacher wrote. “But I know we will come through this stronger. We have to, we have to.”

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
johnteaching

Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

How I Teach

How I Teach: From philosophy professor to high school government teacher

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Kyle Grady begins his high school government class at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kyle Grady, Freedom Preparatory Academy

When Kyle Grady earned his doctorate in philosophy, he knew he would be a teacher. But he didn’t expect to work with high school students.

After a few years teaching in Memphis at Rhodes College, though, he became more interested in understanding how students learn. That meant leaving the college classroom.

“So much has already been decided by the time they get to college,” he said. “I wanted to get on the other side of the process.”

Grady ended up at Freedom Preparatory Academy, one of Memphis’ highest performing charter networks. This year, he’s teaching 12th grade government and economics. Here’s what he had to say about getting students to connect with the material and developing critical thinking skills.

What’s a word or short phrase to describe your teaching style?

Teaching is not about putting sight in blind eyes, but developing curiosity. I like to tap into what [students] are already interested in thinking about and finding a way to connect the material to themselves.

What does your classroom look like?

The seating is seminar style. They are forced to look across the room at each other in the eye. I want them to pose their own questions and not have to look up front, just focused on me.

What’s the most interesting contrast between high school and college students?

High school students are much less hesitant about speaking their minds on complex and sensitive issues, which means that we can get right to the heart of controversial questions much more quickly. This is a difference that I never anticipated before I started teaching high school.

What’s the most fun you had teaching this year so far?

Being able to discuss the presidential election results with my government students, who showed how much they have developed a deep understanding of our political system. There were many strong emotions and confusing questions for us all to process that day, but my students gave me a lot of hope for our political future.

What’s your favorite lesson to teach?

I teach a lesson on the concept of justice in which students begin by choosing a set of laws from the perspective of their own identity, then repeat the process with an identity — age, sex, race, etc. — that is randomly assigned to them. It’s always amazing to watch how quickly this shift in perspective affects students’ sense of fairness, and ultimately the laws that they find just.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Sometimes we plan on certain assumptions and we find out we’ve made all the wrong guesses on what they know. In that situation, you just have to get rid of your plan and use class discussion to steer the class back to the topic at hand. One time, we segued to social media when talking about political philosophies. Eventually, there was a thread of connection about societal pressures that got us back on track.

What are you reading for fun?

I’m terrible about always being in the middle of several books at the same time. On my nightstand right now are a collection of essays by John Muir, a copy of Homer’s Odyssey, and book called “Against Democracy.”

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Trust the path you’re on. The philosopher Hegel wrote something that has always resonated with me: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” We tend not to understand processes that we’re involved in until they reach their conclusions. But all the choices we’ve made, all the people we’ve met, everything we’ve learned has set us on the path we’re taking. Sometimes we need to keep moving forward, even when we don’t know exactly where that path is taking us.