Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Are You a Teacher Who Has Been "Converted" by Public Education?

A few weeks ago at the SOS March in DC, I met Luciano D'Orazio. We talked about our experience in public education and how it changed our views. I wrote a little about it here. We thought it might be interesting to try and compile a series of stories about teachers like us who've had our views on public education changed drastically by our experience in it. Because I'm sitting in an airport and a little strapped for time, I'm going to simply copy and paste an appeal Luciano posted on his blog about a week ago rather than write my own.

But the basic message is this:

You should contact us if you've had something of a conversion experience with public education. We want to talk with you.

From Luciano's post:

Like St. Paul on the way to Damascus, many of us undergo a “conversion” experience.

We enter the world full of lofty goals, high-minded principles and some complex vocabulary. Sometimes, we even attempt to make those goals real, entering the “real world” to “inspire young minds” and “do some good in the world.”

Yet when the cold backhand of reality comes crashing across our faces, the sting often exposes a greater truth—a truth often masked behind the rhetoric.

I am not immune to this. When I began as a teacher, visions of gleaming charter schools and smiling faces with vouchers to private academies danced in my head. I couldn’t sing the praises of privatization and Teach for America loud enough—as well as shout my disdain for veteran teachers “not doing their job.”

It didn’t take long into my first year for reality to sink in. The magic bullets, the fab theories and the rhetoric of the NCLB crowd were smoke-and-mirrors in the everyday grind of an inner city classroom. The handbooks—TFA, NYC Teaching Fellows, or otherwise—had no answer for the problems I faced each day in that place. The best help I got was from (Surprise, surprise!) veteran teachers who long ago discarded the guidebooks to best educate their students.

My mind changed when I encountered the realities of public education. And I am sure I’m not alone.
At the recent Save Our Schools Conference, I had spoken with fellow blogger James Boutin about our experiences, and we got to thinking about people like us—people who “crossed the floor” as it were on public education. One workshop we attended involved two Teach for America alums. They quit the organization over their tactics and approach in regards to teacher training.

Surely, we thought, there are many others like them—and us—who also had an epiphany about education and the real problems in our public schools.

There’s a very public example of this “epiphany” in Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education and co-author of No Child Left Behind who saw the dangers of the monster she helped bring to life.

However, what could be even more powerful are the stories of everyday teachers—be it from TFA, Teaching Fellows, or anywhere else—who had once bought into the rhetoric of education “reform” and have been transformed by their experiences in today’s classrooms.

James and I are collecting stories of similar individuals, those with similar transformative experiences as us. If you have a story to share, please contact James or myself. Include your contact info, as we’re not sure how to best use your information, and we want to keep in touch with you.

Finally, please send this to anyone whose life was changed by teaching in a public school classroom. Your stories are important and incredibly valuable. We look forward to hearing from you.


  1. I'm tired of burned out teachers blaming everything else because things don't go their "way." I'm in my second year teaching via TFA and I am loving every second of it in a difficult DCPS school. I don't care how many administrators bitch, moan, ask for documents, require daily meetings, change my roster, change what class I teach every four weeks, make me teach a high level class to low level students--GET OVER IT! I teach for my students and focus on the things I can control in my classroom. If disgruntled, concerned, and seemingly apathetic teachers would focus their energy on THEIR locus of control we would be making great progress.

    I just ask that everyone reflect on their work and ask, "What am I doing in MY classroom that is helping?" Forget the stuff you can't control--then real reform will naturally commence. I respect and admire all teachers. We all do incredibly hard work. I just want all teachers to focus on the positives, not the negatives.

  2. Of course, we should focus on the positives such as they are because we can never control what downtown does, can we? And, equally, of course, if we speak out about the bs and speak out about what we see as wrong-headed thinking and management then, obviously, we are apathetic and burned out. Gee whiz, you are such a trooper. I guess Michelle Rhee's superteacher is out there and, by golly by gum, IT IS YOU!!
    What's your plans after year two? A jump over to Educational Policy? Or are you really Michelle Rhee, cause you sure sound like her.

    When my classroom is being affected by decisions from people who do not seem to really understand what education truly entails, then I cannot simply shut my doors and worry about what I am doing for my students - in large part because what I am doing for my students is being hurt by these boneheaded decisions. It's nice to be able to stick your head in the sand but it doesn't change what is going on above ground.

    I will say this as well, for too many years teachers did just what you suggest - to both their own detriment and to the detriment of their students. They thought that if they simply concentrated on what they could control in their classroom then that is all that would matter. To teach today means to advocate for your students by arguing for the best possible conditions under which they should be able to learn. It means to fight against the powers that make decisions that owe more to private money and their interests than what is best for children. One can still be positive while admitting that there are a lot of negatives out there. In fact, one has a duty to be positive in the face of such negativity - otherwise, burn out will occur or at least the cold-hearted cynicism I believe to be the true nature of people like Rhee.

  3. Nah. I don't buy it. I still think too many teachers are frustrated by what's going on around them and just can't imagine success in the given arena, to the detriment of their own personal psyche and their students' achievement. Any job is hard. Education is like any other sector in this world (and I know, I know, education is not a "business"). Leaders (bosses) EVERYWHERE have outrageous demands, policies, and ideas that people just don't agree with, but everyone else survives--just rock it. I'm tired of teachers getting emotional over every criticism they hear.

    I joined TFA to teach for the long haul because the teachers in my high school were awful. They just moaned and groaned and gave me textbook work. I'll be here for 30 years and the thousands of kids I have will look back and say that they had a fun, thought-provoking, positive experience in MY class.

    I'm not saying to stick your head in the sand. Be positive at meetings and in the decision making process--say your two cents in a very happy, understanding manner. If you get shot down, operate your way anyway until you get observed. It's your classroom. Do you it your way. In my case, I switch back 3 days (I repeat 3 days out of 180) to satisfy my admins.

    Here is my current philosophy: I don't give a lick about education as a whole. You are going to run yourself into the ground if you think about all of the extraneous factors seemingly affecting your job. If MY students are dominating, excelling, and experiencing life-changing realizations in MY class than I did MY job. Period. Now if all teachers just focused on their students we'd experience true reform--teacher led and teacher inspired.

    In all seriousness, please continue with your hard work and dedication. I know your students are seeing successes as well!

  4. I graduated from Boston Teacher Residency and after a few years in the classroom I can say that my stance about public education has only grown stronger-- thorough teacher preparation impacts children tremendously.

    Given the stereotypes we all know about "veteran teachers," I'm assuming you're referring to the "old school" style of teaching, and perhaps more severe classroom management styles. The stereotype of a teacher who doodles during PD, yells at the kids, doesn't buy into all that
    "new age stuff." If you're not, please forgive me. But I'm interpreting what you're saying as some kind of suggestion that THAT kind of instruction and demeanor is good for kids, and that the "new school" stuff in "guidebooks" is crap.

    I know a little about TFA. Don't you think a teacher's effectiveness, and student achievement, is more directly linked to the preparation that teacher received, and the rigor of his/her coursework and experiences? In other words, if teachers are truly well prepared to use data, to manage a classroom, to hold high expectations, to differentiate, to actually think and work collaboratively, they don't have to resort to the pitfalls "veteran" teachers sometimes succumb to.

    I think the "cold backhand of reality" has more to do with teacher readiness than uncontrollable variables.

  5. Amen. It all comes back to being ready to lead children. If you are ready, you'll succeed. If not, get out.

  6. So, Ms/Mr TFA - are your students' scores soaring? Are your IMPACT scores through the roof? What happens if you do well on IMPACT but your students' scores bring your value added down to dangerous territory?

    I'm afraid this "control what you can" mentality is just another rationale for protecting oneself and avoiding looking at ways to truly educate kids.

    I hear Rhee and Henderson implying that they don't deal with poverty because they can't control it - fine - no argument there, but then they go on to impose school policies - that they can control - that do not help children because of the effects of poverty.

    What help is an expensive, complicated, ineffective teacher evaluation system if it doesn't help students learn and teachers teach?

    Reformers are using their control to keep themselves busy and employed - not to help children. And they don't appreciate your efforts if your kids scores aren't going up.

  7. "Amen. It all comes back to being ready to lead children. If you are ready, you'll succeed. If not, get out."

    How about being ready to teach children? does that count for something, or is it just self-proclaimed leadership ability that is needed.

  8. If teachers are to be held accountable for students' end of year state test scores then the state should provide "model teachers" who can come in and help us motivate the kids in our classes. The caveat is they must teach the actual children in our classes, not "sample children". We want these educators to come in and perform their test mastery magic while we watch on a hidden video camera and take notes. This is the only way we educators will "buy in" because most of the merit pay rationale is unsubstantiated BS. People who never come into contact with students spout dogma and demand lock-step alignment with untested paradigms It's time to show us the money and the test scores.

  9. In reading the above blog I am not so sure I understand what transformation Mr. D'Orazio and Mr.Boutin have experienced. I must have missed something.
    However, I will say that experience is the best of teachers. When we arm chair quarterback, things always look better until one walks in the shoes of the individuals they criticize. I have been teaching more than a decade in an Urban setting as well as working with children and families as a social worker. I truly understand the complexities of public education. I approach things with a positive attitude. See the glass half full and not half empty. Teacher preparedness, readiness, attitude, respect for their students, and ability to establish a culture of learning all have an impact on student learning and achievement. All students can learn but not all students come to us ready and prepared to learn at the high level we establish. We differentiate instruction establish positive relationships but sometimes that still isn't enough to get that student over the hump. Look!, as an educator I give my students 110% of my effort all of the time so at the end of the day and year I am at peace. I maybe disappoint when some of them do not do as well as I wanted and expected but I am at peace with my efforts. The teacher student relationship is a symbiotic relationship and teachers(we) can only work with the efforts our students give us. You can lead a horse to the water but you can't make it drink!. If I know my student is leaving me a little smarter than when I met him/her I feel a sense of success.
    Peace and Blessings,

  10. God, you two Anonymous twits, could your posts be more full of arrogance and agist stereotypes? I don't think we're talking here about a traditional approach and philosophy versus a more progressive approach and philosophy to education. I think we're talking about a systemic discrimination against poor kids. You may think you're super-teachers and able to overcome this discrimination; the fact remains that inner-city kids are being short-changed. They are getting less experienced (although arrogant and enthusiastic) teachers. They are getting a less rigorous curriculum because there's so much focus on standardized tests. They are being educated in deplorable physical conditions. They don't get art, music, sports because their schools are not being properly funded. I understand it's a trait of the young to be focused inward, but try now and then to look at the big picture here. By thinking you can change these conditions student by student, through hard work alone, you let politicians off the hook, who are supposed to be protecting poor kids BTW, some of us veteran teachers believe in a progressive, constructionist approach to education too. TFAs - Teachers for Arrogance and Self-Aggrandizement

  11. I teach at a school with TFA teachers and I am thoroughly impressed by their abilities to MOTIVATE and EXCITE students. What we have in this country is not an achievement gap, but a scholarship gap. If my school gets a TFA teacher with no kids or "adult obligations" and can bust his or her butt for 2-3 years and impact the EXCITEMENT level of the students in my school, then I'm all for it. Those students go on to realize that learning can take place and it is important to give it your all. I'm a veteran teacher of twenty years and I'm convinced my fellow veteran teachers that spit on TFA (just like Roma) don't see the big picture themselves. TFA aids in the development of our students as scholars. Don't be afraid of their energy or idealism. They are the rookies on a baseball/basketball/football team--you need them to win.

  12. The TFAers are now guaranteed a job with Goldman Sachs after serving 2 years.

  13. Anonymous 11:53 you completely missed my point. I'm not threatened by TFA cadets. EXCITEMENT and MOTIVATION are not enough. Poor kids deserve more than just an enthusiastic teacher (which by the way is not synonymous with a young teacher). These kids deserve everything my children in private school get: a decent physical environment, gym, art, music, a deep and rich curriculum. All of these things together make schooling a rich experience. The idea that all a kid needs is a good teacher is just a cop-out; plain and simple.

  14. I volunteered at an adult literacy center before becoming a teacher. I encountered many adults who did not have rudimentary academic skills. So many had sad stories of chronic struggle and failure. It seemed that those adult learners had fallen through the creaks of their schools, and had been sadly neglected by uncaring teachers. I wished that I could have been there for those adults when they were lost at school. Among the many reasons I decided to become a credentialed teacher was that I wanted to be a caring presence for students who struggled in school. What I have discovered in my eight years so far of teaching is that there is no shortage of caring and dedicated teachers.

    Here’s some other things I have observed in my personal experience.

    o Most students like school
    o School may be the only stable place in some student’s lives
    o The lowest and most struggling students may be the most enthusiastic learners
    o Academically able students may withhold effort despite every effort on my part to discover and ignite their interests
    o Students can be extremely compassionate for younger students and those with more serious special needs
    o Students can be extremely malicious to peers
    o Students feel safer when most adults in their lives are familiar, and that includes teachers
    o A lot can get in the way of some students learning
    o Each group of students has its own qualities and challenges, which blows every generalization I have made about individual groups from the previous year out of the water
    o The least likely polar-opposite kids from me have really connected with me
    o The potential to become a good teacher may be apparent in newer teachers, but it takes time and experience to actually become one

  15. @ROMA (arrogance, agist and stereotypes) Interesting comment! I think as classroom educators we can only control what we do with the materials we have and the individual aptitude our students'bring.We should also recognize our own shortcomings and work at improving them. We need to hone our craft to do what it takes to be effective educators.No matter how much of veteran you are, we all can benefit from professional development and be life long learners. Now having said that, we also should bring light to all the inadequacies that exist in some urban districts. However,the bottom line is about the bigger picture. That picture is preparing our students to become critical thinkers in our world. We should always put our best foot forward in doing that with what we have. If we go to work everyday worried about what we cannot control then we will continue to lose the battle and fail our children. I do not know any educator that feels " By thinking you can change these conditions student by student, through hard work alone, you let politicians off the hook, who are supposed to be protecting poor kids BTW..." (Roma), But some of us do believe that this hard work student by student has an impact and will go a long way. The other stuff has to be fought simultaneously in another arena. It takes a concerted effort of educators, politicians, lawyers etc. to battle the other demons that exist in our American educational system. Now if we really want to get deep lets analyze American capitalism and realize that by design it has to CREATE a lower class in order for it to work and allow the top 2% to take advantage. So the question becomes does Government really want to address the issue of the poor. Also, we are talking urban centers here but rural america is catching hell too. Lets talk about how our Government is not a real Democracy hence the institution of the electoral college. So does government really trust the minds and will of the people to elect a president. I maybe running off on a little tangent here but this is all connected to education, real education. So let's have a complete analysis of the problem we face in education and understand that this fought on many different fronts with many different approaches.
    Peace and Blessings,