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.

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