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What I Learned By Skipping The TFA Summit

I debated going to Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit right up until the last minute last weekend. I was tempted by memories of the contagious energy that comes out of TFA events and by the hope of seeing old friends from my cohort. But I was also wary because I often end up feeling alienated and irritated by the content and structure of TFA events. I decided ultimately to save the price of bus fare and the admission ticket and stay home.

It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of TFA and be inspired by the message and the stories (which, unless they’ve changed since my last experience, are pre-formulated so as to end with “And that is why I teach for America”). And for some, myself included, it is also easy to sit, stew and scribble vitriol in the margins of your agenda about “vague statements,” “missing the point,” and the inappropriateness of “teacher-as-hero.” What I continue to find incredibly difficult is to keep a balanced perspective and piece apart the good and the bad. So, for my own sake, I tried to pick out two small things that embody the good and the bad.

One of the most important lessons instilled in me with TFA was the “academic impact model.” (As a caveat, I have seen many non-TFA teachers fully embrace this model, and it certainly was around before TFA.) The academic impact model is an image with “Student Achievement” at the top, being driven by “Student Actions,” which are driven by “Teacher Actions,” which are ultimately driven by “Teacher Skill, Knowledge and Mindset.” In other words, it is the teacher’s actions and mindset that drive everything else — it is the teacher’s job to always, always, always reflect on what he or she could be doing differently to drive student outcomes.

It can be so frustrating to watch a teacher set up a student for failure and then blame it on the child. When meeting with teachers at both my previous public school and current charter school, I have found too many teachers too easily dismiss the lack of individual student achievement as the fault of the student or the family: “That kid is just plain lazy.” “The only problem is that they don’t do anything with their kid at home.” “That kid just doesn’t know how to behave; they are never doing the right thing.” “This kid still hasn’t gotten it and we’ve gone over it a thousand times.”

Is it the teacher’s job to go to extreme lengths to involve themselves in the child’s home life? No. But it is the job of teachers to ask of themselves: “How can I motivate this child, behaviorally and academically?” “Is this child truly never behaving?” “If the student isn’t getting it the way I teach, how can I teach him differently?” Day after day, all day long, it is the teacher’s job to ask these and more questions.

On the flip side of this reflection on one’s own practice is the efficiency with which TFA asks you do it. This efficiency creates a very narrow-minded approach toward this reflection, and in turn, a narrow-minded pedagogical approach. One standard problem-solving protocol taught in TFA is as follows: I present to you a problem, you have three minutes to ask me questions, then I have to be quiet for 10 minutes while you all just throw out answers, then I have two minutes to sum up my take-aways. (I’m sure I have the exact minutes on this wrong.) This is an efficient protocol, but too frequently it doesn’t allow for real dialogue.

In September, a new teacher at our school (not of TFA background, but from a school with heavy TFA influences) walked into a Child Study Team meeting and wanted to discuss his concerns about one of his students using this protocol. If we had allowed this teacher to continue as planned, there would have been so much he would have never learned about the student’s family background, educational background, and academic and social achievements and struggles from the year before. When we interrupted his protocol and gave him this information, he found it incredibly useful and thanked us. Then we had some real, substantial dialogue about the child. As a result, the teacher changed his approach and mindset about the child, and the child has blossomed in his classroom in some profound ways. If there had not been two or three people in the room willing to break the rigidity of that efficient model, real learning about the child would not have taken place.

This is the larger problem with the way TFA as a whole regards pedagogy — what is lost in its push for efficiency and data-driven gains is the deeper, more meaningful instruction and approach that makes all learning long-lasting.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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