Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 29 2011

“If the water is polluted, all the fish will die.”

Title spoken in the perfect words of our school’s 2nd-3rd math coach, and as they came from her mouth my heart grew just a little more.

I feel that Teach For America does such an excellent job of verbally preparing us for what could happen, they instill in us a pessimistic fear of everyone around us being incompetent, ignorant, or intentionally pretend-blind of the travesty that is our public education system.

On Monday, I attended my school’s first Leadership Team meeting. The committee is composed of our principal, chairs of each grade (I’m the chair of sixth), facilitators, and I think a few others. I might know who the “few others” were if even half of the roster showed up to the meeting. As it was, there were two facilitators (of four), two grade chairs (me and the 3rd grade chair– Sarah, who is also a TFA teacher, though I feel a little dirty pointing that out), our principal, an ESL teacher, and a woman I don’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I felt a sense of pride and duty just being on the committee. I want things done, and if I am the one willing to do it then let’s go, I’m ready. I hate the idea of taking exclusive responsibility for something like school leadership, because it makes me feel self-righteous and like a long sailor on an endless sea full of drowning people. I do not want to be the one driven stranger that people see and laugh at, or fear, or feel completely alienated from. I do want to be a leader, I do want to be a change-agent in my school, I do want to partner with veterans, community members, people that belong where I teach, that grew up there and live there and will always, always be more ingrained and more a part of that culture than I ever will be, even if I live there for decades.

The meeting was similar to our professional development funeral, in that I again was humbled to see and hear the people that know more than I do actually speak up. I repeatedly learn that my district is teeming with people that feel exactly as I do, just have no forum for expressing it aside from bitter comments in the teacher’s lounge. Here, with just half of our committee members in attendance, we shared common problems, fears, worries, and expectations for campus. I loved it.

This meeting teetered me back over to the, “I want to stay and continue to attempt to be a catalyst in my district” side of my what-to-do-next-year decision. If I could work on a committee like this, be a grade chair, and start to implement and see lasting change in my district, I might stay a year, two years, however many years beyond my commitment.

Aside from huge future-thinking, the meeting also re-grounded me in my excitement for this year. I love finding these opportunities to re-light my excitement for teaching and education in general. I love leadership; I love facilitating meetings; I love getting my sticky fingers all over everything in my way. I want to know what’s going on and improve it if at all possible.

A major lesson I’ve learned from Teach For America, and the past two years in general, is how unnecessary it is to be a lone pillar in a crashing ocean. I am in a cabin with my 6th grade teachers, on a deck with my school, in a ship with my community, in an ocean with millions of other boats of districts across the united states. I do not have to be an aggravating and expected TFA martyr. It makes my chest heavy even to think about.

I feel slightly but cautiously more mature in realizing, knowing, and reminding myself that I am never alone, that so many people have the same realizations as I do at the same time. And the best one I heard this week was our fabulous math facilitator reminding our committee how important our school culture is. We were talking about the biggest issues school-wide, and we all immediately agreed and jumped on school culture. With students as with nature it is true: “If the water is polluted, all the fish will die.”

Let’s get these kids some chlorine, or whatever chemical it is that balances dirty water.

11 Responses

  1. Love all the metaphors. And love your enthusiasm to take on leadership roles. It’s hard enough just being a teacher, but I think real change has to come from both the bottom-up and the top-down.

  2. Wess

    I love this: “aggravating and expected TFA martyr.” I’ve only just started learning this lesson, but I’m already wondering whether the martyr part was necessary. But …. do you think it would have been possible to prevent how alone we felt our first year?

    • YES. NO. I believe it could have been better, with assistance from both our district and TFA. I wonder how transparent TFA actually is with the district about how prepared (read: unprepared) we are. Arkansas has a “mentoring” program that in my case meant forging a bunch of paperwork but in theory would be excellent… in theory, that would be a huge help.

      I think one solution might be TFA explaining to districts that we shine in ambition, ability to learn, open mindedness, and enthusiasm. But we are severely lacking in CONTENT knowledge of how to teach (HMMM… DOES THIS SOUND FAMILIAR AT ALL?) And that we need constant supervision and aid from outside sources. Last year, the second I had administration more involved in my classroom, the better I became at management, which made my year finally start to level out. So single solution to not prevent but alleviate feeling so alone might be transparency with administration about our strengths/weaknesses, in general, as TFA CMs.

      Another would be the simple knowledge and reiteration that THIS IS HARD FOR EVERYONE. NOT exclusively TFA people. ALL TEACHERS struggle their first year. And all young professionals, going into any field, struggle in their first year. One thing that helped me the most was hearing that my mom cried every day after work her first year as a nurse. Realizing that the first year struggle is universal for professionals, not exclusively teachers. I tell my ICE group members that it’s not just being a first year CM, it’s being a first year professional, being a first year out of college, being a first year in Arkansas, being a first year in no-longer-in-college… it’s a lot that goes into feeling so alone.

      Phew, tangent.

      • Wess

        You’re right. Maybe we can’t make the first year of teaching not hard, but we can at least surround corps members a little more closely with support from outside TFA.

      • April

        They are absolutely dishonest about how inexperienced unprepared TFA teachers are. If they were honest, we wouldn’t have situations like we do in Huntsville, where teachers have been fired to make room for TFA teachers because, according to the Superintendent, TFA teachers are more effective – despite the extremely mixed evidence of that notion.

        • How can you be sure that TFA was “absolutely dishonest”? Do you know what TFA claimed versus what the district expected? I don’t know how I feel about firing teachers and replacing with TFA, but this comment leaves a lot of questions, like: Were the vet teachers fired SPECIFICALLY so TFA could come in? Was that the intention? Or were the vet teachers already ineffective and would have been fired anyway? It is so, so hard to sound credible when you make a very generalizing claim about an organization as big and diverse as TFA. Overall, it’s incredibly difficult to gauge the effectiveness of “TFA teachers” because there are HUGE variances state-to-state, as well as district-to-district. For example, some districts hire TFA teachers then force them to do scripted curriculum with NO room for modifications. In that case, is the teacher ineffective, or is the program ineffective, or both?

          • April

            From what I understand, the 150 vet teachers were fired as part of a larger effort to reduce spending across the board in schools; altogether, 400 members of the faculty were canned. Subsequently, the district entered into a contract with TFA. The superintendent’s only experience in education is at the collegiate level. He did, however, receive training from the Broad Foundation, which has pledged $100 million to TFA.

            You are correct – it is very difficult to gauge the effectiveness of TFA teachers. That is why his assertion – that hiring TFA teachers in place of extensively trained teachers is justified because “Teach for America has a proven record across the nation” – is absurd.

        • It won’t let me reply to your last comment directly, but yes, I do agree that that is absurd. I do not, however, think that that’s a TFA fault, that’s a superintendent fault. Like many many (TONS OF) districts, seemingly poor leadership is affecting millions of kids for the worse. I don’t think that TFA is consistently making things substantially better OR substantially worse… those my expertise clearly does not exist.

          I don’t think TFA is a solution for Huntsville, or anyone, but is a step for acknowledging the problem and getting a ton of invested, intelligent people more engaged in education than they would be otherwise. Does that have a huge expense? Yes. Do I think there are better solutions? Very likely yes. Do I think TFA is at least acceptable in the meantime? Yes.

          I love your thoughts on this. Are you alumni, or a critic, or a vet teacher, or…? What’s your relation to TFA besides interested?

          • April

            You’re right – that is the superintendent’s fault, not TFA’s fault. I ascribed the blame to TFA in my original comment, but I believe you are correct in shifting the blame.

            That being said, I still believe that TFA misrepresents how prepared its CMs are by making claims (such as, CMs have an “immediate positive impact,” http://www.teachforamerica.org/our-organization) for which there is really no conclusive evidence.

            Furthermore, TFA encourages CMs who do not want to continue teaching after two years to engage in advocacy and enter into leadership positions, either within schools or within the reform movement. I’m sorry, but there is absolutely no way that a CM whose entire training has come from TFA (I’m not including the CMs who receive their Master’s while working) and who has only two years of teaching experience has an accurate idea of the problems and potential solutions for education.

            As for who I am, I am a new teacher who majored in my content area for undergrad and who has received a master’s in education. I used to be very much in favor of TFA, even though it was not the path that I chose to pursue. However, as I have done more research into the issues in education, I have gotten to a point where I am strongly against most of what TFA does. I have many friends who are in TFA, as I graduated from one of those schools where a large portion of the seniors apply to the program. It was through those friends that I began reading teachforus blogs.

            While I love my friends, respect their intentions, and believe that they are doing some good in the classroom, I cannot support TFA as an organization. I don’t mean to be a troll, but I believe that it is important to raise these issues to TFA members.

  3. Kurt (Community Manager)

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