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!