How I wanted my first year to be perceived

Well, that last post was a bit heavy, I guess. Held those stories in for 19 years, and all I got was one positive comment and one person with enough enthusiasm to push the ‘like’ button. I was kind of hoping for a bit more support on that one. I feel like that Loony Tunes cartoon where Daffy and Bugs compete in a dance off and Daffy can’t get any applause until he gets in a devil costume and drinks kerosene and swallows a lighted match and then blows himself up and gets a standing ovation and Bugs says, “they want an encore.” and the ghost of Daffy says “I can only do that one once” or something like that.

I always accuse TFA of sugar-coating the truth and misleading people into thinking the first year is much easier than it actually is. Well, I found a somewhat edited version of what I wrote after my first year to make it seem not so bad. I still would like to find the original. This seems to be one that was edited later to make it even more mainstream so I could send it out to magazines.

My First Year

“In your first year of teaching,” they warned, “don’t smile until Christmas break”. This was easy advice to follow– Christmas break was the first time I felt like smiling. I began the year with the enthusiasm of the ’91 summer institute. Our motto, “All Children Can Learn”, was a positive way to approach our impending task. I also knew that antiquated teaching methods were no longer acceptable in a 1990’s multi-ethnic society. Between September and November, however, my classroom management shifted from Quixotic to chaotic. Cooperative learning, for me, was when I screamed at them in small groups of two to five students. For limited English speakers, I would respect their culture, and yell at them in their native tongue. For audio learners I would yell even louder, and for visual learners I would compliment my tirades with threatening gestures. In the face of my waning idealism, I examined it with Aristotelian logic: 1) Premise: All children can learn, 2) Premise: The kids in my class can not learn, 3) Conclusion: The kids in my class are not children. This type of thinking did not help.

At my lowest point, I was getting home exhausted from work at 4:30 P.M. and passing out on my couch until 6:00 the next morning. No dinner, no grading, no planning, and I was back at school to repeat the cycle. I screamed at kids, and sent them to the office. Three times I was called to the principal’s office during expulsion hearings, to testify against students that actually hit me. With no classroom of my own, few allies, falling hair, and a loss of ten pounds from my dinner missing power naps, I had little to keep me going. But I just couldn’t quit because I knew, deep down in my heart, that I owed two thousand dollars on my TFA issued Visa Card.

The turning point was when I received my first student-written fan letter. “Dear Mr. Rubinstein,” (I’m writing this from memory, grammatical mistakes and all, which gives you an idea of how many times I must have read it.) “I don’t know how to tell you that your the greatest teacher I ever met. And I want to know every math things you know. Well maybe other people or kids tell that you are not nice at all. Well maybe I have to go back to my notes. Hope you had a happy Halloween.” It was time to prepare for the long haul after reading that. I was making an impact on at least one child. This was not the cinematic type of turning point I had hoped for– the one followed by the inspirational music and clips of me teaching like a man possessed. No, I continued to spend most of my time demanding silence, writing discipline cards, and calling students’ parents. I did not even get a second chance to gain control after winter break, like I had been told I would.
What went wrong? Why couldn’t I get through to those children? Poverty, raging hormones, drugs, low self esteem, lack of parental concern, malnourishment, excessive television– and the kids had some problems too.

I kept the lessons interesting (The geometry of the video game ‘TETRIS’, Calculating the number of lights in the AstroDome, Life on the mysterious two dimensional world of ‘Flatland’), but it didn’t seem to matter to most of them. Even the most entertaining lesson isn’t as fun as talking, fighting, throwing paper, water guns, when you can get away with it.

So my first year wasn’t a success, but I did return for a second year. I know I didn’t have to; When I signed my TFA contract, I agreed to take two years out of my life to teach in the inner-city. Even my doctor will attest that I had aged at least five. As long as there are kids wishing to learn ‘Math Things’, I’ll be there to share them.

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3 Responses to How I wanted my first year to be perceived

  1. RTD says:

    Thanks for your blog and your honesty. I was teaching in Houston this year through TFA and quit at the beginning of October. I think it sparked a huge wave of “dropouts” at my school, but that’s not the point.

    I quit because of the usual reasons, plus being so sick I couldn’t physically continue. I spent a week straight in bed. Somehow, laying there staring at the ceiling, I made the decision.

    After I quit, though, it was the worst feeling on the planet. I was literally holding up student work, especially the worst of it, and sobbing. Thinking, these kids will fail because of me. I miss them. I want to see them tomorrow. I even thought about just teaching the day I came to get my things. (My principal wanted me to come back.)

    Now, I have mixed feelings about telling others to join TFA. On one hand, I felt brainwashed at Institute, tricked into joining, trapped by the loan, and treated like a robot, but on the other hand, I felt that at its heart, TFA is in the right place. Some of their methods could be more ethical, though, I suppose.

    Anyway, I think despite all that, it’s better to stay in than quit. When you leave, you realize you were having an effect on the students after all.


    • garyrubinstein says:


      I’m sorry that you had to leave. I know that it was a tough decision and there didn’t seem to be much of an option. I’m interested in what your thoughts of how your training might have been different so you wouldn’t have gotten to the point where you needed to leave. Only with the insight of someone like you can we get to the bottom of what TFA could improve upon. Don’t dwell on your decision too much. I came so close to quitting and had it not been for my best friend in TFA teaching in the same school as me, I don’t think I would have made it.


  2. Leah says:

    Hi Gary,

    Thanks for this post. I feel like I have had similar experiences thus far. I am a 2010 corps member (also in Houston), and while I made it through my first semester I’m not sure I’ll make it through the second.

    I am curious, did your students still perform well on state standardized tests or through any other measurements? It sounds like I have the same management issues as you did during your first year, but my school is in a special program that relies heavily on data (probably the same program that RTD’s school was in!) so my job is currently being threatened because of these problems. I have received positive letters from some students recently, but I’m not sure it will be enough to keep me there.

    Teaching seven hours a day, with a one-hour planning period, and then planning/grading/cleaning the room after school, and then teaching on saturdays and professional development every saturday, has actually made me sick, but taking sick days and mornings off to go to the doctor frustrates administration. I have reached the point where I’m not sure if it’s worth it to stay and potentially get fired, or take a risk and find another job.

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