Jul 16 2013

Preventing a disaster

It’s not easy being me.

How would you feel if you had the power to foresee a tragedy in the near future, know that you have the power to help prevent it, yet also know that the beneficiary of your help does not want your help, does not believe she needs your help, and pretty much tells you, indirectly though, not to offer your help?

This is the position I find myself in.  I’ve been following a blog called ‘And I thought Orgo Was Hard’ (I am not putting a link here, intentionally) for the past few weeks of a corps member who will soon be teaching middle school science in North Carolina.

At the end of one of her posts she wrote:

One last note I wanted to make: Please do not read my blog if you have negative thoughts/comments. This blog is for my friends/family. Shpanks :)

So I am not her family and not technically her ‘friend,’ and my thoughts / comments could be construed as negative, I suppose, though I hope they will be seen in a different way.  And I’m sure that her friends / family would not like this new CM to have to go though the torture she might if I didn’t warn her with this post, so I’m going to do it anyway, and everyone can get mad at me all they want with comments, which I welcome.

As Ms. K’s friends and family won’t be able to view the parallel universe where I didn’t intervene and make this warning, there is no way for them (or me) to really know what good this post accomplished, so I’m unlikely to get thanked by anyone for doing this.  I considered not saying anything and then following the blog for the next few months as a case study to show how negligent TFAs preparation model is, but wouldn’t that just be very mean of me to not help a person who is in trouble.  If I saw someone on a train track and the train was coming, isn’t it my duty as a human to intervene?

Ms. K, I like your humility in your title.  Yes ‘orgo’ is hard, and teaching is hard in a different way.  I will not say that teaching is necessarily harder than organic chemistry.  It all comes down to how well you are prepared for it.  If you took the orgo final without having learned the subject matter then, yes, orgo would be quite hard, impossible, even.  But with proper preparation, orgo isn’t impossible.  (How I wish I knew organic chemistry so I could make all kinds of awesome analogies here comparing it to teaching and also showing off how smart I am about everything.  It just isn’t worth learning the subject just for this post, though, so feel free to imagine those analogies that could have been …)  Likewise, teaching isn’t that hard either if get proper preparation.

Unfortunately, from what I have read on your blog, you have not gotten appropriate preparation.  You have taught a class that was supposed to be about 15 students, but turned out to be 8, which then shrunk to maybe 4 or 5.  And though you started with some classroom management issues, you got better, though getting better coincided with the smaller classes, so it is hard to say if you really got better.  Also, though you are going to teach middle school science, it seems that your small class was maybe a 4th grade class where you taught reading for half the time and math the other half.  (My details might be a bit off, but correct me if I’m way off on this.)

As someone who spent his first year teaching middle school, let me warn you that you should not let your relatively good institute experience give you a false sense of confidence.  Middle school is very very tough.  Honestly it almost gave me a nervous breakdown.  I still wake up at night sometimes, in a cold sweat, babbling “If I just swap Jose’s seat with Esau’s then Katarina can be a buffer.  Eureka!  I got it!”  I sincerely believe that that first year gave me post traumatic stress disorder, something that manifests itself in me needing to write helpful, though I know unwanted, posts like this.

Now I know I run the risk of this note making you under confident.  I think this is an OK risk since you still have some weeks to prepare.  I’m going to recommend that you read all my old blog posts, as for the first few years of this blog it was all about teaching advice.  Much of this advice made it into my second book ‘Beyond Survival’ which I’m not telling you to buy (though I won’t stop you from buying it) since you can get the advice for free here.  Also, I did some presentations about classroom management which are on youtube and which I have links in some of my posts.

As always, when I do this, I do not fault Ms. K being in need of this kind of intervention.  For TFA to expect someone to go from teaching a tiny class of a different age and subject from what she is going to teach in the fall is quite negligent.  Will Ms. K quit blogging altogether now that I’ve done this?  I certainly hope not.  Instead, I’d like to see posts of her future success and know that I did my small part in changing her life trajectory from something that might have caused her emotional and mental trauma to something that her friends and family, for whom the blog is intended, will enjoy reading.

And to TFA:  Shame on you for disrespecting this woman by not providing her adequate training.  And shame on you for having no concern for the 150 to 200 students who she is about to teach.  Teachers who only taught a few fourth graders reading and math for sixteen hours are most certainly not going to close any achievement gaps in their first year teaching middle school science.  There is a reason that 15% of corps members quit (and another significant percent who probably should quit since they are not doing much good).

Well, I know some will question whether or not I have done the right thing here.  There will never be a way to tell if I helped or hurt Ms. K’s cause.  But to stand by and watch her get blindsided by a middle school train is not something that is in my nature.

18 Responses

  1. stressed

    Your posts and common sense approach is refreshing. I did learn org but I am one of the rare ones who LOVED orgo, thanks to one of the best professors/teachers I have ever had. I constantly steal things he did for our class for my students. Middle school- yikes- I am applaud you reaching out to this young TFAer. Teaching science is exhausting and can be like a three ring circus with all the ‘hand on learning’ that is supposed to be done.
    The one part that I really think this woman needs to realize is only positive comments will not actually help her grow or even deal with the stress that will be the first year teaching middle-schoolers, even if she has a classroom full of angels. I personally would take middle school over elementary ed any day- they don’t pay those teachers enough.
    I have really large problems with TFAers not having adequate child development knowledge before they walk into a classroom with students, especially middle schoolers. The hormonal and developmental roller coaster/hothouse that is that age is not something that should be left to teachers in training for the emotional well being of both groups- the teacher as well as the students. I have really large concerns for someone who cannot take a negative comment on a blog- that strikes me as being a bit thin skinned- and middle schools call for rhino hide on the best of days.
    Couple that with the layers and layers of controversies around ‘science’ in some parts of the US these days and this teacher is in for doozy of a ride.
    I know how to teach, on a good day I can be a darn good teacher, but one of the best pieces of advice I ever got from my fabulous orgo professor was to never be afraid to say outloud you don’t know something. It has stayed with me always, and is a good to point that I emphasize in my high school science classes. FYI, people I most admire are the ones who openly admit to that fact of being human.

  2. Educator
  3. Jack

    Gary,

    Renowned teacher Rafe Esquith gave an interview to the Washington Post where he blasted everything from Common Core to KIPP to… of course… TFA.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/07/16/the-worlds-most-famous-teacher-blasts-school-reform/

    Here’s what he had to say about TFA.

    RAFE ESQUITH:

    “They [TFA corp members] are in my room all the time. Good kids. Nice. Bitter joke: TFA really stands for ‘teach for a while.’

    “Like all other teachers there are some great ones who are there for the right reasons who want to make a difference and some who want to pad their résumés. I certainly don’t think anybody can be a great teacher in five weeks. I hope this book helps them think a little bit about what they are getting into.

    They [TFA corps members] are obsessed with test scores. It becomes all about this: If you have a kid who gets a 75 on a test and then the kid gets an 85, you are a good teacher. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because of my test scores….

    “They [TFA leaders] are incredibly defensive about hearing an alternate idea. What’s said is that they are constantly throwing data and money showing they are successful. But they are really not. They are no more successful than any other teachers and if you read their blogs a lot give up in horrible frustration.

    “(…)

    “With Teach For America, I just want to tell them that there’s another problem. Most TFA teachers don’t stay in the classroom long. I want them to know that Room 56 matters. What we do matters. But the kids see teachers shifting back and forth, leaving for other jobs, wo why would they believe anything matters if their teachers keep leaving?

    “I’ve been a teacher at Hobart for 28 years. Can you imagine how many times I’ve been asked to leave? To start my own school, to make the movie? If I leave the room, the students will feel it.”

  4. If you think this person is going to be a disaster and you want to prevent this disaster, then you should probably post on her blog rather than blog about it.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      A comment on her blog would just help her while a full blog post here will help her and the hundreds of other corps members who are also being improperly trained.

      • Well, if that’s your goal then I think a post is fine. But if you actually want to help her, it would make more sense to truly reach out to her. If she does indeed delete posts as parus notes, then I take it she doesn’t want help.

    • parus

      She deletes posts.

  5. anon

    I wonder how other people feel about this.. is it ethical for TfA teachers in their first year to quit if they feel they are not successful and are not the best teachers for their students?

    There is so much guilt/shame in the organization about quitting, but you have unprepared teachers in difficult situations, often in areas without shortages of qualified teachers.

    I was the disaster you describe. I taught middle school while completely unprepared.I left because I truly felt I was not the best teacher for my students. I felt incredibly guilty that I was unprepared and when I reached out to TfA for support, I was provided with nothing but guilt trips and- “well lots of people are doing worse than this.”

    I went back to school and I am a much better teacher,in an area I am better suited (not middle school, where I was placed as an elem corps member).

    I don’t ask this to assuage my guilt, I am confident in my decision. But there are many corps members in similar positions across the country. Should they quit?

    • MPS retired teacher

      Yes, they should quit. Kids will never get that time back that could have been spent with someone who knew what they were doing.

    • Educator

      There comes a time where the teacher struggling is just not good for him/herself and for the students. Misery has its breaking point. I don’t think there should be any shame for anyone to admit this, especially recent college grads who are entering arguably one of the most difficult professions right after college. (Yes, teaching is more difficult than investment banking. With investment banking, you can do things like go to the bathroom when you want and check espn.com for a small brain break. With teaching, you can go 120mph from the first bell to the last and more. And if you dare try a mini brain break and check espn.com while students are in class then you’re likely toast.)

      I’d also respect a TFA corps member who, after lots of self reflection, decides that this wasn’t the right path. It takes a lot of character to change paths. Actually, not only corps members, but really anyone who after struggling and thinking things through, leaves teaching. You are not alone, as something like 47% of teachers don’t make it to year 6.

      At the same time, I think a lot of teachers have thought about resigning at one point, especially in the beginning. However, it does get better over time. So resigning has to be weighed against realizing that teaching is just so hard, especially in the beginning.

      The challenge becomes, should one keep trying until it gets better, or resign and spare the misery. I guess if at all possible it’s best to resign in the summer so that there’s not so much disruption, but I know this isn’t always possible. Plus, if the school has other candidates to fill the position who may be more prepared, if we’re thinking about students first, it seems reasonable that the more prepared person would be better.

    • parus

      I think it’s ethical to quit if the district can reasonably find a competent permanent hire to take one’s place, and if one leaves the classroom in good condition for someone new to transition in and pick things up immediately (e.g. clear records of what’s been done in class, student progress, transparent up-to-date grades, etc.).

      If leaving would really leave the students/school in the lurch, then no, it’s not ethical.

      • Stefanie

        I know this comment is a bit late, but I absolutely do not agree with this. It is not unethical to leave a job at which you are failing. No one would think twice about someone leaving a job that they were doing terribly at in any other sector, so why is teaching different? Yes, it affects the kids, and affects the school, but if you tell your administration why you are leaving and give them two weeks notice, there is nothing unethical about saving your own sanity, which is what a lot of these situations come down to. This is part of a huge problem and one of the reasons that teachers get burned out, because they are supposed to be martyrs for “the kids,” and feel pressured to stay at the expense of their physical, mental, and emotional health. I speak as a former TFA corps member who was failing for basically the first half of my first year, and the only reason I was able to salvage it in the second half was because I had a Program Director (not sure what they’re called now) who actually helped me instead of doing the Teaching As Leadership crap. Ironically enough, she was pushed out of this position at TFA because of this, despite the fact that her corps members all said the help she gave was invaluable to them.

        Leaving should not be the very first thing you consider as soon as something goes wrong, and yes, if you do leave, you should leave your class in as good order as you are able for the next teacher. But you do not owe it to your school to stay for the year at the expense of your health.

        • Educator

          Why did TFA push the program director out?

        • It may be reasonable and justifiable to quit if it’s in one’s own interest to do so. That doesn’t make breaking a contract and leaving others in the lurch an ETHICAL thing to do, in my opinion. Ethics aren’t about doing what’s best for Number One (at least not in the vast majority of ethical systems), and people shouldn’t lie to themselves about what they’re doing and why.

  6. KrazyTA

    Gary R: you did the right thing.

    Thank you.

    :)

  7. houstonheart

    As someone who has been similarly called out, I think you did handle this post quite well. It’s nice of you not to link to her blog :) Ironically, my blog gets hits every day from people who clicked through from your post about me! So I suppose it’s a win-win in the end.

    I COMPLETELY agree with your “shame on TFA” sentiment; I have felt this hundreds of times since the start of Institute. I’ve taught 30 7th-graders for the past four and a half weeks and though that’s considerably different than the author of the blog you mention, I still feel horrifically underprepared. I’m lucky to be working in a certain charter system with lots of support, coaching, evaluation, etc. I feel for the TFA teachers who may be in situations (charter or non-charter) next year without that same level of support.

  8. James

    Gary,

    I also taught middle school after teaching elementary school kids at Institute. Trust me, many days after school during my first year I felt like I was coming back from the Vietnam War (or what I suspect coming back from the Vietnam War would feel like…). I think, I too, suffered intense mental health issues from my first year of teaching. You are a good man for sharing your journey of teacher development in such an honest and transparent way.

  9. Jack

    Gary,

    Perhaps you can start a new article with the following.

    This article, calling Chicago-area TFA’s “scabs, just came out:

    http://www.mintpressnews.com/a-closer-look-at-the-joyce-foundation-shows-obamas-ties-to-chicago-school-privatizations/164972/

    Here’s the quote:

    - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
    “Teach for America’s ‘Scabs’ and Principal (CEO) Development

    “Just over a month after the 50 CPS school closings and firing of 550 teachers, the Chicago Board of Education announced an increase from $600,000 to $1.58 million in spending to hire 570 Teach for America teachers.

    “Klonsky told Mint Press News that Teach for America contractors serve as de facto strike-breaking ‘scabs’ – usually unknowingly.

    “ ‘They’re providing the non-union teachers for the charter schools and they’re almost like a scab organization,’ he said. ‘What you do is you close public schools and fire hundreds of teachers like we’re doing here, then you open neighborhood
    charter schools and bring in Teach for America 5-week wonders who work cheap and last for about two or three years.’

    ” ‘Then they’re gone and another batch comes in. ‘

    “The Joyce Foundation gave $23.77 million to Teach for America in its first 20 years in existence, according to The Washington Post. It is one of 10 foundations whose funding accounted for over half of Teach for America’s budget during that time
    period. Joyce gave Teach for America another $400,000 grant in 2012.

    “The Chicago Public Education Fund also has lended a modest amount of money to Teach for America. Between 2000 and 2005, the fund gave just under $400,000 to the organization, tax filings reveal.

    “Since 2001, the Chicago Board of Education has doled out close to $6.6 million in contracts and hired 1,931 teachers from Teach for America, Board of Education contract records show. During that same period, thousands of CPS teachers got pink slips.

    “The rubber meets the road in the relationship between the Chicago school restructuring movement’s goal of creating CEO-type school principals and Teach for America’s Principal Leadership Pipeline, which was launched in September 2007. The Principal Leadership

    “Pipeline was a collaboration between CPS and Teach for America, financed by the Chicago Public Education Fund and the Pritzker Family Foundation.”

    “CPS will recruit high-performing Teach For America alumni to attend a school leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and then enter into a one-year residency under the tutelage of a principal at a Chicago elementary or high school,” a press release announcing the program’s launch explains.

    “After the residency, the new principals will then take the helm of some of Chicago’s most challenged schools… Over the next five years, Teach For America could have as many as 50 school leaders in the pipeline, a group that would reach some 15,000 Chicago children a year.”

    “The program arose out of the Public Education Fund’s “Great Principals Blue Ribbon Task Force,’ formed in 2005. Its members included Pritzker and Duncan.

    “ ‘A consensus has developed over the last few years that a principal is the most important person in the school building,’ Pritzker said. ‘ Just like a [CEO], the principal sets the tone, creates the culture, manages the team and ties it all together by articulating a shared vision for what the organization ought to be. So if we get the principal right, other things can fall into place.’ “

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

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