Education Reform and the Question of Social Justice: In conversation with Katie Pollom
By Vivek Vellanki
In this interview, Katie Pollom, Director of Education at Kranti, speaks to Vivek Vellanki.
Kranti, in Hindi, means revolution. It is a fitting name for an organisation that works towards empowering daughters of sex workers to be agents of social change. In this interview, Katie Pollom tells Vivek Vellanki how this translates into action, and why she chose to move on from Teach For America and instead work with Kranti which locates social justice at the very centre of education.
Vivek Vellanki (VV): Your first exposure to education was through Teach For America. You were studying biology at college, and then decided to join Teach For America. How did that happen?
Katie Pollom (KP): So I was studying biology on the pre-medical track, not quite sure if that is what I really wanted to do. I remember vividly a Teach For America alumnus who came to do a presentation in my classroom, and I was blown away by the statistics about educational inequity and poverty, and particularly the discussion about how a child’s birthplace really does affect her/his education. From that point, I took a class on education at Indiana University and we talked about the history of education. My upbringing was in a predominantly white, upper-middle class community, and I remember also being struck by what I hadn’t ever learnt before. In that class, I learnt about the history of Native Americans and segregation in the US, and how that had affected education over the years—the racism and white supremacy that should have been obvious but it really wasn’t. I was looking then at why I hadn’t really learnt those things, and I just thought from that moment about why I really wanted to join this movement, and teach.
VV: You taught for two years in a classroom. Can you tell us more about your experience and your area of focus as a teacher? Also, could you tell us what the teacher preparation module was like?
KP: I was placed to teach high school French, which was my minor, so I actually came straight from studying abroad in the south of France directly to the training institute. The institute was six weeks long, and I trained in Los Angeles. A lot of the preparation was very focused on lesson planning, classroom organization and those sorts of things. My preparation was teaching English as a Second Language to native Spanish speakers, because that was contextually the closest to what I would be teaching in the fall. I was shocked to be teaching French after having studied biology. When I got to St. Louis, which was my placement site, I recognized that actually most of my students previously only had Spanish as an option, and many of them were not even required to take a language class. Some of them were only required by their senior year, which then really restricted their ability to be able to apply for higher education, because in the US you have to have two years of a foreign language. So they were actually limited by not taking any language. I was glad to be placed as a foreign language teacher, but we were a very small group. There were only three of us [foreign language teachers in the 2005 St. Louis TFA corps], and we were making things up as we went along, and learning from some of the alumni who had come before us.
VV: As a Teach For America corps member, you are essentially a young college graduate who has not had any formal teacher training, but you are still teaching in a school. In the school, you also have other teachers who are trained and who have come through a placement procedure that the government has put in place. Can you tell us about the interaction between Teach For America corps members and the teachers in the school?
KP: I was lucky to be placed in a school where the Teach For America alumni who had come before me had built a really amazing relationship and reputation within the school. At the same time, there was a lot of scepticism from the parents, the community and the other teachers about the fact that we were Teach For America corps members. They knew that most of us, except a few who had pursued Bachelor of Education, had only had six weeks of training. I didn’t really tell people that I was a Teach For America corps member.
Overwhelmingly, the Teach For America corps at that time—it was in 2005, and it still is today—young and white, and so there was a certain stereotype that came along with that, coming into a predominantly black school. My experience with the teachers in the school was actually amazing. I would observe different veteran teachers, and sometimes they would come to my classroom as well. I can also say that having been in St. Louis and with Teach For America for my three years’ teaching, and then two years on staff, that is not always the case. Sometimes the mindset that the young teachers come in with, particularly the notion that it is either going to be the saviour mentality or the feeling that we have so much to offer, is met with a lot of resistance, and understandably so.
VV: You mentioned that Teach For America and the people in it were predominantly white and upper class. When you joined the staff, did you try and change some of that? Were you trying to address those issues?
KP: I went through a lot of self-growth during my time at Teach For America. I taught for two years during the corps, and then I stayed for a third year and did my certification. Having come from a society where we all are in the US, just steeped in white supremacy, whether it is stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious, I think I came into the corps with a particular mentality that I wasn’t necessarily aware of. In addition to examining my whiteness and my privilege while in the classroom, there was not much that I was doing to challenge that.
There is one experience that really sticks out in my mind, where I look back and think of how I was really trying to take the agency away from one of my student’s parents. He was applying to universities, and I was the only one contacting the schools and organizing the interviews and things like that, instead of really connecting with his mother, and making sure that she knew exactly what was going on. At the time I sort of was thinking, wow, I am doing all of the work, and I wanted the appreciation for it. Looking back, I am embarrassed at how I was acting, but I have to also take into context that society sort of shaped my thinking in that way.
When I went and joined the staff, I was a Program Director, so I was managing, supporting and developing our secondary science teachers and our language teachers. I started thinking of so many of the things that were not put in place in my own curriculum, and I can thank a lot of women, especially women of colour, who I have learnt so much from over the years. I also had an amazing professor during my master’s program. We did Sociology of Education, and a lot of the reading I was doing there dealt with race, gender and class.
I started doing two things when I was on the staff that I wish I had done in my classroom. One is encouraging all of my teachers, no matter what they were teaching, to start incorporating the aspects of race, gender, class and ability into their curriculum, whether they were teaching Chemistry or Spanish. It was easier in the language classrooms, and there was a lot more pushback from the science teachers, but especially the second-year teachers were very open to thinking about how they could make sure that all of their students’ identities were reflected in their curriculum. I also started having a lot of discussions with the staff members about race. In Teach For America, there is a curriculum called DCA—Diversity, Community and Achievement—where everybody reads the book and they have discussions about it during summer Institute. Although this is only six weeks long, the expectation is that it is continued during your two years in the corps. I can say that it has gotten better and better over the years, but there is still a lot of critique about the way it is facilitated, or the types of conversations that happen and the surface level of those conversations.
VV: A lot of critique of Teach For America stems from the fact that the training and orientation they provide is devoid of educational theory and it tries to sanitize the classroom and completely cleanse it of any of these aspects—race, gender, social class, and privilege— that are important. Do you think this is something that needs to be urgently looked into?
KP: I would say yes. I do not know how many people would agree with me. I think there would be quite a few. There is such a focus on math, literacy and the sciences, but the reality is that for new teachers there are so many things to learn, like differentiation. Incorporating issues of social justice is something that really gets pushed aside because it is not seen as the most important thing. But we should also be critiquing and reflecting on the level of success we are pushing students towards. If they are predominantly black and brown students living in conditions of overwhelming poverty, and we are pushing them to this standard of success that has been set from a history of racism, segregation and oppression and a white, upper-class norm of success, then I think that should be reflected on. In addition to teaching all of the content, we need to reflect on what we are teaching, how we are teaching it, and the types of lessons that we are planning in order to teach content knowledge.
VV: Moving from your own stint at Teach For America, you have come to a very different place now. You are at Kranti. Can you just briefly tell us about Kranti and what you do at Kranti?
KP: Kranti means revolution in Hindi. We work primarily with the daughters of sex workers and other marginalized girls, most of whom have grown up in or who come from Kamathipura, which is Mumbai’s largest red light area. Our mission is to empower daughters of sex workers to become leaders of social change. What that translates to in action is to provide resources for our girls, who come from a particular community, to be able to have the same opportunities as people who come from the outside, or who come from a very elite place, frequently coming into communities in poverty and trying to make a change.
Although there has been amazing change made by people from that background—I myself fit that background—the belief that girls who actually come from the community, if given the opportunity and provided with the resources, can really make better and more sustainable change, because they actually come from there. A lot of what we do is based around a social justice curriculum. We implement units on all different sorts of topics—mental health, food justice, ability, gender, sexuality, caste, class, nationalism and colonialism.
We teach the girls about these different issues, the historic aspect as well as the current aspect, and have them do the critique. And then there is also a focus on providing resources for leadership training. They go out and teach a lot of the lessons they learn at Kranti to their peers—other girls at other NGOs, or different places in India or Nepal. So, in addition to the social justice lessons and curriculum, and the leadership training and the service, Kranti is also a place where they have mental health care. For many, it is the only place where they can access mental health care, especially coming from the red light area.
VV: That is a very different approach in terms of two things: in terms of your own trajectory as a Teach For America member, and your training. You have challenged the conventional notions about education by making social justice the centre of your organization’s work. Why is that so important in educational practice?
KP: I think it is so meaningful! Every single one of our girls has experienced discrimination and marginalization, whether it was because of their skin colour or because they identify as the daughter of a sex worker or they are Muslim or ‘lower’ caste—all of these things. The idea is to be able to not only critique something, understanding why it’s happening, but also to do something about it. We want them to feel like they have agency, and they are autonomous beings capable of making choices with their own lives, both in terms of their own healing and also healing their communities.
Although I write and organize a lot of the curriculum, I do not implement a significant amount of it, because a lot of it is done in Hindi. And that is another thing—we value their languages. We also place a huge significance on literacy and want to ensure all girls can read and write in at least one Indian language (usually Hindi) as well as English.
While we recognize that leaders need not be literate, nor should there be a hierarchy of language with English at the top, we do believe that literacy provides more opportunities, especially for independent learning, and we want our girls to be able to express their own voices, opinions, and experiences for others, both in writing as well as verbally. So, while they are learning English in the home and we want them to have opportunities that English will provide, we also want to show them models of leaders who are not typical. So, for example, they have gone to a sex workers’ collective, and learnt from women who are sex workers. They have done a lot of their own workshops in Hindi or Marathi for other girls just like them. We want them to see examples of leadership, entrepreneurship, and community development that are out of the typical norm.
Katie Pollom is currently working as the Director of Education at Kranti, an NGO whose mission is to empower the daughters of sex workers to be agents of social change. Katie writes the social justice curriculum and supports leadership development for the girls. She has previously been Program Director at Teach for America.
Vivek Vellanki is currently with the Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education. He can be reached at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an edited version of an interview recorded for Dialoging Education, a podcast on education initiated by RRCEE. The audio and other interviews can be accessed on http://www.rrcee.net.
[Note: This interview first appeared on the Regional Resource Centre for Elementary Education web portal (www.rrcee.net) in May 2013 as part of the Dialoging Education podcast series. Other interviews and transcripts can be accessed at: http://rrcee.net/dialoging-education. For more details, suggestions or comments please write to email@example.com]
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.