Is it better to succed at trying to be good or fail at trying to be great?

Is it better to succed at trying to be good or fail at trying to be great?

This is a fundamental question that’s at the heart at my differences with TFA with regard to the training of the CMs.

Looking over the curriculum and talking with CMs, I realize that TFA is holding up models of ‘great’ teachers for the CMs to emulate. Great teachers get students ‘invested’ as a way to motivate them. Great teachers accomplish a year and a half of material in one year (That’s twice as much as the three fourths of a year of material that their other teachers did.) Great teachers have creative innovative instruction all the time.

The problem with trying to be great is that it is risky. If the risk pays off, that’s great. But if it doesn’t, you might be in serious trouble.

It’s like if you were learning to juggle for a big performance. Either you can go in with a plan to be ‘good’ juggling three bowling pins and you can focus on that for five weeks and get reasonably good at it. Or, knowing that it’s much better to juggle five flaming torches, you can spend a lot of your energy focusing on that. When it’s time for the big performance, you decide to go with the torches because they are ‘better.’ But they’re also more risky.

Risk analysis says you have to consider three things: 1) What will you gain if you succeed? 2) What will you lose if you fail? 3) What is the likelihood of success?

With the torches, you will get a standing ovation if you succeed and you will burn down the room if you fail. Whether to take the risk or not depends on the third thing. If you’re experienced, the likelihood of success is great. If you’re a beginner, unfortunately, your likelihiood of success is low. So the beginner shouldn’t take this risk. There’s too much to lose. The new juggler would have been better off doing a risk-free three bowling pin performance.

As applied to teaching, I think that TFA sends CMs in with a plan to be great. The CMs don’t realize that if they fail to ‘invest’ and if they confuse their kids by going too fast while trying to teach double the amount of an ‘average’ teacher or by trying to make too many complicated activities, that they can ‘burn the room down.’ They would have been better off playing it ‘safe.’

I think if, as a new teacher, you go in with a plan to take few risks and be a solid ‘good’ teacher, you will do a great service to your kids. If you try to do more that you’re capable of, there’s a chance you’ll be great (and then you can be on TFA institute staff next year), but there’s also a chance that you’ll fall on your face. (Your class runs all over you. See my 9 minute workshop video #4 to see what that’s like)

Some of the suggestions you’re getting this summer should be stored away in your mind for your ‘great’ second year.

Now, if you’re a first year CM, you might be thinking, “I don’t like what you’re saying. I didn’t defer law school for two years to be just a ‘good’ teacher. I’m going to take the risk and I’ll either be ‘great’ or die trying.”

I’m OK with that. Because at least now you know that it’s a risk you’re taking. The way TFA presents it, you would think that it would be risky to NOT do it that way.

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6 Responses to Is it better to succed at trying to be good or fail at trying to be great?

  1. Sam says:

    This is interesting, because from reading the subject of your post I thought that you were the one that thought that we should encourage CMs to be great. TFA, in fact, does NOT encourage teachers to think that they have to be great. As a CS this summer, and as a CMA for two years before, what fascinated me was the idea that using our new rubric we are not expecting CMs to be great. We are expecting them to be good BEGINNING teachers, which is not great. In fact, when you read the rubric’s descriptors for CM targets you sort of think to yourself, “That’s all?” But then you remember that that’s where a beginning teacher SHOULD be. In any case, sometimes I wish we shared more greatness with them–many of our CMs can be great, but are not necessarily even pushed to be by TFA! I think that TFA, however, has really found a happy medium. We’re aiming for a lot (and we have to be) but trying to be realistic. The texts that you’re reading are just that–the texts that are trying to teach perfection. In a biology text you don’t teach about “pretty good” ways to do a science experiment, you present students with perfection. The same goes for the texts; we present CMs with perfection, but as they teach and as we teach them in CS sessions, we explain exactly where they should be and what is feasible.

    • Alohagirl says:

      I don’t agree. Yes, they hand us a rubric at Institute (I was 2010 Atlanta) and tell us we “only” are expected to be at the second level of the 4-level rubric (I forget the two-letter acronyms used for each level, because I have never wanted to look at that rubric again since I left Institute). But this is tricky. First of all, TFA has carefully screened and selected a group of people who have clearly NEVER settled for “just OK”. Most are fresh from college and still thinking about grades. To hand us something that our minds easily translate into A,B,C,D and say hey, you only have to be a C – that’s just not something that’s going to sit well with this group, is it? Couple that with being inundated constantly with stories, videos, speeches, etc. about/from superstar CMs who supposedly made huge gains and were incredible teachers right out of the gate. Then, when you do score “above” on the rubric – I think it was BP, Beyond Proficiency? – you get fawned all over by your CMA, you get a “shout-out” and celebrated at your school’s weekly assembly, and the pressure is on to maintain that level. That’s why you get CMs staying up literally all night long to prepare an hour long lesson.
      I never got the sense that it was really OK to be “just OK”. Even though we were told we were only expected to be Novice (it’s all coming back to me now….ugh), we were also repeatedly told that “research shows that teachers who leave Institute as Beyond do the best in their first year”.

      And as for “perfection” – really, is there such a thing as perfection in teaching? I think it’s dangerous to suggest that there is.

  2. garyrubinstein says:

    I appreciate your comments. I’m glad to see that we’re on the same page of not having the CMs try to do ‘too much.’ Maybe I’m trying to fight something that doesn’t even exist anymore. Thanks for your input.

  3. Ellie says:

    As a 2004 CM, I felt that push to be a great, extraordinary, above-average, God’s gift to education teacher. For me, it’s a message that I never bought into because (a) on the TFA over-achiever scale, I probably rank pretty low and (b) I wanted a lifelong career as a good teacher rather than leaving the profession after a few years because I was burnt out from being a “great” teacher. Maybe that’s the reason I was the ONLY CM to stay in teaching from my region after our commitment was up and am now entering my 5th year as a teacher….

    And I have to disagree with Sam about sharing more of the “greatness” of CMA’s. I got quite enough of that shoved down my throat at institute and would have been much more inspired by a veteran teacher speaking about how they’ve managed to become a good teacher and have a life outside of teaching.

  4. garyrubinstein says:

    Thanks for this last comment. Also, that’s great that you’re still teaching. Amazing that you were the only one that stayed. They’re saying that 40% stay on average. Staying beyond the 2nd year is a great thing to do. I’m working on a post about that.

  5. eoa says:

    Great teachers have universally similar characteristics and traits that make them great teachers -teachers wanting to be great teachers may find the following website generally useful on how to become great teachers:

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