Jul 02 2012

Sugar Bugs

Last week I wrote a post entitled ‘The power of negative thinking’ in which I analyzed a video created by a corps member participating in the 2012 Mississippi Delta institute.  I explained in the post that my intention was not to pick on the corps members featured in the video, but to use the video as a way of inferring what sorts of messages are conveyed to the new corps members, directly or indirectly.  My main concern was that TFA seemed to be promoting the myth that the achievement gap was caused by lazy teachers who had low expectations, and can be closed by hard-working teachers with high expectations.  I wasn’t blaming the corps members for believing this.  They were just revealing what they had been taught.  This ‘mindset,’ in my opinion, is counterproductive, as I’ll explain more in this post.

Most of the comments were supportive of what I wrote.  Two of the comments were very defensive and angry.  One even said I should be ashamed of myself.  But the comment that means the most to me is from the creator of the video, who also, I believe, is one of the participants, who wrote:

Hello Gary,
Thanks for your opinions around the video I created. It was requested that I make some edits (you can imagine why) but I wanted to share with you the new link: http://youtu.be/sWaPevJmodo I am working on an “End of Institute” video which will be posted around July 10. Thanks for your insight!

When I saw that the original video had been taken down and replaced with an ‘edited’ version, I thought that I might need to break out the original version which I had downloaded (was that wrong of me to do?) just in case TFA forced them to censor the video.  I was pleased, though, to see that the video was only edited a little.  One of the participants who was singled out in one of the stranger comments was cut from the video completely.  But the part that I wrote about the most was still there, unedited, at least it seemed to me.

So the director of the video (Quite talented, really) was not angry, but actually thanked me twice!  I don’t know that all the participants felt that way (I would like to hear from my main ‘target’ one day), but it did make me feel that my true point was received by at least one of the people involved.

I know there are many TFA critics who are motivated by the ‘harm’ that new TFAers inflict on their first year classes.  Having been a struggling first year TFAer myself, and having studied TFA and education, in general, for 21 years since my own 1991 institute, I’ve come to the conclusion that the poorly trained TFAers, particularly those who teach in high school — as most of these corps members will — are unlikely to do much lasting ‘harm’ to their future students, despite the horrible training.  Though I do think that teaching is very important, and have dedicated my life to it, I think that the ‘impact’ that a teacher has on his/her students’ lives is limited.  I know you got into TFA to ‘make a difference,’ just as I did, but you probably won’t make a giant ‘difference’ one way or the other.  This does NOT mean, though, that you waste your time when you give everything you’ve got to be the best teacher you can for the kids you will teach.  It just means that, in the scheme of things, your impact isn’t as large as you thought it would be.

So, no, the new CMs will likely not do any lasting ‘harm’ to their soon-to-be ‘real’ students.  The lasting ‘harm’ they do, more likely, will be to themselves.

Maybe because the new CMs, back when I started in 1991, were about the same age as my son is now (fifteen months) do I relate to the 2012 corps members.  Maybe because I recently caught up with some of my first year students and realized that my first year damaged me, not them.  Maybe it is because struggling CMs, and even families of CMs who have ended up in mental health facilities after quitting TFA, send me emails all the time when they don’t feel that they have anyone in TFA who will listen to them without blaming them for not being relentless enough and for having high enough expectations.  For whatever reason, I’m feeling particularly protective of the new group of CMs, of whom I know none of them, personally.

A Polaroid picture of me, at my student teaching placement in L.A., summer 1991, with my cooperating teacher and the principal of Henry T. Gage Middle School

My own traumatic first year was surely the turning point in my life.  Whether I’m harboring a giant chip on my shoulder, or if I just really want to prevent others from going through what I did, even I don’t know.  But that year shaped my future and put me on a 21 year path that got me right here, blogging at 1:08 AM after helping my fifteen month old son get back to sleep several times since he started screaming and woke me up at 12:30 AM, also waking up my four year old daughter who also needed help getting back to sleep.

The cryptic title of this post is based on something my daughter recently learned when a dentist was a guest speaker at her daycare.  To encourage her to get enthusiastic about brushing her teeth, the dentist stretched the truth a bit about why we brush.  He said that when you eat sugar, there are tiny ‘sugar bugs’ that go onto your teeth.  They eat all the sugar that is left over and when they finish that, they start eating your teeth which is why you need to brush them away.

I don’t like lying to my daughter, so I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this explanation.  I know it is not that far from the truth and, as a four year old, perhaps this simplification of reality is helpful in its goal of getting her to want to brush her teeth.  If that is the main goal, maybe it has achieved it while bending the truth just enough, but not breaking it.  I’m not sure.

But the big issue, to me, is that there is a big difference between a dentist telling a four year old about sugar bugs while being fully aware that this is a lie, and a dentist saying the same thing while believing it himself.

For TFA I see the ‘lazy teachers with low expectations caused the achievement gap so relentless teachers with high expectations will close it’ lie in a similar way.  What I want to know, though, is whether TFA is the dentist who knowingly lies about sugar bugs or the dentist who truly believes in them.  It makes a big difference since the dentist who believes in sugar bugs is incompetent and can’t be trusted, in general.  My feeling is that TFA is like the dentist who believes in sugar bugs.  They have drunk too much of their own Kool-Aid (which is, of course, loaded with sugar!).

But if the sugar bugs lie causes my daughter to brush her teeth and the ‘low expectations caused the achievement gap’ lie causes the new TFAers to be better teachers, why should it matter whether or not the liars are self-aware?  Well, in the case of the TFA lie, I think that it does not help the new CMs to be better teachers — it makes them worse.  They are that much more likely to make their lessons too difficult and confusing — something that can cause the classes of that teacher in his or her first year to decide to tune out after a week or two.  I don’t know a lot about child psychology, but I think it could be some kind of defense mechanism.  Whatever the reason, teaching over the kids’ heads is a big mistake that can ultimately cause ‘harm’ to the CM who trusted TFA to guide them properly.  And though it might not ‘harm’ the students in a significant way, it won’t help them either.

25 Responses

  1. Meg

    Very interesting post, but I would disagree with you a bit in the biggest consequence of believing the myth that lazy teachers cause the achievement gap. I think the true harm in this myth is that it can prevent CMs from seeking out mentors in veteran teachers in the their school. If CMs are being taught that veteran teachers are complicit to the problem (and to be honest this hasn’t been my experience at all with TFA but I know people who have had this experience), they’re not going to seek out these teachers for advice on planning or management. Furthermore, we run the risk of alienating those veteran teachers in the toughest schools – if a first year teacher was parading around my school with a holier than thou mentality, I’d have no interest in helping him/her either.

    I’ve had a great experience with TFA staff, I had a wonderful MTLD, an outstanding CMA, and what I found to be largely helpful professional development throughout the year. There is, however, nothing more valuable to a first year teacher than the support and expertise of veteran teachers in their building – teachers who know their kids, their administration, and how the school works. If we are sending CMs into schools with a mindset that they do not need this resource, we’re setting them up to fail.

    • James

      Yes, this ‘myth’ made me a bit too cynical, at first, to trust the advice of teachers at my school. Particularly their advice, which Gary now states, about making students feel successful early on in the year with reasonable work.

  2. Duane Swacker

    “But since the Teaching as Leadership first two principles are ‘set big goals’ and ‘invest students and families’”

    This statement is from your post about the video. This whole “leadership” crap and that is what it is has been gaining traction since the 90s. First with the administrators and now with this. Drives me crazy. I am not a “leader”. I am a teacher. A true teacher doesn’t “lead” but helps guide the students through their own learning process to help them learn the subject matter (is it even still called that?).

    No, I refuse to be demeaned by someone calling me a “leader”.

    • Well-said. I always disliked that terminology. I guess it fits into the “hero teacher” narrative TFA likes, as well as into their long-term plan to move as many TFA alumni into “leadership” positions as possible. I don’t like it, though. When it comes to my students’ learning, I’m not the captain, I’m the navigator.

  3. yoteach

    Gary, I’m really happy that at least one of the students was able to reflect upon your feedback in a very constructive way. But I still believe you are straw-manning the TFA model by implying (also in your comments on the last post) that because TAL includes “set big goals” and “invest students and families” that TFA assumes that failure (of CMs or other teachers) automatically gets traced back to those two pillars. The most important skill I learned at institute was how to self-reflect, diagnose my problems as either an execution, planning, or investment problem. That’s why continually increase effectiveness is another pillar.

    Furthermore, TFA certainly does not operate on the assumption that “lazy teachers with low expectations caused the achievement gap so relentless teachers with high expectations will close it” (And I think you extrapolated the former based on the logic of the latter). I believe TFA instead has this underlying assumption: with the right mindsets and support, any teacher CAN be successful. Only a negligible percent of people are literally unable–despite their effort and reflection–to eventually become successful in their two years. I’d be more curious on your thoughts on this more nuanced (but perhaps still problematic) assumption than on the other obviously silly one. The converse is also certainly contentious but worth exploring: if TFA believes all teachers with the right mindsets can be successful, then they trace the achievement gap, at least to some degree, to teachers either not having the right mindsets or not having the proper support. I would offer the following as mindsets that TFA might think are necessary for closing the achievement gap: continual self reflection (using TAL the right way), not assuming things are out of our locus of control, willingness to go above and beyond when necessary (whether it be nightly phone class, home visits, sixteen hour days, etc.), desire to learn from those around us, and a belief that all students are capable of excelling regardless of their background. Anyways, most of these are summed up in TFA’s “Diversity Competencies,” something they have been stressing a lot the best few years.

    • Linda

      If these are TFA beliefs and TFA has been around for about 20 years, why haven’t they already closed the achievement gap?

      If the TFA stars stay longer in the classroom (everyday teaching children, not moving on to “reform”) wouldn’t that have more of an impact on student learning? From my reading, TFA seems to only use standardized test scores, to tout the success of their teadhers over the other kind.

      The problem is schools have way too many chiefs and experts and not enough who actually do the real work. With TFA types leaving every 2-3 years, it doesn’t help build a stable teaching force in any school.

    • Wess

      Yo, Teach! This is a LOVELY addition to the conversation. I think these are the truest things I’ve read about TFA on the internet ever. Thank you for these thoughts. I wish I’d read this before writing my related post: http://wessie.teachforus.org/2012/07/02/what-i-wish-id-taught-myself-at-institute-or-kool-aid-and-jaded-are-not-the-only-options/

      My only immediate additions would be the following. First, those two assumptions aren’t all that different and new CMs are vulnerable to equating the two. I don’t think we do a very good job of making sure the second, and not the first, is what they come away with.
      Second, I definitely think the second assumption is also problematic, because effort and reflection are not the only two ingredients needed to make students succeed. This assumption doesn’t carry the temperance of acknowledging that teachers aren’t the only ones standing in the way of student success–and with TFA’s focus on transformational classrooms, it leads to the belief that one amazing teacher for one period a day is all a kid should need to beat the odds.

      Gary! This is my new favorite Rubenstein post!
      But I’m also uncomfortable with letting people believe things that aren’t 100% true–I think honesty always, always leads to the best outcomes, and I’d rather we trust our four-year olds, and our new teachers, with the truththewholetruthandnothingbutthetruth.
      I actually don’t think most TFA staff members truly believe lazy teachers caused the achievement gap (I think they generally believe Yoteach’s modification). But I think a lot of people outside of education, or in education policy, do. In the long run, it’s not what TFA actually believes, but this other slightly twisted version, that the public comes away with. I’d rather we assume and publicize something like “the way we do school right now really sucks–but while we’re trying to figure out what works better, teachers are MOST LIKELY to be successful if they hold the following mindsets: (listed at the end of YoTeach’s comment). In the meantime, let’s all figure out how to make it so all teachers actually CAN be successful.”

  4. I’ve worked with TFA math teachers in middle and high schools in NYC (the South Bronx, to be specific) and Detroit. What I’ve seen is that without exception (though my guess is that of course there ARE exceptions I’ve not seen), they struggle mightily with classroom management issues, some to such an extent that they literally wind up out in the hallway in tears multiple times during the year.

    Anyone who finds this fact surprising hasn’t spent time in high-needs classrooms. Even experienced teachers at the elementary school level setting foot into such classrooms for the first time (an experience that may become more and more frequent given current educational politics and economics) are often overwhelmed by the disparity in knowledge and behavior between their previous students and their new charges. And it’s rather doubtful that such teachers aren’t bringing a hell of a lot more to the job than someone with five weeks or even one year of training.

    Somewhere along the way, the better TFA folks learn a bit of modesty and humility, start to realize that they weren’t given quite the tool set they believed they’d gotten from TFA, and then begin the truly hard work. If they’re lucky, they partner with effective mentors, draw upon support from sources besides TFA, and begin to see the dangers of drinking unfiltered TFA Kool-Aid. “No excuses,” “raising expectations,” and other slogans sound great – when you don’t know what you’re talking about. And I definitely believe that many TFA teachers have been led to believe (or gone into the program already believing) that many experienced teachers are lazy and have low-expectations (though of course SOME fit that description), and that coming into the classroom with high expectations (or even great lessons) will magically transform kids who start Kindergarten way behind their more affluent peers in ways that haunt them throughout their K-8 education into college-bound kids who love mathematics (or whatever the subject matter might be).

    • Wess

      ” “No excuses,” “raising expectations,” and other slogans sound great – when you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

      This sums up most of what I’m feeling about the achievement gap lately. I want TFA to educate people about the problem, not just cause them to ignore it.

  5. Gary, just want to reiterate something you touched upon in this post, about how TFA novices will probably “do no harm” “particularly for high school”. I can’t say I agree 100% with this idea–I think the cumulative effect of having multiple beginning teachers is damaging for low-income students. But also, as a special education teacher, I think untrained teachers can do quite a lot of damage to very young or very vulnerable students like students with disabilities. (Although I agree that typically-developing high school students will probably not suffer as much if at all.)

    I would once again plead that TFA stop placing novices in special education placements.

    • Linda

      But that means not placing ANY TFA teachers..they are all novices.

      • Given the lack of training, sounds good to me. No, but I’m just agreeing with Gary that novices at the high school level probably do do less damage than at the early childhood/elementary level or especially in special education.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Katie, I agree that the cumulative effect of a bunch of first year teachers is a problem. Really, there are two types of teachers: first years, and everyone else. There is a big learning curve, which is why we want people to have careers that are more than two years. Of course everyone has to have a first year. Right now, the percent of first year teachers is at an all time high. I’m going to write about that sometime. But the individual high school (or even middle school) teacher, being just one of 8 teachers, won’t do a lot of long term ‘harm,’ I think. With regard to special ed, those kids definitely deserve someone who is trained longer than five weeks. In the institute, at least the year I worked at it, they got 3 hours of training on it. As far as elementary school, I don’t know a lot about it, but I’d think that someone should have a full year of training. What happens with struggling TFAers (of which I was a textbook example) is that they manage to get through the year at a great cost to their physical and mental health. Their inexperience probably does a little ‘harm’ to the kids, but does a lot to themselves. Not sure what we all get out of that, especially if those teachers leave after two years, completely forget how challenging it is to be a teachers, become ‘reformers’ and go around talking about how easy teaching was for them.

      • left TFA, still a teacher

        the special education corps members worry me. There are a lot of legal requirements for special education (more so than gen ed) and I don’t see how someone trained for 5 weeks can fit that bill. Additionally, special education is a huge field that requires immense knowledge of teaching strategies, differentiation, behavior analysis and management, legal documentation and proceedings, etc. I hope TfA members are teaching on the most included end of the spectrum but I imagine that is probably not the case.

      • LG

        Gary, at the elementary level, there are so many developmental disparities even within grade levels that one year wouldn’t cut it. I think what so many here are saying about the TFA principles looking great on paper (but not so much in execution) is right on the mark: Nothing, NOTHING beats experience in the school environment. In my state of NJ, administrators in “typical public schools” are not required to have more than five years of teaching experience before they are eligible to move up to supervisory positions. This creates the potential for many districts to hire woefully under-experienced administrative staff.

        Teachers never stop learning how to do their jobs better–one year of teaching experience is ridiculously too little for any teacher to play a part in solving the problems some of our students face.

  6. Linda

    We need to put the TFA dropouts, who become the self-appointed expert “reformers” (Rhee, Huffman, White, etc) where they don’t harm others, and that would be far away from schools, teachers and children. They are nothing more than profiteering vultures masquerading as advocates for children.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I’m with you. Those ‘reformers’ have the power to do more harm than all the inexperienced TFA teachers put together. I’m really hoping that the next generation of TFA leaders have a more complete view of all the issues involved. Seems like reformers are imploding, so only time will tell.

      • Linda

        They all slither out when there is money to be made or they can create a high paying job for themselves while pretending to care for teahing and learning. Ironic that the high standards they set for us are ones they could never have achieved themselves. Too bad Rhee wasn’t dismissed after the mouth taping incident.

  7. I love this post!! Love it. It’s such an apt analogy, and finally presents Gary as more of a human. Thanks for that.

    As usual, I disagree with plenty, but I think TFA is getting on board with the problem Wess has been talking about for the past two years and you bring up now: mental health. I do think there is a perspective gap, if you will, that is potentially damaging to corps members. This year TFA has trained all staff (moderately, but it’s there) regarding mental health and some options for helping corps members get through Institute and their commitment.

    I do think more awareness of reality could be beneficial when appropriate, but I also have to say that personally I thrive, to a huge degree, on positive thinking and a “fake it til you make it” attitude. Take that with a heaping amount of salt because I’m probably not near the standard, but I think that’s ultimately how TFA sells teaching to CMs and how we sell learning to our kids to a certain extent. I think what it comes down to is an acknowledgement (and maybe we need more direct reference of this) that our CMs are not 4-year-olds, and can determine for themselves their own resources and limits as teachers. I thin the very necessary belief TFA instills and you don’t believe is that it IS possible to be transformational, but you’ve got to believe it for it to happen. And it’s not going to happe for everyone (or most) in a two year TFA commitment. Maybe we need more effective and better trained MTLDs that are equipped to put this in perspective when mental health is an issue, that can be realistic but also relentlessly positive.

    About veterans, I mentioned this in a comment on a previous post or in my own blog somewhere, but I think TFA historically put veterans in an undesirable place of responsibility but hasn’t maintained it. Again, as a CMA in the delta, our school’s Faculty Advisors (vet teachers) are PRIZED by CMs and CMAs alike. This week specifically I have really pushed the CMs in my group to use their FAs as resources to help with management and it’s made a dramatic difference in their success at Institute (and their kids’ results) and I think will heavily influence them to seek out such relationships in their regions.

    Yo teach said “The most important skill I learned at institute was how to self-reflect, diagnose my problems as either an execution, planning, or investment problem” and I am so glad s/he did, because that is how I view my training with TFA, and how I try to guide my CMs at Institute. Not just I a teaching but on a human level, I think TFA teaches a critical thinking methodology that can be applied literally to anything.

    Phew! Great post! There is so much more to respond to… I really appreciate what you write because it genuinely helps me sort out and solidify the things I believe about TFA, education, and myself as a young professional.

  8. Michael L

    For a critical-philosophical perspective on the Kool-Aid ideology, check out the first section of this current TFA-ers post:


  9. veteran

    If everything that is wrong in education is to be blamed on low expectations and ineffective veteran teachers. I wonder how TFA explains kids in preschool? If they haven’t had teachers before who can be blamed for not being school ready or behind?
    Never being read to?
    Not having a structured bed time?
    Not having a heathy diet?
    Not having a stable family structure?
    Does anyone really need to be blamed at all?

    • Linda

      Very good point, but maybe the real purpose is to bolster TFA/Kopp’s reputation while demeaning the lowly public school teacher. But, if TFA has been around for 20 years and their teachers are so amazing, why is there still an achievement gap? Most of these reformer types are mostly spin and not facts.

    • This makes me upset, because I do not think TFA sustains this theory. Again, I prize and depend on veteran teachers for a massive amount of information, guidance, and friendship! Just at Institute, where we train CMs, I hear daily from corps members, “I love my faculty advisor! She saved my life! She taught me this!” etc etc. (FAs are vet teachers who help CMAs coach).

      It makes me genuinely sad that this thought that TFA blames vet teachers is being perpetuated because I have not witnessed it in my time as a CM. Although it may be true for some people, somewhere, I do think it can be applied to the organization as a whole.

      • LG

        I’m not buying it–I think those trained by TFA who claim that veterans are valuable have missed a very huge tenet of the TFA machine. The whole TFA concept of training teachers who will only teach in the short-term demeans the profession as if the bringing in “experts” from other fields and giving them crash courses in teaching somehow provides a better education than training people to be teachers from the get-go. This concept of touting “experts” with little teaching experience perpetuates the idea that “anyone” can teach if they know their content area. For one, no recent college graduate is an expert in his or her own field–being an excellent student or a brilliant person does not an expert make. And as well, teaching is a craft and an art form that requires skill and a thorough understanding of many human processes and nuances. The TFA concept has always struck me as arrogant and misinformed no matter how incredible it may seem to those in the program.

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