I love a great teaching memoir, and Heather Kirn, a TFA alum (Baltimore ’02), just published one called ‘Teaching In The Terrordome’ about her two years in a large high-poverty Baltimore High School. For what this book was trying to accomplish, it did a great job. Kirn skillfully conveys to the intended reader how difficult and frustrating teaching can be. Unlike most books by rookie teachers, Kirn describes how the large failures seem to outweigh those small victories. In this way, this is probably the most honest teacher memoir that I’ve read — and I’ve read them all. In no other book have I seen the despair and day-to-day frustration of trying to make a difference captured so accurately.
From a technical point of view, the writing, itself, is great. Kirn sprinkles throughout the pages great little turns of phrases which, for me, at least, makes me want to keep reading for the next clever way of describing something.
After a long awaited conference with a students parent, an uncle shows up and says to the kids at the end of the conference “you just need to get your act together.” Kirn writes about this:
Because Uncle Orpheus had nothing else to say on the matter, we all agreed to his advice. Yes, Jerome needed to get his Act together. Jerome’s Act was in pieces, and if only he gathered those pieces, his Act would congeal into one whole
But while this book definitely is a great book which accomplished its purpose — to show that teaching is harder than you think and that TFA certainly isn’t THE solution — I kind of wished that Kirn wanted it to serve a different purpose. For me, and I know that I’m not really the intended audience, the book was great but it missed the opportunity to be truly important or truly relevant. If this was 2002, I’d feel differently. But in 2012, with the political climate and teacher bashing as the new ‘thing’, with school closings and teacher accountability on the lips of every politician, I felt that this could have accomplished something different.
Heather Kirn was placed in ‘The Terrordome,’ Southwestern High School in Baltimore. This is a high poverty school with a tremendous dropout rate — the kind of school that we now call a ‘failing’ school and which someone like Arne Duncan would label a ‘dropout factory.’ The school is completely unstable. There are some negligent teachers including one who she says has so many sick days built up that she hasn’t come to school for about two years. (This seems a bit exaggerated to me. Ten days a year for 18 years would get you 180 days, but most real lazy teachers — and yes there are some, I admit — probably have used up a bunch, if not all, each year.) There are fire drills on a daily basis and even real fires. Kirn and four other TFAers learn very quickly that it will take a lot more than “high expectations” to close the achievement gap, as TFA had implied to them.
On page 85, she explains how this feels:
No matter how high or low the bar, my students on average failed to meet it, which meant that I failed them. The identity of the person I felt I was — the faithful achiever — was stripped from me, day by day, in great painstaking hunks like park from a tree, and on any given afternoon I was left standing before my students, feeling bare, hemming and hawing and headachy. If I were to have graded myself, I would have given me an average well below fifty.
To anyone who never taught, they would learn that teaching can be Hell. In a climactic point in the book, a student of Kirn’s — one who she had worked for the whole semester slowly building a relationship — gets expelled from school after an incident that began with him refusing to put on his shirt while he took the state test. Kirn also does a great job describing the survival state of mind, somewhat like what soldiers must feel, that teachers have to enter to get through a day when so much is out of your control.
Kirn often compares her own year to the over-the-top TFA success stories and also to over-simplified teaching movies. Movies, and the books on which most were based, have that typical structure where the hero overcomes the ‘bad’ class and gets them all to excel. In one of Kirn’s classes, there are six really rambunctious kids on the first day of her second semester. On the second day she gets tough with them and two of the six leave and cut the rest of the semester. Two more get expelled by the end of the semester. She feels like a failure, daily, for not being able to do what she joined TFA to do.
But I think Kirn succumbs, a bit, to the hero myth. Though she doesn’t ‘save’ all the kids, her description of her own lessons are pretty impressive. This is especially important when compared to the other teachers she describes in her school. The reason I bring this up is that I get concerned that many people who read this book will buy into the ‘reformer’ myth that this school was brought down by ‘bad’ teachers. Yes, even despite Kirn’s great lessons, she wasn’t able to work miracles. But it raises the possibility — unintentionally, I think — that if everyone was pushing their kids as much as she was, then maybe the school would get ‘turned around.’ Kirn never says this directly. She is very clear that ‘good teaching’ and ‘high expectations’ is definitely not going to be enough. But since most of her description of her co-workers is that they were negligent, she gives teacher bashers something to hook onto.
Teacher books are always about high school. High school is the ‘sexy’ topic. You’ve got kids on drugs, drop outs, kids who are pregnant. And though this high school might have been the ‘Terrordome’, I know that even the worst high school is ‘easier’ than an average middle school. This is something that she even acknowledges in chapter 7. The reason high school is easier is that kids start dropping like flies. If two of Kirn’s worst kids didn’t disappear after the second day of the semester, she could have had an even tougher time.
Kirn and her TFA co-workers quickly make the transformation from green newbies to ‘real teachers.’ They become realists, accepting and even joking about the limited ability of teachers to be ‘trasformational’ particularly at a poorly run school. The problem, she realizes, isn’t that the majority of teachers have low expectations — though they do — but that ‘the system’ doesn’t make it any easier to perform miracles. Her school starts with a weak principal who is replaced, the next year, with one who, at first, seems to mean business. The new principal is a lot more organized and demands a lot more of the teachers, but it becomes clear that the new principal also doesn’t really have any idea about what will ‘fix’ this school.
Throughout the book, Kirn offers criticism of TFA’s naive premise — inexperienced teachers trying to close the achievement gap, mainly by having high expectations. In one part, she writes about how TFAers are compelled to ‘lie’ about their success, casting a shadow over the miracle TFA success stories, as well as those we see in movies about teachers, even documentaries. She also writes about the problem with top-down fixes in a great chapter where ‘The State’ comes to evaluate the school. ‘The State’ demands to see everyone’s old lesson plans so many of the experienced teachers in the school have to stop everything to create lesson plans for the lessons they already taught. Though they do comply, it doesn’t make education any better. They jumped through the hoop, by following the letter of the law, though not the spirit. We even learn in the epilogue that this school is eventually shut down in 2006.
Throughout the book, I got the feeling that she was trying to say — without coming out and saying it explicitly — that she learned in her experience that out of school factors are just too much for individual teachers to overcome. I also got the sense that she was hinting, at least, that even fixing ‘the system’ was not likely to make transformational change much easier. Throughout her story, though, she also had those mini-successes that left the possibility open that maybe, just maybe, there is some hope in having high expectations. And up until the epilogue, she seems to be not taking a strong stance either way.
When I think about how people on both sides of the ed reform debate (and yes, there are just two sides!) would read this book, I can see how both could see it supporting their point of view. On the one hand, the Diane Ravitch supporters would say that this shows the folly of the TFA band-aid solution. But on the other hand, the Michelle Rhee supporters would say that this was a clear example of a school that needed to be shut down — that the small moments of success she had would have been multiplied if the rest of the school wasn’t bringing her down.
And had the book ended at the end of the story, before the short eight page epilogue, I would have appreciated the ambiguity that said that neither side can be declared ‘right’ yet. But the epilogue, though it didn’t stop the book from being ‘great’ in my view, did stop the book from being ‘important,’ at least from my perspective.
Kirn mocks, throughout, the typical arc of the hero teacher story. They struggle, they seem like they are going to fail, yet they pull it out at the end. She shows how her experience and the experience of her friends defies this pattern. But in her epilogue she writes about how many of her friends went on to become education leaders. Some are even higher-ups in charter schools. Kirn disappoints me here when she says that maybe this is the point of TFA. These smart go getters generally don’t transform many lives in their two years of teaching, but they go on to become ‘leaders’ who may transform ‘the system.’ Mentioned by name are Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg of KIPP and Michelle Rhee. Kirn spends two years having her eyes opened to the harsh realities of what an intractable problem the achievement gap is, and then she offers hope that these educational leaders — those leaders who still promote the oversimplified idea that the achievement gap can be overcome with harder working teachers with higher expectations — are the useful side effect of all those rough TFA teaching stints. Here is a recent tweet by Rhee.
By doing this, Kirn inadvertently turns her entire story into the mold of the teacher hero myth. In the hero myth the teacher struggles, nearly fails, then pulls it out in the end. Though her individual story doesn’t fit this mold, this epilogue makes her story of TFA fit it precisely. TFA struggles, seems to ‘fail’ because their teachers turn out to not be capable of performing miracles, but ultimately pull it out at the end when their alumni become transformational leaders — leaders who often want to fire teachers for not being able to accomplish the miracles that they, themselves, had lied about accomplishing when they were teachers. In a book about how there are no tidy endings, the epilogue in this one gives this book a pretty tidy ending.
By ending the book this way, the book loses its relevance. Certainly five years ago the TFA superhero myth was something that needed to be challenged. And, in many ways, TFA still puts way too much faith in the power of high expectations. The first, and thus most important, premise of ‘Teaching As Leadership’ is still “Set Big Goals.”
But TFA has already had so many people call them out on this that they have been moving away from this myth themselves. Even Wendy Kopp in ‘A Chance To Make History’ writes “It is a very rare person who can be a transformational teacher outside of a transformational school” and expands further (page 126):
Yet despite all these investments, our teachers are still not, on average, changing the trajectory of their students in a truly meaningful way. With a lot of hard work, we are getting better, but we are not where we need to be. The bell curve of effectiveness within our corps is still too wide.
This is why, Wendy explains, the next phase of TFA where the alumni become the leaders who make the transformational schools, is what the real power of TFA will be.
But after going through Kirn’s experience and watching her go from naive idealist to cynical realist, why does she now believe TFAs new myth? Part of it, I think, is that friends of hers — people who are, no doubt hard workers and good people, are involved in this movement. Now I don’t think that all the people in the accountability are ‘evil,’ just as I don’t think the original architects of the gospel of the power of high expectations were — just that they are wrong about what causes the achievement gap and what has any chance of narrowing it. (If they really knew about these, why would D.C., which is dominated by these TFA leaders, still have the worst achievement gap in the country?) One of her friends is working on early childhood education in a charter school, and I think early intervention is definitely worthwhile.
Another thing is that Kirn’s limited experience in this one ‘bad’ school could make her have some trust in the TFA reformers. It sounds like Kirn’s school did have a lot of negligent teachers. She never says the percent, but it seems like at least half have given up. So part of her frustration includes the possibility that her own high expectations were swallowed up by the culture of the school. Maybe if fewer teachers had given up — somewhat of a survival instinct, she admits, things would be better. But from my perspective at my own ‘dropout factory’ when I did TFA, I did not find very many negligent teachers. I don’t think that the staff at my school could have worked much harder, even if a flame was put to their rears to get the test scores up, so for me I am more skeptical about how making teachers more ‘accountable’ will improve things at most schools.
So this book, with this epilogue, becomes one that argues against TFAs old myth and then supports TFAs new myth. In that way it somewhat undermines its own point. This book is still a great read, though, and still one that I recommend for anyone wanting to know how it ‘feels’ to be a new teacher at a high-poverty school.