The Very Spring and Root

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

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I’ve Got Friends in This Game (BTR Blog)

Though I’m now all gradumacated, I will be continuing to blog for BTR as an alumnus. My latest post is about the excitement and anxiety that comes with seeing the first days of school approach.  Eeep!

I’ve got units and community building to plan, department and grade-level teams with whom to coordinate, disciplinary procedures to figure out, lab equipment to move in and test, and a classroom to arrange and accouter from scratch. Do I want a lecture hall focused on individual work? Table groups for collaborative learning? Or a roundtable setup for greater ease of whole-class discussion? What is my plan for universal access to content, especially for my students with learning disabilities or those who are still learning English? How much time do I want to spend building up our classroom identity as collaborative investigators? What do I do if my students resist my efforts at establishing community? Am I going to make an ass of myself on the first day? What the hell does the copier error PC LOAD LETTER mean anyway?

In other words, my brain is well along on an anxiety-soaked quest to discover every permutation of OH MY GOD WHAT IF I SUCK AT THIS.

You can read the whole post on BTR’s site.

Correspondence with my “Thought Partner”

Hi [TFA Recruiter], thanks for offering yourself as a thought partner. Here is my honest line of thinking, though I am also looking forward to speaking with [Other TFA Recruiter] soon as well.

I am interested in teaching long-term, as a career. TFA is one among many entry programs to which I have applied. While I am genuinely excited to have been accepted to TFA, I am in the nice position of having a choice between TFA and these other programs, some of which include built-in masters programs and classroom residency time in the training process.

My direct concern with TFA is that, even though the preparation is much faster, it seems consequently much less effective. I am not interested in teaching for two years and leaving, so a year-long preparation program (as some of the other programs offer) is not of major concern. Why should I choose TFA over a program with more rigorous preparation, if I have a long-term commitment to education?

More broadly, I have done quite a bit of analysis (I am, after all, a research engineer) on TFA from the data available, and have arrived at some serious concerns about the organization in general.

For example, how would you justify TFA’s expansion into regions in which, due to the recession, there is apparently a surplus of already-qualified teachers? When I applied to TFA, I assumed that I would be placed into schools for which no qualified personnel are available; in analyzing the contracts you have with Washington, California, and Massachusetts as examples, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

Another serious concern is what appears from your own documents to be what is in my opinion an over-reliance on quantitative data. Again, I am a research engineer, I *love* data – it takes me to my happy nerd place. But I also understand the limitations of data, and the importance of human factors. When we screen applicants to NASA, the quantitative elements of the applicant’s portfolio (grades, test scores, etc) are used for cutting off a minimum threshold only; 60 years of doing the hardest science and engineering imaginable has led us firmly to the conclusion that of far greater importance is creativity, judgement, analytical skill, and critical thinking. We don’t care as much about what they know as we do about how they approach what they *don’t* know. What does TFA believe about these factors, and how are those values built into the way you assess CMs and teach them how to teach students?

Of more general concern are the following:
What is the relationship between TFA CMs and traditional teachers? How do you respond to the (often highly vitriolic) accusations that TFA is displacing qualified, experienced teachers in favor of less expensive, less-well-trained, temporary teachers? What is the difference between a two-year CM and a long-term substitute? Are these issues different for the specific case of math/science, and/or the Bay Area?

Thanks for your time and support. I haven’t decided against accepting the TFA position by any means, but these are the questions I am pondering.


On the Verge of Something Great

I’m feeling nervous and excited for my final BTR interview. I’ve done the pre-reading, watched the video we were supposed to watch, prepared my lesson, printed my handouts, analyzed the organization’s content, press, and evaluations, and of course done a whole hell of a lot more thinking. Now I’m all packed and ready to leave tomorrow morning on a flight bound for Beantown.

I’ve updated my five-minute TFA lesson to fit BTR’s seven-minute format and explicit emphasis on student-driven learning. I removed a lot of the background and “telling” and instead have a series of questions prepared to guide students themselves through the logic train. I have about a three minute reserve to allow for questions and thinking/debating time. If they go through it quickly and time permits, I plan to lead them to draw parallels between the potential/kinetic energy tradeoff of the planetary system with more simple examples, like pendulums or springs.

NASA card prepared… How do we know where the planets will be at a specific time? It will take the Curiosity / Mars Science Laboratory mission 8 months from launch to landing to reach Mars… The Red Planet isn’t staying still in the meanwhile How do we know where it will be? And it just so happens that January 11, the date of the sample lesson, is when Curiosity will be pulling a major maneuver, so it’s timely and appropriate as well.

Do I got this? I got this. I’m still nervous and double/triple checking everything though. I guess that’s a good thing. I learned from theatre that any actor who tells you that they don’t have stage fright is either full of shit or not taking it seriously enough. Signs I want this.

The TFA Conundrum

Well, I had my TFA phone interview on Saturday morning, and I thought it went very well indeed. The interviewer, herself a TFA teacher in New Orleans, seemed friendly, engaged, and very interested in me. I had ready responses with detailed examples to all questions, and the feeling was very much relaxed and conversational.

To be honest, I’m second-guessing TFA quite a bit. On the one hand, there is a lot of great press and commentary out there on the organization. On the other… some fairly virulent criticism. The TeachForUs independent blogging network has provided both types of accounts; on the whole it is a confusing blend of the inspirational and insidious.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I do not harbor much concern for the anti-TFA sentiments that are really directed at individual motives and behaviors of TFA corps members themselves. For example, deciding to stay in teaching as a “service project” for only two years before leaving, or declining to pursue further training and education. These are decisions that anyone entering teaching could make, TFA or not. In fact, from what I read anyway , the retention rate for any teacher in an urban or low-SES school is pretty atrocious, TFA or no. Does TFA encourage a revolving door by only putting a 2-year minimum on recruits? Maybe. But I bet that a lot of people end up staying in teaching that never would have considered it as a career otherwise too. How long I stay in teaching and what my motives are for entering it are up to me, not TFA, so I find that criticism personally irrelevant.

What *is* concerning for me, however, is that I might end up being associated with an organization that is tied to much less substantiated, but far more worrisome, tactics. Gary Rubenstein, the (in)famous ex-TFA TFA critic, has written extensively on his blog about such tactics, and lately posted his most scathing yet . For example, expanding into districts that are laying off teachers? If TFA purports to send teachers with only five weeks of training into schools, they had better be filling slots that could not otherwise be filled by any qualified candidate. Are districts, under ever-tighter budgetary and political pressure, laying off experienced, unionized teachers in favor of politically backed, inexperienced, cheap fresh-outs? For the specific case of STEM subjects, I really doubt this is the case, so perhaps this doesn’t really apply to me either. But again, do I want to be associated with an organization that might/would do that?

Another big picture concern: the “Education Reform” movement. I am vehemently opposed to privitization of the public school system, just as vehemently as I have been opposed to the contracting out of RDT&E (Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation) at NASA. Without tangenting too far into all the ways that private money has our federal and state governments by the cojones, I will simply say that TFA appears to be firmly on the side of those who would use wildly inaccurate quantitative metrics to force in private charter control (or vouchers or what have you) of a public system, shortchanging students and laying off those damn lazy unionized teachers along the way. Not sure I like that either… While I’ve definitely had some lazy and/or ineffective teachers, blaming an already strained profession for systemic racial and socio-economic divides is scapegoating at best, and harmful at a long-term genocidal level at worst .

I guess what it comes down to is the basic question: Is it ok to use a possibly less-than-ethical organization as a means to an end of doing greater good individually? Or does any association with an ethically questionable (not conclusively bad, just questionable) organization negate/taint any good that may come of it?

These questions and others led me to diversify my options. I am proceeding with the TFA application – I should hear in a week if I advanced to the final day-long interview session that takes place at the end of the month. I will be notified of the final admissions decision and placement school/subject on January 17th.

However, in addition, I am also applying to the early admissions track for the Boston Teacher Residency . BTR places admitted members into a year-long, intensive Masters program at UMass Boston, combining urban teacher preparation with four days a week of student teaching. Upon completion of the Masters, residents are placed in the Boston Public Schools, and receive a full waiver of the tuition of their training upon completion of three years of service.  BTR is also clearly committed to community development and long-term teacher retention for what seems like truely transformative change. Making the November 15th deadline means a possible Selection Day interview invite in mid December, an interview in early January, and a final notification of acceptance on January 20th.

I guess I’ll have to figure this out by then. I have a feeling though, that like other significant forks in the road in my past, one path is just going to seem intuitively right, and I’m going to just take it and be too busy kicking ass at whatever challenges lie around the corner to ever look back. I just don’t know which it will be yet.

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?