There’s nothing more dangerous than a first year TFAer who is having an easy time. And don’t tell them that they’re having an easy time or they will protest that it is not easy, but actually the toughest thing they’ve ever done in their lives. But the fact is that although most new TFAers are struggling to control their classes and around 10% won’t even complete their first year, a few fortunate souls, for various reasons, have first years that are relatively good.
Ryan Heisinger is a 2013 TFA corps member who I’m on quite friendly terms with. I first became aware of him over a year ago when I critiqued a pro-TFA blog post he had written. At the time Heisinger was a campus representative for TFA and also the leader of the SFER (Students For Education Reform) chapter at the University of Maryland. Heisinger and I have kept in touch through e-mail he has been a guest on two of my rare Spreecast talk shows here and here. and I sometimes tease him on Twitter, all in good fun. He seems to be able to take it much better than another first year who I think I might have inadvertently traumatized.
Communicating with people online is an unusual experience since you don’t get to see the person and read their facial expressions. Whether you’re communicating with a someone who is nineteen or someone who is eighty, there is something about seeing black letters on a white screen that is, to me, some kind of great equalizer — minds communicating free of some of the distractions of the terrestrial world. I realize that not everyone on the Internet sees it like I do so I suppose that it can be a bit strange for a young teacher to be receiving pointed Twitter comments from a forty-three year old guy like me, and I probably should keep this in mind, but I’ve been trusting my instincts on all the social media and it seems to have been working out for me, generally, so I don’t know.
So last week I noticed this Tweet from Ryan:
So I responded asking if he was saying that the teachers this student had for the past two years were not good at motivating this student, and he wrote back that he wasn’t pointing fingers, just celebrating a small victory. Ryan detailed the entire conversation in his very first teachforus.org blog post which I encourage everyone to read and see everything in context.
Now I have been begging TFA to improve their training for nearly twenty years, and Ryan having early success could be the result of improved training, so I could see how I might seem like a hypocrite for responding to his break-though moment in a somewhat negative way. In a past time, maybe even five years ago, I would have been more apt to celebrate what seems to be a prolonged honeymoon period for a young teacher. But in this current climate, particularly in Newark, a story like this will, unfortunately, get used by ‘reformers’ as some kind of ‘proof’ that TFA training is good enough and that TFA is doing more good than harm. So my job, I feel, is to put Ryan’s story into context.
I’ve done this before. Last year, around this time, I was writing posts about blog entries I read from two very idealistic 2012 CMs. One post critiqued the first day of Dalton Goodier mainly for being too friendly and for making a sort of promise that his students were going to be the best writers in the state at the end of the year. Another post critiqued a post by The MEGnitude of change for being overly dramatic and implying that she was the first teacher who ever cared about her students. I took a lot of criticism for writing these posts including a post from YoTeach warning new CMs to not let me ‘bully’ them. Well, a year has passed since then and I’ve followed the blogs of the two CMs who I had ‘bullied’ and have seen how they have become much wiser. In the most recent post of The MEGnitude of change, she wrote “What is the purpose of this blog entry? Maybe just to wonder at how limited we are in TFA, how limited our time is. The solution to improving our educational system has to incorporate those who simply have more time than we do. I firmly believe TFA would do well to involve more seasoned veterans into our training, in addition to MTLDs and other staff members.” For Dalton Goodier, who I email with from time to time, he has surely learned that a full out sprint is not a good strategy to run a marathon. He is having a great second year. In his most recent post, he wrote “This year, I’ve been much less prolific on this site. Even though I find myself with exponentially more free time than I had at this time last year, I come here less and less often. I’m just not driven by the near-manic desire to record and remember every single moment that happens. Because it’s not some new grand, crazy, soul-squeezing adventure. It’s just life.”
So back to Ryan. Ryan is an extremely poised guy. You can watch the interviews I did with him on Spreecast, which there are links to above, and see that if he doesn’t continue teaching, he has a future as something that involves public speaking. And he is a very nice guy too. We even almost met up once at a Starbucks, but it fell through for some reason that I can’t remember. But the reason I have to add some ‘perspective’ to his story is that his situation is somewhat unusual.
As he explains in his post, he is at a ‘renew’ school in Newark that fired its staff and split into two small schools. I do believe that it is possible for a school to have become very dysfunctional and it might be ‘easier’ to ‘renew’ the school rather than go though the tough work of helping the school without firing everyone, but I think that this kind of reform is very dangerous and I don’t think that the ‘gains,’ if there are even any genuine ones, outweigh the cost of this type of ruthless reform.
At this school, Ryan teachers only eleventh grade. Not that he needs to be ashamed of this, but I don’t know if he realizes this, and I don’t mean to diminish the hard work he is doing, but eleventh graders are way easier to teach than ninth graders who, in turn, are much easier to teach than middle schoolers. I’ve taught all levels at all kinds of schools and the sad truth is that eleventh graders are particularly easy, at least where I taught, since the kids who are most difficult to work with generally never make it out of ninth grade. I’d rather teach a class of fifty eleventh graders than a class of twenty seventh graders, to give you a sense of the comparative difficulty. Maybe his school is different, but I don’t think this is likely.
So did a kid start doing his homework for Heisinger after bragging that he did not do homework for the past two years? Sure. Is the kid exaggerating about never doing homework in two years? Probably. This does not mean that Heisinger should not feel good about this accomplishment. Of course, not to be a grump again, but it is likely that the kid if he really didn’t do homework for two years, will fall off the wagon again and stop doing homework for Heisinger. I’m not hoping for this, but it has been known to happen.
I suppose that one day after the inevitable collapse of the corporate reform movement I’ll be able to view an anecdote like Ryan’s in a positive light. But for right now I see it as yet another thing that will get used by TFA and others to prove, once again, that ‘poverty is not destiny’ and that young teachers are generally better (and cheaper) than old ones and that ‘renewing’ a school is a good strategy. Newark is a big experiment in corporate reform, with a TFA ‘cage busting’ alum leading the district. As I wrote about a few months ago, even the KIPP schools there that have gotten so much attention have had awful SAT and AP scores. If Heisinger and the ‘renewed’ Newark High School has some secret methods that enable them to outperform the KIPP schools that have been there for over ten years, that would be a pretty interesting development.
But I don’t want people to think that I’m rooting against Heisinger or that I hope that this eleventh grader stops doing his homework. My feelings about this anecdote are complicated and I hope that Heisinger will be equally candid about when enthusiasm and relentless work isn’t enough to overcome all the out of school factors that even the eleventh graders have to deal with.
Maybe it’s just that I see him as someone who could one day be a ‘reformer’ that I’m writing an open letter to, and I’m trying to nudge him away from that.