It’s been over a year since I’ve written about my foray into education, so I’m well overdue. Quick synopsis: overconfident first year teacher + weak classroom management + poor support = failure. Want the full details? Read on.
In the fall of 2010, I began my first year teaching 7th and 8th grade math at a charter school in the Bronx. I taught all three sections of 8th grade and one section of 7th grade 5 days / week, and I also was assigned the advanced 7th grade section that met 2 days / week. There wasn’t any curriculum in place; the 8th grade teachers from the previous two years had left binders of little more than problem sets pulled from past state tests. But Teach for America (TFA) had taught me strong backwards planning skills for designing curriculum, and I double majored in math in college. The freedom to design my class from scratch was thrilling. The literature about math education suggested students were frequently taught by people who themselves had limited understanding of the subject. In the search for better test scores teachers would give students tricks and formulas to memorize. I was eager to teach students to think critically and reason.
I still remember the night before the first day of school, too excited and nervous to sleep. The last time I had the problem was Christmas Eve half a lifetime ago. We spent the first week solving interesting problems and getting to know each other. I introduced our Big Goal–80% mastery on standards–and followed the TFA guidebook on an investment plan. The problem was that my students certainly didn’t care about the assortment of NY standards that would be tested on the state test. And my personal goals were to change lives, have meaningful discussions, and rekindle curiosity.
Classroom management was a challenge once the newness of school wore off. I conflated my early success with students’ timidity as they test boundaries and learn the lay of the land. When push came to shove, I didn’t do enough to manage the disruptive students and hold the class to high standards. My desire to keep everyone in class rather than send them to the Dean’s office–a technique other first year teachers routinely employed–left me looking soft. In the end, all my strong rapport meant was that students saw me as more of a friend than an authority figure. If I were still teaching in that school today, I feel confident I could manage the students and teach them twice as much.
I guess what frustrates me the most is that new teachers must be seen as an investment. Rare is the first year teacher who outperforms veteran teachers his or her first year. Instead, schools should see neophytes as a precious resource that must be refined to realize their full value. They must receive support and mentoring that focuses on what that teacher needs most. In return, new teachers bring enthusiasm and a fresh perspective.
From my point of view, I worked incredibly hard my first year, to the detriment of every other aspect of my life. I designed two curricula from scratch, provided extra help during preps and after school, volunteered for optional retreats, and strove to build parent involvement. I sought to be a role model for my students. That my charter school and TFA would dismiss me–a career changer who left a higher paying job to teach–shows a lack of good faith. I will become a master teacher without their support. I will do what I set out to do in spite of their short-sighted decision.
My 7th and 8th graders are a bit tougher sells than the elementary schoolers in the TFA weekly newsletter stories, but I already love them to death. I feel like I’m slowly building up great buy-in from these kids. The investment and management components seem so closely correlated to me, and I’m feel successful in a way I never did with my summer school students during Institute.
The students are also enjoying the lessons, and the reflective writing I’ve had them do has really impressed me. Teaching the same lesson multiple times in a row is another big difference from Institute. For me, it lets me see progress in an easily measurable way. (It’s so good that I would seriously suggest changing Institute to 2 lessons taught 2x a week rather than 4 taught 1x. It would also relieve some of the lesson plan load, which for me felt like it received a bit too much of my attention. The time spent lesson planning ate into sleep, which hurt my delivery for sure the next day.) I find that with repetition my lessons get tighter, the delivery gets better, the kids are more engaged and on-task. Fortunately–and fortuitously?–my classes rotate throughout the week so each one gets me at my best at some point.
Learning the names of 105 students is no small task, either! I’ve got the difficult students and the advanced students–sometimes one in the same–but those quiet, well-behaved middle ones blend together. “Aliyah? Wait, Alyssa?” I need to take more lunch duties so I can rehearse with the senior teachers.
Missing piece: classroom jobs. I need to put something together with job descriptions and applications. I think I have enough buy-in that the kids would want to interview. I’ll let you know how it turns out…
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!
On Monday morning my unabashed confidence was finally met with validation. I was offered at job teaching middle school math at a charter school up in the South Bronx. My first contact with the school was a phone interview in the middle of May, followed by an on-site interview and demo lesson in June, and finally a meeting with the principal last week. Each step of the way I felt more confident that I would really fit in at the school and that I had impressed my interviewer. In fact, after the demo lesson I felt so good about my chances that I told three of my friends I would give them $100 each if I didn’t get the job! So you can bet that I brought my A-game for the final meeting with the principal.
More than the money on the line–which definitely would sting in my zero-income state–was my growing belief that this school was exactly where I needed and wanted to be. Their commitment to character development and strong conviction in community building really struck a chord. I increasingly realize that people do not operate in a vacuum, and it is the rare individual who can swim against the surging currents of circumstances. There is no immutable self that exists outside of context, no ideal identity that acts autonomously.
So this fall I anticipate being surrounded by a group of novice and seasoned educators whom I can know and be known by. And so, here are the three big things I hope to find in my peers this fall:
1. Emotional healthiness, beyond that, a love of love and a capability to love and be loved effectively and fully, and platonically, and the ability to be platonically affectionate as well. Base and typically communally present emotions like jealousy need to be recognized, addressed, and battled.
2. A desire, a hunger to grow and improve. A desire and hunger for life, other people, and improved experience.
3. An open mind.
But, for now, back to lesson planning.