Chapter 2 begins with some first hand accounts by highly effective teachers describing what they do to ‘invest’ their students. Some of the practices of the hero teachers are kind of risky. For example, Kwame Griffith writes on page 54:
I build strong relationships with my students, and they called my home nightly to talk through homework problems or share stories about our lives.
The fact that this ‘boundary issue’ didn’t work against him is fine, I guess, for him, but new teachers should not feel obligated to talk to their students on the phone every night. To me, that’s not a great use of the limited ‘recharging’ time all teachers need.
Then on page 65, the hero teacher with the ‘strong internal locus of control’ (I always worry when I hear that expression.) says that because it was hard to contact parents over the phone,
we would just start taking kids home, and we would wait at home until the parent came home.
A new teacher reading this passage who would also like to have a ‘strong internal locus of control’ might think that this is a practical thing to do when in reality, this is not a very efficient or effective use of time. Also, it really crosses the teacher-student boundary. You’d have to already have established a very unique relationship with a student to take them home and wait (for who knows how long, don’t they have to plan for tomorrow?) for the parents. It’s just not a good idea. I think I’d really need more details about these visits to determine what other factors were in play that made them successful.
I know these stories are meant to inspire new teachers to be ‘relentless’ in their work to emulate these heroes, but another message inadvertently emerges. They spend the first chapter proving the obvious fact that low-income minority students are as capable as their rich white peers, but then they help fuel the opposite argument by making us believe that the only way to help them is to have their teachers be super heroes.
Maybe my expectations are too high, but I don’t think that the achievement gap can only be closed by superhuman teachers who don’t require sleep or Saturdays off. I think it can be closed by competent teachers who know how to intelligently prioritize and efficiently utilize their limited energy.
Another thing I want to mention is that these heroic teachers probably aren’t as incredible as they seem. All teachers do a lot of extra stuff to try to get their students to work hard.
I generally write about the problems I had and the mistakes I made during my first year. What I don’t write about so much is that I had a lot of motivation to succeed after my first very tough year, and, I could easily write a short blurb that would make me seem like a martyr, when in reality, it wasn’t that much extra work.
When Gary Rubinstein learned that some of his math students didn’t speak English, he started conducting extra help sessions after school which he taught in Spanish. Within a few weeks, there would be a full class of students, including many students who were not in his class. He also started an SAT course which ran on Saturdays and which had food donated by a local restaurant. At the school football games, he even played trumpet with the marching band. When thirty-four seniors needed to pass the math section of the Texas State Test to graduate, Rubinstein volunteered to teach the class to the students who had already failed this test four times. At the end of the year, thirty-two of the thirty-four passed.
I’m not writing this to imply that I’m one of those heroes. In a sense, every teacher who does a little extra work is. I still took plenty of time for my own selfish needs, trust me.
Here are some more details about my heroic accomplishments: That Spanish after school class lasted about 2 months before it kind of fizzled out. The SAT course was 6 Saturdays total. The trumpet thing happened once. The state-test with the seniors, well that one I’m pretty proud of. And all this extra stuff really was probably just because I had a lot of free time because I couldn’t find a girlfriend.
On page 78 to 79, they describe an issue that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about – how to ‘act’ with your students. They give a sample of how an effective teacher greets his class in ‘fostering an inclusive and positive atmosphere’ with banter like: “Robert – where’s the smile I like so much? I need it today. Wait, wait, wait – there it is!”
In the middle of page 79 there’s a bulleted list of six things they observe about highly effective teachers. Of these six items, I very much agree with five of them and vigorously oppose the other one. The offending item is the fifth one on the list, (take out your highlighter again, but this time your BLACK highlighter)
Remain authentic by speaking and teaching as one’s self, not in an affected or adopted persona.
It’s a shame that they slipped this line into a very solid list of good advice. This oversimplified line can really make things tough for a new teacher. “Be yourself” sounds good, but in my experience it is not true. Teaching, in part, is acting. “Yourself” isn’t used to leading a class of 34 fourth graders. To be successful as an inexperienced young teacher you pretty much have to adopt a persona. Now the persona will have some elements of yourself, but still it will be somewhat ‘affected’ and ‘adopted.’
TFA does a much better job of explaining the nuances of this dynamic in the training manual. See page 11 of the “Classroom Management and Culture” booklet found on the teaching as leadership website where after making the same point, they follow with this extremely important caveat:
Certainly, all of us make adjustments to our natural persona when we are in front of a class teaching. However, your teaching will be most effective if you assert authority in a way that is compatible with your style and personality.
Still they encourage you to be yourself as much as possible. I think it’s fine to completely change your persona if that’s what works best for you in front of a classroom. The ‘truth’ is probably somewhere between the two extremes, closer to my end.
The last thing I’d like to mention briefly is the two page section about something called ‘malleable intelligence.’ The idea is that when students believe that intelligence isn’t just something you have or don’t have, but something that you can grow with hard work, they will be more willing to work for it. I know that TFA does some readings about this topic. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be another thing to convince teachers that all students are capable of high achievement, or if it’s supposed to be something that teachers get their students to accept so the students are more motivated. I think it’s unnecessary to get into this with your students. On page 61, they encourage teachers to be mindful of the messages they send when they praise a kid by saying they are “naturally good” at something since it reinforces the idea that people can be naturally good (and implying, therefore, that people can also be naturally bad) at things, thus making it a waste of time to try when you’re not. This is really overthinking things. I know from my own experiences of learning that there are some things I’m naturally good at and others that I’m not. I know I have to work hard to be successful at the things I’m not so good at, and that I’ve got to work hard to be great at the things that I am naturally good at. It’s really pretty simple. I once saw a blog by a new TFA teacher who spent an entire lesson in his first week of teaching, going over this theory and doing a controversial class discussion about it. If you want to learn some brain theory research to be more informed about how people think and learn, fine, but don’t bore your students with it.