Saturday, February 05, 2005

Recommended books on teaching

From what I've written and from what you've heard and seen yourself, you probably know that teaching is an incredibly difficult and stressful job. The challenges and conflicts that I've listed barely represent a tenth of different types of difficulties you can expect to encounter if you join TFA. To get a clearer idea of both the highs and lows that come with teaching, and to find out how other people have dealt (or failed to deal) with them, you might want to read some of the following teacher memoirs:

1. Losing My Faculties by Brendan Halpin
2. Reluctant Disciplinarian: Advice on Classroom Management from a Softy Who Became (Eventually) a Successful Teacher by (former TFA corps member) Gary Rubinstein
As you can probably tell from the title of this one, it's half memoir, half self-help for teachers. If you're thinking about joining TFA, you might find this book useful both as a window into the lives of inexperienced teachers and as a source of tips on how to run your classroom.

This last one is a novel, not a memoir, and it was first published in 1964. And yet, if some of the dated references were changed, it could almost read as an account of the life of a teacher in 2005...
3. Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

I'll continue to post other potentially useful books in the future. In the meantime, please keep in mind that the story of teaching that most frequently appears in books and movies--the story of the determined savior of students battling all of obstacles and winning a better life for her/his students against all odds--is something of a myth. It is a myth not because teachers can't touch lives, but rather because the real life of a teacher doesn't fit comfortably into a narrative with an inspirational end point. Maybe one day every single one of your students passes an extremely difficult exam--and then the next day, two of them get into a brawl in your class and are expelled. Move forward, fall back. The successes are tempered by failures, and vice versa. I say this not to discourage you, but rather to emphasize the importance of having realistic expectations about teaching, which, conveniently enough, will be the subject of my next post.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Recommended site: Tangential Thoughts

Recommended site: Tangential Thoughts

For the thoughts of another Teach for America corps member who has been in the program for the past two years and will be teaching at her TFA-placement site for a third year, check out this blog:

The writer is a friend of mine, a fellow RGV corps member, and an advocate of TFA. Her experiences with the program have been relatively positive, and her perspective may give you further insight into the range of responses teaching elicits.

A caveat

That’s it for my list of useful teacher qualities, for now. There are, of course, many others, and if you think I left out anything crucial (I’m sure I did), let me know.

Keep in mind that none of the above guidelines are rigid rules (and also, that all of these ideas are based on my own thoughts, experiences, and observations, and what do I know?). You could be an introverted peacemaker who’s always been indifferent to kids, join TFA, adapt well, and become a happy and effective teacher. But then again, maybe not. The idea here is to know yourself, to know—as well as you can—what it’s like to teach as a part of TFA, and to figure out whether the program is for you.

Useful Teacher Quality #3: Genuine affection for students

Do you like kids? A lot?

If you’re really crazy about math or science or English, but you don’t particularly like kids, you will probably not like teaching with TFA.

This one sounds obvious, right? But there are a lot of people who love what they studied in (or outside of) college, and they want a job that will allow them to go on studying it. They love the modern novel, so they want to do something related to English literature. They like complex proofs, so they want to work with pure math. Of course, jobs that allow them to study the academic subjects that they love are few and far between, and teaching begins to look attractive. It allows them to work with math or English or history all day long, and not only that, but to teach other people to love math or English or history. And there are all those hours after school and in the summers to spend on private study!

No. No no no no no no no.

If you decide to join Teach for America, do it because you want to teach kids, not just because you want to teach math, French, science, or literary theory. The chances are good that, if you become a TFA teacher (or any teacher, really), most of your students will have little to no initial interest in what you teach. They will not bring to the study of lipids or the analysis of novels the same enthusiasm and energy that you do. Many of them may regard school as a prison, your classroom as a cell, and you as their warden. Your lessons? Just more instruments of oppression. Some students will take pleasure in deriding the subjects that you obviously find most interesting.

This is not to say that you’ll never get your students interested in anything. But they won’t start out interested. Often the most effective way to gain their attention, and their respect, is not to rely on the intrinsic interest you think everyone should have in mitosis or the rain cycle or ancient myths, but to let your students know that you’re interested in them, that they matter to you, that you know them as individuals. Once your students know you care about them, they might be more inclined to care about what matters to you, such as American history or matrix algebra. This is where liking kids comes in, and this is where you might have problems if you’re teaching because you like academic study but not so much students.

You’ll also probably find that there’s very little time to advance your studies while teaching. Teaching, especially for a first-year corps member, absorbs a LOT of time and leaves little energy for reading, writing, or even intensive thinking. It often involves introducing very basic concepts to an unreceptive audience over and over again. Over time, you may start to fear that you’re forgetting more about the subject you love than you’re learning.

If you love a particular subject above all else and don’t care as much about kids, consider grad school. Reconsider TFA.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Useful Teacher Quality #2: Extroversion, or energy from interpersonal interactions

The most useful definition of the terms extroverted vs. introverted, and the definition that’s relevant to this discussion, is this: An extrovert draws her/his energy from interactions with other people, whereas an introvert is more energized by an internal world of ideas. Obviously, nobody falls neatly into one category or the other, and whether you feel you’re introverted or extroverted may depend upon the situation in which you find yourself. But the distinction is important in a discussion of teaching because teaching, at least at the primary and secondary levels, involves packing an incredibly high number of what are supposed to be meaningful interpersonal interactions into one day. A high school teacher, for example, will often see more than 100 students come through her/his classes in a day, and ideally, a teacher will want to interact as much with each of those students as possible. Even when addressing the class as a whole rather than individual students, a teacher must in some ways always be “on,” always be performing. All of your students, including the ones who profess to hate you and try to ignore everything you say, will scrutinize you closely, and will notice any hint of fatigue or distress. Students respond to energy; a teacher who’s energized by interacting with students can energize them in turn, can wake them up, make them more interested and alert. A teacher who is exhausted by constant public performance can expect that weariness to be mirrored by students.

I in no way want to suggest that only people who consider themselves extroverts make good teachers; this is not true. But for people who are mostly energized by ideas, by theories or analysis or study, and not nearly as much by other people, teaching can be brutally draining. It demands that you give a lot of yourself to other people and leaves you little time to “recharge” by being alone during the day. It can leave you with less and less energy each day, until you feel you have none left.

Questions to ask yourself: Am I energized by large-scale social interaction, or wearied by it? (The answer to this may be, “Sometimes one and sometimes the other,” which is fair enough. Try to imagine the specific sort of interactions you’ll be engaging in as a teacher and how those would affect your energy level.) Am I happiest dealing directly with people, or theorizing about ideas? Do I need recovery time after I go to large parties or meet a lot of new people? Do I like to have a lot of time alone?

If you prefer working with ideas to working with people, TFA may not be for you; think carefully about your decision. On the other hand, if you think you’re strongly introverted but you’re positive you want to join TFA, don’t be frightened by this section. As I mentioned before, introversion in no way prevents someone from becoming a great teacher and in some ways can be very helpful. But be sure to take care of yourself once you begin teaching. Try to find some time, as much as you need, to yourself each day. Find ways to process your thoughts/feelings so that you don’t choke on them. And actually, this is good advice for any TFA corps member.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Useful Teacher Quality #1. Comfort with constant interpersonal conflict

Teaching at the primary or secondary level, as opposed to college, is in many ways a continuous battle of wills between teacher and students. Negotiating this struggle is often called “classroom management,” and it is widely recognized that TFA recruits have particular problems in this area.

If you become a TFA corps member, your job as a teacher will be to lead your students in a way that will help them attain the knowledge and skills they need. But many of your students will have little or no interest in that knowledge and no intention of letting you lead them anywhere. You have most likely heard horror stories of teachers who have been physically attacked by students; that form of conflict is only the most obvious. More common and usually less frightening, but highly frustrating, are the others:

--Verbal conflict
Some students will take any opportunity to test a teacher’s—especially a new teacher’s— authority by speaking to him/her with blatant disrespect and then waiting to see how the teacher will react. Some types of verbal tactics used by students: basic insults (“This class is boring. You talk too much”); name-calling (“Asshole;” “Whore;” “White bitch”); swearing (“Fuck! I made a mistake”); sexual advances (“I dreamed about you last night”); refusal (“No. I won’t do this, and you can’t make me”); threats (“I know where you live”); incessant talking (talking while teacher or other student is talking, talking after asked to stop)

--Passive resistance
Examples: not doing homework, not doing classwork, sitting in place when asked to move, moving when asked to sit, not answering when spoken to, responding to a request or question but only after a noticeable and often tense delay

--Deliberate creation of distractions
humming, drumming on desk, playing music, putting on makeup, making faces, wandering around, eating, snapping fingers, throwing spitballs—any or all of these while teacher is talking or students are (should be) working/thinking/learning

--Destruction of property
throwing trash or stomping mud onto the floor, writing insults on teacher’s/school’s property (asshole, bitch, Mr./Ms. X sucks, etc), stealing teacher’s private property or classroom items, deliberately breaking mechanical items (pencil sharpener, overhead projector), leaving half-eaten food in the classroom

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the above examples come from my own teaching experience or the experiences of friends in TFA. For an edifying list of shows of contempt encountered by another former TFA member, check out this link (June 1, 2004 section): (Scroll down to the entry for Tuesday, June 1, 2004.)

You’ll see many examples that don’t fit into the short list of categories above.

The behaviors described above can be dealt with, but some people are better suited to dealing with them than others. My intention in writing that list was not to scare potential teachers, but rather to give you at least some idea of the level of conflict you’re likely to face as a teacher. Some people, while of course frustrated by this degree of resistance, are able to shrug it off and not take it personally. Others find that the anxiety and discomfort that come with these conflicts lodge under their skin and become a constant burden, even outside of school. Obviously, people who fall into the first category are happier as teachers.

To prospective TFA corps members, then: How comfortable are you with conflict? Can you leave it behind you once you’ve dealt with it, or do thoughts of it tend to follow you around? How much does it bother you when people don’t like you? Don’t respect you? Violently dislike you? And keep in mind the type of conflict we’re talking about here: frequent (sometimes near-continuous), sometimes subtle challenges to your authority, your dignity, and your sense of self-worth.

If you find that you’re often uncomfortable with interpersonal conflict, that you tend to be sensitive (“thin-skinned”) to insults or criticism, that you have a hard time operating in a work environment that can be brutally hostile, re-think becoming a TFA teacher.

And keep in mind that I haven’t even mentioned student-student, teacher-administrator, or teacher-teacher conflicts yet.

What qualities not mentioned by TFA are useful to a teacher?

Based upon my own experiences, both as a student and as a teacher, and my observations of many teachers inside and outside of TFA, I believe that the best—and happiest— teachers share a number of qualities that TFA never mentions on its recruiting website. Again, these conclusions are drawn from my own interpretation of my personal experiences; they are by no means authoritative.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Requirements: What makes a good teacher?

According to Teach for America’s website, this is what they’re looking for in a prospective recruit:

We seek leaders who can describe significant past achievements and who operate with an exceptional level of personal responsibility for outcomes. Because our corps members face such tremendous challenges, we seek applicants who have demonstrated determination and persistence when confronted with obstacles in the past. Lastly, we seek people with the specific skills - from critical thinking to organizational ability - that we have seen characterize our most successful teachers.


This thumbnail description of an ideal applicant is not, in my opinion, a description of an ideal teacher. There are many people who have achieved personal success, are hugely responsible, face adversity with determination, possess excellent critical-thinking and organizational skills, and find that they are unhappy and often ineffective as teachers.

But if the qualities described above are often present in people who would not be satisfied as teachers, why are these the qualities TFA is looking for? And what qualities are useful for a teacher to have?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Excellent Reasons to Join TFA

Excellent Reason # 1: You have wanted to be a teacher for a long time.
Excellent Reason # 2: You have taught extensively in the past and loved it.

Excellent Reason # 3 (only in conjunction with ER # 1 and/or 2): You want to work with students at under-resourced schools and to have access to TFA’s training program and support system.

There may be other excellent reasons to join (feel free to post them), but these are the best I can think of. The best and most satisfied first-year teachers/TFA corps members I saw had either prior teaching experience or a genuine and longstanding interest in becoming teachers.

When you decide whether to apply to or join Teach for America, your focus (in my opinion, of course) should be on that first word: teach. Before you think about anything else, forget about helping people, forget about meeting other corps members, forget about politics and community service and grad school and whatever else may be factoring into your decision, and ask yourself this one question: Do I want to be a teacher?

And then ask yourself this one: Am I suited to being a teacher?

Shaky Reason to Join TFA # 4: You’ve never failed at anything in your life, and you’re sure you’ll be a great teacher.

Most TFA corps members have never failed at anything (or much of anything) before joining the program, and every single person I know in TFA felt like a failure at some point (or many points, or all the time) while teaching. This is not to say that you won’t become a good teacher, but you should not go into this program expecting instant success or personal glory. You will most likely be bitterly disappointed.

Shaky Reason to Join TFA # 3: It’s a prestigious program, and you want to do something impressive before applying to grad schools.

There are other ways to buff up a resume, ways that don’t require you to complete 70-hour (and up!) work weeks, endure verbal abuse from 14-year-olds, or experience a nagging sense of failure on a daily basis.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Shaky Reason for Joining TFA #2. You don’t know what else you would want to do after college....

OR, You're not yet ready for grad school, but you have to do something after graduation.

Many of the people who join TFA, including myself, do so for a combination of reasons 1 and 2. A lot of TFA corps members I’ve known were, in their last year of college, idealistic but directionless, and Teach for America seemed like the perfect solution to their problem: That (relatively) short two-year commitment looked like an excellent opportunity to help people (see Reason 1) while taking some time to figure out what to do with their lives or to rest up before grad school. In a lot of ways, TFA acts like a surrogate parent after college. It gives you something to do, helps you pay your bills, and tells you where to live. Even better than a parent, it provides you with a ready-made network of friends your own age whose interests are similar to your own.

All of this can sound very attractive to worried college seniors. But Reason 2 is a terrible reason to join Teach for America, for several reasons (reasons within reasons, here):

1. While TFA can solve some of your new-graduate problems, immersing you in a community of friends, helping you with housing, and giving you a direction in life, it will also unload on you the problems of at least equal magnitude that come with being a new teacher in a new (and sometimes hostile) environment. At the same time, you’ll be paying bills, maintaining an apartment, preparing your own meals, monitoring your bank balance, wondering why your car is making that funny noise and if you can afford to fix it; in other words, you’ll still be adjusting to all the adult-world obligations with which many college students are unfamiliar. New personal obligations combined with an amazingly difficult new profession can result in misery.

2. Teaching will help you decide whether you want to be a teacher. It will most likely not help you decide whether you want to be a lawyer, a doctor, an artist, a manager, or whatever other occupation you were thinking about before you joined TFA so that you could stop thinking about possible occupations. Teaching will make you (intimately) acquainted with your weaknesses and strengths, and so may indirectly help you figure out what sort of profession suits you, but there are less painful ways to learn what you're best at.

3. The beauty of many jobs, especially entry-level ones, is that they leave you a fair amount of free time to pursue other interests. If, for example, you think you might want to be a social worker but you majored in finance in college, it’s not too difficult to find a job in business that will leave you free in the evenings and on weekends to read books about social work, or to train as a volunteer counselor, or to talk to people about your career goals. Teaching, on the other hand, can easily soak up every spare minute you have. As an inexperienced teacher, it’s easy to spend nearly every moment planning or preparing handouts or grading papers, and to spend every moment you’re not doing those things staring numbly into space, exhausted. TFA, in other words, may not leave you a lot of time to consider what you want to do when you leave TFA.

4. From what I’ve observed and experienced, finding a first-job-out-of-college and settling into a life outside of school is stressful, but it is far, far easier than TFA. First job = frying pan, TFA = fire.