The very first principle described in ‘Teaching As Leadership’ is ‘Set Big Goals.’ All effective teachers do this, they say, which I agree with. Implied is the converse that everyone who sets big goals will be an effective teacher or that many teachers who were not effective would have been more effective had they set bigger goals.
In the 36 page chapter from pages 15 to 50 of the book, a major part is making the case that low income, mostly students of color, are as capable as their rich, mostly, white counterparts. Why they need to spend so many pages on something that only the most racist person doesn’t already know, I can’t understand.
We hear that this CM got 3 years of achievement in one year. Another got 2 years. One CM has a big ‘2’ all over her room to remind her students of the class goal to do this. The idea, which TFA says is based on research, is the ‘self-fulfilling’ prophecy of high expectations. Kids will rise to meet the level of your big goals.
The whole truth is a lot more complicated, unfortunately. I wish it wasn’t. It would have made my first year a lot easier. Having high expectations is not enough. In fact, those high expectations can even backfire. I’ll explain what I mean.
If you go into your classroom as a new teacher with a big speech about how the class is going to cover two years in one year, you will get an initial rush of excitement. Kids do want to catch up and they might be willing to even trust this newcomer. But then, when the new teacher doesn’t have the skill yet to get the students to master the challenging material, and the students do poorly on the first assessment, that initial rush of excitement can turn to a wave of resentment as the teacher not only failed to teach well, but lied to the class and got their hopes up.
It would be very irresponsible (dare I say ‘negligent’?) for TFA not to acknowledge this fact. Without pointing this out, it would leave the trusting naïve new teacher with the belief that there is no such thing as goals that are ‘too big.’ TFA knows that this fact has to be mentioned but they don’t really want to. This is why in the 36 page chapter from pages 15 to 50, the fact is mentioned in exactly one sentence. It’s pretty easy to miss so get your highlighter out and turn to page 36, first paragraph:
“Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school.”
That’s it. In 35 and 9/10 pages about how no goals are impossible and, hidden in the middle, one sentence about how careful a teacher needs to be while considering how big the expectations should realistically be. This was an opportunity for them to maybe contrast ‘good’ big goals versus ‘bad’ ones of unsuccessful teachers who felt they were following the advice of setting big goals. This was a moment where TFA could have warned the new teachers with specific examples of ineffective teachers who thought they were setting big goals, but really were just demonstrating their ignorance. TFA couldn’t do that, though, since it would force them to admit that there have been some ineffective CMs over the past 20 years.
A new teacher doesn’t have enough experience to know the difference between a realistic big goal and an impossible one. TFA misses the opportunity to guide the new teacher through this important decision. After the point is briefly mentioned, they continue with the ‘no goal is too big’ agenda.
To see an example of what happens when a new TFA corps members does not understand the difference between realistic big goals and impossible ones, see the teachfor.us blog by ‘the projectionist.’ This is a 2009 CM who was obviously committed to the 6 principles. She steadily wrote 61 blog entries between November 2008 and November 2009. One of them was about her ambitious reading list she was preparing for her 12 graders. Obviously she heard the principle ‘Set Big Goals,’ and took that principle seriously. Nobody warned her that if you know little about your students, you run the risk of setting goals that are counterproductive. This is why, I assume, ‘The Projectionist’ quit blogging (and maybe even teaching, I don’t know.) Here’s her last post.
‘Set Big Goals’ is not good advice for new teachers who are likely to misinterpret that advice, especially after reading about the dozen or so dynamos who managed to reach those goals (I’d need to really examine more details about those teachers before I can really determine what factors contributed to their success besides setting big goals.)
I think better advice would be to spend time really learning where your students are. Then set a small goal of achievement for your students. When they accomplish that goal, set another, slightly bigger goal. Keep doing that until the end of the year and you did a great job.
TFA, by not sufficiently presenting the dangers of ‘Setting Big Goals,’ misleads new teachers into thinking that there is no real risk in doing it. But there is a big risk. When you get kids hopes up and then can’t deliver, when you teach over their heads because you don’t have the experience yet to know how to break a tough concept into more digestible portions, you can alienate your class and lose their trust. They will brand you as incompetent and not worth listening to. Your promise that they will gain two years will just be further evidence of why they shouldn’t listen to anything you say.
In my experience, low expectations are self-fulfilling, but high expectations aren’t necessarily. It takes a lot of skill to help the students reach your expectations. Better be sure you have that skill before you publicly make such promises.
One down. Five to go. Maybe the other five will be presented in a more realistic balanced way, in which case I won’t have much to write about. Honestly, I hope this book gets better.