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.