Mixed feelings about the upcoming summit

I have an unusual relationship with TFA.  To me, TFA is like an ex-boyfriend who dumped me after a five year relationship from 1991 to 1996, just as things were about to get serious.  Now after the dumping back in 1996 it took me a long time to put it all behind me.  I tried stalking him — inviting myself to crash the institute, volunteering for all kinds of alumni events.  It was tough since even though he rejected most of my offers, I would get the occasional booty call from TFA, mainly because he kept me on his e-mail mailing list — “Baby, can you please fill out the alumni survey?”  “Honey, I miss you.  Would you be willing to give me $50?”  “Sweetie, some radical website linked to one of your blog entries and they took it somewhat out of context.  Would you be willing to post a comment on that site clearing things up?  I miss you.”

I tried to move on.  I even found myself other guys — guys who appreciated me for who I am.  There was City College who hired me to train the new teachers, Columbia Teacher’s College who invited me to come speak, and then there was the nicest guy of all with a name eerily similar to Teach For America — Math For America.  They gave me a bunch of money, they made a commercial which displayed on the Times Square giant TV and that had my picture on it.  By 2005 I was finally over TFA.  My personal life was also making it so I had less time to think about TFA anyway — I got married in 2006 and then in 2008 my daughter was born.

And then I got pulled in, quite by accident.  Through a connection at City College I got offered a new book contract to write a guidebook for secondary teachers.  Having taught in a bit of a bubble (I teach at the top high school in New York City — Stuyvesant High School), I felt that I needed to ‘get real’ again, so I started reading these teachforus.org blogs to remind myself of the mindset of new teachers.  Then I thought I’d write some posts, basically drafts of things I was writing for the new book — a way to test out the ideas and maybe get some feedback.  Well, CMs started to comment and I was getting thank-you notes and finally I was feeling that I was getting listened to finally and now I’m the proud writer of one of the top ten teachforus.org blogs.  (The latest stats haven’t been posted yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m still up there.)

If TFA is my ex-boyfriend, then this 20 year thing is like I’m going to his wedding.  And the worst part is that I’m going without a date.

You see, I don’t feel like I really fit with any group of people who are attending.  For one thing, I’m not a ‘charter corps’ — I was one year late for that.  It’s like being the second guy to cure polio.  I also am not someone who got elected to public office.  I’m not a staff member — worse, I’m a staff member who basically got fired after one summer as a CMA.  I didn’t start a charter network or even one charter school.  I didn’t become a principal of a ‘traditional’ school.  I didn’t go on to become a doctor or a lawyer.  I did, after my fifth year of teaching, take 6 years off to become a computer programmer before going back into teaching which means that I’m in my 13th year of teaching now, which is a lot, but not the 19 that it would be if I taught all the way through.

Now, still being ‘just’ a teacher is a good thing, but the problem is that I’m not teaching ‘on the front lines.’  I’m at the top school in New York City.  Though the school has a high ‘minority’ population, mostly Asian, these kids, for the most part, are not ‘at-risk.’  They are not ‘rich,’ though with about 40% fee/reduced lunch.  I love my job, and my students are amazing, but I know that I’m not personally closing any achievement gap.  In a way, I’m widening it.  Sometimes I feel guilty since I know I have the know-how to teach at a school that ‘needs me’ more, but the truth is that I’m 41 years old now with a wife, a daughter, and another baby coming in two months, I don’t have the time or the energy to give of myself what I used to be able to give when I was winning ‘Teacher Of The Year’ back when I was 24 years old.

So I try to pass on what I know to the young soldiers on the ‘front line.’  If I can make some of the younger CMs better teachers then in that way I am still helping close the achievement gap in my own way, at my convenience when I sit down every week or so and rattle off one of these posts.  Aside from advice, I try to use this blog to express ‘areas of improvement’ that I think TFA can work on.  These aren’t meant to simply bad-mouth the organization.  Deep down I hope that these posts will somehow be read either by current TFA staff or by future TFA staff and that the improvements could really impact the education of a lot of kids.  I like to think of myself as either the Michael Moore of TFA though, if they even cared about what I was writing, TFA would probably consider me more like a Sarah Palin (The Tea F A party?).  Regardless, writing is one of my favorite things to do, and this gives me a chance to do it.  Oh yeah, and maybe some people decide to buy one of my books — no pressure.

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3 Responses to Mixed feelings about the upcoming summit

  1. Wess says:

    Ha! I definitely see you as the Michael Moore of TFA. Well said.

  2. Brian Rude says:

    Gary, I think you’re being a bit provincial in one way here. You say, “If I can make some of the younger CMs better teachers . . . . .” I understand you have a long and deep connection to TFA, but don’t limit yourself to that audience. For every first year TFA teacher trying to keep his or her head above water, there must be fifty or a hundred first year teachers from state colleges in exactly the same fix. They need help, at least many of them do. From several years of ed courses, they may be better prepared than TFA teachers, or they may be worse. My guess is that there’s probably not much difference. But regardless of the percentages, whether 5% or 50% or 80% of new teachers are seriously troubled in trying to do their job, I would think your focus would be on them, whether they come out of TFA or not.

    Do you think your blog is only read by TFA people? Of course I can’t know who reads your blog, but I would guess that most readers find your blog the way I did. One web site leads to another. You click here, you click there, and now and then you read something that seems worth coming back to. I don’t really remember, but I imagine I had followed your blog some months before I began to learn about TFA, and figured out that TFA is important to you. My guess is that most readers of your blog probably don’t know anything about TFA.

    You sound like you need a mission. You say “ . . .the problem is that I’m not teaching ‘on the front lines.” I wouldn’t disagree with you, for that meaning of “on the front lines”. But in another way you are on the front lines. At least I think you are. Your “Reluctant Disciplinarian” is a sharp departure from what has passed as pedagogy for the past hundred years or so. If you will continue to build on that I think you can do a lot of good, but not just for “CMs” as you say. That’s a very important front line.

  3. Michael says:

    Gary, I agree. You do not need to be haunted by this organization. They are a fundamental part of your development, but that needn’t be destiny. Maintain your focus on pedagogy, advice-giving, and acting as a life-saver for incoming educators who do not know what they are about to encounter. TFA will do as TFA does, and when the tide turns from our current standards-based educational milieu we will see how their reputation fairs.

    The problem with being Michael Moore is that you spend so much time debunking the views of others that your whole identity is that of the antagonist. We only know what he stands for via antithesis; he is purely a force of negative energy. Truly revolutionary contributors to the philosophy of education create something, which you have done (your Reluctant Disciplinarian was the best book I read as a new teacher). Michael Moore types merely destroy.

    I hope this helps,


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