Aug 10 2012

How many things wrong with this first day?

Today I noticed this tweet from TFA:

This struck me, instantly, as a very unwise thing to say in a first day of school pep talk.  The link took me to this post by a very good new blogger.

Since this was seen as worthy of tweeting to TFA’s 70,000 followers, many of which are likely first year CMs who have not yet had their first day, I thought it would be irresponsible for me not to write about why I think this was not the best thing to do.

Back when my blog was mostly about teaching advice, I wrote this post called ‘Why you should NOT make a big inspirational speech on the first day.’  More recently, I wrote this article for Educational Leadership Magazine about the danger of making mistakes.

There are different levels of mistakes, and certainly this one is not, by any means, catastrophic.  But when little mistakes add up, they might hit a ‘tipping point.’  My purpose, here, is NOT to ridicule this new corps member.  My hope is that my analysis of what he describes in his first day can be instructive to others (and to him) and help them all have better first years.  Now I also don’t want to make anyone paranoid.  You are going to make some mistakes, and there is no way around it.  If you try to overthink everything and never trust your instincts you will be too tentative to be respected, so it is, I know, a tough balance.

But when TFA tweets this quote as a model of what you should say to your classes, I get inspired to speak up, so here I will.

When I was a kid, I was very good at those ‘Find all the things wrong with this picture’ games (are you surprised?)

I just have a knack for seeing mistakes.  This makes me a very annoying person to be married to, but it makes me good at editing and also good and identifying constructive criticism for organizations like TFA and for people, like the author of the post and other new teachers.

Here is an excerpt from the blog:

I was Mr. Goodier, 7th grade writing teacher. I clapped my hands. I bounded around. I slapped kids backs and I wore a huge grin. I was loud and articulate. Kids listened to me. Other teachers smiled at me. I fed off my own energy. I belong here. I can do this.

First hour began twenty minutes late because it took so long to get everyone through the detectors. I shook every kids hand as they walked in through my door. Once everyone was in, I shut the door, walked to the front, and looked out at my kids and their grubby, expectant faces.

“Good morning class. My name is Mr. Goodier and you are going to be the best 7th grade writers in the state of Oklahoma. In 274 days, you will be taking the writing test that will prove to you, me, your parents, your school, and the whole state that you are the best. I’m extremely excited for that day, but we’ve got to do a lot of hard work to get there.”

This first mistake I see is that he “slapped kids backs.”  I would advise all new teachers not to touch kids, especially middle school kids, in any way on the first day.  There is an invisible boundary between the teacher and the students, and it is good to maintain that.  When the teacher initiates a back slap on the first day, it bursts that barrier.  Though you might not think you want that barrier since it will be more ‘real’ without it, the barrier goes the other way too, and kids might feel a bit more intimidated by you (a good thing for the first day of 7th grade) if you are not so informal with your touching.

The second ‘mistake’ (not everyone will agree with me on this) is to shake every kids hand on the way into the room.  I can definitely see the rationale behind this.  But I think it is risky and for any middle school teacher who read the classic book ‘Beyond Survival — How to thrive in middle and high school for new and improving teachers’ by me (Amazing that TFA does not even have it on a recommended reading list.  It really would help the new CMs and is not ‘anti-TFA’ at all), would know that it is all about minimizing risk in the beginning.  I just don’t know if what you gain from shaking the hand of every kid as they enter the class outweighs what you potentially lose.  With middle schoolers, especially, classroom management is a mind game.  Being mysterious is a good bluff since you are holding a pair of threes.

But the third, and biggest, mistake — and the one that TFA felt was such a good example of Teaching As Leadership principles #1 and #2, ‘Set Ambitious Goals For Student Achievement’ and ‘Invest Students and Families in Working Hard to Achieve the Goals’ — he says “you are going to be the best 7th grade writers in the state of Oklahoma. In 274 days, you will be taking the writing test that will prove to you, me, your parents, your school, and the whole state that you are the best.”

Maybe I am hyper-critical and overreact to something like this, but I don’t advise new teachers to say something like this.  First of all, it is a lie.  The students are not going to be the best 7th grade writers in the state of Oklahoma.  They will improve at writing.  Hopefully they will learn to enjoy writing, but the kids know that it is quite unlikely that they will be the BEST 7th grade writers, so some kids are already thinking “this guy is a liar.”  That is not a good way to start.  Kids have been lied to before with new teachers making promises (maybe even other TFAers) and they don’t appreciate it, and might even get apprehensive when they hear something far fetched like this.  Also, why is that the goal, to be the BEST?  Is it really a competition?  Finally, there is a mention already of the state test.  Is it really necessary to bring up the test so early?  Is the goal to pass the test or is it to learn to be better writers?  The kids do not need to be worrying about the test already.

OK, so maybe you’re thinking that for a pep talk, it doesn’t have to be so literal.  What’s the harm if the kids think that the teacher has such high expectations for them?  Well, one thing is that at the end of the year when some kids surely don’t pass the state test, despite maybe really improving their writing and learning to like writing too, well, then those kids might see themselves as failures as they remember, deep in their subconscious, about the promise of the first day and the implication that being the BEST is all that counts.

Anyway, I’m sure to take some slack for ‘picking on’ this vulnerable new CM when I am in fact just picking on the very invulnerable PR machine of TFA.

38 Responses

  1. Julia

    Could you elaborate on the point about not shaking their hands?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Shaking hands is a bit too ‘familiar’ for me. Seems like you are trying to be a buddy, even if the intent is to show the kids you respect them. It is pretty unusual for a teacher to do this, so it also makes kids think they are dealing with a newbie.

      • R

        FYI: With the increasing popularity of Teach Like A Champion, the handshake is becoming more and more common among first-year teachers. In TNTP’s pre-service training (for their “fellows” in various cities) “threshold” – aka “Technique 41,” aka the handshake at the door – is prioritized under the umbrella of “fast start skills.” It is deemed one of many ways to “set and maintain high behavioral expectations.” Just in case you were interested…

        I don’t like it, either. I think it feels excessively formal, though, rather than familiar.

      • Rachel

        Plus, you’re totally setting yourself up for a power struggle when a student ignores your outstretched hand.

        • Megan H

          Rachel- excellent point!

      • I think handshaking norms vary from community to community. Where I live now shaking hands with the students every day would be really awkward culturally. We do shake hands sometimes when coming to an agreement or reconciling after behavioral incident. I think it is about knowing the people you are dealing with.

    • Sorry if this has been brought up already, but especially if you’re a cultural outsider (as most TFA teachers are), it’s a HUGE violation to force a student to touch you. I can understand if its part of the school culture, like at a KIPP or boarding school. I also can see it if you’ve established yourself and your reputation is known around the school. But I don’t think the “force kids to shake your hand” crowd understands the underlying message that compelling a group of minority children to touch an unknown white adult sends.

      • Gretel

        Good point, Jason. When I taught in a really culturally diverse school in Brooklyn, the handshake would’ve been really problematic because there were students who were raised not to touch members of the opposite gender.

  2. skepticnotcynic

    Gary,

    If TFA listened to your sage advice we would have significantly more humble and productive corps members. Ignoring you is akin to ignoring a good parent’s advice. You know deep down they are right, but your ego and idealism gets in the way of reason and you eventually fail.

    TFA hasn’t failed yet, but they are certainly moving in that direction. They would be a much more respected organization beyond those who drink their Kool-Aid, if they realized that authenticity always trumps politics and corporate speak. It remains to be seen whether they will reflect on the damage they are currently inflecting on this country’s educational system, so they can improve their standing among educators who devote their lives to working in schools.

  3. yoteach

    Gary,

    I know you think your being at least slightly ironic about terming your own book as “classic” and getting on TFA’s back for not recommending it (among the thousand other teacher advice books), but its a tad more persuasive to reference arguments made by people who don’t share your name, especially since there are SO MANY books that flatly disagree with your hand-shaking argument. Do any other published authors agree with you? Your self-reference implies that the answer is no. If that’s true, then at least make your case a bit more persuasively then just saying that your book makes this argument.

    Also, stay focused. It very much does come across like your point is to make fun of this CM when you title the post “How many things wrong with this first day?” and decide to pick apart other innocuous and common-place parts of their first day. If your post is about simplified/kitsch/aggravating things the TFA PR machine vomits out over twitter then focus it around that.

    Finally, what is your opinion then on ambitious growth goals, rather than proficiency goals. If he said “we are going to work to grow two years as writers,” would you be more amenable?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      My book says nothing specifically about shaking hands, but has the general advice to avoid taking risks and to really weigh out the pros and cons before making the decision to do something like that. If a book on teaching doesn’t remind people of that, then it really forgot something important.

      Anyone who has struggled teaching middle school (as I did and most people teaching middle school, though not all people) knows that a 7th grade class is a bit like a wild bull. Individually the kids might be sweet kids, but together them become a monster that can gorge you. I am not trying to be dramatic here. You make too many small mistakes and the class is trampling you and then you end up quitting and maybe in a mental hospital for a bit, as some unfortunate TFAers have gone. (Not me! I self-treated my PTSD by keeping a journal.)

      And, no, you should never tell your class that they will grow two years as writers. Not really possible to do, and also not possible to prove, so don’t tell me you know someone who did that.

      Saying that we’re going to improve our writing skills is fine though.

    • skepticnotcynic

      How can you measure whether someone has grown two years in writing? Clearly, you are not an English teacher.

      • yoteach

        6+1 traits writing rubric…or any other writing rubric aligned to writing standards at each grade level.

        • skepticnotcynic

          Is that the best you can do yoteach, a rudimentary rubric? I bet you haven’t taught more than 2 years.

          • yoteach

            Because only first year teachers are silly enough to use a rubric to try to measure their students’ progress! Do you really think many veterans don’t value (good) rubrics for writing? But you do a great job of embodying the defeatist attitude that we have no possible way of measuring student growth. This is why people don’t listen to you.

        • nonTFAtxteacher

          Grading a writing piece is all subjective.

        • I am pretty familiar with 6 +1 traits and I don’t remember it being grade-leveled. They’re attributes of what constitutes good writing at any level. The level of the writing has more to do with sentence complexity, the vocabulary used, and the level of nuance of the content of the piece. I guess you could Fleishman-Kincaid test the students’ assignments for the former two attributes, but that seems like a fairly meaningless measure of how much progress someone has made as a writer.

    • nonTFAtxteacher

      Therein lies the horribleness of TFA, where you mention, “we are going to work to grow two years as writers.” Why does it have to be 2 years? Why don’t you want to stay longer? You are already letting people know that you don’t want to teach after 2 years. BRAVO, TFA. Another CM already wanting to leaving after 2 years. I hope your students are failing or struggling to keep up, you yuppie.

      • I think the intent here was not a reference to the two-year commitment but rather the possibility that students will be more than one year behind what is standard skill-wise for their grade level.

        As for your last sentence… a teacher wishing that on any students, those of TFA corps members or not, is a sad statement that disregards what teachers all are (or should be) here for: the students. Your us vs. them mindset might satisfy a feeling of superiority for you, but it certainly isn’t helping anyone else.

  4. Seeking reasonable dialogue

    “But when TFA tweets this quote as a model of what you should say to your classes, I get inspired to speak up, so here I will.” Tweets are not doctrine, or training, but 140-character snippets. Did it ever occur to you that a tweet is not the full picture?

    • Gary Rubinstein

      TFA tweets are extremely strategically thought out. Of course they think this is an appropriate thing to say to a class on the first day. It fits in with the whole movie teacher / superhero thing.

  5. Cal

    I read that post and had the same reaction, particularly about the prediction. Does it ever occur to people that many others have absolutely no interest in being good, much less great, writers? I mean, never mind that it’s a lie. What idiot thinks that such statements will inspire more than 10% of the students?

  6. James

    Gary, I taught sixth grade and totally agree with you about shaking hands — this is something that MANY CMAs/staff encourage at Institute, but probably in error.

    A good middle ground — because there is value in being the sort of ‘Wal-Mart greeter’ (e.g. loss-prevention/my eyes are watching you person) at the door — would be to stand at the door (with one’s back to the wall and one’s eyes to the room) nodding, perhaps a calm, restrained, good morning.

    Handshakes won’t magically make kids respect you…and not shaking their hands won’t magically make the kids think you’re some sort of evil jerk. It’s all neutral.

    I’m scared, though, that — based on the fact that I was Mr. Goodier in sixth grade five years ago — he is going to have one horrible year after the honeymoon period ends.

    He needs to stop the backslapping, stop the hand clapping, stop the circus antics, and be a tough-but-respectful junior high school teacher.

    Mr. Goodier, if you’re reading this comment, trust me, listen to Gary.

  7. CY

    I agree with you on many points. I really feel strange about the handshake thing. I definitely don’t do it. It seems so unnatural to me.
    I also would advise new CMs not to smile on the first day. The first week, really. I’m not going to say don’t smile until Christmas, but you can show you care through other ways during that first week. You have to think, “what do I want them to think about me after the first day?” My answer is that I care and that I mean business. Smiling doesn’t convey either of those messages. Really, you show your kids you care by keeping control of your class.

  8. Dufrense

    I greet my students (11th grade) at the door the first day with a quick “Good morning” and then tell them their seat assignment.

    I’m not much for inspirational speeches in general–and definitely not the first day. I just go over my rules/procedures and syllabus and pass out my supply list. Nothing flashy.

    In 13 years of teaching, I don’t think I’ve ever managed the “don’t smile until Christmas” business. I’m cordial but firm in enforcing rules–I’d say I didn’t begin to feel good about my classroom management until well into my second year of teaching.

  9. skepticnotcynic

    I think most first year corps members have difficulty finding a balance between coming off too strict or too lax early in the school year, I know I did. For most, this is inevitable. Most corps members do not have a lot of experience raising children. They often try to mimic the world they were raised in, emulating parents or other teachers they had.

    Finding out and discovering your approach towards managing children’s behavior is something that takes a lot of practice and trial and error. Most corps members have also not fully developed as adults, so they will come across as immature at times around their students. Many will struggle, so they will want approval from their students, which leads to a more permissive style of teaching, a disaster in your first year as it leads to boundaries being crossed and kids thinking you are their friend.

    The opposite of this is an authoritarian teaching style, which allows you to be in control through fear, but many students growing up in this generation and especially many of the students you teach, who have had no discipline or structure in their lives, will not be able to handle this style and will in response give you problems with the occasional outburst or F#*k u. Also, many of your more timid and insecure students will not feel comfortable in your classroom, and this will prevent many of them from reaching their full potential.

    The coveted authoritative teaching style is somewhere in the middle of these two. In my opinion, if you’re not a natural it takes at least a couple years to find this middle ground. Sadly, the naivette of this corps member, no fault to him, will lead to a rough landing after the honeymoon period is over. I’m less concerned about his shaking of the hands, but his inspirational speech was over the top, inauthentic, and highly unnecessary. He will most likely have trouble recovering from that rookie teaching mistake once the honeymoon period ends.

    TFA needs to stop setting these first year middle school/high school teachers up for failure. I know they advocate setting big goals, but when you attract ambitious students to the corps who have not failed very often in their own personal goals, they tend to set unrealistic goals for their classroom. There are hundreds of variables you cannot control as a classroom teacher and until you reach this epiphany, you will not be a very productive teacher.

    • I’m hesitant to say that many of the students I teach (or students like mine elsewhere) have had “no discipline or structure”. I find that the vast majority of my students have experienced both discipline and structure – but it may not have looked the way I think discipline and structure look, and it probably didn’t come from someone like me or in the way I’m asking for it.

      • skepticnotcynic

        Thanks for making note of that, I meant to say “some.” You are right, from my experience, the majority of my students have at least had some structure or discipline in the home.

  10. Terry

    A must read for all:

    In contrast to such “success,” the TFA insurgency has failed to dent educational inequality. This comes as no surprise to anyone with the faintest grasp of the tight correlation between economic and educational inequality: TFA does nothing to address the former while spinning its wheels on the latter. In her writings, nowhere does Kopp reflect upon the patent ridiculousness of her expectation that loads of cash donated by corporations that exploit inequalities across the world—such as Union Carbide and Mobil, two of TFA’s earliest contributors—will help her solve some of the gravest injustices endemic to American society. Kopp shows some awareness of the absurdities of her own experiences—including a “fundraising schedule [that] shuttled me between two strikingly different economic spheres: our undersourced classrooms and the plush world of American philanthropy”—but she fails to grasp that this very gap is what makes her stated goal of equality unachievable. In short, Kopp, like education reformers more generally, is an innocent when it comes to political economy. She spouts platitudes about justice for American children, but rarely pauses to ask whether rapidly growing inequality might be a barrier to such justice. She celebrates twenty years of reform movement success, but never tempers such self-congratulatory narcissism with unpleasant questions about why those who have no interest in disrupting the American class structure—such as Bill Gates and the heirs to Sam Walton’s fortunes, by far the most generous education reform philanthropists—are so keen to support the TFA insurgency. Kopp is a parody of the liberal do-gooder.

    http://jacobinmag.com/winter-2012/teach-for-america/

  11. mches

    I was guilty of this last year for my math classes (HS). What’s worse is that it was my second year (but first year of TFA). I don’t know tht it was disastrous. We made some good progress, but the opening day speech was pointless and not nearly as valuable as developing good relationships with my students over the course of the year.

    • I don’t do the opening day speech thing. It’d feel pompous to me in my circumstances, since it’s a small community here and almost all the students already know me from someplace or another, and vice versa. I do have the students do self-examination and then tell me about their goals (personal and academic, long-term and short-term) and we discuss what our school can do to contribute to their efforts to reach those goals.

      I value intellectual rigor in all the subject areas, and I both push the students hard academically and attempt to open their eyes to the wealth of paths they can choose in life. But ultimately I have come to believe that I’m here to help them succeed in reaching THEIR dreams, rather than in reaching my dreams for them.

  12. daltongoodier

    Mr. Rubinstein,
    Mr. Rubinstein,

    First off, I would like to think you for the way you handled my blog post. Not once in reading your response did I feel belittled or disrespected and for that I appreciate you. I’m a big fan of the work that you do- sometimes I agree with you and sometimes I don’t, but I feel like we are both passionate about the same thing, which is helping students achieve, both in our classrooms and in the larger context of the American educational system.
    For myself as well as many (all?) other teachers, I’m in the classroom because of my own particular experiences and strengths. I grew up playing competitive soccer and I’ve always been someone who creates and develops strong relationships. For better and for worse, these two ideas have definitely been on display in my classroom thus far.
    At the beginning of every year, my soccer team gathered together and declared our goal. It didn’t matter if we were loaded or if we were rebuilding; we were going to win state. Every lap, every practice, every game was approached with one thing in mind: moving towards the state tournament (SWBAT win state?). Did we get better every year? Absolutely. Did we win the state championship? Not always. But every year felt like a success because we worked every single day towards a goal that we cared deeply about.
    I understand what you mean when you reference the pitfalls of making education into a competition. That isn’t the bottom line of my intention. I also understand the dangers of setting kids up for failure. But in my experience, having such a high goal has been a powerful factor, even if that goal isn’t ultimately reached. Shoot for the moon and land among the stars, right?
    In terms of being perceived as too friendly, I appreciate your feedback. I’ve never before heard someone say that shaking hands at the door might not be a great idea but I can definitely understand your reasons for doing so. I was not encouraged or discouraged by TFA to enact this practice but personally thought that it would be a good way to show my students that I am there, present, and that I care for them.
    Building relationships is a huge strength of mine, but it is also something that I know can be a downfall for me. I’m a naturally gregarious person and so I struggle with finding the balance between being an authoritarian in the classroom and gaining investment because I genuinely care about my students.
    As I wrap up my first week of “real” teaching, I look back and see that I made many mistakes. There were planning errors, management errors, administrative errors… woah. But never once did I waver in my commitment to my students. I think that first year CMs get a lot of flak from educators, especially from those who disagree with TFA’s policies. And while my peers and I have huge strides still to make in both our execution and, oftentimes, our mindsets, we care deeply about our cause and our students.
    Again, I thank you for your feedback and for all that you do to advance the dialogue surrounding education in this country. While TFA and myself are not always perfect, we, like yourself and countless others, are deeply committed to our students and want more than anything to see them succeed.

    Sincerely,
    Dalton Goodier

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Dalton,
      Thanks for writing such a thoughtful response. You remind me, and people who read this blog, that though TFA is guilty of many of the things the critics accuse them of, one thing that is NOT true is that a significant percent of the corps members are arrogant and think they are better than the ‘real’ teachers. You really took this critique in a productive way, and I think that this means that you might just overcome the small ‘mistakes’ that I wrote about.

      Shaking hands, like I said, isn’t necessarily a mistake. It likely won’t help much, though. My TFA roommate always shook hands with each kid each day. Other teachers would kid around with him that his class reminded them of the old Looney Tunes cartoon where the wolf and the sheep dog would greet each other in the morning and say ‘morning ralph, morning fred’ and then right after they punched their cards, they started trying to kill each other, and then when the whistle to end the day happened, they stopped their ‘jobs’ and said goodbye cordially to one another.

      I think my friend continued shaking hands after his first year, and second year teachers are able to ‘get away’ with this, even if it is a bit of a mistake.

      The main thing is that you truly contemplate the pros and cons of these decisions, and it seems like you did this and decided to try to use your personal strength in relating to people, even if it might be a bit of a risk. It might pay off. It might just be neutral.

      For me, the ‘invisible barrier’ between me and my students, physically, is important in the beginning, maybe because I was assaulted three times in my first year. So I try not to make it OK to touch me, even for something as simple as a handshake. Often, though, a kid would come up to me and introduce himself on the first day with an outstretched hand. Certainly, then, I would shake the kid’s hand, but do it in a confident, yet guarded, way.

      If it were not for the TFA tweet, I would have probably not commented on your post. I want people to feel comfortable writing their stories on this site, and would not want people holding back because big bad Gary Rubinstein is waiting to pounce. TFA was a bit irresponsible in taking that one quote of yours since it could mislead thousands of others to say this on the first day and those others may not be able to pull it off since they don’t have the background that you do, and it won’t be received in the same spirit in which you meant it.

      Still, I’m glad I got this opportunity to know you a little better. I do hope they gave you the training you and your students deserve over the institute.

      Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

      Gary

    • James

      Dalton,

      Sounds like your kids are very lucky to have such an amazing teacher!

      Just a warning, though — you are indeed in the ‘honeymoon phase’ of the year. Please do a thought experiment for me: consider your methods that you are employing now, and then consider if they are sufficient if your class were to behave 50% (or greater) worse than they are behaving at present.

      Then, you might have an idea of how you need to be thinking for December, January, February.

      I’m not saying that your student behaviour will decline, but it is very likely that will happen — particularly if your students don’t perceive you as ‘tough, but fair’ at the beginning of the year.

      Have you given any consequences out yet? I suggest you start ‘sweating the small stuff’ and show you mean business, even if it makes you feel a bit ‘anal retentive’.

      If you have to start overcompensating later in the year, your kids will perceive you as unfair. If you start dishing out necessary consequences now, it will just be business as usual.

    • salsa

      Mr. Goodier, Best of luck your first year. Look forward to hearig your highs and lows!

  13. skepticnotcynic

    Thanks Dalton for your sincerity,

    We need more committed and idealistic teachers like yourself. I’m always happy to work with corps members who are humble, hard working, and willing to learn. After reading your response, it doesn’t seem like you will have a lot of difficulty building relationships with your kids. Many of your students will gravitate towards your personality, idealism, and youthful energy.

    Be prepared for a roller coaster ride this year, but remember that teaching and learning is a lifelong pursuit, a marathon, not a sprint. Keep your head down this year and learn as much as you can from your kids and the experienced colleagues in your school, even the somewhat sarcastic and skeptical teachers like Gary and myself (not just TFA staffers).

    Great teaching is extremely complex and takes years to master. The more authentic you are with your students and colleagues, the easier it will be to build more lasting and meaningful relationships. Stay hungry and committed to your kids and good luck this year.

  14. salsa

    *hearing

  15. Heather

    One more thing, Gary. Remember what you said in RD about kids losing respect for you as a teacher if you are TOO different from what they expect teachers to be? For instance, in my math methods courses, I was told not to use textbooks, and instead do group problem solving with manipulatives. The problem, though, is that the approach seems weird to kids, and they start thinking you don’t know what you are doing. I think there is a little bit of that in Dalton’s description.

Post a comment

About this Blog

By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

Subscribe to this blog (feed)


Subscribe via RSS

”subscribe

Reluctant Disciplinarian on Amazon

Beyond Survival On Amazon

RSS Feed

Subscribe