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.