updates for 05.20.2012
Once upon a time, I taught the same subject in the same grade in the same district as a brand new first year teacher. This teacher was fresh out of student teaching with one of the best veteran teachers around, and a couple of schools actually fought over who would get to have him. The school that won was overjoyed. Unfortunately, this teacher quickly found himself in over his head with a middle school math classroom of his own. It turned out that he actually knew very little about math, and couldn't do fundamental things like make a table from an equation or multiply fractions. His confusion at the content meant that he was lost in curriculum and couldn't even string his way through a textbook. His unit plans would jump from one idea to another and then back to the first idea in ways that had no logic, and his daily lessons were mind-bogglingly confusing. Combine that with a desperate need for the kids to think he was cool, an immediate willingness to undermine other teachers or make fun of his colleagues to get the kids on his side, and worse-than-normal first year classroom management, and I'm sure you can imagine what that room was like. It was an absolute disaster zone. It didn't take long for him to decide that he wanted the kids to like him more than he wanted them to get an education. It also didn't take him long to realize that teaching was hard and he wasn't going to attempt the work required to get better because no one could really do anything about it. It didn't take anyone long to realize he shouldn't be working there. And that's the point when he came to me. I started giving him everything, from materials to sit-down time together explaining the math. He wasn't especially interested in learning, but he would sit with me long enough to indulge my explanations and then run off. His classroom remained a crazy place (materials alone won't save you), but at least the kids who wanted to learn had something to do. At least he could stand in front of the room and say something. At least there was some learning going on. Now administration at his school was great, and they were very clear that a teacher who couldn't manage kids, didn't know basic math, and wasn't trying to improve was not someone they wanted on that team. If you'd met this guy, there was no way you would disagree with them. Unfortunately, there was no easy way for them to get rid of even the Worst Teacher Ever. They had to give extensive proof that he was doing a bad job just to put him on an Improvement Plan, and then they had to wait a few months, and then give extensive proof that he wasn't showing growth. It's a huge amount of work on an administrator and little work on the teacher. In the end, the best they were going to get was a non-renewal of his contract for the following year. If they slipped on any detail of the process, they'd have to start all over and probably end up having to let him stay. Tragically, no one trusts principals enough to just let them say, "This teacher is destroying students' educations and our school culture and needs to get out." They have to prove it first, and they can't prove it if the teacher has a basic level of functioning in his classroom. This teacher had all of my materials every day, which were actually pretty good. Even though everyone knew they weren't coming from him, they couldn't prove how bad he was if my photocopies were sitting in front of his kids. So my administration had to weigh a horrible decision: Either cut off the one resource that was letting those kids learn anything, or be unable to get rid of a teacher who could keep doing a terrible job for years and years. It's a decision I don't envy anyone, but can you blame them? They chose the former. He and I were no longer allowed to share resources. Without the easy access to materials, he stopped trying at all. He would literally put a slide up on the board and give the kids this direction, "You can hang out and do whatever you want, as long as you pretend to be working if anyone walks in." Any kid in any of his classes would tell you that was happening every day, and even the administrators were aware of it. But there was nothing they could do faster than they were doing - he went on the Improvement Plan, and everyone just had to wait it out. He finally quit without notice, and the long-term sub at least tried to make the kids get work done. The fresh-out-of-college teacher they hired to finish the year had her struggles, but was a major improvement and worked really hard for those kids. This story infuriates me for so many reasons. Why couldn't admin immediately get rid of someone so horrible? Why do we have a system that allows teachers to literally do nothing if they're brave enough and heartless enough to take advantage? Why can't people trust the judgment of administrators, so he could have kept using my materials and the kids could have kept learning something while he still went through the improvement plan process? Why are so few people aware that in our most struggling schools, where the kids need great teaching most, this type of thing is not unheard of? I am NOT saying that this is common in teaching. Most teachers are great, hardworking people who want the best for their kids. Even if they struggle, they are trying to improve and they are worth keeping in the classroom. Struggling teachers need help and support, and improvement plans can work well for them if they want to get better. But I AM saying that this does happen, and I think it's important that people are aware of this when they try to talk about teacher protection policies. When I write things like "I don't think it should be so easy to keep a job as a teacher" and people start roaring in fury about what a horrible person I am, I generally assume they are just lucky enough to work in a place where all the teachers are at least decent. So before you start commenting about how I'm a heartless witch for wanting principals to have dramatically more authority in hiring and firing teachers, please re-read the story above and try to understand where I'm coming from. Be grateful that you've only known good teachers, but realize that there are too many kids in this country who are not so lucky. That's all I ask.
The last few weeks have been crazy! I quit my job in DC, moved back home for a few weeks, and found out that if I chose to stay in my assigned region, there was a good chance I wouldn't get a job. I. was. a. mess. Here's the scoop--Atlanta is out. Mississippi is in. Although it was a shock--I'm ecstatic. I'm super happy to return to the rural life! Pus, I was hired by my school on Thursday, so now I finally feel like this is real! Quick question-how do I change my region in the side bar?
My blogging history is sketchy, at best. I kept a (massively embarrassing) livejournal in high school, I kept a travel blog when I was in Barcelona for a month and a half in 2010, and I was required to keep a blog for a Spanish class I took last semester on picaresque literature from the seventeenth century. It was the Spanish blog that made me realize that blogs are actually pretty useful as a place for self-reflection, and even if I don't have an audience, necessarily, it can be useful to write about things. I'm a new corps member and I have no idea what's going on in TFAland right now. I've been placed in northeast Ohio, which is a new region that didn't show up on the drop-down menu when I made this blog so I registered for "other countries" instead. Cleveland, I think, counts as another country because of the wildly erratic weather patterns. I'm about to graduate from a small, liberal arts college - the day before Induction, actually - and I'm staying here because I have an incredible support network here, both personal and educational. I've taught elementary Spanish here for four years, and I'm either going to be teaching early elementary education or secondary Spanish for my placement. I have an incredible amount of respect for people who are willing to uproot their lives and go spend two years in somewhere they've never been before, and I know that I am not the kind of person who could ever, ever do that. It's because I'm terrified of TFA. I've been teaching little kids since I was sixteen, first as a ski instructor and then as a Spanish teacher. I've always wanted to teach and I'm thrilled to be able to throw myself into it full-time. I have a pretty good handle on classroom management, I can learn kids' names pretty quickly, I have an established teacher voice, and I know that none of my experience is going to mean anything when I'm in charge of my own classroom. I told my interviewer that I was planning on coming home and sobbing and going to bed at 8pm during at least my first month in the corps. It's also not helping that I have no idea what to prepare for. As of right now, I'm either going to be teaching secondary Spanish or early elementary education. The only age group I know I won't end up teaching is fourth and fifth graders. I just want to KNOW, and I want to be at Institute or Induction or something. And the pre-work is driving me crazy - the first article in the packet literally argues that all white people are racist and people of color can have racial privilege. I agreed with the article, actually, until it twisted around its language to make that argument. (Before that, the main argument was that racism is societal and systemic and white people, regardless of socioeconomic background, all benefit from it - which is true, but then the author defined racism to mean "benefiting from systemic racism," which I have all kinds of problems with.) And does anyone else not feel comfortable sharing their painful, formative moments with a whole group of people in a 5-7 minute speech? I get that it's kind of the point that it's uncomfortable, but I just really don't want to do it. This is getting long and I'll end it here because the alternative is sharing with the anonymous internet public exactly how neurotic and scared I am, which I guess I've already done. I leave you with this: yesterday I tried to carry a heavy bag of groceries up the stairs to my apartment. I was wearing flip flops and I ended up doing a faceplant on a set of metal stairs. Now my knee is phenomenally bruised and I can't believe that anyone is actually trusting me to be in charge of other people's children. And yet, I'm more excited for this than I've been for almost anything else in my life.
As some of you know, I left Teach for America in December. It was a hard decision, and I've tried to write about it several times since then, but none of the posts was quite right. I think now I've got it close enough to make public. There's something of a wall of silence around quitting in TFA. All of us know someone who has done it, and in some corps (including Detroit 2011), a lot of people seem to disappear. Most of those of us who leave don't want to make a ruckus. We stay quiet because we have friends in the corps and they are doing the sort of amazing work we always hoped to do. We stay quiet because we need to heal and close the wounds. We stay quiet because we have this feeling that, if we just had one more chance to do it over, we could get it right. We stay quiet because TFA said "you are a successful person, so you will succeed" and we haven't, so there must be something wrong with us. A story might help illustrate this. It was a dark night, almost any night, and I was driving back from the TFA office along the highway. It's after midnight, and a school night. I'm thinking about everything I have to do the next day, and suddenly my car hits the rumble strips on the side of the highway. I jerk back to reality and pull my car back into my lane, only to drift back into rumble strips a few minutes later as my eyes close for a second in exhaustion. I wonder if I could take a day off tomorrow to sleep and regroup, but I have no sick days until January (a school policy) and a training class that there will be some mysterious but frightening ramification if I miss. And, honestly, I can't bring myself to care about a little car carelessness or what it might cause. So I keep driving, fall into bed for a few hours, and get up. The next morning, my braking is jerky and the next night I make friends with the rumble strips again. Over and over and over again. How I never hurt anyone, I have no idea, and I don't like to think about how long my lucky streak would have lasted. I never told my bosses at my school or TFA, because what could they do? "Nothing, except find you less fit to continue and throw you out of the corps, or berate you and send you back," said the voice in my head. A few months later, after I quit, I ran into a friend from Chicago on the street. "You look great!" he squealed. "You've gained so much weight!" Having always been on the pudgy side (and gained about 30 pounds since my graduation from college), I made some sound of confusion and hurt. "Honey," he said gently, "you looked sick this fall. We could watch your face fill back out when you came in for a night and slept while we helped with your grading. You look healthy now." I had never seen what he was describing in me, but I knew exactly what it was. I had seen fellow corps members, many of whom left, have the same look - thin (regardless of body weight), hollow eyes, and an air of fragility normally associated with the very sick. Most corps members never get it, but those that struggle the most do, and many of us leave. Like many corps members (whether they complete their service or not), I have mixed feelings on TFA. There are days where I wish I hadn't gotten in, or gone. These are days where I read an article about leadership development citing TFA and I begin to hyperventilate until someone holds me and convinces me that it's over, that I don't have to ever go back. There are days when I am angry at the lack of care for corps members' schedules, preferences, talents and needs. Why couldn't they provide the curriculum support I needed? Why did they make me teach something I didn't understand over all my objections and failures? Other days, I recognize that it made me a better person to have done it, even for only 6 months. I learned that teaching, although not middle school, is a passion of mine. I'm applying to graduate school in the fall so that I can become a professor, which I had never imagined myself doing before. I have all sorts of ideas and experiences about urban education, urban development, and workforce development. I have lots of particular issues and ideas for TFA, but that's just the sort of person I am. I always want to change the system, improve the formula, find new and better ways of doing. Maybe someday I will. One last story: about a month before I decided to quit Teach for America for good, I drove to Chicago so I could be there for about 12 hours. I had started having a panic attack during a required Saturday leadership event, and realized the people who could calm me down were in Chicago. So I texted that I was coming after the event, got in my car, and took the highway going the opposite direction of my apartment. I arrived and started calming down. At one point I whispered, "When I'm here, I remember how to be happy." To any current or future corps member, please remember that you can be happy. If that's being in the corps, then do it with all your might and know there is a silent corps ready to support you. But if it isn't, don't be afraid to leave. Quitting TFA is a mythical act while you're in the corps, and no one knows how or what the ramifications will be. It's shameful and scary and potentially expensive. Do it anyway if you need to. Life on the other side is an adjustment, and you won't be immediately blissful, but it gets better. You can be successful, and happy, and do the things you want to do. The scariest part is deciding to find that other path. To my friends, fellow corps members, institute CMA, and family: thank you so much. Thank you for supporting me when I decided to do TFA. Thank you for encouraging me when you saw I wasn't doing well. Thank you for letting me know it was okay to leave. Thank you for helping me recover since then. I am safe and happy now, and I will be successful again one day.
I just came across this year's baccalaureate address from my Alma Mater. The focus of the address was on the importance of "falling into the future." To elucidate this point, the speaker used an example from sports. In almost any sport there is an occasion to fall down. Even swimmers will fall off the starting blocks from time to time. It happens. If you've ever spent any time playing a sport, you know that there are moments where you're best off letting it go. In a split-second, you acknowledge that no matter what you do, you are going to fall. So you make the decision and down you go. Of course, you could "decide" not to fall, to hold on tight, but you'd fall anyways. So, the decision isn't so much to fall, but to allow yourself to fall acknowledging that it is in fact inevitable. The baccalaureate address went on to give the graduating Seniors various advice about allowing life to happen and not holding too tightly to a predefined path. I've found, in my past two years of teaching, that this is incredibly valuable advice. While planning is vitally important, especially in the classroom , the biggest breakthroughs have happened when I haven't forced them. My next teaching job came at the casual suggestion of a principal that I was sitting down with for an interview. He thought I might check out another school in the city, a school that I had previously decided didn't look like a great fit, and the rest was history. My best lessons have been, at times, fairly impromptu. My happiest moments when I let myself go. Anyone who knows me is well aware that I hold life with fairly tight reins. That I have a plan, and that as soon as I start implementing it, half of my mind is already creating the next plan. I'm a planner by nature, but this speech has me reflecting on how all of that planning has served me over the years. I'm relatively sure that the art of falling into the future is not something that corps members are very good at. When I look at the CMs around me, and read their blogs, this certainly seems to be the case. I wonder if we might be happier, more content, if we were better at accepting the falls as they inevitably come.
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