Yesterday I watched, for the first time, an episode of Oprah’s new reality show ‘Blackboard Wars.’ The show chronicles a first year ‘turnaround’ high school in New Orleans which has been taken over by a charter company. New Orleans is ‘ground zero’ for the corporate reform model with a TFAer as state education commissioner and the Recovery School District which is mostly charters, often run and staffed by TFAers.
I had not planned to watch this show and avoided the first two episodes. I know that a lot of reality shows can be manipulated in the editing room, and I thought that this show would be one that exaggerates the minor successes that this school might have while conveniently ignoring their problems. Then I started hearing that the show was, at least for the beginning episodes, portraying the school as a complete mess.
So I watched the third episode which centered on the character Ms. Cobb who is, though they conceal this from the audience, a first year Teach For America teacher. Ms. Cobb is a Geometry teacher and also the cheerleading coach.
In a previous episode she was hit in the face while trying to break up a fight, and in this episode she broke down crying in front of her cheerleading team after a miscommunication left them without a bus ride to the big game.
Ms. Cobb Gets Hit In The Face
Ms. Cobb Breaks Down
A couple of thoughts about this:
First, Ms. Cobb is having a lot of trouble despite having a relatively easy assignment. Anybody who has ever taught both middle and high school knows that high school is ‘easier.’ The main reason for this, sadly, is that most of the toughest to teach students drop out in high school. Most new teachers in high schools, though, teach 9th grade which can be tough too since the drop outs haven’t happened yet. But Ms. Cobb teaches Geometry which seems to be taken by the junior and seniors at this school. Also, as far as I have noticed, her classes are very small. Seems like less than 20 students, but I’m not sure if this is the case for all her classes, or just the one they film.
Now I know that Ms. Cobb is not representative of all 6,000 2012 TFA corps members, but still I have to wonder if her problems are a result of bad training, bad recruitment, or both. I’d say that she seems to have potential as a teacher so it really isn’t a recruitment problem, but something that TFA should take the blame for with their training. I’ll bet that Ms. Cobb taught for about 12 hours over the summer and never had to deal with a ‘real’ class.
It is interesting to me that in the show they don’t seem to reveal that she is in Teach For America. I think it is quite a relevant detail since TFAers are supposed to be the ‘saviors’ of the kids in New Orleans who, despite limited training, make big gains with their high expectations. It would have been a good comparison to see how other new teachers who have had more traditional training would be doing in the same situation. I also wonder how TFA feels about this series. I’m sure they don’t want it to be widely known that Ms. Cobb is a TFAer since she is probably worse than the ‘average’ corps member. This should be required watching for new corps members who will easily see that ‘high expectations’ does not go very far when you have no idea how to control a classroom.
I’m not going to praise this series, just yet, as showing how things ‘really’ are. Already the show has been accused of calling the old school that they replaced “The worst school in the country” and a community organization wrote an open letter to Oprah about this. Of course they need to make the ‘before’ seem really bad so the ‘after’ can look that much better. Also, I’m expecting in the last three episodes to see the school start to make the big ‘turnaround.’ I’m also sure that we will see Ms. Cobb starting to make breakthroughs with her class. With editing they can easily play up some isolated moments of success and then fail to convey how rare those moments are.
As far as a TV show goes, I think it is pretty good, at least from a technical point of view. I’m looking forward to the last three episodes.