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updates for 10.29.2011

7 new posts today


I'm going to be incredibly tacky and write about money.  This is for all of you potential future TFAers out there.  I expected/was prepared for a lot of things about this whole TFA experience, but I really had a misconception about money.  I thought that once I was making a teacher's salary and living in a place with an incredibly low cost of living, that I'd be rolling in money.  I actually thought I'd pay off my car. Boy was I wrong.  It cost me so much to move here that I haven't really recovered.  Plus, I didn't get a paycheck from the beginning of May till the end of September, and I don't get paid very much. This is something to think about if you're going to do TFA.  I don't want to deter you, but I want to make sure you know what you're getting into, money-wise.

  • My salary is officially around $32,000 a year.  I take home $1770 a month.
  • Rent is $300 a month -- pretty standard for around here.
  • Utilities (including wireless internet) -- $150 a month.
  • Trip from California to Mississippi: $1500
  • Money out of my own pocket spent on my classroom at Institute: around $200
  • Money out of my own pocket spent on my classroom here: at least $400
  • professional wardrobe: $500
  • gas for the monthly 4-hour trip for Pro Sat: $40
  • food: $100 or so a month
  • plane tickets for Christmas and Thanksgiving: $1000
Basically, the moral of the story is that I'm now around $3000 in credit card debt.  I know I'll pay it off eventually, but it adds even more stress to an already stressful situation. I'm not sure how unique this is to my situation, but I just wanted to let you all know what it's really like.  Maybe once I pay off the debt from moving here, then I'll have money :).

The Incentive...

Tennessee - and Memphis specifically - is at the heart of a lot of potentially powerful change in terms of education reform. Big names in Teach For America history - Kevin Huffman and Chris Barbic - have taken positions in state education leadership; there is a city-county system merger set for 2013; the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative has begun a new era in teacher evaluations; there has been a large amount of grant money coming from both government and private foundations. All of this signals that Memphis is on the path to becoming a city that turns itself around for the sake of its children and their education. Barbic spoke at a professional development event on Monday night, after driving all the way from Nashville to come meet our corps. He made kind of a sales pitch for the Achievement School District, which led me to think about what it would take to get the best teachers in arguably the worst schools. The Teach For America model works... in 40-odd regions, and even then there is the problem of first years being largely experimental, and I've also heard of research indicating year three, one year more than this commitment, as the critical year (where perhaps effectiveness begins and floundering diminishes?). So, outside of Teach For America - and perhaps even within our regions, how do struggling schools and districts attract the strongest teachers for their struggling students? Pay teachers more. Nick Kristof wrote an editorial titled exactly that earlier this year. I didn't think about it too much when I read it (though I did share it on my facebook page), but as Barbic was encouraging us to think about staying in Memphis and applying to schools in the ASD, I wondered what the budget for the ASD was. It was described as a district with a clean slate, an opportunity to repair the worst-performing schools by starting over. Does that mean teacher salaries will also be overhauled? This type of drastic change means the way we approach these schools needs to change, and the way we approach these teachers also needs to change. Paying teachers more goes hand in hand with developing a collective national mindset of respect for teachers. Do I make a decent paycheck? Yes, especially for Memphis. Does it reflect the hours I put in (and, let's be honest, the frustrations I deal with)? Rarely. Before I joined the corps, I was on an engineering co-op, working a 9-to-5 (more or less). I made more than I am making now, but I certainly was not working nearly as hard. No surprise there. I remember getting pay stubs last year in the fall and thinking each time, I have never earned a paycheck as much as I have earned this. The arguments that I work a shorter day than 9-to-5 and that I get the summer off are excuses from people who have yet to realize that, even if it were true that my day begins at 7:15 and ends at 2:15 and that I laze around in June and July (and it most certainly is not), I am paid not just for my time but for my hefty responsibility as an educator of this city's youth. My previous job researching allergy medications was, quite frankly, not nearly as significant (apologies, allergy sufferers), and yet society and the market had determined that it somehow was worth more than teaching and preparing future leaders, innovators, and workers of America. The most notable model I know of for truly competitive teacher pay is Zeke Vanderhoek's The Equity Project. Teachers earn $125,000, but they also work a lot more than a typical teacher, filling in for administrative roles as well. They are, apparently, the best of the best; a New York Times article about the project in its early stages noted that the PE teacher was a former personal trainer of Kobe Bryant's. In the spring of its second year, CBS News reported that TEP's school's results were below average other public schools' in New York City. It's hard to draw conclusions from just one school, and only time will tell whether the TEP model works. Monday night, I wondered what the plan was to turn schools around beyond hiring new leaders and new teachers, and what would make the ASD appealing to someone who had other options, such as a third year at her placement school, a third year at a charter school, a job on Teach For America staff, graduate school or professional school, a job completely outside of teaching, etc. What I realized for myself was that were I able to make merit pay or were my salary truly competitive with the other jobs I am qualified for, I would be questioning staying a third year a lot less and buying things for my house/classroom a lot more.


it's Friday

I wake up EVERY Friday morning with that wretched song stuck in my head!  I get to wear jeans to school, though, so it's okay. School's been going pretty well.  I still love my babies (for the most part), and I love my school.  We had a Scholastic Audit this week, though, so the entire faculty was stressed out and tense the entire time.  I had four 30-minute observations and an interview, and I think they all went pretty well.  I wasn't too stressed out about it because I'm doing the best I can and I can't do any better than that! I'm working on being more efficient and spending less time at school.  My classroom doesn't have any windows, so it has a very sterile feel.  I can only spend about 2 hours there on the weekends before I start to go nutty.  I'm beginning to actually plan ahead with my lessons, so I usually have time in the evenings to relax. I'm still sick.  Not death-warmed-over sick, but sick nonetheless.  I've been taking it easy, though, so hopefully this cold will go away. Classroom management-wise, things aren't too bad.  Now that I've got the big things under control (for the most part), I'm becoming aware of the little things for the first time.  I'm still using the "chain of consequences", but only for purposeful noncompliance.  It's dumb, but it's the only way I know how to be consistent and fair.  I still have one class that is more, ahem, *difficult*, but I've found that being hyperstructured works pretty well with them. I'm still not really crazy about teaching math.  I like the teaching part, but I have zero passion for math, which makes it more difficult to be excited about classifying figures.  Although it is entertaining when my kids try to say "parallelogram" 5 times fast :). October really hasn't been that bad.  I've had bad days and bad weeks, but no longer than that.  Plus, it's three weeks till Thanksgiving, then three more weeks of school till Christmas!  And it's Friday. Always a good thing.


i am reminded!/retention guilt

My classroom is the closest one to the library and our librarian is my lovely blonde haloed guardian angel. Juuuust at the point of no return, when I'm standing in the doorway after dismissal reconsidering my life choices and the overturned workstation buckets in the north corner, Fly Brarian swings in and gasps: "I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst thought: it's your second year, right? You're done after this. Please tell me you're staying. You were made for this." Ah. Yes. TFA's "two year commitment." I haven't yet found the best way to message what TFA is and does and why it only requires two classroom years. Most people come at it with a negative bias off the bat: "Well, maybe you do actually make a difference, but then you LEAVE." Some genuinely don't understand what two years of service means held up to our lifetime commitment to closing the achievement gap, while others sneer at the "resume-boosters" who transition out of the classroom. Regardless of the camp one falls in, a majority of press regarding TFA-teacher retention blames TFA for its two-and-done model and I have things to say regarding this point. The TFA hiring model is rooted in best corporate recruitment practice. As in: let's take the best and brightest and expose them to a career field they have not previously considered and support their professional growth in tandem. Let's flood failing systems with top leaders who have a passion for shifting paradigms and continually increase our quality of hire based on their ability to lead the field. This model fosters competition, innovation, and higher standards for educators and educatees alike and has the potential to revolutionize education on a large scale. However, the onus for the education field's inability to retain these people falls on TFA. Let's discuss. I've witnessed strong, determined young people challenge themselves to grow and better themselves in their trade and actually close the achievement gap in their classrooms by a fair margin only to bitterly shrivel and die under their administrations (see: previous post "on quitting"). I've been up against a professional development wall myself of late, having been explicitly forbidden from taking any leadership roles at all this year (and promptly doing so anyway; see future post "on being fired for willful disobedience"). TFA supports its corps members as much and as comprehensively as it can, but no professional network can adequately supplement a poor work environment in which creativity, leadership, and career mobility are stifled if not nonexistent. And "tenure" doesn't count. Of course, so many of the factors deterring teacher retention are part of the system as a whole to begin with; few schools in the public realm have freedom to respond to and support their teachers to begin with. Even my "autonomous" turnaround school is finding itself further constrained at every minute turn (see: upcoming post "on being written up by the district you were quite sure you do not belong to?"). "But what about," you ask, "the districts, schools, and principals that might not want TFA teachers in their schools? Maybe districts, schools, and principals have to buy in to TFA teachers that they didn't ask for?" I direct you to the districts across the country who partially fund our regions and the principals who seek out and hire TFA teachers for their schools year after year. Let's discuss over coffee the expansion of TFA to 40+ regions over two decades and the undeniably transformational effect TFA teachers have in schools and districts in which they teach. All of this is to say: it's TFA's victory that tens of thousands of high-achieving, passionate, energetic young people willing to invest and improve their skills are pouring into a floundering system determined to reinvigorate it. It's not their failure that the system isn't finding and utilizing ways to retain us. My only response to Fly Brarian is "You're absolutely right. I was definitely made for this." I'm not leaving the corps or my failing school, but my role within each is changing. Because of TFA and my service years, I now have opportunities to get involved with education at the local and state level which will directly impact my school. I plan to pursue those leadership roles which will improve the lives and educational portfolio of my kids and those entering my school in the future. Thanks to TFA, I have an unequaled perspective of our nation's real children and their real lives and I can serve as an accurate (and loud and angry) voice for my kids and kids across our state and nation who grow up in this suffocating system. If it weren't for TFA, I wouldn't even be here.


Fall in the south..

It is October 28th!  This dreaded month is almost over --Thanksgiving less than a month away, and from what I'm told, the year flies from this point on.  3 weeks until Thanksgiving, 8 weeks until Christmas, I can't wait for the breaks that are coming.  Don't get me wrong I love LOVE love my kids.. they are wonderful, really!  I just need a break. Today is Fall Fest at our school.  The gym is set up as an fun fest there is a cake walk, candy walk, bounce house, games, prizes and more candy then what is left at Walmart in the Halloween isle.  I have heard the horror stories of last year of kids throwing up because of all the candy, nachos, hot dogs, popcorn and juice that they had last year.  My goal is to make it through today without having any kids throw up.  My plans of taking them out to recess after fall fest (because I'm a realist -- there will be no instruction time today.. not with 26 five year olds stuffed full of candy and junk food from 8:30-10:30 in the morning) because of this lovely rainstorm that came through last night.  Hopefully the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown gets brought in by one of my parents that promised they would record it for me!  Today is just going to be filled with coloring, fun and books about Halloween and fall. Oh yeah, and there is a haunted house in the gym.. I'm sure that tons of screaming crying children will end up coming up to me after that... I went in there last night, terrifying for a 5 year old.  Keep your fingers crossed many parents come today. I read my Arthur's Halloween to them yesterday and they LOVED LOVED that it was scary and got so into it!  My room was so quiet and their eyes were glued to the book. Alright, kids are walking in.. 7:20 on the dot!


So mom, you mean there was a purpose to those AWFUL evaluations I got?

When I was teaching some of my students decided that they didn't like the way I taught. I expected them to make sense of the math, to see connections, to flexibly switch between multiple representations, to apply a concept to a novel problem. This was new and since they were trying to apply to top colleges the thought of their grades suffering was hard for them to handle. They had existed on memorization and all of a sudden this wasn't going to work for them. I didn't realize how lost they were on basic concepts because they had so much memorized. I didn't understand student thinking very well at all and assumed that knowing the words for something meant they understood it as I did. Nope. Not so much. There were clear lines between the kids in my class who had always thought math made sense and loved that I explained why and those who'd been getting by with memorization for years and were horrified that I wasn't telling them the steps to solve their homework problems. And unfortunately for me, one of my student's who HATED the way I taught had a very powerful mother. This is my best guess as to why my principal decided to observe me every week for 6 months and send me wonderful emails about what I could do better. I HATED these emails. HATED, HATED, HATED them. They made me cry. I wrote hateful responses where I tore the principal's critiques to shreds and sent them to my mother. Then I tried to see if there was any truth in what he said and how I might adapt. I often tried to change superficially so I would look like he wanted me to look. I tried to manipulate what was going on in artificial ways. I didn't want to lose my job. And I didn't agree with everything he saw in my classroom. He wasn't in my head. He didn't grade papers. I had reasons for things that he was not seeing when he popped in from time to time. was even a nice guy who had the kid's best interest at heart but he didn't understand what I was trying to do with my class. I wasn't fully aware how different my approach was because my ideas were new and not fully articulated. I knew there was a problem in math education, I saw indications of rampant confusion, but I'd had no mentors and all of this thinking that was potentially productive was enough of a mess that I couldn't figure out how to share it with my principal who didn't understand my motives. I'm not sure he even understood that I had the seeds of radically different mathematical instruction in my mind. I think he just thought I was unclear and confusing and incapable of providing clear steps for kids to follow. He didn't see the confusion I fostered in my students as a deliberate attempt to force them to think through things on their own. And I HATED it when I knew I'd done something wrong and could have easily discussed it with him and he had to go and point it out for me instead. I hated that my goals were made up inside his head and there was no stab taken at being objective. No rubrics. It was "I know good teaching when I see it and this isn't it." I didn't have the quadratic formula song and square roots jokes like he did. But at least I knew what the quadratic formula was good for. And you know what, I'm not being entirely fair. The principal was a nice enough guy who really was doing his best to help me, but the weekly emails about what I was doing wrong stung really badly even if he wrote about what was good to go along with it. THe nature of someone coming in and understanding so much less about the kids and the situation and telling me what was wrong without asking for my input was a horrible way to go about things. I know I'm defensive, and that perhaps some long term issues contributed to how awful I felt when he criticized me, but there has to be something better than that model. I didn't learn too much from it. In fact, if I had to point to the number one reason that I became one another teacher to leave the classroom in less than five years I would say it was because of the criticism from my administration. And, I think they did me a favor, because I'm so much happier in graduate school. I think they were trying to help me find my place and their school wasn't it. I remember that at my other school I had issues as well with the evaluations I received. Such as "the kids are too close together. Move the desks to create more space." You try to fit 39 desks into a tiny box of a room and see how that goes for you. I remember precisely how many desks I had, two less than my biggest class with the assumption that kids would always be absent. I moved those stupid desks around so that it would look like I believed that reorganization might reduce the surface area of the desks. I remember being criticized for teaching fundamental concepts that seemed too easy for high school. The observers didn't realize that over half of the kids didn't understand these topics. So, my professor is making an observation protocol for teachers. And I'm not entirely sure of the purpose of this tool-is it for research, to help teachers learn, for evaluation. However, if it is a tool that is going to only be applied by coming in and having an outside person decide what is happening and what the teacher is doing I think it is flawed. Even a bad teacher is going to have some explanations for what is happening that will at the very least inform us of problematic ideas about teaching. If it is going to help a teacher learn they need to take part in it. They need to believe what the rubric says so that they believe that it is an accurate reflection and that they can get better. TFA does a decent job at involving the CM's in the observation process. I never felt awful about those meetings because I was a participant. And even if this tool is for research we are still going to gain a lot from getting the teacher's point of view. So, in a flurry of post yoga, post class brainstorming, I think that I'm starting to see that I have ideas about this project. Ideas that have to do with emotions and feelings and things that change in education. So, my dissertation-How do teachers participate in coevaluation of the quality of their mathematics instruction? How do they learn from this assessment? How accurate is it? Ah... ideas. Even if this isn't it, it is something! Much better than the mess I was at the beginning of the week.


Make sure you are excited about your dissertation topic. Wait, I don't have a topic!

Monday I thought I had an idea for my dissertation that I was excited about and had ideas about. I thought about doing an intervention with a 2nd year TFA math teacher to see if I could help her build models of student thinking with the intent of helping her develop a more productive and accurate understanding of the problems in math education. Then I spoke to my advisor about the connections between my plan and my role as his research assistant and he thought that there was not enough overlap and that I'd be overwhelmed trying to collect data on an intervention that was not tightly related to our project. I appreciate that my advisor is looking out for my sanity and wants me to overlap my research with his research. That said, I'm feeling uninspired by his project. And I think that this is a function of not entirely understanding his project or seeing how it fits with what I care about. I know it's important, but it's still so big and confusing for me that I'm not sure what to do with it. I need ideas to be excited. So here I am, rambling on my blog, trying to find some clarity about what I'm going to research. So, my advisors project, I'll start with that. And then maybe the process of describing it will help me see my place in it. Assessments are driving the country. What should I teach? Teachers say again and again that what they do in class is dictated by their beliefs about what will help their students do well on standardized tests. Yet, we have the issue that we can't just measure teachers by how their students do on these tests. The biggest predictors of student success are not the teacher. They are the socioeconomic status and the educational level of the students' moms. I heard those stats at a few statistics talks lately and I can believe it. I saw my students when I was at my TFA school and I saw my students when I taught at a fancy private school. The differences in my success was amazing. In two years at the private school I never failed anyone because nobody ever deserved to fail. Another problem with only measuring students when we want to find out about teacher performance is that it leaves us no tools to investigate relationships between teaching and student success. The studies about the relationships between student performance and number of math classes a teacher have taken have been inconclusive. Yet, there is some sort of mathematical knowledge for teaching that is complicated, hard to learn and hard to describe. And I believe, intrinsically, that there must be some connection between mathematical knowledge for teaching and student success. So attempts to measure and quantify and clarify teaching methods and knowledge of teachers is going to help us analyze interventions. We'll be better suited to make claims about teachers. We'll be able to look not only at student progress but the moves a teacher makes. And honestly, it's not fair to base someone's job on their student's test scores exclusively. It also has to be about the opportunity they are giving their students to learn. We must also be able to tell teachers "do this differently" and show them progress on their practice before it shows up in test scores. They can't make their kids learn. They can change what they do. So, my advisor is going to create two things in the next two years. An assessment to measure a teachers knowledge of secondary mathematics. And the goal is that this assessment is more meaningful than anything that exists right now because it will take into account research on student and teacher thinking. It will be more than a "do they remember the steps" test and move towards a test of mathematical connections and flexibility. Perhaps this assessment will also give pictures of what they know and what they have to work on. My other professor Jim suggested I take a look at the SOLO taxonomy and their assessments that don't have right and wrong multiple choice, but multiple choice that puts you at a different level of understanding. The focus is not "do they know it or not" but "what do they know." At our project meeting we discussed the distinct possibility, based on research and experience, that if we made a mathematics test that reflected our vision for what secondary teachers should know that most of the teachers would fail it. The assessment wouldn't be useful if everyone fails. It's not as if we need any more slaps in the face to wake us up to the reality of our failing education system. So I suppose defining the purpose of this assessment is important. If it is for professional development then it needs to tell us how someone understands something, not just that they are completely lost. Perhaps, it could almost be like a personality test that there are different ways of approaching the world, but that there is not a right and a wrong answer. Of course, in mathematics some ways of thinking are more productive, but there is the possibility for assessments and quizzes that sort people into groups rather than give them a percentage and deem them a failure. Speaking of personality tests-I need to do some soul searching. It's almost good that my first idea for a dissertation was shot down. I need to reevaluate, reflect, and answer some questions really carefully. What do I care about? What do I have good ideas about? What do already know about? What will be useful for my project team and TFA's math PD? I care about helping teachers. I was a traumatized, overwhelmed first year teacher and that experience has stuck with me. I feel empathy for new teachers in a way that I don't for struggling students. Although graduate coursework has given me a taste of what it feels like to be a struggling student, I still don't have the strong emotional ties to students like I do to new teachers. I want to help teachers learn. I want to help provide them with materials that are useful and help them grow as professionals. I want to think about systems and collaboration and the internet and how to make teacher's lives easier. I want to know how to transmit this gigantic body of research knowledge into the classroom so that it can see the light of day. I want to take the knowledge that exists and help transmit it in pieces that are pertinent enough to a teacher's daily planning that they are motivated to think about it. I want the research to solve the problem of "why is this kid confused" and "what can I do about it." I know that teachers need to think more deeply about the mathematics than they were asked to when they were students. I want to provide scaffolding and support to help them do that. I want the decision makers in TFA and the teachers who will become future principals to see the issues in math education as I see them. I want them to see the entire system as dysfunctional. The problem is not that the kids don't care or that we need more technology or more real-world examples. We need a fundamental overhaul of the system. I suppose I'm passionate about breaking down this overhaul into bite size pieces that make sense for teachers. How do assessments fit into this? How does testing a teacher help the teacher develop. Maybe I can think of assessments for learning instead of assessments of learning. Teachers are professionals. We don't need to put them in order from bad to good. There isn't a point. We don't pay them on a bad to good scale-it's just not useful. I would prefer a community of teachers who are working together to achieve common goals. Well, the process of creating the assessments of key developmental understanding of mathematics is going to require carefully fleshing out all of the understandings we see as most important. We can only assess a sampling of the secondary curriculum and we are going to have to make construct maps to explain all of the various ways of thinking about something. Perhaps our assessment can't be widely disseminated but I don't see any reason that our careful descriptions of what mathematics we believe people should have couldn't be. I don't know if documents like this exist anywhere. I suppose that they are models of ways of thinking about a particular topic, both good and bad. Little descriptions. Maps. I can see that these models could be useful when schools of education are planning curriculum for teachers. Is that fair for the people who write a test to pass out the study guide? Isn't the point that we create something that people can use as a model to design instruction for teachers? Maybe, I'm just on the first step of the road of figuring out what it is that I want a teacher to know. Second, we are working on an Instructional Quality Assessment. It's a rubric for observing teachers. Now, and maybe this is way too radical of an idea. But, maybe that it is why it's the idea I'm happiest about tonight. What if the teachers participate in the instructional quality assessment. If this assessment is for learning and not for job decisions then doesn't it make sense that the teacher be involved. Video cameras are not very expensive. And I have the wonderful Adam Geller who is making the video platform I'd need to be able to communicate with a teacher about their classroom. And also, don't we need to interact with the teacher to understand her MKT? Michael pointed out in our seminar tonight that if he had been observed with the protocol it wouldn't look like he had very much mathematical knowledge for teaching. He saw that the students were not engaging in the meaningful math he wanted to teach. So he switched to procedures and gave up because of institutional constraints. I did the same thing. I don't think that we can assume that a teacher's vision for teaching is represented by what they do. They are constrained in a system and we can't forget the system when we are trying to analyze what they understand. To forget about the nature of their administration and school district is going to disregard a large part of what I think probably goes into their decision making process. Also, if we are talking about knowledge, then wouldn't the teacher's explanations of why they made particular moves be an important window into their thinking? Imagine seeing Pat teach derivatives today and think that he's just another teacher teaching kids steps for derivatives. You would have to talk to him to see how much meaning he'd built for these ideas and to see how he saw the curriculum fitting together. I HATED being observed one day here, one day there, and never been evaluated on how I saw the curriculum fitting together. Engagement. Awake students. How fun the task was. It wasn't very deep. Teaching deeply takes more than a day. Yet it can be captured in one visit to a classroom. Perhaps this instructional quality assessment needs to capture how a teacher tutors as well. This would give insight into how they understand the mathematics when pressure is removed. I keep coming back to wanting to interact with teachers. To help the build meanings with me. I don't want to evaluate them as if I understand more than they do. They are going to be a source of information about their classroom that I can't possibly be. What am I good at? Reflecting. Coming up with ideas about how organizations should address issues. Big picture ideas. Caring about others. I mean, I'm not really sure what I'm good at but I need to take a stab at this so that my dissertation plays to my strengths. I want the dissertation to be a story-I don't want it to just be facts and data. I don't think that data always paint the most convincing story. It doesn't always explain much. What do I know? I know how teachers think(at least how I thought). I know some of the constraints teachers face. I know that some of the reasons they make decisions in the moment are not to do with how they understand the nature of mathematics. I know about how students think of rates of change, division, and derivatives. (well, I've at least been thinking about it.) I know how TFA professional development for math works(at least a rough overview and I have a sense of where it is headed.) I have a sense of what mathematical knowledge for teaching looks like and how I might learn it. I see the importance of meaning in math education. I am starting to be able to de-center and see math through someone else's eyes. So, where does this leave me. I'm not sure what I want my dissertation to be. But I think that rethinking everything again to fit a new constraint is productive. And VERY worth doing.


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