My number one complaint about TFA for the past few years has been that the student teaching component of the institute is not long enough (12 to 18 days, one hour a day) with classes that are too small (often less than ten students). It is not possible to learn how to manage a full size class this way, no matter how long you spend on detailed lesson plans or reflect on what your classroom management ‘system’ will be.
Without classroom management, you can’t be an ‘effective’ teacher. You will spend too much of your energy each day trying to get the class to listen, you will not complete your lessons, you will not have energy at the end of the day for planning for the next day. It is a vicious cycle.
I’ve been reading the blog of Mississippi Delta middle school math teacher called ‘Anna in the Delta.’ This is a very well written blog and I really appreciate the honesty that I’ve read. To me, she is having an extremely ‘typical’ TFA experience, particularly for a middle school teacher.
In her recent post she writes about an incident where a student stabbed another with a pencil and trying to break up the near fight afterwards, finally rescued by the teacher next door. Reading this, I am extremely sympathetic since this is not very different from what I was experiencing around this time 21 years ago.
Since I’ve written a book just about discipline and another that has two pretty big chapters about it, new teachers sometimes email me to ask for advice about how to ‘tame’ a class that has gotten out of control. Anna in the Delta has not asked for my advice, but there could be others who are a bit less brave about sharing their struggles who might be going though a similar experience and wondering.
I used to talk to groups of TFA teachers during induction or institute about classroom management. TFA eventually stopped letting me do these during the summer but a few years ago they offered to let me come speak to corps members in November who were having classroom management issues. I declined the invitation (the last invitation I ever got from TFA to do anything) because I truly believe something that is not going to make a lot of people happy to hear — that it is too late. First impressions are important and the old expression “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is very true in the classroom.
I know there are many stories about teachers who have ‘had enough’ and ‘decide’ that things are going to ‘change’ but I think most of them are lying. I know from my own experience that the kids let up on me a bit when there was about a month left of school, but that was out of pity rather than respect, and not after torturing me for nine months.
Classroom management is about prevention. That’s really what I was good at, not ‘taming’ a class that was completely out of control. That’s what my first book ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ was about.
So Anna can expect what I experienced which was a gruesome uphill battle for the entire year. This is just the beginning of September. She “ain’t seen nothing yet.” This story about the pencil will be looked back at in a few months as when she “had just one bad class.” TFA support people will try their best, but it will be too late for them too. The whole “a stitch in time saves nine” applies to TFA training. If they would do a better job with the summer training, they would not need all the support directors.
If I’m right about this, it means that Anna will need a lot of courage to even make it though the year. Like me, her voice will be gone by October. She will feel like she is going to war every day.
As much as I love to be right, I truly hope I’m wrong this time.
If it is any consolation, I think that a middle school teacher can’t do that much ‘damage’ to her students since they only see her for a little bit of time each day. The damage will be suffered mainly by the teacher herself. It is a shame that TFA refuses to improve the training model so this wouldn’t have to happen so often.
So things are bad because of mistakes this teacher has already made, and though I don’t know exactly what they are, I see two things in this post that are worth thinking about. First there is something about how she challenges her students to ‘math raps’ — bad idea. Now I am a big fan of creative math lessons and even fun ones, but not before classroom management is firmly established. Math raps make kids want to misbehave. It is unfortunate, but true. Also, she wrote about how she is going to conference with the girl who started the fight and “Tomorrow I am going to talk to S at the beginning of class and tell her that she might be angry with life (her home situation is pretty mess up), but under no circumstances can she take her anger out in my classroom on my students who are there to learn.” I don’t think is is a good idea. To assume the girl misbehaved because she was ‘angry with life’ rather than maybe just because she doesn’t respect the teacher, for whatever reason, could alienate the student. Also, note that already so early in the year this teacher has used the expression “students who are there to learn.” I think that this girl was also there to learn, but didn’t feel like she was learning. Maybe she doesn’t think that math raps qualify as learning.
Anyway, I do hope that Anna continues blogging. Teaching middle school math my first year is what nearly killed me. To quote Nietzsche “What does not kill me makes me stronger” so Anna, if she makes it through the year (I’m rooting for her), will be a very strong second year teacher.