Mar 26 2010

Teaching as leadership critique part VIII

I’ve just finished chapter 6, the final principle ‘Work Relentlessly.’ While I like most of the content of this chapter, I’ve got a few minor ‘improvements.’ TFA is still in the middle of a slow evolution of its philosophy of teacher training and teacher effectiveness. Sometimes it seems that they’re not quite sure if they should tell the new teachers to be superheroes or not. Certainly the first two chapters suggest new teacher should be superheroes. Then the next 3 just give advice on how to be a solid ‘mortal’ teacher. This chapter continues, for the most part, the suggestions of how to be more effective without being a martyr.

They title the chapter ‘Work Relentlessly’ and then throughout the 26 page chapter warn that ‘Relentlessly’ should not be interpreted too literally. They know that some very ineffective teachers have worked ‘relentlessly,’ (by the dictionary definition) so they define the word several different ways to clarify what they mean.

I think that it’s actually a poor word choice for what they’re trying to convey. An editor would tell them not to be ‘married’ to the word which they seem to like so much. Really a more accurate word would be ‘Strategically.’ I know ‘Work Strategically’ doesn’t sound as awe-inspiring, but at least it wouldn’t be open to so much misinterpretation. (Also, they’d have to rename that book about TFA from a few years ago, ‘Relentless Pursuit’)

One oversimplified piece of advice I didn’t like was in the middle of 203 on how to maintain high expectations when students have been performing poorly

Move faster, not more slowly. Some teachers respond to a classroom of students who are behind by setting a slower learning pace for them. Percisely the opposite approach is needed. Your students will be behind, but they will have the capacity and potential for great growth. The principles of leadership outlined in this book allow teachers of students who are far behind to set and maintain an accelerated pace of learning in their classroom.

This could be the most dangerous piece of mis-advice in the entire book. Going back to the whole ‘there is no such thing as having expectations that are too high’ thing from chapter 1 and 2, they don’t even acknowledge the possibility that a class might not be succeeding because the teacher is going too fast. But that is the main mistake that new teachers make. I’m often guilty of that mistake after almost 20 years of teaching.

A very good section begins on page 212 under the heading ‘Acting with Utmost Respect and Humility to Choose Your Causes Wisely.’ In the past, there have been some CMs who, knowing that they only have two years, start trying to ‘fix’ everything that’s wrong in their school the first year. This book accurately advises that you have to first prove yourself with excellent academic results before you gain the credibility for anyone to really listen to you.

On page 219 to 221, they have some good quotes about how teachers make sure to enjoy some time for their own social lives and hobbies – how depriving yourself of that kind of time will, in the long run, be bad for your students who will have a burned out cranky teacher. Unfortunately this great sentiment is undermined by probably the craziest quote in the entire book on the top of page 218 in the section ‘Sustaining This Work Over Time’ we get this quote from a New Orleans first grade teacher:

I realized early on that if I wanted to be able to sustain the physically and emotionally draining lifestyle of a teacher, I was going to need to renew my energy and passion on a regular basis. I do this in a variety of ways, among them: running slideshows of ridiculously adorable pictures of my students on my computer screen during late-night planning sessions, self-enforcing a strict “no work on Friday nights” rule, volunteering for extra morning duty so that I can have non-school-related, relationship-building conversations with each of my students, indulging in my favorite TV dramas with my roommates, volunteering as the leader of a Girl Scout Daisies troop to which many of my students belong, playing on an indoor soccer team with other teachers, and enjoying the many incredible food and music festivals for which this city is well known.

I’ll admit that I had a ‘no work on Friday nights, Saturday days, and Saturday nights’ which I strictly self-enforced too. As far as the slideshow on her computer, well, that’s a bit creepy. I have a two year old daughter, and I really hope that none of her teachers go home and do that. This teacher is reinforcing the hero thing which goes in contrast to the message of this entire chapter (though it fits with the portrayal in chapters 1 and 2). Why TFA put this quote in, I’m not sure. It’s like they’re saying ‘You don’t have to be a hero – but it’s an option.’

Anyway, aside from those pretty small details, I was very satisfied with the general message of this chapter which was that you want to be efficient with your time, you want to know your place as a newcomer and to prove yourself before you start lobbying to have the school renamed in your honor. This is a message that some of my TFA peers from back in the day could have really benefited from.

I think there will be one or two more parts to this critique. I’ve got to look over the 60 pages of end material first. I invite any comments …

Continue To Part IX

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