You’ve been assigned to one of America’s most picturesque Southern places, a state adorned with beaches and farmland and Southern-style mountains. Our people are friendly. They’ll shake your hand, and look you in the eye while doing it. They appreciate hard work. They abhor laziness. Hope you like football, ’cause it’s biblical here.
Depending on your sensibilities, you may like us.
So you might as well know something about us and the responsibility that awaits.
First thing: Drop the “corps members” nametag that TFA uses.
It’s haughty and it’s pretentious. It does you no favors.
That’s what we’ll call you.
That said, you should know that you haven’t been assigned to a state that historically does public education right. Just your luck, right? Throughout our state’s history, you can count on one hand the number of governors and state Legislatures that have treated public education as the foundational element it is.
Even today, that is our cross to bear.
Too often, Alabama has likened public education to potholes: Just fill them, with little effort or expense, and move on to something else. With little variance, Alabama has treated public education as a line item, not a responsibility. It has spent too little on its schools, invested too little in their infrastructure, and paid teachers salaries that didn’t mimic their responsibilities. Georgia, the urban legend goes, does quite well on Alabama-trained teachers.
Every state has public-education inequities — rich districts getting more than poor ones, white districts often doing better than minority ones — but our state takes that evil to another level.
It’s not a recession thing.
It’s an Alabama thing.
There are 85 of you coming into Alabama this fall. Fifty-five of you are newcomers to TFA and likely first-timers in our state. Your world is about to change. You have not been assigned to an educational utopia; you have been assigned to a state that has great teachers and inadequate ones, wonderful schools and substandard ones, and, above all else, children who deserve the same top-flight educations that children often get in states heralded for their test scores. There even is a teacher’s union that fights tooth-and-nail for its members, much to the chagrin of the state’s Republican leadership.
In other words, it’s the real world, and you’re about to be part of it.
Of course, you haven’t been placed in public schools like Mountain Brook High, where more than a few students reside in Jed Clampett mansions and drive BMWs.
If you want to know where you’re going, Google up a few Alabama counties. Research their poverty levels and annual per-capita incomes and the number of children on free or reduced-price school lunches.
Look up Marengo County, which has a per-capita income of $17,403.
Research Perry County, where nearly 24 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level.
Consider Sumter County, where a quarter of the households make less than $10,000 a year, where the unemployment rate is more than 13 percent, and where almost 60 percent of residents under the age of 18 — children — live in poverty.
Find out about Greene County, and Hale County, and Lowndes County, where some of you are headed. For the first time, a few of you will be placed in schools in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, but don’t expect silver-spoon suburbia there, either.
This isn’t meant to scare you, or to present a false impression about our public education. Don’t consider this an unfair warning. Instead, it’s meant to inform you about the challenges educators in this state’s poorest locales face. If you’re going to be in our classrooms, helping instruct our children, you need to be all in, clued-up, level-headed and ready to go.
It won’t be easy. As state employees, Alabama teachers have weathered the economic storms with the rest of us. It has been no fun, particularly for quality educators without tenure. Their concern is real. More than a few have been pink-slipped. New education grads are finding the job market tepid. From county to county, the story’s the same: School boards are struggling with drastically reduced budgets and smaller staffs and children who deserve superior instruction, recession or not.
As outsiders, there’s no guarantee everyone will welcome you with open arms.
Yet, all we can ask is that you are sincere in your effort. We need no saviors, but Alabama’s poorest regions need help. If you want to make a difference, roll up your sleeves and work side-by-side with our educators who are doing their best. You’ll be glad you did.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor.