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.