My last day to enjoy or my last day to suffer

It’s been a rough week, and I honestly found myself beginning to dread teaching my lessons, especially today’s and tomorrow’s, when there’s no test to motivate my kids. Behavioral problems have been awful this week, and just getting through my lessons has been taxing.

But then tonight, folks from the Baltimore office came up to speak to us. In timing that couldn’t possibly have been more appropriate for me, Jace Goodier, one of the corps members from ’07, spoke to us about his extremely rough first year of teaching. He told us about how the spiral took him down to verge of quitting before his professional development leader told him “Jace, you don’t look like your having fun anymore”. Eventually it dawned on him that he’s the one that decides whether it’s going to be fun or not. The quote that really stuck with me is that it’s your year to enjoy or your year to suffer. And it dawned on me that I have already fallen into the trap of defeatism and negativity, and I have been just counting off the minutes to the end of summer school. So I decided that for one last day this summer, I’m going to let it all go and try and have fun with these kids. It’s my last day to enjoy or my last day to suffer.

The Day of Reckoning

Yesterday, the students took my math test, and the results were not pretty. At the beginning of the summer, each student took a diagnostic test that looks almost exactly like the final, except with slightly different numbers. A tracking tool provided to us by TFA generated individual growth goals in math for each student, based on their diagnostic scores. These scores were meant to represent a big goal that would drive each class to significant progress.

I did not drive a single one of my students to meet their individual goal. My highest performing student scored only a 58% on the test. This accounts for 71% of the progress he was supposed to make toward his individual goal. My average progress toward the goal was 19%. One of my students actually made -2% progress.

Grading the tests was probably the most depressing event of the summer. It was almost physically painful to mark each individual question wrong, because every wrong answer represents something I wasn’t able to teach to mastery. On one particular category of questions, the class average actually decreased from the pre-test. I’m really not sure how I’m going to break it to them, or even if. Most of my students worked hard this summer, and I don’t want them to think that it doesn’t pay off, because in the end, they learned a lot, even if they didn’t master it all.

In my defense, there was one factor outside of my control that I believe had a massive impact on my students’ performance on my test, and that factor was that the district decreed that the students would have to take yet another standardized math test the morning of my exam, and my SMT told them that it was the one that mattered for them to pass summer school. The kids were blindsided. I read their answers on the free-response section, and the kids were nowhere close to prepared for it. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must feel to fail a math exam and then be asked to take another one an hour later. Some of my kids just put their heads down in the middle of my test in frustration and refused to finish. I couldn’t convince all of them to finish it.

As hard as it is to take, I’m not as emotionally depressed as the facts above might lead someone to believe. The numbers are damning, that’s for sure, and I do take a large amount of personal responsibility for my role in how badly the test went. But what’s done is done, and the most important thing I can do is know exactly what I need to change about my actions to lead my students to much higher levels of achievement in the fall. And that list probably merits its own very long journal entry. I’ve got a lot of thinking and planning to do in August.

March of the Pissants

Today was a rough day. You come to expect to catch hell from the students from time to time–and I definitely did–but today, adults were the bigger problem. One in particular–my mentor teacher.

Let me frame this by saying that my summer mentor teacher (SMT) is old-school. She’s got like 30 years in “the system”, as she refers to it, so she’s got her own way of working that doesn’t necessarily align with the very new-school, touchy-feely TFA way. We’ve come to know her as very experienced and wise, but also quite brash and negative. Working with her has been helpful, but also extremely challenging. I try to deal with her the TFA way, with respect and humility, and in keeping with asset-based thinking, which is to say I try to focus on what she can do to help me reach my goal of reaching students, rather than the things about her that make her difficult to work with. But today…

I don’t want to get into the specifics of what happened. Suffice it to say that a certain aspect of the classroom, which she unilaterally set up, has been disrupting our classroom environment, and we acted to try and mitigate the disruption in a way that would also serve her purposes. We figured it wouldn’t be necessary to consult her, since the change we made would have no effect on her. And mind you, we had discussed the issue with her on Friday, and it had seemed to us to have been resolved. While we left the room to retrieve our students from where they arrive, she discovered our change. I wasn’t there to see this, but she apparently perceived this as a personal attack by us on her and launched into a public tirade in the hallway, in front of other teachers and even some students, which reportedly included berating our TFA advisor and referring to my co-teachers and I as “pissants”. Although, we wouldn’t know this until later.

Our first indication that something had gone awry was when our school director confronted us in the hallway, informed us of how upset our SMT was with us, lectured us on professional communication, told us that we’d need to apologize to her for what happened, and stated that there would be a big meeting after school between all of us to sort this out. We were dumbstruck, since we had no clue anything had been done that could possibly be such a big deal.

Fast forward to the meeting at the end of the day. Our school director allowed us to tell our sides of the story, and then proceeded to more or less throw us under the bus. The meeting ended with our SMT berating us for “trying to weasel out of responsibility for our actions”, on our lack of respect for her and one another, and our continuous lack of professionalism over the summer. We bit our tongues, despite the blaring irony. And that was that. Fortunately, I don’t think this ridiculous incident has ruined our working relationship entirely, and our SMT went on to give me feedback on how I could have handled my other situation of the day better (which I’ll also mention).

I didn’t take the whole thing personally, because at this point I feel like I know what to expect from my SMT, but two of my co-teachers were deeply affected. One was infuriated with how far such a silly situation had escalated and the way our school director hadn’t stood up for us. The other was extremely frustrated with the way our SMT has approached us so negatively all summer long. For my part, I understood why our school director did what he did; he’s got a school to run smoothly for one more week, so he did what was most expedient. I chalk the whole thing up to preparation for dealing with difficult adults in the fall.

So on to the other incident of the day. I had probably my worst day of classroom management all summer long. The students were grumpy after a day of testing, and the fact that it was a Monday, and they were in no mood for my review session. I had assumed that the fact we were taking the final exam tomorrow would be investment enough for them to participate. Wrong. Two of my more difficult students were cutting up from beginning to end and being a major distraction. I took them out into the hall so that everyone else could finish their practice finals. Yet they continued to be a problem as the review session went on.

I probably should have removed them from the class, but I wanted to avoid that, since they both needed the review. So I tried to contain them. It worked, tenuously, for a while, until I put one of them on the spot. I told him that we’d wait as a class until he was ready to participate. Naturally, the members of the class who were invested in the review session got exceedingly pissed off, and before I could restore order, the insults started to fly and a full scale verbal fight started between the one student and one of my more motivated students. Eventually I managed to get them out of class and sequestered, but too late for my lesson to not be derailed. Embarrassingly, this whole scene took place in front of my SMT, my advisor, and was loud enough to attract the attention of the entire hallway.

I know I could have handled the situation differently, but on the plus side, I didn’t get flustered. And for better or for worse, I no longer take constant failure so personally. Lesson learned: aggressively handling minor misbehavior can prevent many of the major incidents from occurring. I intend to do a great deal of reflection on how to set up my classroom culture before I get started for the fall.

Four more days…

The Invisible Hand

The most surreal thing about the TFA Institute experience is the way the organization “models” the very techniques they’re teaching you to use. It’s like being a caged animal in a zoo, and at the same time having your own pets to train and take care of. Bizarre. So while they’re teaching you about investing students and classroom management, they’re using the exact same manipulations on you to keep you in line. And this is pretty much completely necessary, because morale gets pretty low when they’re asking you to sit in 90 minute workshops, 4 times a day, on 4 hours of sleep. The workshops themselves are modeled after lessons, which means for 90 minutes at a time, you get to fill out worksheets, write reflections, and be spoken to as if you were a 6th grader. This is exactly as irritating as it sounds, but the most remarkable things about it are 1) how well it works, and 2) how unaware most of the corps members here are of what’s going on. So while so many people are so resistant to what is commonly referred to as the “TFA Kool-Aid”, they don’t realize that the same strategies they don’t take seriously are what’s keeping us compliant with the ridiculous numbers of demands and deadlines the organization makes of us.

I don’t write this to bash TFA. The whole operation really is quite incredible. It’s just weird being on the inside of the machine. For such a large organization with such a complicated mission, it’s amazing how the whole thing works like clockwork. TFA tells you in December that you’re going to get your Pre-Institute reading package on March 3, and sure enough, it shows up that exact day. There’s an entire hierarchy of operations, programming, and management working nonstop to make sure that the only thing the teachers worry about is student achievement. It’s far from perfect, but two of the central tenets of TFA are data analysis and continuously increasing effectiveness, and the whole organization operates with these things in mind. As hard and frustrating as Institute can be at times, it’s amazing to hear how much it has been refined each year. And whoever runs operations and logistics does an incredible job. Information and signage appear and disappear on a daily basis, yet no one ever actually witnesses people doing any work. Corps members occasionally vanish without a trace (for just cause, I’m sure). All of the support staff we work directly with presumably work for other support staff, who work for a yet higher level of staff. And so the pyramid goes, all the way up to Wendy Kopp at the top, who most of us imagine as some sort of puppet master, surrounded by her cult of personality, controlling all the abstract details from a futuristic Minority Report-style computer console. It’s the Invisible Hand of TFA working relentlessly, with the single-minded goal of closing the achievement gap.

Another day in the life…

Today was an alright day. The lesson was on solving simple equations that only take one step. On the plus side, I taught a difficult concept with some success, and managed to remediate at least 2 people on yesterday’s lesson. Classroom management also went pretty well, and I managed to keep my struggling students in the game. On the minus side, mastery is still low, and only 5 of my 9 kids showed up. This means that any success I did have is pretty much wasted for the other half of my class that wasn’t here today, which really sucks because tomorrow is going to be another tough lesson.

Evidently, I need to work on holding the students more accountable for what they’re learning. I thought I was keeping the material pretty rigorous, but my summer mentor teacher (SMT) thinks I’m spoon feeding it to them. She says I need to get the students up to the board. Maybe she’s right, but from my perspective, it’s pretty close to impossible to remediate for the day before, teach a tough concept, and demand a large amount of independent thought on the students’ part in one 45 minute period.

That brings me to one of the toughest challenges of the classroom, which is squeezing the most amount of instruction out of my tiny amount of available time. It’s a continuous battle, but I’m getting better bit by bit. Every day is a 45 minute performance, usually half-improvised. This is as tough as it sounds, but it’s also surprising how hard it is to fit in everything that needs to be done.

I’m going to try to find a way to do what my SMT recommends, but due to the amount of extra time it takes to incorporate student participation, it’s in direct opposition to my need to expose the students as much material as possible. And exposure is particularly important. I have two fewer teaching days this summer than my most conservative estimate–school was canceled on Friday, due to a heat wave, and it was just announced yesterday that the final exam is a day earlier than the earliest I thought it might be. On the other hand, I desperately need to find a way to increase mastery, and more student participation might be the ticket.


On another note, back to my low attendance. The saddest thing is that you can never tell or assume why your students aren’t coming, because it’s easy to take it personally without knowing the back story. But we found out today from one of my student’s social worker that the reason she isn’t there is because her baby is ill and in the hospital. Keep in mind that this is a 4th grader. A week ago, another one of my students showed up without the rosy demeanor we’re used to seeing from her. We were perplexed, until we found out the reason she was feeling down was that a friend of hers had been killed the weekend before. And these are just the stories we know, in a class of 9. Who knows what goes one that we don’t know. Other stories I’ve heard from other teachers are far more mind-blowing. But, as much as you want to feel bad for these kids, you can’t pity them, because the world doesn’t pity them. At the end of the day, they’re expected to come out of situations like this and compete with everyone else.

I could write a lot more on that thought, but it’ll have to wait.

Week 3, in review

This week has gone reasonably well overall. I’ve managed to go the whole week without any major behavioral issues or instructional train wrecks. Part of the reason everything was so blissful was that the schedule rotated this week and I teach first instead of last. The difference is night and day. When I get the students, they’re still drowsy, which isn’t ideal, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the rowdiness of 4th hour.

I feel like my instruction is going over a lot better, although there are still a few struggling students I urgently need to find a way to reach. There’s also one student who is both particularly quick with the concepts and particularly disengaged. This week, it’s been a major challenge to get him to show up for class. He normally walks in halfway through my class. It will be a major shame if he doesn’t hit his summer benchmark, but even more, it will be a major shame if he starts high school with this same attitude in the fall, because he has so much potential. TFA teaches us that ultimately, every problem in the classroom should be viewed as a teacher problem. So basically, there’s no excuses. My student is disengaged because I haven’t properly demonstrated the value of being invested in my class.

So even though my instruction has gone from poor to mediocre, I still have a long way to go. I’m a bit envious of one of my co-teachers, who seems to have a much better grasp on classroom management and investment than I do, and who is also a much more dynamic instructor. One of my students asked me on Friday why I was so dry. That took me aback just a bit, but really, that’s the least of my concerns.

Despite the fact that the quality of my teaching is improving, I’m still failing at teaching lessons that lead to mastery of the concept by all of students by the end of my 45 minutes, and I’m taking a not-insignificant amount of heat for it from my classroom observers. It’s intimidating that I can have 5 observers, and each one of them can generate a whole list of things I could be doing better, and every list would probably be different. Even so, I think that while my instructional delivery isn’t superb, I have my doubts that these student would master the concepts in 45 minute even if it was. After all, we’re trying to squeeze 180 days of instruction into about 18, and for some of my kids, it’s like they weren’t present in 8th grade math at all (which may well be true). But TFA tells us that everything comes back to the teacher, because even though some things may be out of our control, if we truly are doing everything right, we will reach many of the students who would otherwise be written off.

So really, what it comes down to is investment and remediation. I’ve got to get my struggling students invested, which means that I need to convince them that they can do the work (which I know to be true) and that there is value in it. It’s going to take a lot of extra work on my part and on theirs to make it work, and they’ll only do it if they’re invested.

Two more weeks left…

A day in the life

So, so far, my entries have been more about my mindstate than what actually happens here, so I thought I’d write about my day last Friday. We’ve got a student, let’s call him Jim. Jim is extremely bright and usually a sweet kid, but has some serious behavior issues. On Friday, he was a nightmare.

The way summer school works is that 4 TFA teachers are assigned to work in a single classroom, and we take turns teaching. Two of the rest of us are in workshops at any given time, and the last teacher is free to hang around the classroom or handle business elsewhere. Last week, I taught the last period.

I came up to the classroom from workshops to observe 3rd period, having no idea what had gone on 1st and 2nd period, and as I approached the door, our SMT was in the process of literally screaming at Jim for being extremely disrespectful all day long and kicking him out of class. I wouldn’t find out until after exactly what happened.

So later on, while monitoring the students during an assessment, I thought I could hear music, but I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Then I saw. Without me noticing, Jim had somehow made it back into the room, plopped himself in front row, put on his headphones, and pumped his music up loud enough that the whole room could here.

I walked over to his desk and told him to put the music player away. He pretended not to hear me.

Me: “Jim, if you don’t take those headphones off, we’re going right back down to the office”

Jim: “Huh, what?”

Me: “Put the headphones away Jim”

Jim: “I already turned the music off”

Me: “Put the headphones away Jim”

Jim: “Man, back up off me”

Me: “Jim, I need you to get started on this assessment”

Jim: “I’m not getting started on nothing”

Me: “I’m going to leave this on your desk and walk away. Everyone needs to take it. Get started”

I begin walking away only to hear him mutter something about me being a bitch under his breath.

Me: “What did you say, Jim”

Jim: “Nothing, I wasn’t talking to you”

Me: “It doesn’t matter. I heard what you said. And either way, everyone else is taking an assessment, so there can’t be any talking. I’m going to need to talk to you out in the hall”

Jim: “I’m not going out into the hall”

Me: “Look, either you can walk with me out into the hall, or I can call security, and they can come up and bring you back down to the office”


Needless to say, this whole encounter continues for the next 10 minutes, with Jim being resistant to every instruction I give him, right up until the consequences begin to escalate, and then he wants to comply in the least compliant way possible. I eventually end up having to bring him back down to the office after he starts making wild accusations at one of my co-teachers.

I found out later that the reason he had ended up in the office earlier was because he had been continually disrespectful all day long to the first two teachers, and the warnings and classroom consequences had had no effect on reining him in. Eventually, my mentor had had enough and chewed him out, old-school style.

The sad thing is, Jim is a nice kid. He’s the sort of kid I could get along with fine. It just breaks down when you have to exert authority over him. He just struggles to control himself. He also seems to have major issues taking personal responsibility for his behavior. Everything always comes down to the world vs. him. He can’t seem to grasp the fact that his actions disrupt the learning experience for everyone else, let alone himself.

We had hoped he would come back this past Monday with a better attitude, but not so much. He ended up getting sent down to the office again, and suspended for Tuesday. We talked to his youth worker Monday afternoon, but I’m not sure what effect that had, or really even what a “youth worker” is, exactly. Since he’s returned, it’s been a balancing act. We want him there in class, but it’s so difficult to manage him without triggering him. So far, it’s going alright, but he’s still far from a model student. We’ll see how it goes…

Well week one had some insane lows and a few highs, but overall, I learned a lot.

Teaching in summer school is so frustrating because I can tell my kids are really bright, but they have massive gaps in preparation. And I can’t help but wonder, “as quick as these kids are, how the heck did they get so far behind?” For a lot of these kids, all they really need is serious, hardcore remediation for maybe 2 solid months, six hours a day, led by a teacher far more capable for me.

As a teacher, I am failing badly, because the only measure of success is whether the students can execute the skill in your lesson objective at the end of the day. So far, I’ve failed every day. And unless I make a major breakthrough in teaching technique, I’ll probably fail every day next week too. What sucks is that it’s impossible to learn to teach without failing real-life kids. It seems almost unethical that I (and the rest of us) would be put in charge of classrooms, except for the fact that the only reason summer school even exists in Philadelphia is because TFA said they’d provide the teachers.

So, I focus on what they call in TFA my internal locus of control–the set of things I have power over–and I’m constantly reevaluating everything I do. It’s pretty easy for me to see what’s going wrong, but what’s going wrong, but what’s hard is knowing how to fix it. At the most fundamental level, I’m trying to make my lessons as effective as possible. I need to move from the point I’m at now, where about 20% of my kids master my objectives, to 100% mastery. That would be hard enough if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m trying desperately to improve on numerous other fronts (i.e. classroom management, student engagement, planning efficiency, and a million other things). Additionally, I have to fulfill my insanely long list of other responsibilities to my co-teachers, the program, and the outside world (which really seems quite separate, at the moment). I’ve got a lot of ideas to try out, so the challenge now is trying to steal the time away to actually implement them. It’s tough to describe how hard it is to sacrifice one of my 5 hours of sleep to design assignments that reach my students on their instructional level not knowing whether or not it will work at all, anyway.

I guess it sounds pretty bleak, but it’s really not all bad. I feel good about what I’m doing, even if I suck at it right now. It’s a struggle, and things have gone very badly at times, but God has provided me what I need when I need it.

Death and rebirth

Well, this week, Institute got real real. I don’t have much time to write, because I have 5 lesson plans to work on. Tonight.

The first two days of teaching went fairly smoothly, but today was kind of a train wreck. For a half and hour, I was shell-shocked. I wondered to myself if I could cut it. But in the back of my head Coach Rich from rugby was screaming at me to “get the f’ back out there and do the bloody business”. And the gears started turning again. I rethought my approach, and I’m hoping to turn this thing around tomorrow. I convened my co-teachers, and we’re going to attempt some radical changes to our classroom culture.

As they say, “You’re gonna fail. A lot.”

I knew what I was in for when I signed up, but there’s no way to really know what it feels like to work 20 hour days continuously until you actually have to do it. The toughest among us are feeling the crush.

But I know I’ll make it


The above is what I wrote yesterday, auto-saved by LiveJournal, about an hour before I spilled about 8oz of water on my laptop, during the process trying to fix my broken printer. Perfect.

I honestly don’t think I had any emotional energy left to spend at this point, because after about 2 minutes, my anger passed, and I went immediately upstairs to find a computer to get to work. After all, I still had to be up at 5:15am the next day to teach–you control what you can.

I don’t have time to write anymore tonight, but suffice it to say that despite a few hiccups, today was a much better day, overall. I mean, it really couldn’t have been much worse than yesterday 🙂

I’ll write more this weekend. Right now, I’m just excited that tomorrow is Friday. It’s been a LONG week

What a week

I have never considered myself a judgmental person, but during teaching, and the TFA experience as a whole, keeping my judgments in check is going to be something I’ll need to constantly concentrate on. I’ve heard so many stories about a teacher sticking with the “bad kid” in class, and that kid going on to turn their path in life around. But can never happen if I write that kid off and decide to concentrate on the other 20 kids who want to be there. Our big class goals are worthless, unless they include success for every single kid in the class.

But being judgmental goes beyond just the students. I find myself constantly having to correct my thoughts when snap judgments creep in. For example, my summer mentor teacher (SMT) is really cool for the most part, but it bothers me a bit that when she talks to us about the kids in earshot of them, and talks as if they aren’t there. She doesn’t say anything particularly degrading, just things like “keep them busy at all times, then they won’t give you any trouble”, which kind of bothers me because it presupposes that they’re trouble makers, and she’s only just met them. But then I have to remind myself that right or wrong, I haven’t taught a full day and she’s got 20+ years in the classroom. And naturally, as a guy who grew up in the suburbs, it’s going to be a challenge to deal with my stereotypes and judgments about kids, parents, and the community once I’m working in inner-city Baltimore. I’ve heard so many stories about well-meaning corps members getting themselves into big snafus just for making assumptions. The smallest decisions in how you interact with your students can make a massive difference.

One thing someone said that really stuck with me is to remember that it’s not my job to rescue kids from their “poor” circumstances, my job is to work to close the substantial gap in opportunity between the urban schools and everywhere else. And that gap is there for a lot of reasons, but the people in the community not caring isn’t one of them. So whether Junior wants to go to college and join the white-collar class or wants to go straight to work in his community in Baltimore, it doesn’t matter as long as I’ve pushed him or her hard to achieve.

On another subject, there’s a really weird duality in TFA between the amazing things some corps members accomplish in really difficult settings and the grinding, frustrating experiences of many of the others. TFA sells this idea that they’ve studied scientifically the habits of successful (and unsuccessful) corps members and other teachers over the past 18 years of their existence and have distilled the formula for success in the classroom into a model, known as Teaching As Leadership (TAL). They don’t try and tell you that it’s going to be easy, by any means, just that if you follow the program and work relentlessly, you too can lead your students to massive gains. There’s something almost religious about it. My buddy Ethan, who’s a year into TFA in NYC, told me that people drink the TFA Kool-Aid to various degrees. Well, for the most part I’m sucking it up on pure faith that they know what they’re talking about after all these years.

That, and the fact that the TAL model is really insightful and interesting. It would be impossible to do justice to a proper description of the model in a reasonable amount of time, but suffice it for now to say that it has really made me rethink just about everything I’ve always assumed about teaching.

But after a week of having hours of TAL force-fed to my brain, I’ve just about reached my capacity for what I can retain and apply, outside of the context of actually teaching. Much of the rest of what I’ll have to learn is going to be on the job.

Well, I better get back to work. Next time I write will probably be after my first few days in the classroom with my co-teachers, so I’m sure there will be plenty to read!