I should be lesson planning for the first week of school. It’s a little over a week away, and I’m starting to feel anxious about it. But instead I find myself wanting to crystallize some thoughts I have about Teach for America. Writing them down, just like talking to myself, helps me to logically sequence everything. So even if you weren’t here reading these words, I would still find the exercise useful. But–if we’re lucky–I can have my cake and you can eat it, too.
Teach for America (hence, “TFA”) traditionally recruits a swarm of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college grads. Freshly minted, they decide to jump back in to the world of education they have just left, albeit on the other side of the red pen. So it is understandable, dare I say predictable, that the people who join the corps come with a wide range of thoughts and thoughtfulness about pedagogy and motivations are for joining.
Thus TFA comes equipped with a delicious flavor of Kool-Aid that has been specially fortified with all your daily vitamins and minerals. I’ve been drinking this stuff for months, though, so the first couple of weeks at Institute were monotonous. In predictable bullet point format, here we go:
- You must have high expectations for all of your students and truly believe that all of them can and will succeed. Yes, this seems self-evident to me. People rise or fall to meet expectations. Give someone a week or a month to do something and that’s how long it will take. Or, more broadly, consider the question of free will. The only reasonable stance to take is that free will exists. If it does, and you’re right, then you will behave appropriately. If it doesn’t, and you’re wrong, you were still holding a belief that coerced your non-free will to act in the most potentially useful way possible. So set big goals, “ambitious yet feasible,” and truly believe that students will achieve them.
- The Academic Impact Model posits that Student Achievement is predicated on Student Actions, which are predicated on Teacher Actions, which are predicated on Teacher Knowledge, Skills, and Mindsets. Again, YES, obviously, how could they not? Clearly there will be external influences, but the most powerful and successful teacher will ensure his influence is the most potent. He will battle against negative influences with the knowledge of what is really at stake, and with a degree of conviction most students will not yet possess. It is the teacher’s job to model that disciplined attitude and effort can achieve whatever it is one desires. And it is the teacher’s burden to realize he is responsible not just for a student’s success but also a student’s failure.
- Once you have a goal in mind, backwards plan to ensure all your efforts will align with and lead to achieving that goal. This insight gets to the heart of TFA’s affinity for data. It is introduced to warn new teachers against the dangers of “activity-based” lessons, where the kids are having a great time but not really mastering the intended objective. For example, we could play blackjack in math class, but if we haven’t sufficiently worked out probabilities the strategy would be lost on students. But backwards planning goes deeper than that, too. It means starting with the goal in mind, knowing how you’ll assess that you’ve met that goal, and then breaking the goal into small chunks, each of which can itself be backwards planned.
These are just a few of the concepts that have been inculcated into corps members from the first days of Institute and run through the heart of most training I’ve since received. I wish I could go around the country giving all teachers a quick Check for Understanding to ensure they’re drinking the Kool-Aid. With schools already started or starting soon, it’s imperative students have thoughtful teachers who believe in and assume responsibility for them.
Back to the lesson planning!