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updates for 03.06.2011

5 new posts today

Readers, I need your help!

Hey Readers, There's a chance I'm moving to a new city this summer. I want to keep my same job (secondary math, similar demographic, preferably public school) and I'd pick up my current school and move it if I could, but I might need to try a new place to live. (This is a big maybe, but I'm thinking it through regardless.) I'm looking at the Bay Area, Denver, Southern California, and Austin TX right now, but I could be convinced to consider other cities on this side of the country. If you have knowledge of/recommendations about these cities as places to live, school districts I might want to teach in, or general knowledge about applying to school districts out of state (like, do I apply for my certificate first or apply for a job first? When do I need to make up my mind and apply? etc.) I WOULD LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU. Leave comments here, or email me at mathinaz@ymail.com . I'd be endlessly grateful. PS I can tell from my blog statistics that I have regular readers in all these places. Please, share your thoughts with me!


only 70 days to go!

well...oops. With all the craziness from my first year of teaching, I forgot about this blog! I really should be better about recording all that I've gone through this year. I think to get myself back into it, I'm going to try to get a quick recount of what's happened and then post 1-2 times per week.

in August-September I met my scholars. They wowed me, scared me, and really got me into the groove of day to day operations. I had 17 students on my first day, and let me tell you it was as exhausting for them as it was for me.

[caption id="attachment_9273" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="naptime one of the first few days"][/caption]

I re-arranged my classroom a couple of times, but was finally able to find an arrangement I really liked.

[caption id="attachment_9259" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="My classroom on the night we set it up- 9PM!"][/caption]

Oh, and I got a LISTENING CENTER from donors choose!!! Hooray!

[caption id="attachment_9261" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Listening Center! I did get a table and chairs for it after I took this picture"][/caption]

By October, I was really feeling the drain of first year teaching. I had a turnover of students in my room, losing 3-4 and gaining 3-4 new ones. That really put stress on me because I felt like it was difficult to fully get to know all my kids. In addition, I was really trying to be data driven, but with assessments being as long as they are (we assess EVERY DC standard...) it took a lot of my teaching time to complete them. We had our first field trip to the Pumpkin Patch, which was a ton of fun. It was very nerve-wracking, but I really got to know some of my families from their time with us. That was a great thing. It was a long month, though, and I felt like I would never make it to any time off.

[caption id="attachment_9266" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The kid spent 2 hours on these slides! Then promptly fell asleep on the bus ride back to school."][/caption] Hersh and I did go to the Rally to Restore Sanity, which was AWESOME. We were so close to the stage, and laughed SO HARD. It was good to have some fun. [caption id="attachment_9267" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Rally to Restore Sanity!"][/caption] We also went to the Kennedy Center to see Idina Menzel with Kennedy Center Orchestra POPS. We sat in some pretty awesome seats. I love his job sometimes. [caption id="attachment_9268" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Where we sat. CRAZY"][/caption]

November felt much like October, although break was in site. I just had to make it to Thanksgiving for a respite from the 7:30-4PM school days (which usually meant arrive by 7:10 and leaving 5:30-6), not to mention grad school on Tuesday nights (which I had somehow let myself get SO behind on my online coursework it took me a few Saturdays of doing nothing else to catch up on) until 9PM, faculty meetings on Wednesdays until 5:30PM, and everything else that it takes to prep for your first year teaching. I did make it, though, and Thanksgiving finally arrived. Those 3 days off to spend time with all my friends and my boyfriend really helped me re-focus myself. I also cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner! We ate on the roof of my apartment building, and it was delicious (if I do say-so myself).

[caption id="attachment_9262" align="aligncenter" width="340" caption="dressing from my Mom's recipe"][/caption]

December flew by, and before I knew it Hersh and I were driving to Dallas overnight for a friend's wedding. 19 hours later, we had a great time with his college friends at the most authentically Mexican wedding I think I will ever go to! We had a great time. The next day, I caught a flight home to New Orleans to spend the week with my family! It was so nice to be with my Mom, Emily, and Patrick. It was a whirlwind week, though, and Christmas was exhausting as always. 4PM Mass with my family, dinner at 5 Happiness, then off to Hersh's parents' house for desert and then to Midnight Mass at Jesuit. After that, we open gifts at the Fernandes' before I come home and CRASH. I wake up by 7-8AM to open gifts and then lunch at my house. Then back to Hersh's for dinner at his house. CRAZY

Wedding with Friends

After Christmas, I was off to Atlanta for the APO National Convention (oh I forgot to mention that along with teaching Pre-K, Grad School, and being in TFA I was planning the workshops for 2,000 Brothers at  Convention). It went AMAZINGLY, but by the end of it I was ready to get back to my apartment and to see my kiddos (WHAT?!).

some cool Brothers at Convention

January was also a ton of fun, and it felt like I was maybe starting to get the hang of these 4 year olds. I am use to the constant noise that exemplifies a PreK classroom, and I really began to see HUGE growth from my kids (Literacy we grew from 23% to 59% and in Math from 28% to 53%). I began to really be able to plan effectively from whole group to small group and see where I needed to push myself and my kids to get to Kindergarten readiness. Hersh and I went to the Cotton Bowl, and got to see my LSU Tigers beat his beloved Aggies.

[caption id="attachment_9274" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The View from Our Seats"][/caption]

And then, February. We had our Teach for America Summit and Washington Mardi Gras! This past month FLEW by. I really focused in on teaching through centers and through deliberate interactions with my kiddos. We started focusing on our OCR curriculum, sight words, numeral identification, and I re-focused myself on getting them behaviorally and socio-emotionally ready for Kindergarten. Hersh and I had a great time at Washington Mardi Gras (I began to figure out slightly the balance between teaching and having a life- evidenced by that weekend).


Washington Mardi Gras

And now, we're in March. I had Professional Development Saturday today, which gave me a bunch of new ideas on how to effectively teach Math to make sure my kids understand the underlying concepts and patterns and aren't limited to just the basic skills I am teaching them. It's amazing how much goes into teaching 4 year olds! I never knew how hard this work would be, or how important. Some days I'm not sure I can do it or that I'm the right person to do it. I walk into my room and see all the little chairs and that rug and it scares me. But then all their little feet come down the hallway and they say "Hi Ms. France!" and I remember that this is what I need to be doing right now (and maybe forever). These 19 (oh yea, I got a new student at the end of February) change my life everyday. They teach me so many new things and they help me learn about myself and about life. I love spending my days with them and learning how to teach from them. Hopefully I won't let them down and when they get to Kindergarten in the fall they will accomplish amazing things. But more about that later.

[caption id="attachment_9263" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Playing in Dramatic Play with some of my students"][/caption]

Same Kids, Same Building, Same Lies

One of the highlights of the TFA 20th anniversary summit was certainly when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a rousing speech at the closing ceremony. The most impressive part of his speech was when he described the transformation of Englewood High School in Chicago while he was heading that school district. He said that they shut it down because 60% of the students were not graduating. They replaced it with three charter schools. One of those charters, the all boys Urban Prep, just graduated their first class and 107 out of 107 graduated and got accepted to college. He says then "Same children, same community, same poverty, same violence, same building, different adults, different expectations, different sense of what's possible and that made all the difference" I recommend you watch the one minute and 45 seconds from 10:50 to 12:35 in the video link below to see this: Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education from TFA 20th Anniversary Summit on Vimeo. Pretty amazing and convincing that all we need is harder working teachers to overcome poverty and turn failing schools into wildly successful ones.  Unfortunately, it's a lie.  This is what happens:  Charters exaggerate (lie) about their stats then the stats get used to convince politicians and billionaires to change public policy.  The fact that Duncan is using this story shows that this farce goes all the way to the top.  Surely Obama believes this story. When I heard it, it sounded pretty far fetched.  So I did a little bit of Diane Ravitch style investigative reporting to get to the truth behind that facade. According to this article, it was not the 'same children' attending Urban Prep as would have attended Englewood High School.  They had the typical lottery which excludes certain families.  It also had a mandatory three week program for students who got accepted, which eliminated even more students.  And then, they did the typical 'weeding out' of kids who weren't performing. Then this article points out that the 107 out of 107 does not account for the fact that the original group was not 107 but, according to the schools wikipedia page, 150 students.  Suddenly 107 out of 150 doesn't sound quite as good.  It's about 71% which is a lot better than 40%, I know, but considering they had 'creamed' to begin with, I don't know how good even that is. It's scary that even the Secretary of Education would resort to this type of bending of the truth to advance an agenda that fails to meet the needs of the hardest to educate kids.


Sue Lehmann

The Sue Lehmann Award is a national award TFA gives to second-year teachers each year. The criteria are the following:

  • Will students emerge from this classroom on an enduring trajectory filled with opportunities for success in college and life?
  • Are students on a mission – working hard with passion, joy, & urgency to a goal they deeply own?
  • Are students engaging with & mastering the content and skills needed to be on a path for college?
  • Is this corps member developing into an inspired, transformative leader for educational equity, today and long-term?
A couple weeks ago, I actually got nominated for the award. I had to fill out this whole long application process to accept the nomination... and then, of all the big surprises in my life, I actually was one of the seven people chosen as regional semi-finalists for Phoenix. They came into my classroom with videocameras and taped me teaching and my kids working and they interviewed various students on how my class was impacting their lives. Then they called me a few days later to say that the video looked great but I wasn't selected to represent Phoenix in the national competition. Obviously that was really disappointing for me, but the overall experience actually was a major boost to my teaching self-confidence. I would never have considered myself eligible to be nominated for the award, much less make it to the semi-finalist round. In ten million years, I never would have described myself as a "transformative" teacher or thought that my classroom was special enough to make it on to TFA radar. I go to school, I work hard, my kids work hard, and then we go home and repeat the next day. My test scores aren't where I want them to be, and my kids from last year are dropping like flies into pregnancy, drugs, and alternative credit-recovery programs. (Sidenote: HOW DID YOU MISS 97 DAYS OF YOUR FRESHMAN YEAR BY FEBRUARY?) I feel like a pretty solid second-year teacher, but I see so many day-to-day failures that I'd never be able to step back, look at the big picture, and imagine that something good was going on. I'm really grateful that TFA did that for me (even if they decided that it wasn't actually good enough for national comparison, I never said I needed to be the best) and it's done wonders for my attitude towards my job to be told I'm not as bad at it as I thought.

Why I Am Quitting TFA

Last night I was standing in a crowded bar, drink in hand, talking to a boy.  Well, shouting, actually, because it’s the only way we could hear each other.  We shared names, he asked how long I’d been living in DC, I asked about his gorgeous French accent.  He was a friend of a friend, attractive, well-dressed, and a native of Luxembourg.  I was intrigued. There are a lot of predictable ways for this story to end.  I could tell you that I went home dreaming of him.  I could tell you that I went home after a healthy dance-floor make-out session with him (it was a rowdy college bar, after all).  I could tell you that I went home with him.  Or, at least, that he called the next day.  But the truth is, after about two more lines of the above conversation, I never saw him again. Soooo, why all this fuss over nothing, then?  Well, it turns out that Nicholas - that was his name - is an incredibly perceptive Luxembourgian, even when it comes to strangers who have to repeat their sentences two or three times before he can hear a single word.  By the time Nicholas and I started talking, I had already been introduced to a handful of his friends, all of whom had politely asked the routine question:  “What are you doing in DC?”  To each of them, I had answered, “I’m a teacher,” and that was that.  But when I said it to Nicholas, he said something shocking in reply.  He said:  “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.” I am fairly certain that my jaw dropped, though I was on drink number something and so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.  What I do know is that I managed to clarify, “Oh, no, it’s just that I hate my job.”  At that moment I was dragged away by a girlfriend in need of another round, so I have no idea what he thought of my reply.  Most people would have been sympathetic, and asked why.  But clearly, Nicholas was not most people. Until his analysis, I had no idea that my “I’m a teacher” had implied anything negative at all.  Usually when being introduced, I would wait until my new acquaintance asked what I thought of teaching before unleashing my depressing commentary.  After all, no one likes being the person whose defining characteristic is her hatred of her own career choice.  Especially not in this day and age, when teachers are either saints or Satan’s helpers.  It’s kind of hard to be seen as one of the good ones when you walk around spewing angry stories about small human beings. But apparently, with a strong dose of gin swimming around in my brain, I was having a hard time filtering.  They say alcohol tells the truth, and in this case it was a truth I hadn’t been aware of myself:  I was ashamed of my job.  Yes, I hated it.  That much I knew.  But Nicholas had been right.  It wasn’t just hatred.  I was ashamed. Why, though?  Being a Teach for America teacher implied prestige - not to mention the job was temporary.  Saying, “I’m a teacher” and knowing that this meant “I am a member of Teach for America” shouldn’t have been cause for embarrassment.  Saying, “I’m a teacher” and meaning, “I have chosen education as my career field” could potentially have been a different story.  There are plenty of parents out there who would lament such a low-paying job, but coming from a family bursting with educators, I wouldn’t have disappointed anybody even if that were the case. Yet, there it was.  I was ashamed.  Shame is an ugly emotion, so I suppose it’s no wonder that I had pushed it deep into my subconscious.  Now that Nicholas had forced me to confront it, though, I realized it had been there for a while.  Months, if not more.  What was it doing there?  When had it arrived?  How could I get rid of it? Teach for America is a grand proponent of introspection, so when I woke up with a ridiculously bad hangover on the morning after my encounter with Nicholas, I decided that I would play hooky from my mandatory TFA professional development Saturday and stay home to reflect on my newfound emotions.  I figured, if my Program Director (code for TFA boss) knew what I was doing instead of reporting for duty, she might want to shoot me a little bit less.  Still, though, I knew that what I was doing was cowardly.  I hadn’t called out sick, let alone provided advanced warning.  With this single decision I would forfeit my right to claim an AmeriCorps grant of $5,000 at the end of the school year.  Really, though, I hadn’t done anything brave in a long, long while.  So what difference did it make? Suddenly, as a lay perfectly still underneath the blankets waiting out my tremendous headache and praying that I wouldn’t throw up my advil, I realized I had found my answer.  I wasn’t ashamed to be a teacher, per se.  I was ashamed of myself as a teacher. I should start by saying that, even if I were good at my job, hating it so much would be sufficient cause for shame.  There’s something truly and deeply embarrassing about making the wrong life decisions -- marrying the wrong man, choosing the wrong school, winding up in the wrong career field.  When you inevitably wind up unhappy, and loathing yourself for the poor choice, you feel like an idiot.  Why didn’t I see this coming?  Why didn’t I think twice?  Why didn’t I go another way?  Admitting this to the friends and family who supported your decision - and who happen to be happy with their own situations -- adds a whole new dimension of humiliation.  No one wants to be pitied by everyone they know. When it comes to teaching, matters get even worse.  Nobody ever says it, but you know that at least some of them are thinking:  “Wait a second, you hate working with kids?”  or “How can you hate being part of such a noble organization?”  The smartest ones interpret, correctly, that “I hate my job” means “I’m a terrible teacher.”  How else could things be so bad? Now, this really gets to the heart of things.  And admitting it is probably the first and only brave thing I’ve done since the shame first set in.  I am a terrible teacher.  Awful.  Abysmal.  Painfully inadequate.  This, coming from the girl who has been teased since age five for not being bad at anything -- well, besides team sports.  I am a bad teacher.   To put it kindly.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that my failure is directly proportional to my students’ poor behavior.  That is, the worse they act in my classroom, the worse I get at “managing” them.  It’s a spiral that’s been out of control since mid-October. Things did start off alright.  Aside from the fact that I had 200 students. (200!  200 names to learn!  200 papers to grade, twice a week minimum!  200 parents to call!  200 human beings whose welfare was in my hands!)  And aside from the fact that I had four special education classes, no (legally-mandated) help, and no “SPED” training except for a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation through which I learned the acronyms for different disabilities.  Useful stuff, let me tell you.  Even so, in the beginning of the year, for the most part, the kids did what I told them to do.  I had my PowerPoints and my “exit slips” and a million other things that not a single one of my teachers had ever tried to put me through in a classroom, but if TFA said they would work, I had faith.  And so I became a teacher. But my students must have sensed weakness, because then they pounced.  As one little boy very candidly informed me about a month ago, “You were too nice to us.  So now we take advantage of you.”  I wasn’t even hurt -- he was absolutely right.  I had been seduced by TFA’s ideas of a positive learning environment, where students learn because they are “invested”, and so they achieve.  I had smiled before Christmas, and now I was screwed.  Just one more item to add to the list of everything that was TFA’s fault. Was it TFA’s fault, though?  Had I been inadequately prepared for an impossible mission?  Or was it just me?  I had a sneaking suspicion that it had to be the latter.  After all, there were plenty of TFA teachers out there mixing up fresh batches of Kool-Aid while I lay in bed hiding from my boss.  Maybe they were crazy, or maybe they were just good.  Maybe they were talented, and I just sucked. Still, there were problems with this explanation.  I had begun with a strong desire to succeed, and an unparallelled work ethic.  I had been the college senior who did all the reading, for goodness’s sake.  I could define discipline in my sleep.  And until this past September, my life story had been a beautiful testament to the classic “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Only now, I was pulling my hairs out trying to determine what had gone wrong.  I had the will, but where - where, in God’s name! - was the way? All the nightmare stories about Teach for America that can be found in the blogosphere sound like minor variations on my own classroom.  Truthfully, it’s a war zone.  Nobody is learning -- which, according to the prevailing wisdom in today’s education field, means that I must not be teaching.  Pencils and rubber bands are used as weapons, with occasionally painful and potentially lawsuit-inducing consequences.  I once had a student who threw a whole desk at another kid’s head while I stood in the hallway during passing time.  I have broken up fistfights, screamed in students’ faces, nearly cried in class on countless occasions, and succeeded in teaching my students only that I’m easily overpowered, and really just a sad pathetic joke.  I have been cursed at in multiple languages, and even been sideswiped once with a pretty hard punch.  Usually, even when I yell, nobody can hear me.  That’s how loud my classroom is.  Nobody stays in their seats -- sometimes they even chase each other.  They turn in empty pieces of paper a lot of the time, after 72 minutes of “doing work.”  I, in turn, give them passing grades.  I have to.  I can’t fail everyone. I used to find these things discouraging to the point of emotional breakdown.  And then I just gave up.  I lost the energy to keep fighting, but I felt paralyzed - both financially and morally -- and so I stayed.  When I quit TFA (note:  when, not if) I will owe more than $3,000 in “transitional funding,” or the money that TFA gave to tide me over during the four-month time span between the start of summer training and the arrival of my first paycheck.  I will have thirty days to produce the lump sum.  Not to mention, I’ll forever have to look back on this period in my life feeling like a quitter.  Like somebody who couldn’t handle a challenge.  When the going got tough, I got going -- out the door, that is.  And yet, all of those things seem bearable in comparison to getting up in the morning and surviving four whole periods. I will probably never know if it was just me, or if it was my particular situation, or if it was TFA as a whole that caused things to turn out this way.  I do know that even if I were a fabulous teacher, my students would still finish out the year woefully far behind.  My eighth graders with children at home would still have children at home.  None of them would ever make it to the Ivy League, and probably many would never make it to college.  They came into my classroom confident that there was nothing in it for them, and I failed in my attempt to change their minds.  Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would quit now in the hopes that somebody great would come along, and make up for the six months of harm I’ve done to them. That’s the thing nobody tells you when you sign up, though.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person.  It doesn’t matter if you cry out of determination to improve your teaching, or out of desperation to escape.  It doesn’t matter how guilty you feel, or how badly you want things to change.  When you fail, nothing matters except that you’ve failed.  And suddenly you’re this person who is ashamed all the time, and cowardly all the time, and mean all the time.  Because you failed when the stakes were too high to fail.  And there’s no way to make up for that. I am strong, and courageous, and compassionate.  I do the right thing and I never leave something half-finished.  Everything I do, I do well.  I stand up for myself and I stand up for the people around me.  I am persistent as all hell and I am the most stubborn person I know.  I'm a fighter with a conscience.  Or, at least, I used to be all of those things.  Now I don't recognize myself.  And that’s the truth about TFA, for me.  For me, TFA has been a lesson in how things fall apart.  How we let our society fall apart, and how the task of putting it back together again is enough to make us fall apart too.  I wish I could say that there has been something redeeming in all of the bad stuff, but if there has, it will take me a few years’ worth of hindsight to identify it. To return to the original starting point of this rambling story:  lying in bed hungover, on the morning of this realization, I knew that I was being stubborn.  I was pissed off at TFA for not making me a good teacher, as if that was their responsibility instead of my own.  And so I was being passive-aggressive, and stubborn, and staying in bed on a one-woman teacher’s strike against ineffective workshops and useless handouts.  I was wallowing at a time when I needed to get my act together and get my head in the game.  But somehow this was reassuring.  Being stubborn felt familiar.  It felt good.  It felt normal.  It was one of those feelings I thought that I had lost to the job.  If I could reclaim stubborn, maybe I could reclaim everything else, too.  And hey, I had to start somewhere. If you’re thinking about joining TFA, let me be your Nicholas from Luxembourg -- before you make the decision, instead of in the March after you’ve already committed.  We all have a right to be proud of what we do with our lives.  If we’re not, we’re doing something wrong.  Or, maybe we’re doing the wrong something.  Before you send that email that says, “I’ll do it!” you should know that it might be something you love, but it also might be a big something that you regret.  And it’s by no means assured that you’ll succeed at it, even under the most generous definitions of the word.  Do I disagree with TFA’s mission?  Not even the slightest bit.  Do I think that TFA works, though?  I can only speak from personal experience, and I have to say the heartbreaking word that none of us want to hear -- the very same word that I should have said in my own fateful email last November:  No.


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