Jun 17 2012

Stuyvesantgate

A TFA blogger called yoteach on this site recently wrote a post revealing a juicy secret about me that I have been trying to conceal, evidently, for years.

I could deny that this secret is true, but there is too much evidence, so let me come clean right here:

I am not still teaching at the school TFA placed me in 21 years ago.

And to make matters worse, I am teaching at a, gasp, ‘good’ school.

I know this is unforgivable.  It is one thing to teach for two years and then go to law school, but to teach for four years in your original TFA placement city, then one more year in another city (Denver) at a different ‘bad’ school, then to spend two years getting a master’s degree in computer science, then to spend five years as a software engineer, and then to take a job at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School and then to teach there for ten years, well that is selling out.

Of course I’ve never been ashamed to admit where I teach.  I never wrote an entire post about it because it didn’t seem that interesting, but I mention it when I think it is relevant.  But in this case, the context of the revelation is during my interview on NPRs Tell Me More show.  To hear the show which includes my segment and also TFA’s response, click here.

I’m generally pleased with the way the interview came out.  They actually did a lot of editing.  The actual interview was about three times as long as what you hear.  Some of the editing was a bit strange to me, including cutting some sentences off midway and even cutting out the single word ‘poverty’ a few times, right from the middle of a sentence.  But still, the general intent of what I was trying to convey was accurate.

At the end of the interview, the host asked me, basically, if I was a ‘credible’ expert since I don’t teach at a ‘bad’ school anymore.  This question, I’ll admit, caught me a bit off guard.  With a few minutes of thought, I could have answered much better.  The best thing I could have said, I think, is that it is ironic that we are in a country where the Secretary of Education has no classroom experience and people shaping public policy, like Michelle Rhee, have two or three years of experience, so with five years teaching in ‘bad’ schools I’m way ahead of the game.  I didn’t have a few minutes so I started explaining why I teach at a ‘good’ school instead of a ‘bad’ one.  The quote that really got this blogger excited was:

”Its partly because I don’t think I have the energy right now to do it you know with my family and all that”

He then concludes:

The somehow undiscovered point underlying the tension between his pontifications and his practices is that for teachers, unfortunately, achieving dramatic results in low income areas all but precludes any semblance of a life outside your career. TFA doesn’t rest on college grads being better than trained professionals. It rests on them being capable of committing the absolutely unreasonable amount of time necessary to achieve results. Weirdly, that’s enough.

As others might think the same thing when hearing this, I thought I’d respond here, to clear things up.

It is true that if you have a family it is very difficult to spend your nights calling parents as part of your classroom management strategy and that most young TFAers generally have the time and energy for this.  And it is true that if I were to teach at a ‘bad’ school, it would require that I spend extra time and energy doing this.  But this does not mean that TFAers are the only people that have the time and energy to teach at the ‘bad’ schools.

You see, when I said that I don’t have the energy, I was not speaking for all experienced teachers, but just for myself.  There are many veteran teachers who are very effective without needing to do all that calling in the evening.  I’m not one of those veterans, and this is something I’ve written about in my first book, Reluctant Disciplinarian.

I freely admit that discipline does not come naturally to me.  Yes, I can do it when I have to, but it is hard for me.  Even though an outsider might not have noticed this if they watched me teach in my second through fifth year, where I had a silent classroom, that required an intense concentration for me.  For most veteran teachers who have longevity in ‘bad’ schools, discipline comes more naturally to them.

Then, to make matters worse, because of my horrific first year, I ‘needed’ to have complete control of my class after that.  Perhaps if my first year was better, I would be the kind of teacher who would be OK with a little noise when students are working, as long as it is pretty quiet.  But since I was obsessed with never having to yell ever again in the classroom, my tolerance for noise was unrealistically low.

So when you put together a natural inclination to be a ‘softy’ with a need to have absolute control, you have a situation where someone’s career at a ‘bad’ school isn’t going to be that long.

So a school ideally has veteran teachers who don’t mind a little noise and for whom discipline comes more naturally than it does for me.  It is OK that these teachers don’t have the energy and time to spend the evenings calling parents since they don’t ‘need’ to make so many calls at night, as I did.  Now, if they can’t find enough people like that, then I do think a few ‘appropriately’ trained TFAers (assuming those TFAers didn’t just replace experienced teachers) can be good for that school.  Having a few young go-getters arriving at school at 6:00 AM and leaving at 6:00 PM can send at least a subliminal message to the older teachers to be more ‘relentless.’

In 2001 when I decided that I did not like being a software engineer, I took a job training teachers for the New York City Teaching Fellows.  Right after 9/11 happened, a teacher at Stuyvesant, which was right next to ground zero, resigned because he was concerned about the air quality in the school.  Stuyvesant needed a teacher and they contacted me so I took a long term substitute position.  I was not planning to teach there for a long time, just enough to figure out what I really wanted to do.  I admit that I felt a bit funny about teaching at Stuyvesant, at first, like I was selling out.  But just as I had an incorrect stereotype about what my ‘bad’ school would be like in Houston, I was wrong about what I expected at Stuyvesant.  I thought that Stuyvesant would be very easy for me.  The kids would sit there and take notes and study and do all their homework all the time.  And while it did turn out to be less stressful for me since in class there are few discipline problems, I learned that teaching is never ‘easy.’  As good as my students are, it is still tough when I try to push them with something extra challenging.  Like students everywhere, they don’t like being taken out of their comfort zones.  All in all, I don’t feel that different when I’m teaching at Stuyvesant than when I taught in Houston.  But I do feel like I don’t need absolute silence anymore and though I do bring work home with me, it is mostly grading and planning and not parental phone calls for discipline problems.

At Stuyvesant High School, 30% of the students qualify for free lunch and 12% for reduced lunch.  Though these numbers are lower than many schools in New York City, with 3,300 students, that means that we have 1,000 students with free lunch.  Many schools in New York City don’t have that many students in their entire school.  And though the students at Stuyvesant have ‘tested in,’ they still have many of the problems that other kids their age have.

I think that my unique perspective having taught at the ‘worst’ and also the ‘best’ schools in the country gives me even more credibility than if I only taught at the ‘bad’ schools.  For instance, when I hear a politician or a TFA alum who has become an education ‘leader,’ say that all we need are higher expectations and more rigor and the students will rise to meet them, I have to laugh.  Even at Stuyvesant High School where the students are, on average, very motivated with a lot of parental support, they often fall apart when I try to make things too difficult.  So if it isn’t so easy to just ‘increase rigor’ at Stuyvesant, how will it be easy anywhere else?  I also have gotten to see the limit of the ability of schools to overcome ‘out of school factors.’  Just like all schools, we are not able to ‘fix’ every problem that students have outside school.  As a result, there are kids who don’t make it through.  We have a great staff, including great guidance counselors, but we are not ‘Superman.’

Well, I hope now that I have explained myself, you will continue to read my blog for my opinions about the issues around ed reform.

And I hope you’ll forgive me for teaching at a good school.

9 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing. Part of my own personal goal is to gather insights from the good, the bad, and the ugly of schools running the gamut of traditional public, charter, and private. I don’t think it’s time-effective to do this by teaching two yrs at each type, but experience examining each type of school seems like a smart move, and it looks like you’ve done that.

    Furthermore, I’d actually argue a bit to the opposite extreme. TFAers who only experience failing schools also run the risk of putting on blinders. There are good things happening in “bad” schools just as their are bad pockets in “good” schools. AAAANNNNDDD it isn’t always the fault of the teachers.

  2. Horatio

    I am a veteran teacher (low-income rural Southern high school) and one thing I have learned is that parents don’t want you to bother them over issues that they perceive as petty.
    They also appreciate a quick response to any inquiry they initiate.
    I think (can’t prove) that the immediate resort to a parent call communicates a sense of desperation on the part of the teacher. So my practice is to be sparing in my phone calls. Works for me.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Good point. It wasn’t really the ‘quantity’ of calls (I’m not sure how many I made each week, but it wasn’t excessive), but it was the ‘quality’ and the fact that I needed to make them or I couldn’t enjoy my evening and rest.

  3. Emmanuel Parello

    Very good point about the extra knowledge that your experience of having taught in multiple environments gives you. One of the unexpected things that happened to me since I quit TFA after my first year was that I became a substitute in LA Unified for a year and a half, working in dozens of schools, a student teacher in two different schools, and a language teacher in three different Japanese public schools. It’s opened my eyes a lot to have seen so many different schools and how they operate.

  4. yoteach

    I appreciate the response. A couple things of I wanted to emphasize though. While I am not sure why Michelle brought up your teaching position, I found it interesting not because you now ought to be labeled a sellout (which of course you’re not), but rather because I found that decision to be in tension with your beliefs about TFA. You say it was a personal decision for you, but surely you’ve seen that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. I teach at a relatively undemanding and unsuccessful charter school, and all the best teachers (that I would look to as mentor teachers) are leaving to go to nearby suburban schools. This is totally understandable: many are looking to start families or have already started them, and can longer commit the time needed to be successful here. Of course TFA isn’t the only source of energetic young people with an abundance of time, but its certainly one source. I would love for you to devote more time on your blog to how this tension can be reconciled. You can list reforms in education that could ease the workload on teachers, but unfortunately many of them cost money and have little likelihood of coming into fruition any time soon. Sure there are some teachers who have that talent and can teach in low-income schools their whole lives, but I think we need to acknowledge that without dramatic changes that will be a small subset of teachers.

    Finally, I’m also curious about your use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe different schools.

  5. Amy

    Gary, I don’t feel a teacher who transfers to a ‘good’ school should feel like or be labeled as a sellout. Let’s be honest, you are still providing a needed service to public-school students who come from all walks of life. As you pointed out, these students are not necessarily privileged.

    As someone who has taught at both a high-needs and a specialized NYC high school, I can tell you that they are both challenging places to work just in different ways. Anyone who thinks teaching at a ‘good’ school is a cakewalk doesn’t understand the nuances of teaching in that environment. In fact, I would even go further and say they don’t understand what teaching is about at all.

  6. So as one of those teachers who has put in the years in high-needs schools, the problem for me is that TFA’s model makes my workload less sustainable.

    CMs come to school sites desperately undertrained, and I have to train them on the fly. If I don’t, the problems in their classrooms impact the school as a whole. They don’t stay for more than two years though, so the training is a constant burden. Moreover, the turnover makes it difficult to make long-term plans for the site, and reduces our institutional memory.

    Families of children at my school rarely have much reason to trust the education system. They are not going to invest emotional energy building relationships with a revolving cast of interns. Not only does this complicate the CMs lives, it means I need to work extra to build those relationships – and they matter. The teacher who is a known veteran and ally benefits from parent buy-in, improved authority and management skill schoolwide, and knowledge of the strong and robust family trees that thrive in urban neighborhoods (I know just which cousin to call when I haven’t seen a child in a few days and mom’s phone is disconnected).

    It’s also frustrating that TFA does not use some of its enormous endowment and political power to push for some of those “reforms in education that could ease the workload on teachers”. Sure, the things that make my job more sustainable – adequate supplies, smaller class sizes, a full work year with no furlough days – are expensive. But if TFA wanted, it could be a huge driver for some lasting reforms that would encourage veteran teachers to stay.

    Instead, TFA – and its alumni who join education reform movements – push for ever more short-term teachers, larger class sizes, and smaller retirement funds. These are things that make my job less manageable and make me more likely to head to a school with fewer needs.

    It also pushes the idea that superhuman effort and time are what makes a successful teacher. They’re not; I teach better for not being at school all day and night. Moreover, investing the years means the veteran teaches better with less time – we’ve done the prep work. I am an enormously successful teacher, and I don’t need to put in tens of extra hours weekly in my classroom. I do need to put in extra hours because of the high staff turnover TFA drives, and I get the bonus of hearing how it would be better if all the veterans like me became young, truly committed saviors. That’s offensive and frustrating.

    In terms of the post as a whole, I see that the strategy of being transparent about one’s job successfully confused legions of CMs. Good to know.

  7. I wonder whether you agree with this idea: When you teach at a “good” school, you get to focus much more on subject matter (without gimmicks, fads, and distractions) than you might otherwise. That in itself is worth it.

    By this I don’t mean that teachers at “good” schools are abstract, aloof scholars with no concern for the students as people, or that teachers at “bad” schools lack intellectual interest. No, no, no! What I mean is that when I look at the Stuyvesant English curriculum, it makes me drool. You can see immediately what they’re teaching, and it’s unapologetically good stuff.

    In a “bad” school, the focus is not on the literature itself but rather on the strategies–plus, there’s much more pressure to throw in fancy-sounding things like multimedia global interactive blogging experiences regardless of their pertinence to the subject. There’s much more peripheral “stuff” that teachers have to do that doesn’t get to the essence of things. And I’m not even talking about phone calls to parents; I’m talking about charts on the wall, “differentiated” instruction, individualized learning goals, data collection galore, curriculum upheaval, and so forth.

    I know this isn’t entirely realistic, but I have dreamt now and then (with some basis) that if “bad” schools could shed some of their extraneous activity and focus more on subject matter, they would offer more intellectual reward and less exhaustion–even to a small degree.

    I would be interested in hearing your take on this.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Diana,
      Yes, I agree, it is not just about not having to call parents at night, or writing discipline referrals. At Stuyvesant, I probably spend just as much time writing college recommendation letters, but those are a lot more pleasant to write. I know the English department does a lot of great things. They even have a course in existentialism. For me, I’ve gotten to teach a 9th grade course called ‘math research’ where I can choose topics that are non-traditional and that have a lot of opportunity to really spark a lot of thinking and analysis. I do think that if I got to teach a course like that at a ‘bad’ school, it would be something that the kids would really like. Certainly better than mindless test prep. In a sense, this is what the reformers might be getting at when they talk of the need for more ‘rigor’ though the way that it gets implemented will just be a more difficult multiple choice standardized test!
      Gary

About this Blog

By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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