Teach for America Left Me

Before I graduated from college I became committed to the idea that I would never write a blog post about an organization after I left it. If it was my choice, I didn’t need to make it worse by writing about it. If it wasn’t my choice, I wouldn’t want to throw the organization under the bus. But at the time I oriented myself this way, I believed this value was at the very bottom of the list of values I might have to exercise in my lifetime.

Then I was in a car crash.

A couple of months ago, I thought my life would go back to normal after I was healed. I knew, for medical reasons, I needed to stay in Ohio so I put in a request for a transfer to Teach for America’s southwest Ohio region.

The Detroit region put my transfer through, but I still haven’t heard from the southwest Ohio region.

I have been passionate about Teach for America since my junior year of college. I have defended it and supported it a countless number of times. What this experience has taught me is that I think I was at first passionate about TFA because I have always and will always be passionate about education. So since TFA has put a roadblock in my way, I have to go around it.

I am going to the University of Dayton to get my license and masters in secondary integrated language arts.

I wasn’t going to publish this blog post. I thought it was going to sit on my computer until the end of time, but yesterday TFA reached out to me about helping them with recruiting. The person who sent the email told me she just emailed everyone on TFA’s corps member list. I haven’t heard from TFA in three months and have no idea what I am “officially” to TFA.

All of that being said, I want it to be known that I am not leaving TFA; TFA is leaving me.

“You’re Irritating:” Reflections on Anger and Patience

I remember an instance freshman year of high school where a peer was asking me a question. I don’t remember the question or why it caught me in the way it did. But I distinctly remember turning around and snapping at him, my face turning red. I can remember the heat on my face and the way the anger kind of bubbled up from my stomach and seemed to wrap itself around my heart like a tiny, evil, hate-filled dragon.

High school for me was characterized by sporadic instances of these outbursts. To do this day, I’m not entirely sure where they came from. But it was almost always a result of impatience.

I can count on one hand, though, my run-ins with anger in college. I thought this was because I am mostly an easy-going person–I am someone who is easy to get along with, I thought. I am someone that can see other view points with ease, I thought. I am someone who understands others’ problems, I thought.

And then I began to teach.

What I thought was the result of a good character was actually the result of a lack of conflict. For four years, I worked hard at a place where very little was demanded of me, where (even when I was in leadership roles) I managed very few people. I lived and studied in an environment where often my biggest conflict on any given day was if I was going to ask a girl on a date that weekend. And so when people talked to me about patience and humility and optimism, I thought well yeah, I have those.

What I’m learning now is that I was wrong about basically everything I once thought about myself. I am not naturally patient. I am not naturally optimistic. I am not naturally humble.

A student complained to me today about how I’m always angry. And I have been angry a lot lately. That tiny dragon is taking up permanent roots in my chest. I can feel him breathing fire into all the other parts of my life.

And the more I reflect on that, the more I recognize it as a problem. I don’t think I would listen to someone who was always angry. In fact, I don’t. Even if a person has interests and opinions similar to mine, it’s hard for me to take something valuable from him or her if s/he is angry. For my students, I’m some strange angry man whom they barely know who is teaching a subject matter with which they are frustrated. Of course they don’t want to listen. Of course they start tuning me out. Of course.

I’ve been waiting for my students. “I would be less angry,” I tell myself, “if my students were better behaved.”

But, my students argue, they would be better behaved if I was less angry.

My students sometimes hit each other (playfully) in the halls. It’s something I don’t get. I don’t remember so much physical contact in high school. The other day, I was talking with my class with which I have the best relationship, and a girl was complaining about how someone had playfully hit her and how she should seek retribution, and I drew a diagram on the board showing how this process was necessarily infinitely cyclical. My students thought about it carefully, and considered how always wanting revenge leads to more and more of the playful hitting, which none of them seem to really appreciate (unless they are doing the hitting).

I’m glad I could share this moment with my students, but I don’t follow this in my own daily life.  I am angry far too often. And my anger leads my students to want to be frustrated with me. And their frustration leads me to want to be frustrated and so on. If their frustration and discontent was always met with love and peacefulness and patience and humility, I think they might start thinking twice of their disruptions. Why be so mean to a person who is so nice?

Some days I think I need to teach my students how to be kind. But really, they are the ones teaching me. Their hearts are big; their memories small. I can kick a student out of class and by the end of the day, that student is able to have a productive, loving conversation with me. That’s a testament to the student, not to me. My heart is too small; my memories too big. MY memories, MY experiences, MY ego: I spend so much time thinking about these things. I never really understood how Jesus says you need to die to yourself to follow Him. I am starting to understand.

What Assistant Coaching Has Taught Me About Teaching

I’ve become the Assistant Coach for my school’s Debate Team, which basically means I let the team practice in my room after school and drive them to their meets on the weekends. Every once in a while, I supplement one of their arguments with some piece of the ol’ college learning. It’s a good arrangement. I enjoy being around a group of intellectual students who enjoy discussing black feminism and highly theoretical concepts like “the view from nowhere.” And they teach me things.

Students and teachers are at their best when students have something specific that they know they want to learn.

I don’t interrupt my team’s practices or post-meet discussions often, but when I do, all six members of my team will stop whatever they are doing and listen. I don’t have to call for attention. I don’t have to lecture them about being quiet. They know that if I’m opening my mouth it’s for something important and they respect me enough to know that I actually know what I’m talking about when it comes to theory. There have been several instances where I’ve been shocked by this power. It’s so contrary to what I experience in the classroom.

As I’ve contemplated on my debaters willingness to listen, I’ve thought about what makes this relationship different than the one that I have with most of my students. I think there are three differences. First, my debaters are great kids. They are all great students, many of whom are staring down scholarship offers to go debate at the college level. Some of their ability to learn from other people is probably a natural or learned talent that has nothing to do with me.

Second, my debaters know that I have knowledge that they want. Whether that knowledge is about theory or about college applications, my input is seen as important. In my classroom, when I’m standing in front of twenty ninth graders to whom I’m trying to teach algebraic equations, that desire for my knowledge is basically nonexistent. This is a place I need to improve for sure. It’s not about making algebra fun (although fun can be important sometimes), nor about making sure every single one of my concepts has a problem with money in it (although money is a great way to make concepts relevant). It’s about getting students hooked on algebra in a way that they get hooked on sports or music or technology.  It’s about getting them to a place where they demand my knowledge about how to solve equations with variables on both sides from me, where they are anticipating my next-day’s lessons with their questions.

I’m beginning to attempt strategies for creating this effect. I’ve noticed that students are much more curious when studying material that is just above their current ability level. I’m going to start designating a day every week where students can work on whatever that one thing right above their ability level is. This is going to require an elaborate system and tight organization but as I’ve started planning it I’m positive I can pull it off.

The last half this problem is orienting the math around something more than “here are a bunch of numbers.” I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that. I’d like to orient each week, or unit, around a specific real-world problem that that unit can solve. But this is still something that requires more research and planning. Not something that I can implement immediately.

Third, my debaters get to see me as something more than just a teacher. They get to see me as a flawed human being who often has questions of his own, but who knows more than just math. One-hour-and-a-half van rides is plenty of time to sing along to popular songs on the radio, to contribute to conversations surrounding social lives, and to discover that we have interests that overlap. To add to these experiences, they are part of rather than in contrast to my goal with them. These conversations about interests happen naturally as we discuss debate topics.

For my algebra students, they sometimes see me outside of the classroom (in the hallway, at a school-wide carnival, at football games), but they don’t necessarily connect my behaviors at those places to my persona in the classroom. My algebra students, then, see two Mr. Smith’s. The one that is trying to teach them math and the one that has fun. They are not the same. And this affects their willingness to learn from me.

Why Edu-Blogging Is Hard As a First-Year Teacher

Last year Gary Rubinstein wrote a post about how TFA bloggers seem to disappear after the summer or after the first few months of school. At the time, I said I would be that blogger–the one who told the story of what it’s like to be a TFA corps member. But now I understand why I can’t.

Teaching is not like studying abroad. It’s not some cute little thing that I’m doing that I need to share with all of my friends and family with cute little stories. My students are not supporting characters in my story. I am one in theirs.

Teaching is not like having a summer internship where you blog about what having a job is like so that all of your college friends know. No, teaching is an actual profession–one I have an immense amount of respect for, and it seems detrimental to blog about things that I will certainly get wrong, certainly misrepresent.

I am a critical person who loves to work in nuance. But I’ve found that people often think that being supportive and being critical are opposite actions. They are not. Sometimes I support people by being critical. I know very few people who are publicly critical of the people they work for. None of us work for perfect employers. But, part of being a professional, I think, is being critical privately when you can. (There are notable exceptions to this, of course. I’m not advocating against public demonstrations like striking and rallies, but I think you must attempt solving things with meetings before strikes and rallies.) I’ve made my bed with TFA. And now I must lay in it. And help to remake it if it’s not what I think it could be.

I think there is a magnificent pressure from the ed reform critic community placed on TFA corps members, many of whom are liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading young people, to blog critically about TFA so as to keep their liberal, union-loving, critical-theory-reading titles. I know I’ve felt this pressure. But as far as I know, there are no pressures on investment bankers to blog about their moral considerations in their jobs; there are no pressures for lawyers to blog about how their work has a much broader impact on society; there are no pressures for doctors to blog about how, if given adequate funding, they could save more lives (or, save one specific life).

I am learning how to be a professional now. I’m no longer some kid with a blog. There’s a steep learning curve here that I’m trying to understand. All of the stuff I’ve spent the past two years reading and learning about is now real. It’s like a corn maze. From up above, it all makes sense. From down below, it’s hard to know where you are going. And that’s not even a cry for help. I’ve already found some amazing mentors both in TFA and at my school. But it’s just to say that the professional world is not a term paper. There aren’t easy heroes and villains, or easy successes and failures, in my actual life.

One day, when I know more, when I have actual things to say again, I will take up my platform again, becoming a professional with a blog (like Gary Rubinstein himself is!). But until then, I’ll stick to teacher resource sharing sites and writing about things unrelated to my time in the classroom. Because what I need now is not ed reform critics to critique all of my lesson plans but classroom teachers who I know and trust who can help me develop my style as a professional educator.

The Top 5 Things I Learned at Institute

1. Behavior management looks different for every teacher.
At the beginning of the summer, I thought I needed to deliver discipline in a hard way. I thought I needed to scare students a little with discipline. And so I thought I was failing big time at behavior management. My discipline, in the form of warnings and my school’s consequence system, was never hard or mean. When I deliver discipline, I do it the way I do most things: calmly, quietly, and with a bit of a smile. Students responded to it, but it just didn’t feel like I was being an adult. That all changed when we were doing a role play in one of our sessions. I had to give discipline to an unruly “student” (another corps member pretending to be a student) in front of all the other corps members.  I did so like I do in class. I did it sweetly and then moved on. After I was done, I stomped my feet in frustration: “that was so bad,” I said. I was surprised when everyone in the room disagreed. They felt like I had been stern but in a way that was consistent with my personality. That was so refreshing to hear.

2. Students need to do key points.
The main part of a lesson plan are the key points. These are the things you want your students to leave a class knowing. For the first half of Institute, I communicated my key points by putting them into notes and telling them to my students. When I would ask my students to demonstrate these key points, they wouldn’t be able to, though. I asked for a lot of advice about this problem. Both my CMA and FA suggested that I needed to give my students time to practice the key points during my instruction time. I started including mini-practice moments to break up instruction. Students appreciated me talking less and their performance increased because they had more structured practice time.

3. Relationships are important, but they can’t carry a class.
A constant piece of feedback I got anytime someone was in my room was how my students seemed comfortable and seemed to trust me in the classroom. I think this was true, and I did a lot to cultivate that. I was able to read my classroom pretty well, making a lesson more exciting when my students seemed bored and being stern when they were too rambunctious. I also regularly had lunch with my students so that I could learn about them outside of class. So I was glad I had good relationships with my students. But this didn’t always translate to effective teaching. It’s something that I want to make sure I remember in the fall.

4. Messaging is everything.
My students’ opinions on things were often determined by my level of enthusiasm. My students often told me that my math class was their most fun class, and I think this was entirely because I tried to be pumped every day I stepped into the classroom. On the days I wasn’t excited, my students mirrored me and were apathetic as well.

5. A good improvisation can make a moment. A bad one can ruin it.
Improvisation feels like it’s half of good teaching. You can plan all you want, but in the end, a student is going to say something or do something that you haven’t yet thought about. A good improvisation can make a moment great.

For example, I was teaching an investment lesson on the importance of staying on task and not wasting time. As part of that lesson, I had students put their heads down and raise their hands up if they felt like we had wasted time in class. Only two students raised their hand. I tried to play this off by saying “several students had raised their hands” (THIS WAS A HORRIBLE IMPROVISATION). But because some students had looked up briefly (I should have been more explicit with instructions here), they knew that only two students had raised their hands. And they called me on it. I answered their complaints by saying, “If even one person feels like we’ve wasted time, that’s one too many.” This improvisation worked and made the moment brilliant.

On Joining

My mother and father are both incredibly entrepreneurial people. My father runs his own business. My mother, upon seeing a problem, which she can easily solve herself, just solves it. All through my middle and high school career she volunteered at the school. I remember her constantly taking on more responsibility, streamlining procedures and records to make teachers’ lives easier. I suspect this entrepreneurial spirit is what has led my parents for years to decry the ineffectiveness of meetings.

For as long as I can remember, my parents have railed against meetings. How they take too long. How nothing is accomplished. How the people who need to talk never do. And so it’s a little bit crazy to me that all my life, I have been a chronic joiner.

I join just about anything that has a meeting. In fact, the more meetings an organization has, the more likely I am to be a part of it. I love planning. I love speculating. I love dreaming up recruitment ideas. I love making lists of people to call. I love arguing about ideological points. I love the conflict.

I’ve been reading Grace Lee Boggs’s autobiography, Living for Change, and one of the things that keeps sticking out to me is her perspective on how organizations should be run. She stresses a “dialectical” approach to organization governance. She writes:

we must be wary of becoming stuck in ideas that have come out of past experiences and have lost their usefulness in the struggle to create the future. So over the years I have always kept my ears close to the ground, testing ideas in practice and listening closely to the grass roots for new questions that require new paradigms.

This is a beautiful way of talking about progress. One of my favorite English professors used to tell me that all life was conflict–one conflict after another. When you run out of conflicts, she’d say, you die. In Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century, Grace and her husband James write: “They [the people] must have come to the realization that there is no utopia, no final solution, no Promised Land, and that humankind will always be engaged in struggle, because struggle is in fact the highest expression of human creativity.” To struggle well is the ultimate aim.

I join things because I like the struggle. When I started Students for Education Reform at Ohio University, the first people to sign on with me were people with whom, at the time, I had massive disagreements. At first, this was very hard, especially as we built a language in order to engage in those disagreements in a respectful, affirming way. But over time, we did. I never saw SFER at OU as something with an agenda. My vision for it was always that it be a place where people could safely and honestly discuss issues in education.

We didn’t pull punches. One week I invited the Students for Liberty (the liberatarian) organization to a meeting. While I sometimes talked about the benefits of the charter school movement in our meetings, I spent that night defending the importance of a traditional public education system. This friction was important as I continued to think about and refine my opinions on education.

I constantly sought out conversations with critics of Students for Education Reform. This, too, was incredibly difficult. There were many times when I simply vented my own rhetoric to friends who knew well enough to just let me finish. But over time, I was affected by the friends I developed in the critic community.

The fruit of all of this was developing a handful of wonderful critical thinkers at Ohio University who are able to think critically about arguments from both sides of the education debate.

Still, I often find myself on the receiving end of negative commentary about Students for Education Reform. But I know I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without it. For that reason, I refuse to “un”join.

I now find myself in a similar space with Teach for America. There are many people who assume they know me because of my identification with TFA. There are people who giggle sardonically to themselves when I do something too earnestly, too naively, too optimistically, or too idealistically.

But my favorite parts of TFA are the spaces where we are allowed to be dialectical. These spaces are few, but I love being able to challenge things and to ask a lot of questions. Because I know that there is not some future point where I will be a pedagogically perfect teacher and where I will have all of the “correct” opinions about education. Instead, I need to learn how to communicate with people who actively disagree with me in a way that allows me to learn from them. I would love TFA to create more spaces like that.

My frustrations with both SFER and TFA are of the same nature–that the struggle is not prioritized. We talk often about the lack of the silver bullet in education (even Waiting for Superman talks about it!), which is recognition of the first half of the Boggses quote from above. Not enough attention is give to the second point.

As we struggle, as we treat each other more as humans, we will begin to create processes, educations, and spaces that humanize people. That, in turn, will begin to solve many of the problems we are trying so desperately to solve by stepping all over each other now.

The Long Game

Tomorrow I’m teaching equations with variables on both sides. My CMA (corps member adviser) has asked me to redo my lesson plan. She is concerned that my current plan limits creativity and devolves math to rote memorization. She’s absolutely right.

I’m having a lot of issues walking the line between wanting to make concepts as easy as possible for my students and letting them develop their own logic and creativity. I have a list of fifty objectives I was asked to make a good faith effort to get through in 19 instructional days (each with 100 minutes of instruction), and it’s immensely tempting to boil down each objective to steps to be memorized and speed through two or three a day.

But, also, my students are all enrichment, meaning that all twenty-five of them are going to be getting Algebra in the fall. And so one of my visions for the class is that, above all else, students will be able to think critically–to work difficult problems out that they haven’t seen before just by knowing how math works. If my students leave me with that ability, they will be in really good shape to succeed in Algebra next year.

My CMA calls this playing the long game. Obviously, achieving mastery on my objectives is important, but if I keep my class challenging (providing the right kind of support, of course), I can teach my students that math is much more than a rote skill. And that, in the long game, is more important.