The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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classroom management

Feeling Teachery

I have survived.

September and October were pretty grim months. After a honeymoon period that lasted a little less than a week, I began a steady slide into some of the hardest weeks of my life. As my freshmen felt their high school jitters wear off and my juniors had finished scoping out my weaknesses, the real battle for sanity began.

It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks before the winter recess that I truly felt like things were approaching a modicum of stability. I’m still tired, but I think that’s normal. I have no idea how the rest of the year is going to go, but I can at least reflect on the last four months.

Looking back on it, I think I can reconstruct a few lessons learned for any future new teachers.

1. Nothing else matters if you cannot control your classroom.

I know, you’re a stubborn idealist and waiting to get started reforming education for a future enlightened democracy. But take the high-minded ideals about liberating education and democratic classrooms, the bold plans for discussion-based inquiry, and your folder brimming with ideas for weekly project-based learning, and set it aside. At least for the first few months of teaching full time.

Instead, attend to the basics and make sure you have them down pat: Clear rules and expectations, with ready short responses for the inevitable “why?”. A posted chain of consequences that you will stick to with no exceptions. A plan for how you will hit your educator evaluation targets. The first two weeks of lessons planned (not just bulleted, PLANNED TO THE DETAIL) in advance.

And, critically, an airtight system for organizing paperwork by graded/not-graded, which block, handout-and-keep, handout-and-return, late work (and associated penalties), late work due to excused absence, makeup work, makeup exams, answer keys, advisory, notices to students from administration, extra credit, extracurriculars, and every other type of document you can think of… because the paperwork will come in a flood and it will never let up. Ever.

Once you have a consistently safe environment for learning that doesn’t make you feel like you are drowning, then you can move on to bigger and better things like those inquiry-based project discussions.

My residency year was spent at a great school with great students that taught me a lot about many things except what I now believe is the single most important skill: solo classroom management under constantly adversarial circumstances, all day every day week after week.

If you are unsure how to get started, I recommend Rick Smith’s Conscious Classroom Management as a reference that helped me out immensely.

I’ll say again: NOTHING ELSE WILL WORK if you cannot control your classroom. It has only been quite recently that I’ve felt confident enough to move much beyond making sure that basic goal is met.

2. Steal everything.

I still haven’t quite internalized that I really do not need to homeroll every little part of my curriculum and logistics. Stop reinventing the wheel, use what’s already out there, and ramp up your own style slowly over time. I’ve got years and years to hone my own style and invent my own methods. I don’t need to do that in the hardest phase of my teaching career.

As a first year teacher, it will not be resources you need. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great resources on teaching, education, science, inquiry, labs, etc. People still keep trying to give me workbooks, websites, curricula, and lab equipment that I will put in my back closet and not look at again until next summer. What you will really need is time, which is the one thing no one can give you more of. You need to make more of it yourself (where possible) by choosing how you will approach your work.

3. Families are your best allies.

Even my most difficult alpha-males, the ones who seemed to be hell-bent on locking horns day after day, were just looking for evidence that I will provide a safe and secure environment. Getting families on board with that plan is a good way to convince those students that a) you care, and b) you will not be letting them off the hook. Further, calling home with compliments gives them positive incentive to perform well. Deep down, all kids want to succeed and be seen as successful, even if they do not want to admit it.

4. Make time for your support network.

They say the first year of teaching is the hardest year, and the first quarter of any teaching year is the hardest quarter. It stands to reason then, that the first quarter of the first year of teaching is a double dose of difficult. There is absolutely no reason to go it alone.

I went through Boston Teacher Residency. Its cohort model of training meant that I went into teaching with a strong corps of friends and colleagues that I could call on for support and collaboration, which is one of the great benefits of the residency model. Even if you didn’t go through such a program and feel like you don’t have allies, find them. In your school, in other schools, or on the web.

5. A supportive administration and staff change everything. My colleagues at my school have been amazing — offering ideas, support, solid backup on discipline, and even offering to help grade. Compared to the horror stories I have heard from some other schools, I count myself very lucky in this regard. Teachers don’t often have much of a choice in the character of their colleagues and supervisors, but if it is at all possible, trade whatever you can for good people on your side.

That’s the top five reflections so far. I definitely don’t have it all figured out yet — in fact, one thing I enjoy about this profession is that the opportunities to improve seem endless. But it’s getting better. Especially now that I’ve had a few days to rest, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of the year plays out.



Skeptical of the Kool-Aid Already

Gary Rubinstein’s blog on TeachForUs (the independent network of TFA blogs)  is probably the best source of the counter-argument to TFA’s hype. For one thing, he simply makes very intelligent critiques of TFA’s philosophy, training institute, and implementation. For another, he’s a former TFA’er himself from 1991, much earlier on in the program’s history, and he appears to have remained “actively involved in the discussion” surrounding TFA, shall we say. He’s been through it, and seen it grow and change.

A recent post addressed to the 2011 Corps, entitled “@2011s: Can you Handle the Truth?” (check out the comment thread too) got me thinking… it gets at what across the board seem to be the major criticisms I’ve read about TFA:

  1. They encourage a revolving door of inexperienced people, further adding inconsistency to the lives of children who need it so badly. (See my previous post for a link to a good rant on the subject.)
  2. They seem to think that arming a new teacher with nothing but hope and idealistic optimism will automatically result in better teaching.
  3. They have the systems and national/local political clout to spin the numbers any way they want in spite of this.

So could I address these three in a way that would make a personal experience in TFA ok? Well, in response to #1, see my previous post. In response to #3, I’m pretty sure I’m stubborn enough of an idealist on my own that I would independently track what I think is important regardless of whether or not TFA does. It’s #2 that really worries me.

I think I know the subject matter, I think I have the personal effectiveness, I think I genuinely believe science is fun and could make it fun, I think have the personal grit and stubborn idealistic streak required…. but I really doubt I have one of the most important things it takes to be a teacher, one that apparently TFA doesn’t seem to spend a single once of energy preparing or supporting their corps with: classroom management. And seriously, considering where they are putting you, you’d think that would be really high on the list. So, I’m not surprised actually that TFA might have to spend some time massaging statistics to show that they are making Adequate Yearly Progress.

So, I emailed Gary. I intended it to be short, but like most of my emails, it ended up tangenting and much longer than I intended. Anyway, he was very kind to respond quickly. In his email, among a list of possible alternatives, was the following sentence from one of TFA’s most vocal critics:

Doing TFA isn’t a bad idea, as long as you know what to watch out for.

That is, do your own homework on observing, learning from, and reading about effective teaching methods, and take everything TFA says with a huge grain of salt.

Along those lines, check out the last comment on his blog post, from someone listed as “Ali”:

I think a huge issue with the TfA training is that they set it up as- do a+b+c and you will be successful. Set big goals, work relentlessly, believe in your students. They put the onus on you- if you are not successful, it is because you are failing to follow the directions we told you. And if you don’t get that 1.5 years of growth like you are supposed to- well that is your fault for not trying hard enough.

I have never seen a more depressed, anxious group than the TfA corps members who believed it was their fault they were not succeeding and getting the growth tfa wanted quickly.

Teaching is really hard. Teaching kids in difficult circumstances is harder. Being told that your lack of success falls squarely on your shoulders because you weren’t as good as everyone else, leads to a lot of corps members in therapy.

Yeah. Grain of salt. If you go with them, use them for your own goals (like trying to become a long-term career teacher in a needed field or district), don’t let them burn you out using you for theirs, at least not without a quid pro quo. And remember that the district is your employer, not TFA… they just facilitated the arrangement and took the middle-man’s cut. Convenient, but not really necessary in the long run / big picture?




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