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:
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.
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.