The workshop that does not ‘sugar coat’ the first year

From 1995 to 2003, I presented a workshop at the TFA institutes about classroom management and the realities of the first year of teaching. The ideas were considered useful enough to be published as a book in 1999 (It’s called ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’). That book was adopted by the New York City Teaching Fellows as required reading.

Here’s a link to a video of the workshop I presented at the 2003 New York institute. It’s an hour. If you’re in a rush, just watch parts 3, 4, and 5 for the main points.

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2 Responses to The workshop that does not ‘sugar coat’ the first year

  1. fight_test says:

    Thanks for posting this! I just finished Institute and I think all of us could’ve used your advice this summer. We made a few surprise phone calls home this summer and I definitely saw the advantages!

    I enjoyed watching the workshop and I look forward to reading your book as well. Have a great day!

  2. Brian Rude says:

    Welcome back, Gary, and I have a question for you.

    All I know about TFA is what I read in the blogs, so I am not against TFA and I’m not for it. I think of it as “alternative certification”, or something like that, as an alternate route to teaching, a way to get into teaching without going through ed school. However I am getting the impression over the last year or so that maybe it’s not very “alternative” after all. Apparently it is abbreviated. Apparently you take far fewer ed courses than in a regular ed school. That’s certainly good, but still I wonder about the nature of that training.

    Here is my question: Does TFA make a clean break with what we might call the “ed school mindset”?

    The “ed school mindset” might be defined in different ways, but to me the important thing is its ideological basis. It starts with a few basic premises that to me are hopelessly romantic and unrealistic. They are accepted on faith, not experience One premise is what I call the “interest first” premise, the idea that we teach by first eliciting interest and students act and learn only on the basis of that interest. Another premise is that direct instruction is to be avoided, rather a teacher is a “facilitator”. Another premise is that discipline problems are always a sign of poor teaching. Another premise is that all, or at least most, learning should be done in projects, preferably group projects. Another premise is that students really want to learn.

    One might say all these premises I have identified are variations of one underlying premise, which we might call the”premise of good intentions”. If we have good intentions and trust in the nature of the child wonderful things will happen. We just need to get out of the way.

    There are some other premises that seem entrenched in ed school also, but that do not seem just a restatement of the good intentions premise. One premise that has always been a mystery to me is that good teaching always starts with a formal lesson plan. I have always disagreed. Planning is very important, but the formal lesson plan taught in ed school is a clumsy elephant in actual practice. There is not enough time for that kind of written formality, and even more importantly perhaps, there is no benefit. The planning that really counts is the informal day-to-day planning that every teacher necessarily and automatically does.

    Another premise might be called the “rules” premise, if you come up with the perfect set of rules for student behavior you won’t have any trouble. Everyone will behave because everyone knows what’s expected of them.

    I am not arguing that there is no value or validity to any of these premises. There may be. But I emphatically argue that an ideological belief that good intentions and faith in the child’s natural desire to learn is not a good foundational basis for pedagogy.

    By “pedagogy” I just mean what we know about teaching and learning, or what we should know, or what we need to know, or what we could know.

    Pedagogy should start, like any science, by looking at what is. Don’t tell me what should be. Tell me what actually happens in actual classrooms, and analyze it. Tell me what teachers actually do and why they do it. Tell me what real students do and what their motivations are. Once we have a comprehensive and accurate picture of reality in the classroom, we can certainly talk about would could be, or what should be, or what might be. But a realistic picture of what actually is has to come first. This, I have always claimed, is totally missing from the ed school mind set. It was missing when I was in ed school, and I have seen no reason in the intervening years to believe anything has changed.

    I have always assumed that any “alternative route to teaching” would be based to at least some extent on either rejecting this ed school mind set, or bypassing it, or minimizing it, or transcending it, and putting something more practical in its place. Maybe I have foolish expectations. When I first learned about TFA I rather passively assumed something like this. But I have gotten the impression over the past couple of years that TFA training does not break with the ed school mentality. Your book, and the mixed welcome it has received is evidence of that. You book breaks with the ed school mentality. It breaks cleanly and decisively. You tell us what actually happens in actual classrooms (your classroom at least). But my impression is that you didn’t get that from your TFA training. Indeed from my reading I get the impression that your TFA training included a lot of the regular ed school mentality and premises. And my impression is that your book gets a cool reception in some quarters because it is heretical to the ed school faith. Is this the case?

    And if this is the case, what does it mean?

    I have formed the opinion over the years that the ability to teach is based on several rather mundane things – general intelligence, general verbal ability, general social skills, cultural knowledge, specific subject matter knowledge, and not much else. It stands to reason that if you assemble an elite group of people, which I understand TFA does, they will produce results in the classroom better than the results produced by a non-elite group of people (regular ed school students).

    So if TFA produces good teachers, that’s wonderful. But I’d like to know more. Do they produce good teachers because of the training they give, or in spite of that training? If my idea about what makes a good teacher – intelligence, verbal ability, social ability, cultural knowledge and subject matter knowledge – is correct, then it could be either way.

    My hypothesis is pretty clear in my mind. My hypothesis is that TFA hires “expertise” from conventional sources – ed school. Therefore that “expertise” has nothing to do with the success of TFA teachers. It’s all selection. The ed school in TFA is just a bit of baggage imported because it somehow seems appropriate.

    For decades my view has been that the ideological basis of the ed school mindset has prevented pedagogical progress for about a hundred years. Therefore I am not just being a knee jerk grinch in advocating a frontal assault on that mindset. I think there is a lot of genuine educational progress to be made by actual pedagogy, by looking at what actually happens in real classrooms with real students and real teachers. I wonder if TFA is a leader in this, or a laggard. A record of success doesn’t answer this question. Perhaps you can.

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