Mar 04 2013

Bad O-PR-ah for TFA

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.

31 Responses

  1. Meg

    I’ve only seen the two clips you just posted, but the two things that stuck out to me were this
    (1) managing a classroom is nearly impossible when you make it a power struggle, she’s making it about her, which is a surefire way to make sure the kids don’t listen to anything you say. her cheerleaders were right, they didn’t ask her to do any of this so she has no business making it about her (at least not in front of them)

    (2) what in the world is she wearing? one of the things that baffles me the most about some TFAers (and I’m sure this applies to some non-tfa teachers as well, but I’m speaking from experience) is a lack of professional dress. I get it was saturday, I don’t know where she was coming from (looks like maybe the club) but particularly if you are only a couple years older than your students you certainly do not want to be showing up in front of them in mini skirts. definitely not the cause of her management issues, but probably not helping either.

    • Allison

      Thank you. I should be the last person to comment on how to dress, but geez – bring down the hemline girl.

    • SO agreed. I saw this as a non-TFA classroom teacher, and I am relieved to hear both of these obvious observations in the comments by her peers.

  2. Monica

    The second clip is painful to watch. These kids seem perfectly appropriate in their behavior, yet she “punishes” two of them (demanding push-ups) for not demonstrating “urgency” in running down the hallway, then herds them into a room where she proceeds to chastise them, with no further urgency apparent. Absolutely cringe-worthy, and of no help to viewers’ perception of public education, charter or otherwise. I feel sorry for these students.

    • jadedserf

      Monica, I agree. She seems like an immature bully. The kids are just being kids, for Pete’s sake!

  3. Emmanuel Parello

    It’s astounding how badly she handles both situations. But, I can relate to her frustration. She’s clearly in way over her head, just like most first year corps members, even though many of them don’t admit it publicly.

    • Dr. J.

      I agree with Emmanuel. These things happen, but she seems to be too wrapped up in herself to actually handle the situation. This may be the results of both lack of maturity and lack of training.

  4. Lisa

    I just watched the cheerleading clip and was horrified by how ridiculously immature she looks and acts. Telling them to run to portray a sense of urgency and then telling two of them to do pushups, really–after they’ve been sitting around waiting for someone to tell them the next step!?!? (Anyone want to take a guess about whether she was a “mean girl” in high school? My money’s on it.) It’s not their fault that the buses didn’t come, and so they did what most students would: call the coach and find out what’s going on.

    I don’t know what the students did because I’m not watching the show, but I know that I certainly would have written on that note card that I wanted a new, competent coach who could handle situations like that without the melodrama. Maybe she didn’t need to come in, but it seems that if you are the cheerleading coach and the cheerleaders have a problem, that makes it your problem–and if not, the students still shouldn’t be the target of your frustration and anger. Good grief.

  5. KrazyTA

    In keeping with the tone of this blog, I will try to keep my comments as fair and honest as I can. *Disclaimer: I can only judge what I saw and heard in the brief video clips and what I read on this blog, namely, Gary’s posting and the first three comments on it. I know firsthand how such extremely limited snapshots of a classroom can be misleading.*

    As a TA—first bilingual and later SpecEd—I worked with many teachers. They included those in regular ed and special ed, substitutes of all kinds and quality, and those at the very beginning of their teaching careers and those approaching the end of their days in the classroom. As far as I remember and know, almost all the teachers I worked with were products of traditional paths to teaching in the classroom. I cannot remember anyone who handled her/himself so poorly. It struck me that some of the students in the videos handled themselves in a more mature and thoughtful fashion than the teacher did.

    That said, I don’t think ‘piling on’ is called for. My heart went out to the teacher. I know from personal experience that it makes a world of difference if a new teacher can call on the support, encouragement and guidance of professional educators who have spent many years practicing their craft [for certain situations, it also helps when they take over a class with an experienced TA who knows the school, other teachers, and the students well]. When those veteran educators are devalued, pushed aside and treated with contempt, and the newbies are given preliminary training that is not only too brief but that misleads them into thinking they are at least somewhat adequately prepared—can you spell “Recipe for disaster”?

    With all sincerity, I could see the punch coming that she ran into. I was in several situations where things are getting so out of hand that some sort of physical violence was imminent. I was prepared enough [by my working in schools and my own life experiences] as well as lucky enough [and sometimes it is better to be lucky than good!] to head off the thoughtlessness of a moment that would have cost the students involved a world of hurt.

    I make no excuses for the teacher; she needs to improve and mature. But more than anything else, I feel that the school she works in and TFA let her—and her students and us—down.

    Anybody want to guess how the ‘no excuses’ administrators at the school and at TFA will react? Will they take any responsibility for not doing what they could, and should, have been doing to make this young woman successful in the classroom?

    My advice: don’t hold your breath waiting for the ‘accountabullies’ to accept responsibility.

    Just my two centavos worth.

  6. Shannon

    Wow…and this is the 22 year old that I was passed over for by TFA. I’m literally speechless.

  7. Brian Ford

    I loved the music . . .

    Okay, where is this going — who knows? Maybe the school will turn out to be the hero. Maybe Ms. Cobb will grow and mature — I remember feeling much the same way while I was teaching 7th and 8th graders on the Lower East Side.

    But for me the most salient word on this come from the Onion, Jul 17, 2012:
    • Education • Opinion •
    POINT/COUNTERPOINT
    My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids
    vs
    Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/my-year-volunteering-as-a-teacher-helped-educate-a,28803/

  8. Jennie

    I read your post before watching the clips, and my first instinct was to feel sorry for Ms. Cobb, and think, ‘Even if she had gone to school to teach, she could still very easily have a rough year and get caught in bad situations.’ I was full of sympathy.

    Then I watched the clips.

    Holy. Shit.

    Totally immature. And I don’t know that I could even peg it solely on lack of training, because I got about the same training as a TFAer, going through Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project, and while I made plenty of bad judgment calls my first year (e.g., unlimited trips to the bathroom, extending deadlines for assignments for kids who didn’t deserve extensions, letting them listen to their iPods while doing their first-10-minute journaling assignments, letting them vote for the “student of the month” from our class, etc.), I never threw tantrums like that or made every mishap about me.

    The kids definitely did not deserve to be treated like that. I don’t know whose responsibility it was to secure the bus transportation, but it pretty definitely was NOT the kids’. So either she screwed up, or someone else screwed up (athletics department?), but it wasn’t the kids’ fault. And what is she talking about she doesn’t have to be there? And they should be thanking her?? Just as I would expect the football coach to be at the game, I would expect the cheerleading coach to be there too–especially if there is trouble, like there was in this case.

    As cheerleading coach, it’s totally her responsibility to show up and find out what’s going on and fix the problem. They don’t need to be grateful to her for that. That’s her job. She should be grateful she doesn’t get fired for showing up in those clothes and for throwing a tantrum in front of her kids.

    I know that editing narrows things down to the juiciest possible moments, and that most of her days are probably uneventful and that maybe she even does some quality teaching in there (if she can control her classes), and all we’re seeing are the crisis moments. Still, those crisis moments are the ones her students will remember, not the problems she helps them work through on the board. Her tantrums make her look like a spoiled brat throwing a fit because things aren’t going exactly her way–and I’m sure this makes the culture clash (underprivileged black kids vs. middle class white sorority girl) all the more striking and pertinent. It’s not that a white teacher can’t do a great job with black kids. But when you have two very obviously different cultures at play, you need to bridge the gap, not widen it by throwing spoiled-kid temper tantrums and making everything personal.

    And what was that crap at the end? “Write your feelings on an index card”?? Really?? I think she was asking them to write whether or not they wanted her as a coach on the card. That is without a doubt the STUPIDEST move a teacher/coach could ever make. The kids just want to get to the game. Get over yourself and move on. Instead of making them write what they think about you personally on a card, how about find a bus (or some form of transportation) and GET THE KIDS TO THE FREAKING GAME!!!

    Whatever else she does all day long at the school, these clips totally exhausted whatever sympathy I may have had for her. TFA or otherwise, this person does NOT need to be teaching, at least not in a school that isn’t full of spoiled suburban kids like herself who totally relate to the teacher throwing a hissy fit over anything and everything that doesn’t go according to plan. Why do I have this feeling she will probably be out within the standard TFA 2 years (if that)?

  9. rstanton

    This is mostly about inexperience rather than lack of training. There is no training for what to do if the bus drives away without your team.
    It takes experience to realize that you are escalating a situation rather than fixing it.

    The scenes were actually unusually calm, in my opinion. Maybe it was the camera, or the leadership exercised by the cheer captain. And after the teacher was hit, at my school, there would have been total pandemonium.

  10. Woefully Underpaid

    “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’m surprised that you don’t see this as a recruitment issue. Her lack of maturity and self-centeredness is astounding. I don’t know that training can fix that. Perhaps a little life experience might help but even that is doubtful given her lack of self-awareness. The most striking thing in the second video was her post-incident interview (at 3:59) where she was completely focused on her own feelings and not the least bit reflective on how she contributed to the negatively to the situation or what she should have done differently. The students seemed to be far more mature than she.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      It could be a recruitment problem too, but I think that if she were trained properly she might not find herself in these situations where she reveals her immaturity. Certainly there was no reason for her to break down just because her students didn’t get on the bus to go to the game. But, yes, you could be right about this being poor recruiting. Getting 6,000 good new corps members, even with 60,000 applicants is probably too much for TFA to handle.

    • Brian Ford

      Training would have helped. It would helped her be more prepared and it might have helped her to realize that teaching wasn’t for her.

      What would have helped even more would have been for her to have been an apprentice for a year.
      And let’s not jump on Ms. Cobb —
      things like this happen when you put young, untrained people in the classroom. I know it happened to me when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in Botswana.

      Similar things happen to a lot of first year teachers and
      they are more likely to happen when the teacher does not have the confidence that training and planning produce.

      I also know that, as it is often observed, a lot of TFAers sucked in their first year.

      Sorry for the word ‘sucked,’ but that is how Michelle Rhee described herself during her first year.

      I can’t help but think better training — preferably a year, including student teaching, would both make new people better prepared. Is that a radical idea?

      Disposition and maturity count for a lot, but the formula includes a lot of factors and the final result comes when these are multiplied together. The same first year teacher — good, bad, TFA, traditional teacher training — is better if they have better training.

  11. Mercedes Schneider

    The world will watch this TFAer and believe that she represents traditionally trained teachers. Oprah is all for the ratings. She manipulates information (like concealing the TFA connection to this immature teacher) in order to milk those ratings. How do I know this? I read Kitty Kelly’s “un-Oprah-authorized” biography. It’ll open your eyes.

    • jadedserf

      Do you have a link to a web version of your read?

  12. Educator

    I hope this show might change public perceptions about the teaching profession…in a good way. Maybe they’ll see how difficult it is. Maybe they’ll see how sometimes, experience does matter. But I hope these editors don’t somehow turn this show into a Stand & Deliver story if it isn’t. Let it be real.

  13. eminnm

    I think it’s interesting that everybody was prepared to not believe the miracle-in-a-poor-school story that was created due to editing, but we’re all ready to believe the awful mess here, which could just as easily be created by editing.

    There are a lot of problems with her attitude in these situations, and her relationships with kids are clearly lacking, but who knows if this is at all representative of anything? Middle schoolers and high schoolers are tough because you DO have to win their trust (my little ones love you automatically just because you are human, which is nice) and she’s clearly had a really hard time with that. But I know there are a ton of moments from my first year (and this year too…come to think of it, there probably always will be these moments) where the last thing I would want would be a camera recording my failures and spinning them into a story. Doesn’t mean my kids didn’t learn last year, or that I didn’t love them, or that I did them an enormous disservice by being there (had I not been there, they likely would have had a long-term sub). It just means teaching is REALLY hard, and there are times that you suck at it even when you’re doing an OK or even pretty good job overall. But “teacher does an OK but not fabulous job” is a much less marketable story than the one this show is telling.

    • Brian Ford

      I definitely agree that I would not have wanted cameras rolling in my first year or the year when I was in car accident and was in pain most of the day, just waiting for the bell to ring so I could do something about it. I was not very good either year.

      But my first year I was a Peaces Corp Volunteer in a school that could not afford teachers. I was part of an effort to address teacher shortages. The other year, I had regular back spasms, a class of really difficult 9th graders that included 5 Special Ed kids who were supposed to have an extra teacher in the room, a mandate to teach a curriculum I was not sufficiently prepared for and a principal who made things worse because I had questioned his judgment.

      So I don’t think we should jump on Ms. Cobb — she might be a better teacher on other days, days when she did not get hit in the face, which, once having been assaulted by a student I did not know in the hall, I know can make you lose your cool and days when the bus actually came or the coach said, “There is only one bus, the cheerleaders can ride with us.” Also, remember that she did come into the school that day.

      No, the problem lies elsewhere.

      TFA puts young people who are not mature in classrooms. They don’t give them sufficient training. Things like this are bound to happen not matter what, but TFA’s nonchalant attitude towards training makes it much, much more likelyl.

      So we shouldn’t jump on Ms. Cobb, who obviously should never have signed a release form and allow herself to be filmed, but blame the people who put her there.

      And make sure people know it was TFA.

  14. Wilbert

    The crying and yelling are completely immature and lame. I don’t have much to add to anyone’s comments, but this woman is clearly out of her league.

    What coach would bitch that she didn’t have to be there? Who was supposed to be there?

    I find it hard to watch things like this given how I feel constantly berated and under a microscope when I’m miles beyond this woman–yet she is considered the hope for the future?

    It is hard to imagine many careers worse than teaching right now. Just 4 years ago it wasn’t nearly this bad. All hail Obama and his benefactors.

  15. Wilbert

    And these kids are mild compared to anywhere i’ve worked thus far. She was provoking fights, screaming, and acting out far worse than any of the cheerleaders. She would have been chewed up and spit out within a week in a really hardcore school.

  16. George P

    That was painful to watch. She baited that cheerleader; the kid showed more poise than Ms. Cobb. The self-pitying rant and the crying was, I’m sure, was a very meaningful exchange with the kids. She won’t last.

  17. Phoebe Ferguson

    In an article in the Times Pic today, it was revealed that FIN’s Charter board had no say in agreeing to let Oprah make a reality tv show inside John Mac. Two board members are demanding new bylaws that allows them to vote on new contracts.

    In a community meeting last night with CEO Steve Barr and the infamous Dr. T, outraged parents and alumni expressed concern about the psychological fall out after these shows air. Folks were heartened to know that Dr. T has thought of everything, even that.

    He has arranged for shrinks to be available to students and parents who maybe didn’t plan on, for example, how their friends might react to say, being labeled as “bipolar”. Or for instance, how giving birth on camera may have seemed like a good idea at the time… but no problem amigos, Dr. T, he’s the man!

    Will the professional help be available three weeks from now when the shows end? Who is paying for these doctors and are they coming from LA or maybe Chicago? Because in most Charters here, the social workers are about as old and experienced as the teachers who come from, you guessed it… I guess these saviors will come from, Shrink for America.

  18. Sunny

    As an ex-corps member who was thrown into teaching SpEd with no preparation beyond a few hours of “teaching” during the summer, I feel incredibly bad for Ms. Cobb. She’s clearly unprepared for this position, and I know how horrible that feels. TFA loves to talk about locus of control–I hope viewers realize that much of this situation is beyond Ms. Cobb’s locus of control.

  19. jellybelly

    I can understand an appreciate many of the comments that have already been made, so I’m not going to address much of that. I will say that at minimum she should have been told not to try breaking up a fight by getting in the middle of the kids. Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t hear her say anything to try stopping the boys before walking up to them to make them stop. She walked right into the fight and put herself in the line of fire to get punched. She could have tried calling someone from the office or a liaison to come down to help stop things.

    Regarding the cheer clip, maybe someone didn’t make the expectations for coaching clear to her, but it would seem that attending games with her squad would be part of the job description, even on a Saturday, even if it’s raining. It may not have been her fault for the bus not showing up, maybe a mix-up with the AD or transportation dept., but it might have helped to contact either one of them before getting to the school to know what the mix-up was and if there was a solution for it.

    I have coached both track & field and volleyball at the school where I teach for several years. Could I have been given more guidance and training prior to starting coaching? Yes. However, my AD walked me through the responsibilities of the position, and even from the first year I coached (my first year of teaching) I made sure to have the transportation department and AD’s numbers in my phone so I could reach them in case something came up. Things go wrong, but it is unfair to blame and punish the kids for things that were not in their control nor their fault. The students were correct too, they didn’t ask for her to be their coach, she, for whatever reason, chose to coach. She shouldn’t make it seem like she’s doing them some huge favor by being there. She should have been appreciative and applaud their dedication for wanting to cheer at a game in the rain. In addition, she unprofessionally threw her football coach colleagues under the bus (no pun intended) by telling the kids the coaches didn’t care enough about them to get them to the game too. That was her job, not theirs, and there may not have been anything they could have done.

    The situation is what it is, the only thing you can do is try to find a solution. Writing their feelings on cards would seem less important than just getting the kids to the game so they can cheer. That’s what they were there for in the first place. She needed to suck it up, put her feelings aside and do what was best for the kids at that moment. That’s what will be required of her throughout her teaching career, however long that ends up being.

    Maybe she received inadequate support from TFA or her AD or site admin for some of this. I agree, too, with those who said they wouldn’t have wanted their first year of teaching video taped and publicized. However, a person has to be able to exercise some common sense, such as not walking your face into a fight among students or misdirecting your frustration at kids who didn’t do anything wrong. All those kids did was ask their coach for help, which seemed like a reasonable request given the situation and the fact that she IS/WAS their coach. She is supposed to be the adult and should be the one to remain calm.

  20. Hillary

    This show is perpetuating problematic discourse about the role of charter management organizations in ‘turning around’ the schools in New Orleans. The role that TFA plays in this colonization is a crucial one. They are fooling the wider public into thinking that their model is a solution to the burgeoning teacher shortage we face in inner city school districts.
    Fact: We have 300,000 teachers drop out of our county’s teacher force every year.
    Fact: TFA only supplies 4,500 per year. And not all of them continue teaching. Few do.
    Conclusion: Outliers dont make good policy.

    And neither do dramatic ‘reality t.v.’ propaganda pieces that demonize students as unruly and violent while glorifying charter operators who swoop in and ‘normalize’ them.

    Look to the case of Walter L. Cohen High School. A show has not been made about these kids because they resisted the notion that an out of town CMO could takeover their school and fix all of the problems that have plagued this city for a century: strategic disinvestment from public schools and racism in hiring and paying black educators. They aren’t fixing this, in fact they’re ignoring that it ever happened by ignoring local opinion on what to do with these schools. Notice that the protesters to the takeover were confined to the marginalia in Blackboard Wars. They appeared for a mere moment in the first episode and were waved away. Cohen students walked out in protest when they found out Steve Barr and his team would be taking over their school and would not be silenced.

    See this article about Cohen students’ list of coherent and relevant demands for Future is Now
    http://louisianajusticeinstitute.blogspot.com/2012/10/students-at-walter-l-cohen-high-school.html

    See my article on TFA for the Tulane University Newspaper
    http://www.thehullabaloo.com/views/article_4155e568-7166-11e2-b98b-0019bb30f31a.html

    Then think about the wider implications of this ed reform model on local communities.

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