Monday, December 9, 2013

An extraordinary post by Gary Rubinstein on his first year of teaching

If you're just joining us, Gary Rubinstein is a distinguished math teacher and education writer. He's also, as you'll see, both an alumni and a sharp critic of Teach for America. In this post, he takes a remarkably hard and honest look back at his first year of teaching.

This kind of walk down memory  is not something I'd like to do. My first year appears to have gone a little smoother than his did (at least none of the students hit me), but it was still highly stressful and I still have to live with the knowledge that a lot of kids learned less than they should have because their teacher was just beginning to figure out what he was doing.

The whole piece rings exceptionally true and I recommend reading it in its entirety  but there are a few secondary points I'd like to highlight because they fit in with some of the ongoing threads on our blog.

1. Under the circumstances,  a $5,000 recruitment fee seems high. It's been a few years since I was in the field, but back then applicants were expected to shoulder all of their own expenses (the best I ever got out of the deal was the very occasional  free lunch) and it's a lot easier for schools to find qualified applicants than it was twenty years ago.  It should also noted that some of the schools that pay significant fees to schools in areas that have a large surplus of qualified and experienced teachers, perhaps the most egregious example being Huntville, a major aeronautics research center (hence the nickname 'Rocket City') that gets dozens of qualified applicants for every teaching position. (For a bit of context, the organization had a 2012 operating budget of $244M and put out 5,800 new corps members.);

2. You have to have a thick skin to teach junior high and high school. Kids can be cruel, but more to the point, they are going through an incredibly intense, confusing and stressful period and, as a characteristic of their age, they have a natural proclivity for misplaced emotions. Combine that with an instinctive need to test boundaries and you are left with a room filled with people who will make your life miserable if you let them. With time, you learn how respond without letting them feel they've pushed your buttons and, ironically, in the long run they'll be happier having failed. When you're just starting out, though, you might as well be prepared.

3. I realize I've been spending a lot of time on the culture of the ed reform movement lately, but I don't think you can fully understand what's been going on in the education debate without understanding that culture. TFA is a big part of that picture. Reading accounts of TFA alumni, I'm always struck by what an intense bonding experience the training and first two years would have been. Even though Rubinstein may not have been the best fit with TFA, he still says half the people he invited to his wedding were fellow core members.
Add to that official rhetoric that creates distance between TFA members and established traditional teachers, and you can see why compromise and self-policing might be difficult for the movement they largely define and why the movement is so quick to converge on certain sometimes unusual positions like pedagogical theories that seem to owe more to Derrida than to Piaget.

4. Putting aside those occasional unusual positions, whenever I read accounts of the training material, there's generally an odd disconnect. Most of what I hear is relatively familiar, pretty much in line with what you'd hear in a typical education class, but it's usually described as something special, perhaps even unique to TFA (apparently trainees sometimes also pick up on these discrepancies -- check out what this writer had to say about these “uncommon techniques”). Apparently, assertive discipline* is another one of those overlaps between TFA and lots of traditional educators. I used the technique for a year when I first started teaching twenty-plus years ago (then dropped it like a fresh horseshoe). It was a hot trend and its proponents assured all the new teachers that it was almost completely effective if done according to the instructions. In practice, most new teachers seemed to get results closer to Rubinstein's.

Here are some excerpts:
Nowadays, districts pay a $5,000 recruitment fee to TFA for the opportunity to hire the new TFA trainees.  I don’t know if back then TFA got any money for me.  I hope they didn’t.  At my school that year there were about 150 teachers.  Three of us were new, me, Jon, and Mitzi, all TFA.  I don’t know who the school would have hired if not for us, so it is hard to say whether or not we were a positive or negative influence on the school compared to what it would be without us.  Though that year did nearly break me, and wasn’t so kind to Mitzi or Jon either, I’ve always felt that, in the scheme of things, we didn’t do ‘damage’ to our students.  One reason for this was that we taught middle school so I was just one out of seven teachers my students had each day.  The other six teachers knew what they were doing so in some ways my class became an opportunity for students to try to learn self-control since the teacher wasn’t doing a very good job at creating a controlled learning environment.
But having lived through the TFA experience and having many TFA alumni who are close friends of mine — I think half of the friends I invited to my wedding were people I met through TFA — I do know that there is a big difference between ‘the organization’ which is a greedy and power hungry one that will lie about their statistics when it benefits themselves to do so and ‘the corps,’ the mostly twenty-two year olds who just graduated college and who try to use whatever skills they have along with their very limited training to get through that first year and try to still make some kind of difference.  And while I am sure that TFA, the organization, at least in its current incarnation, harms children, teachers, and communities, overall, I do think that most of the individual teachers don’t.
Mr. Popcorn Pinnochio Afro Rubinstein is one of the meaner nicknames I’ve been called as a teacher.  (The Pinnochio is because of the size of my nose, and not, I think, because they thought I was a liar).  Better nicknames have been Mr. Frankenstein and even Mr. Robitussin.  As can be seen in the picture, till the end I had faith in the TFA endorsed ‘Assertive Discipline’ method of writing names on the board and putting checks next to them.  Still, you either have to hate a guy a lot to make a picture like this, or maybe like them a little.
* I later learned that assertive discipline was recent variant of the far older Rumplesnitz Method of crisis management.

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