Thursday, June 23, 2011

Further Notes on Leaving Teach For America

As a teacher, I have developed a very strong desire to correct misunderstanding when I see it arise.  After reading over my last post, I felt this desire welling up, and I decided to post a few additional notes, in bullet-point form, to clarify a few of the potential misconceptions surrounding my previous post about leaving TFA.

-I am all for calling spades by their names, so in that sense, I am "walking out" on my commitment.  I am not doing this to screw over my students, and I don't believe that any students will get screwed over from this arrangement.  Next year I would be facing an almost entirely different student body.  My students in content classes would be different, and even our advisory system this year was dissolved for logistical reasons.

-Related to that, I made a two year commitment to TFA, but a one year commitment to my school.  I fulfilled my contract, and the students at my old school will get a new teacher.  This is as good a place as any to say that I don't really believe in the Magical Teacher Myth; this myth crops up on both sides of the debate over TFA's efficacy, but the basic thrust is that a student's success eminates directly from the teacher's actions.  While I don't deny that this is (partially) true, a large part of life outcomes for a student are determined by factors outside the classroom: access to technology, access to breakfast, parents who read to them at night, ZIP code, connections to college graduates, etc.

-Fine, then, aren't I walking out on my commitment to TFA?  Yes.  I have long been a vocal critic of certain aspects of TFA, particularly their apparent disinterest in challenging the NCLB paradigm of standardized testing and their general willingness to sacrifice rigor for on-paper "results".  Simply put, my commitment is to closing the achievement gap, and I would hope that any teacher would move to where he/she felt the most impact could be realized.  It does students no good to plug away within an essentially broken system.

-I also think that TFA does a lot of good, and of course I want public education to work.  I just think that TFA (and the reform movement) could learn quite a bit from systems of education in which teachers are given greater freedom; e.g. Finland's top-ranked school system.  By helping to create a successful private school that serves lower-income students precisely by allowing teachers the freedom to teach creatively, flexibly, and rigorously, I think I will provide a long-term benefit to the public school system.  Most importantly, I believe the long-term benefit I can realize through this route is potentially much greater than it would be if I stayed at my school for one more year.

-It is a sign of slavish devotion to the Magical Teacher Myth that certain people seem utterly flabbergasted by my willingness to leave a failing school one year early in order to have a much bigger impact by establishing the culture and curriculum at a new school.  Some teachers can have a large impact in one year, but certainly not inexperienced ones.  I'm proud of the work I did: my kids scored very well on standardized tests, and I walked away having made deep personal connections to some of them.  But competent teachers are, I believe, relatively interchangeable on an institutional level.  A bad teacher can do a ton of bad, but a good teacher can only do so much good, particularly in secondary education.

-Again, I don't want to deny that some teachers are better than others, and that good teachers deserve credit for their work.  But I am not egotistical enough to believe that students will suffer mightily from my absence.  I know that I inspired certain students, just like any teacher will be able to make a strong connection with certain individuals.  But, given that I'll be replaced by another competent young teacher out of the TFA mill (most likely), I don't see any reason to lose sleep over this.

-The biggest reason I'm leaving is that I feel like I could be more effective elsewhere.  One reason the Magical Teacher Myth falls flat for me is that most public school teachers actually have very little autonomy over what they are able to do in the classroom.  The curriculum is more or less set by standards, pacing guides, and benchmarks; obviously there is still room to put a unique stamp on things, but nowhere near the flexibility present in a private school that caters to low-income kids.

-I am inexperienced to be sure, and some people are justifiably concerned that a 22-year-old with one year of teaching experience has a job as a curriculum developer.  But the day-to-day work of my job won't be pacing around in an office, pulling great ideas from the aether; it'll be traveling around Los Angeles and beyond, meeting with successful STEM teachers and gathering good ideas and hard-earned wisdom.

-I don't want to glorify lack of experience, but there is something to be said for combining a fresh perspective with said good ideas and hard-earned wisdom.  The education gap continues to grow; we must be doing something wrong.  I think this "something" is mostly societal, but while wisdom increases with age, creativity dwindles; the trick in good curriculum development, I think, is finding a way to bring both perspectives together. 

Your thoughts, please.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some Notes on Leaving Teach for America

Imagine you are in the market for a hammer (it doesn't really matter what it is; just go with it for the sake of the example).  You go to your local hardware store in search of one, and to your surprise, they're sold out.  You ask the clerk about it, and he tells you that he could place an order for one and get it in next week.  Then he pauses, deliberating.  "Or," he finally says, "you could go to the store down the street.  They have some in stock right now.  Cheaper than ours, even."

We've all had this experience, and it is, I submit, the Holy Grail of customer service: when a business actually refers you to a competitor.  Sure, the clerk loses a sale that day, but you can believe that you'll be going back to that hardware store, and recommending it to others.

It takes a certain confidence, a clarity of purpose, a commitment to something larger than personal success to do this, and whenever we are on the receiving end, it gives us a tremendous case of the warm fuzzies.

I have been on the receiving end of this in my exit from Teach For America, and it has deepened my conviction that, bureaucracy aside, there are people within the organization can genuinely put the interest of students above their own.

My Program Director [boss, basically] asked me, during our end-of-year meeting, why I was leaving; "most people who leave TFA are doing something else.  But you're staying in education.  Why?"

I told him the truth: if this were a breakup, my trite line of choice would be "it's not you, it's me."  I wasn't looking for another job -- I had no desire to leave TFA early -- but another offer found me.  I happened to get a job that required me to leave, but would provide me, I felt, the opportunity to do even more for students than I'm able to do currently.

The basic idea is this: I am working for a start-up school that will see its first class enter in Fall 2012.  I'll be running an after-school program as a recruitment tool, but the bulk of my time will be putting together the curriculum for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math department.  I'll travel around Los Angeles and beyond, meeting with science teachers and collecting great ideas; then, we'll put those ideas together in a school that will admit a mix of wealthy and poor students, with the former subsidizing the latter.

I have impact in my classroom, to be sure, but I also feel encumbered by the public school environment.  State standards determine what I have to teach, and in what depth, and I have no control over some policies that I think cripple students down the line (e.g. no due dates, no grades below 50%, no homework).  The best public schools get students into college, but can't keep them there, and this, I think, is the biggest issue the system has to contend with right now.

And, honestly, are we surprised?  I attended a high school with courses like Russian History and Modern Novel.  My students graduate without ever having chosen a class; without spending more than 40 minutes a day outside of direct supervision; without, in many cases, being able to formulate a grammatically correct English sentence.

While, obviously, an elite private school in Marin is an unfair benchmark, I believe that truly great education depends on academic freedom for teachers.  Freedom, is, after all, the ability to fail, so no doubt some teachers would use this freedom to play Angry Birds on their phones, but this is inevitable.  Most teachers get into this game because they really care, and the more autonomy they have in the classroom, the more ability they have to excite themselves about what they're teaching (and as we all know, genuine excitement is contagious and impossible to fake).

I do believe that, to some extent, this is the move in education.  One of the key policies in Finland's rise to the top of the world in education was their decision to, barring serious problems, close the classroom door and let teachers go wild.  It can happen here, too, and bringing this about will take dedicated, free-thinking educators; I have no doubt that many of those people are in TFA right now.  But my decision to leave was, ultimately, personal.  It's possible to educate with rigor in a public school, but I struggle with the benchmarks and standards (even though my scores, I think, were pretty good), the exactly-57-minutes-no-earlier-no-later I have to spend with my students every day, and so on.

So, having said all this, my Program Director said something amazing.  "I'm sad to see you go," he said, "and I don't want you too, but I understand why you're doing this.  Maybe someday you'll start your own public school -- I hope you will -- where you can do these things you're talking about."

I have griped about TFA at various points through my year of involvement with the program.  I have complained about what I see as excessive buy-in to standardized testing, and done my share of mockery of team-building exercises.

But ultimately what I see, and have seen throughout the year, is an organization that cares about the opinions of its members, and isn't afraid to be criticized.  Hell, TFA has been re-tweeting my posts practically since I started this thing.  I have seen that people in the organization have been discussing the same things that concern me since the biggest educational issue on my mind was which frat I wanted to join.  And I honestly think that, for many of the TFA staff, while recruitment and retention and numbers and so on are important, they are overshadowed by the needs of students.  It listens, and it adapts.  Today I had someone in the organization I had never spoken to before call me just, more or less, to tell me that the things I want to happen are already happening.

I am leaving TFA.  I'd stay in it if I could, but this is my chance to shape a school from its inception, to watch it grow and establish a culture that will last, I hope, far beyond my time there, and I just don't think I can have that type of impact in my current situation.

But I see TFA as a partner, and I hope they see me the same way.  I walked out of my meeting with my Program Director with serious warm fuzzies, the kind that come only from that particular willingness, in a professional relationship, to lay aside personal interest for a greater good.

As I got into my car after that final meeting, I thought to myself, for all my cynicism and complaining, that TFA is ultimately something positive.  It makes mistakes, but it listens, and tries hard to correct them.  I wouldn't trade this past year for anything.

Except a hoverboard.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Danke Schön

Thank you for all the joy and pain; though we go our separate ways...

TFA and I are breaking up.  It's not them, it's me.

I wasn't looking for another job offer, it found me.  But when it did, I realized something that had been in the back of my head all along: I don't really like being a public schoolteacher.

Perhaps readers of this blog have been aware of this, and are wondering what else is new.  But saying that I don't like being a teacher doesn't mean that I don't enjoy a lot of aspects of the job.

It's a breakup tinged with sadness.  I'm going to miss my students, and I'm not looking forward to announcing this news to them next week.

Nor do I regret joining TFA.  While I've griped some about the organization (mostly its lack of interest in standing up to the charter movement's over-emphasis on test scores), I would still recommend it to other people -- at least, to people who really want to be teachers.

The fact is -- and this is, of course, the criticism of TFA -- I never really wanted to be a teacher in the way most people define that word.  I wanted to try it.  I wanted to get kids excited about science.  Selfishly, I've discovered a tremendous amount about what makes me happy (and, more frequently, what doesn't) with respect to working life, and I feel a much clearer sense of purpose than I did before.  I still want to get kids excited about science, and I still plan to.  My new job will still take me into the classroom, albeit much less, but I'll have a lot more energy when I'm there.  More on that later.

I plan to repeat this post when I have more time to fill in the details and explain myself more fully.  For now, danke schön, TFA, and auf wiedersehen.