Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As we gathered for another meeting to tell stories, share feelings, and take guidance, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the griping began. I had made the trek from my apartment in Northeast Washington, D.C., to Teach For America’s office on K Street. Bright posters beamed positive messages, chips and salsa were laid out in back, and hot pink flyers were strewn ­everywhere.

I looked around at my fellow Transition Team Leaders, Teach For America members chosen to introduce the newest class of recruits to life in the region. We had come into the program the year before and had volunteered to offer guidance and wisdom to fresh TFA recruits. There were nineteen of us, taken from the mostly female, white, ­highly ­educated, and upper-middle-class D.C. corps.

People filed in, harried and somber. The buzz of light banter hummed in the background and I slipped into a reverie. Only a few minutes passed before it was interrupted by a statement whose tone and content were all too familiar:

There’s a lot they don’t get because they don’t get out of their neighborhoods enough. I think we need to teach them how to be tolerant. Like, I heard one of my kids talking about how being gay is, like, wrong. I explained to him that families look a lot of different ways and that none of them are better or worse than any others.

The speaker of these words didn’t have an ounce of prejudice in her twenty-three-year-old body. She was sure of it. I had met her a few months before and learned that she had attended American University, majored in political science, and came from a Virginia family of ample means and enlightened attitudes.

Another member of the group echoed her complaint. “Yeah, some of my kids are pretty bigoted and think some really ignorant stuff.”

This one was educated at Duke, and she radiated an air of righteous outrage. Passionate in her declaration, she narrowed her eyes as she ­practically spat her rebuke. She turned left and right, her blonde hair swaying as she looked for affirmation from others at the table. Most dressed in the ­unofficial TFA uniform: modest, brightly colored blouses, dark skirts, and trendy flats. Another one chimed in:

A lot of them think that there’s something wrong with being gay and when I asked them about how they could think something like that, they try and say something about God or religion or something, it’s backward and . . .

I’d heard the same remarks over and over, and the time had long passed when I could shrug it off as harmless grousing by overwhelmed novice teachers. My peers were grumbling about the very people they had pledged to help, treating their students not as needy minds but as examples of backward social attitudes. Their condescension was shocking, though they still believed in their charitable motives.

This was not what I expected when I signed up for Teach for America that March. During my senior year at Harvard, a persistent roommate had talked me into applying, and the mission of the organization appealed to my passion for social justice. Teach for America began in 1989 as an effort to place grad­uates of elite colleges into classrooms in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The idea caught on quickly, bolstering a growing education reform movement and garnering widespread support from celebrities, politicians, and public figures.

TFA seeks to address social inequality by closing the “achievement gap”: the large difference between white students and black and Latino students in standardized test scores. The program identified the achievement gap as a source of negative outcomes in the lives of poor minority youths. Its goal: “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college grad­uates and professionals to teach.” Ivy League graduates began to see TFA as an ennobling term of work, and applications multiplied, allowing TFA to select the best and the brightest. I felt honored to survive the process.

“Institute,” as the summer training program is known, was brutal. Our days began at 5 a.m. with breakfast in Temple University’s cafeteria. We rushed from the cafeteria to buses in the parking lot ready to take us to our summer school positions. The buses delivered us, barely awake, to schools all over Philadelphia where we taught students who had been sent there because of bad behavior, poor academics, or both. Remanded to summer school classes, they felt imprisoned and frequently acted out. The first half of the day was spent co-teaching, the second half receiving professional development training. At the end of the school day, we rejoined our colleagues back at Temple University for dinner, after which we were free for a short period of time before returning to yet another professional development night session. We ended the night planning and organizing items for the next day.

As any teacher knows, planning lessons, creating instructional ­materials, and organizing resources can take hours. Often, corps members had to choose between preparing and sleeping. Sleep deprivation became so rampant that meeting locations were organized to allow corps members to stand to avoid dozing. People began to drop out of the program.

The students we worked with were failing, too. Several in my classes were reading two or three grade levels below the benchmark. Many struggled with spelling and writing in English and in their home languages. Their working vocabulary was limited, and it was clear that they had no reading habits outside of school. Few students were ready for abstract reasoning assignments; their minds were stuck on literal and common-sense planes.

The parents complained of having to come and pick kids up at midday. Volatile students who hated one another were forced into the same classrooms for hours. One of my second graders was so frustrated with his classmates and my co-teacher that he flipped the table where he had been sitting and walked out of the building while I was in the bathroom. ­Another student got into an argument and waited two hours to assault a classmate in a bathroom stall (teachers were prohibited from entering student restrooms). Several colleagues teaching high school reported absences only to discover that the truants had been murdered.

TFA was trying to prepare us for the upcoming school year. We were summoned for briefings and de-briefings, questioned about feelings and beliefs, probed constantly for impressions and conclusions. Staffers told us about the conditions to come: crippling poverty and welfare dependency, broken families and directionless youth, violence and abuse. They briefed us on the latest pedagogies and policies. We realized we would encounter worlds foreign to our own, and that we would need wisdom and best tools to make it through each week.

But in those training sessions, conversations routinely veered away from teaching practices and problems. Instead, we heard comments like this:

I have to teach them that they can’t talk to people about people like that. They have to learn tolerance. Like, you can’t just tell someone that they can’t be gay or that being gay isn’t okay, that’s intolerant. That’s what I want my kids to learn.

It wasn’t her position that bothered me so much as its condescension. Her moral confidence made it seem as if the mission was to undo the backward culture of benighted youths. I had to wonder where my twenty-three-year-old peers not long out of college ever got the assurance to be so managerial. They certainly had no doubts about their fitness, and they didn’t hesitate to diagnose where the dysfunction had started.

I think a lot of it comes from their home environment. No one teaches them how to look at the world or deal with people who are different. They don’t even know how to interact with each other, they’re always fighting and I’m sure a lot of it is connected to what they see in their communities. Parents are teaching their kids to hit back or to fight over words.

It’s not that my fellow corps members were completely wrong about the people they encountered. I saw those problems firsthand. Families ignored bad behaviors. Parents had fist fights in parking lots. Students adopted gang affiliations and brought weapons to school, while mothers did nothing to stop it. Fathers smoked marijuana outside classrooms after parent-teacher conferences.

But it was hard to see why my colleagues seemed more concerned with correcting the flaws they perceived in students’ outlooks than they were with preparing them for secondary and higher education. The kids’ intolerance bothered them far more than their academic deficits. Our primary responsibility was to teach students the intellectual skills and attitudes to earn high grades, not to correct social taboos or endorse political viewpoints.

I talked to my fellow teachers about the academic progress of the kids, but more often than not they told me how badly they’d love to change who the students were, not what the students knew. Over the months, I watched their perspectives evolve from sympathy and concern to disgust and condescension.

I remember one of my kids was talking back to me in class: she said something about her family rejecting evolution! I mean, ­really? Evolution? I explained it to her again and she still was yapping about how her family said that God created the earth and how evolution couldn’t be real. All I had to do was ask her a couple of basic questions and her whole argument fell apart: Why doesn’t God help out endangered species if he created them? Huh? If God created everything, why do we find fossils of species that don’t exist anymore? She couldn’t even start to give me an answer that made sense!

The Gospel of Matthew explains the spirit in which we are to engage in public service:

So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will ­reward you.

Unless we serve with the correct attitudes and aims, we too easily use our service to elevate ourselves. Service satisfies our ambitions and identities; those in need become tools, pawns for self-congratulation, accolades for our moral egos. As my peers sought to fix the cultures of the poor minority children they served, I ­noted the irony: Those who had argued most for tolerance of others became intolerant themselves.

In all fairness, perhaps my peers in TFA were just reacting to insecurity and frustration over the very difficult circumstances in the classroom that made success so hard. But I think the attitude went deeper than a coping mechanism, and the pressure exposed unappealing qualities. Even the premises and practices of the program reveal hints of self-promotion and superiority.

My judgmental colleagues finished their time with TFA and left for elite law schools and white-collar jobs in Manhattan. Their condescension to the poor students whom they pronounced narrow-minded and bigoted was consistent with the meritocratic outlook of the world that rewarded them so richly. They were on their way up, and they thought that their enlightened social outlooks proved their caritas. In practice, though, it was a way to look down on those beneath them.

What are we truly here to do? To serve. In order for service to be effective, the effort must hinge on an acknowledgment of our mutual humanity. We lift those up whom we have the courage to engage face to face. We empower not by standing above, expecting others to rise to our sophistication and moral height, but by humbling ourselves, taking on the aspect of a servant. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul says. “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Adopt “the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” who “humbled himself / by becoming obedient to death— / even death on a cross!”   

Malcolm Rivers is a teacher in Washington, D.C.