A full orchestra has over 100 musicians, each playing their parts to make their music.
Some players, by virtue of their instrument, ‘stand out’ more than others. An example would be the timpanist. If the timpanist was missing, the piece would sound noticeably different compared to if one of the twenty violinists were missing.
Perhaps the timpanists ‘needs’ to stand out. Needs the recognition. Needs to be able to listen to the recording and say “that was me.” Or maybe the timpanist just feels he is part of the orchestra, no better or more important than one of the violinists.
But we can be pretty sure that the violinists are content in their contribution to the orchestra. They chose to be violinists despite the fact that it is unlikely that their individual contributions will often be ‘noticed.’
When I was a new teacher I certainly wanted to be ‘the timpanist.’ I wanted to be able to look at a group of kids at the end of the year and say, definitively, “if I wasn’t here, those kids would not be as well off as they are now.” I don’t know if I would have joined TFA if I thought that I was just going to be one of many violinists who would contribute, but who might not get recognition for what I did.
When I told people what I did, I was careful to say “I’m an inner-city teacher” rather than just “a teacher” since I wanted people to be impressed by my selflessness. BA-BOM BA-BOM. Even when I left teaching after five years, started my second life as a computer programmer, and then was lured back into the classroom six years later, it was to teach at a school that was considered to be one of the best schools in the country. “I’m a teacher,” I’d say, almost begging people to ask “Where?” I suppose I still have the timpani complex that I had when I joined Teach For America twenty-one years ago.
Certainly TFA recruits people with this idea that these kids need you. Even though it isn’t really true — the kids don’t ‘need’ another first year teacher. They need someone with experience. And though you will likely have a good second year, and nearly half stay for a third year — it really doesn’t add up to much since I’ve calculated the ‘average’ length of a TFA career to be between 2.5 and 3 years.
In that short period of time, despite your visions of banging steadily on the timpani, the best you can hope for is to be a violinist. And though the violinists are a bit interchangeable if they do even an OK job, a violinist can stand out by messing up.
And I think this is a good lesson to all the new teachers. You should know what your role is and what your role is not. You are a violinist. You will likely not be noticed on the recording, even if you do your job very well.
In Teach For America jargon, you will likely not make ‘transformational’ change. You will likely not ‘change the life trajectory’ of your students. And that is OK.
I taught for four years in Houston, from 1991-1995. My first year was quite tough, but I’ve come to terms with this and feel now that since I was teaching middle school and only really interacted with each student for about an hour a day, I didn’t do that much damage in that time. Truthfully, I did a lot more damage to myself, still probably suffering a bit of PTSD when I wake up in a cold sweat thinking “I’ve got it! If I switch Jose’s seat with Gabriel’s and Karina’s with Monica’s, then Monica will be a buffer and period four will be OK!” My second, third, and fourth year were in a high school where I built a name for myself and was, I think, very good. My fourth year I was the teacher of the year at my school, which I’m still very proud of. Still, I do not think that I achieved ‘transformational’ change or changed anyone’s ‘life trajectory to and through college.’ That does not mean that I was a bad violinist.
Even in my ‘prime’ I was not the timpanist. I was one of many violin players and I tried to contribute my soft sound to the symphony that was my student’s lives. I am still in touch with many of those students. Many of my Facebook friends are these former students who are now in their 30s. I recently scanned in all my photos from the Houston years and put them on Facebook, and within a few hours they were all ‘tagged’ as everyone reminisced about the good times we had at our ‘failing’ school, Furr High School.
Unfortunately, TFA PR has promoted the idea that teachers are not violin players, but timpanists. We hear that effective teachers get 1.5 years of gains per year. We hear that three great teachers in a row close the achievement gap. All of this is unrealistic, misleading, and now that politicians believe it — actually damaging.
After you do your job contributing in your own small way to the team effort of helping your students, you can use the wisdom you’ve gained to find a way to get recognition later.
BA-BOM BA-BOM BA (rest) BA (rest) BOM.