@2011s Can You Handle The Truth?

I believe that TFA does not think so, and I will use this post to explain what evidence I have for this claim and also speculate why that choose to underestimate you in this way.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I loved watching reruns of ‘The Brady Bunch’ a show about a large family with 3 boys and 3 girls.  On one episode that I remember (or just think I remember) the youngest boy, Bobby felt like he was unable to do some kind of task, maybe it was a physical feat, I can’ t remember.  Well, one of his older siblings gave him a good luck charm that was supposed to have magic powers.  With this charm, Bobby’s confidence was instantly improved.  At the end, he somehow performed the task (again, my memory is fuzzy on the details, and I spent 30 minutes on Google trying to verify the details, but haven’t been able to), only to realize at the end that the locket, or whatever it was, had fallen off and that the power to succeed was inside himself after all.  The locket was just a lie, a crutch, but one that served a purpose.  Without it, he may not have been able to overcome the fear of what he was attempting to do.

I’ll get back to the significance of this plot-line later.

Over the past few posts I’ve been challenging some of the claims of success in TFA.  The comments by former CMs in ‘Why Does TFA value Quantity Over Quality’ revealed the biggest scam yet.  Data to calculate ‘significant gains’ is self-reported by CMs, and sometimes based on pre and post assessments that are self-created — invalidating the data to claim that 40% of first year 2009 CMs got 1.5 years of gains.

Why would TFA deliberately lie about their success?  In my opinion there are two reasons.  The first is for PR.  By putting success in the best light possible they get more support from government and others so they can grow and improve (in that order) and eventually (maybe) get genuine gains.

One problem with this is that if you lie enough, you start to believe it yourself.  If TFA really thinks that 40% of first year CMs can get these kinds of gains, they won’t feel an urgency to improve their training since it is, by those standards, good enough.

The bigger problem is that TFA also presents these claims to the new CMs which give those CMs a false sense of confidence which has the risk of negatively affecting their effectiveness.

They seem to think that, like Bobby Brady, a false sense of confidence will help CMs overcome the fear of failure.  They are lying to you to trick you into harnessing the skills that you already have inside yourselves.

Near the end of Wendy Kopp’s book ‘A Chance to Make History’ (page 177), she writes about how her 8 year old son asked her “how if this is such a big problem — you know, kids not having the chance to have a good education — why would you ask people with no experience right out of college to solve it?”

Wendy admits “it seems that I’m still spending just as much time as I did on day one trying to get people to understand what it is what we’re doing.  And my eight year old had gone straight to the heart of the matter.”  Then she explained to him the philosophy:

“I started by sharing my view that although it’s true that experience can be invaluable, there’s also a power in inexperience — that it can make a huge difference to channel the energy of young people, before they know what’s ‘impossible’ and when they still have endless energy, against a problem that many have long since given up on.  They can set and meet goals that seem impossible to others who know more about how the world works.”  (page 178)

Years ago, I had exchanged a dozen emails with a former head of TFA, Jerry Hauser, who made it pretty clear that this was part of the overall plan of TFA.  I see it as deliberately lying to CMs about how difficult teaching is so that they are not held back by their own fear and so they don’t give up before they even start.  They think that the risk of you giving up if you know the full truth is greater than the risk that you will be unprepared if they lie to you.  So they lie to you.

And this has been my main problem with TFA dating back to 1996, the one and only time I was a staff member as a CMA at the 1996 Houston institute (working under, of all people, a young Michelle Rhee!).  I presented a workshop about how tough my first year was.  They allowed me to present that workshop for about 10 summers in a row, but then they stopped letting me do it in 2006.  (It’s on YouTube if you really want to see it.  www.youtube.com/garyrubinstein)  My first book, which was based on that workshop, is required reading at many teacher preparation programs, but it doesn’t even appear as recommended reading on any TFA list.  Instead, copies of it are passed around the different institutes like a Playboy magazine in a middle school class.

I believe that 2011 CMs do not need a Bobby Brady magic locket — or ‘The Kool Aid’ as I understand CMs like to call it.  It may have worked in the Brady Bunch but it is too big of a gamble in the real world where the education of tens of thousands of kids is at stake.  Instead they need a training model that is truly succcessful.

The Teaching As Leadership framework is very flawed.  You can read my extensive review of it here, or I’ll just give you a taste of it.  I believe that the TAL framework reveals that TFA (or at least Steven Farr — Chief Knowledge Officer of TFA) does not know the first thing about teaching.  That is not to say that they don’t know anything about teaching because they certainly know some things, but they do not know the ‘first thing’ because they make it clear that they think the ‘first thing’ about teaching is to ‘Set Big Goals.’  I’m not sure how deeply they go into this three word starting point in training.  I’d say it’s oversimplified at best and dangerous at worst.  Many CMs misinterpret this and think that just because they say that successful CMs have had big goals, then if they have big goals, they will be successful too.  What TFA does not say is that many unsuccessful CMs also started by setting big goals.  In my opinion, these big goals have, for many CMs, caused them to be failures in their first years.  Great teachers do not ‘Set Big Goals.’  Great teachers set reasonable goals.  They are able to do this because they are knowledgeable about what sort of goal is appropriate and what sort of goal is going to get kids frustrated and make them lose confidence in you and in themselves.  Anyway, you can (and should) read my entire critique if you want to see more than one side of many of these TFA claims.  Even if you disagree with every claim I make, the process of thinking about why you disagree with me will make you more prepared for next year.

TFA needs to invest more into training so that CMs don’t have to have only 20 hours of practice teaching, sometimes with classes of only 10 kids.

CMs deserve to hear the truth and I have confidence that they can handle it.  The truth will help them be better prepared so they can be more effective which will benefit the children they teach.  And, as an added bonus, TFA won’t have to lie about their bogus successes since they will become genuine ones.

Here is Part I of the workshop from YouTube

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18 Responses to @2011s Can You Handle The Truth?

  1. Wess says:

    Gary! I love this post!

    This is, in my opinion, THE problem with TFA.
    This is, in my opinion, the REASON I spent half of my year crawling along depressed, anxious, and hating my life.

    I spoke to our 2011 corps at induction this year, and I told a very–no really, VERY–honest story of my first year. I was graphic and explicit specifically because I don’t believe they’re getting the message from anywhere else (the harmful “don’t scare them” mentality even enters 2nd year CMs’ minds when we’re talking to pre-1st-day-of-school CMs).

    Though my in-person reactions with CMs said they were thankful for my honesty, other feedback indicated that I’d scared them; a significant number of them were shocked and distressed by my narrative, and many felt our staff should have been more careful about who they chose to speak.

    Personally, I have faith that I was asked to come intentionally both because of my honesty and because of the significant challenges I faced this year, and I’m very pleased that my voice contrasted so strikingly with the rest of the messaging they received. It’s not that I believe everyone’s experience will be as awful as mine was. I want them to prepare themselves for the worst–not go in thinking they’re good teachers.

    Kudos for this — I thought both this post and ‘Why Does TFA value Quantity Over Quality’ were grounded and asked questions a lot of CMs and staff wonder and feel uneasy about.

  2. takingnotes says:

    I think you are right in pointing out that the TFA party line is more or less to tip toe around the truth re: how difficult teaching can be and the challenges that lie ahead.

    But, from a 2011’s perspective ( in the sense that I am a 2011 and I have a perspective on this, not in the sense that I speak for all 2011’s) I don’t feel particularly wronged by this policy of walking on eggshells, and I’ll give you a few reasons why.

    1) The “truth” rarely feels true until it is lived, and so no matter the degree to which they tried to prepare us for it, the first (and second for that matter) years would be no less shocking.

    2) non-tfa-sanctioned versions of “the truth” are readily available to any 2011- word of mouth, internet forums like this one, and numerous media outlets. It’s not like TFA could censor those viewpoints and I suspect nearly all of us 2011 have encountered them frequently. I don’t need TFA to officially take a stance on how difficult the corps experience is to know that the corps experience is difficult.

    3) TFA knows that those more pessimistic “truths” get conveyed to us from other sources, so they don’t have to tell us themselves. And in fact they serve us as individuals (and admittedly themselves as an organization) better by serving us glass half full. The constant optimism is a way for the organization to say, “hey I’m in your corner.” I don’t think I need to cite studies to support the fact that people perform better when they feel supported and believed in. You can be cynical and say that this is ultimately self serving for TFA, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt (especially given that TFA is consistently ranked one of the best places to work for) and say that it is one example of an organization trying to live up to its own ideals.

    4) And finally, I am not upset by the fact that TFA may or may not be deliberately painting an overly optimistic picture about the difficulty of being in the corps because if I knew the “truth” it wouldn’t alter my course at all. I know there are some among my corps, myself included, who decided on this route, not in spite of the difficulty, but at least partly BECAUSE of the difficulty. There are some who just plain like a challenge, and then there are those, like me, who have learned that adversity is the best path to character building and that something earned with difficulty is far more meaningful than anything that came easily.

    Sorry that was so long-winded! I guess I had more feelings about that than I thought!

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      takingnotes — Thanks for this insightful comment. I’m pleased that you feel that you have ample access to alternative points of view through this site and others. For many years it was not that way, so I really like to hear that you were already aware that the TFA perspective was one-sided. That puts you way ahead of CMs from the early 2000s. So there are two aspects of this sugar coating of the truth that concerned me. The first was that you’d be lulled into a false sense of confidence, and it seems, at least for you, that you were not a victim of that one. But the other issue is still there, the idea that TFA seems to believe it’s own sugar coating, and as a result have not found it urgent to rapidly improve the training model. This is something you won’t be able to easily overcome, and I feel frustrated about that. TFA has so much money that it seems like more could be spent on fixing the training. At the end of my Teaching As Leadership critique, maybe part 9 of it, I have some advice on how you can fill in some of the flaws in the training model. Please comment again when you get a chance. I really appreciate your eloquent point of view.

    • Wess says:

      Re: 2) I’m glad CMs are getting the truth from other sources, but I wonder whether all of them are. I was at induction just a year ago, and I can tell you TFA’s was the only credible (i.e. not just a personal account, but a whole orgnaization’s model and viewpoint) view I heard. I didn’t discover TeachForUs until after Institute, and didn’t know a single person who’d ever been involved with (or even heard of) TFA. I “drank the kool-aid” in that I took every word I heard from TFA as True and Right and Best.

      Re: 3) It’s not about optimism vs. pessimism. It’s about omitting information. We can inform CMs about what they’re getting into without needing to be glass-half-empty about it. It’s not failing to support or believe in CMs–it’s telling you the truth. I was told it would be hard–but never told any details or specifics that made me actually buy into believing it would be hard for ME. I was allowed to, encouraged to, walk into my first year with a sense of skepticism about WHAT exactly made the first year of teaching so famously difficult, and with an increasingly comforting sense of “hey, I’ve done really really challenging things before. All I need to do is keep doing what I do, and I’ll get better at it just like I’ve always eventually gotten better at things.” That kind of thinking was almost fatal.

      Re: 4) You’re right in that going in with a clearer sense of what it’ll feel like shouldn’t deter you. But indulge me for a second. Rate, on a scale of 1 to 100 (1 being sleeping in on a Saturday and 100 being fitting a camel through the eye of a needle), how difficult you think your year will be (hint: you can’t say 100). If you add 10 or 15 points to that estimate, don’t you think you’d brace yourself for the experience a little more? Don’t you think you’d spend a couple more hours between Institute and September reading up on all you don’t know? Don’t you think you might prioritize preparation, whatever preparation you can get, EVEN more than you are right now? Don’t you think you might arm yourself with more contacts and resources, spend more time around veteran teachers, maybe even research a doctor’s office or a therapist ahead of time?

      annnd Re: 1) This is where you’re so right. I can never tell someone exactly how my year felt.
      But. You can do a lot better than having CMs read TAL and Ms. Lora’s story, show them the funky stats of how many CMs make significant gains, give them a teaching experience with a third of the class size and a half of the planning they’ll actually have to do, and have every conversation about year 1 sound like “it was so hard–but then I worked really hard and everything just got better.”

      • takingnotes says:

        Hey Wess-

        Sorry I’m just seeing this now (and I wish I knew how to change my notification settings because I really do wish I had seen it sooner) and thanks! Even though I think my habit/nature is to be critical/argumentative I agree with almost everything you said. School starts next week for me and without even reading your post I had taken home about 4 extra teacher-instructional guides, so reading that part of your post was eerie.

    • Megan says:

      What about joining for the kids? Please don’t make the same mistake that many CMs do (and Wendy Kopp did in her first book) when you forget about the children you are supposed to be teaching and “serving.”

      Through this experience you WILL face adversity, but I hope your intention here is to become a strong teacher for the children who want to learn, and not just to get a “challenge” and build your own character.

      • takingnotes says:


        It feels weird having to affirm to a stranger on the internet that I am in it for the kids- which is true, they’re what keeps me going- but this particular blog post wasn’t necessarily focused on that and in the interest of not taking up even more space on someone else’s blog I didn’t feel the need to bring it up.

  3. Phil I.P.C. says:

    Your workshop was incredible. After being coddled all throughout induction this week and not really hearing anything concrete or useful about how to teach effectively the first year, this was a breath of fresh air.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for watching it. That workshop was something I developed over a period of 11 years and I was really proud of it. Please spread the word about it. I’m also thinking about making it something people can download. Keep commenting throughout the institute and let me know if they ever get more concrete or useful. Thanks, Gary

      • Phil I.P.C. says:

        Will do! I’m already extremely disappointed to learn at the last possible second that even though I have a SPED placement, I will not be teaching special ed students at Institute. They decided to let the SPED CMs know this only yesterday. It’s been a pretty large source of stress for the other CMs I’ve spoken to, and rightfully so.

  4. Melissa Tran says:

    Wess- so proud of you, always.

    Gary – I’m not involved with-TFA, stumbled on Wess’s blog when she was in distress early in the year and have followed her since.

    One notable theme among so many Corps Members in the early years is the irrational, unreasonable belief that they are failing when anything goes wrong, and that they somehow owe it to kids to suffer and be miserable for their students’ sake. That’s a lie, and suffering is a total waste of time and energy.

    Teaching is tough, especially when you are young and especially at the beginning. Crisis of confidence are standard. TFA or no, not all schools are supportive of new teachers, or ANY teachers.

    But there are so many things that could be done to help everyone be better prepared. SO many things.

    For starters- helping new teachers prepare mentally and emotionally for the transition and isolation they might feel as they go from student to teacher. This is especially critical for MS and HS teachers who will almost always be subjected to some kind of hazing that will make them feel like they are reliving their worst moment in HS over and over again…

    Until they realize and embrace the fact that they really are the adults in the situation and that they don’t have to choose to be unsettled by the behavior or kids… Sadly, it seems like many Corps members are being left to figure that out on their own, often over weeks and months during which they suffer and struggle which is really too bad for them and for their kids.

    I mainly work with at-risk 16-24 year olds… or more often now, train their staff to work with them. Ironically, within a month of my “meeting” Wess, I was contacted by a former student who is now a successful Police Officer.

    He asked me to talk to a young teacher who he was trying to support and give her some ideas. He said, “I’m always trying to tell her about the things that you did that worked with us but it would be better if you told her yourself”. So I did.

    There were glaring similarities between that (TFA!) Corps member’s experience and Wess’s and those of so many of the others who are working with older kids. It really troubles me because it’s not fair to the kids or the Corps members and so much of it could be avoided with targeted training, mentoring and support.

    One of the things I found most distressing is that much of what Corps members seem to be trained/expected to do to manage their classrooms is completely inappropriate after the elementary level. I don’t know whether this is actually what they are trained to do or only what they understand based on the training they receive but the outcome is the same and it isn’t good.

    Wess overcame those challenges and emerged from her 1st year intact and motivated to help others, and determined to continue to sort out what’s “right” for herself. She also remains a huge supporter of TFA, which makes her courage all the more remarkable; it’s a lot harder to stand up to or disagree with those you admire, than those you don’t.

    If you haven’t read her blog, you should. I think she may be the bravest blogger I’ve ever read in terms of her willingness to lay it all out- good, bad and ugly – about herself, her feelings, and her experiences. Most people are not that brave ever, and certainly not so early in their careers.

    All of that said, I really believe in TFA too. I’ll continue to read CM blogs here every week and look for ways to support them in any way I can.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m a big fan of the ‘Drinking The Kool-Aid’ blog too. You’re right that the TFA training model is mainly based on elementary school methods, which generally don’t work at the secondary level. My 2nd book ‘Beyond Survival’ is targeted specifically toward secondary, but don’t expect TFA to let the CMs know about it.

  5. E. Rat says:

    I have an issue with the “endless energy” TFA assumes from its CMs. It underlies an attitude that these bright young children will come in and fix everything through incredibly hard work in two years. Nothing is getting fixed in two years. It also encourages real burnout; I think part of the reasons many CMs leave after two years is because they cannot handle another year of eighty-hour weeks and can no longer imagine teaching as a profession that might not require that.

    Moreover, it denigrates long-term educators (and it’s kind of ageist generally). I’ve been teaching for over ten years. I don’t spend eighty hours a week in my classroom because I have a family and a life outside it. Ten years ago, I didn’t have the same kind of responsibilities, and I could spend more time in my classroom. The TFA model suggests there’s something wrong about that.

    That model, however, did not make me a better teacher: too many of those eighty-hour weeks leave educators tired, resentful and stressed out. Inculcating a total lack of work-life balance in one’s trainees is unsustainable.

    • parus says:

      Yeah. One of the things that worries me about the message TFA pushes is that one of the things kids who live in low SES situations often most miss out on is STABILITY. The revolving door of frazzled new teachers just adds to that.

    • Alohagirl says:

      I agree. I am in a charter corps (TFA’s first year in this particular school and complex). There are 5 of us. When TFA invited our principal to this year’s hiring fair, she declined. She loves us, and has offered all of us our jobs back (we’re only on one-year contracts), but she shared with one CM that TFA had promised that we would be super energized teachers – getting involved in the community, leading events at the school – all kinds of pie-in the sky promises. Instead (as she put it), she received a bunch of stressed-out, overworked first year teachers. She’s not upset with us, because I think we were not much different than any first year teacher she’s had (this is a VERY hard-to-staff school, and often new teachers leave within months or even weeks) but TFA’s requirements, those of our master’s/licensure program, and the DOE new teacher induction program we were required to do took so much time and effort it was exhausting. Many weekends we were away from the community just because of these requirements.
      Also, TFA staff had never told us this was a promise made to our principal. Weird, huh?

    • B says:

      To be more blunt, teachers working 80-hour weeks are useless. If you’re putting in 80 hours, you’re doing something wrong.

      Quality veteran teachers don’t need to put in 80-hour weeks–NOT because they’re lazy, but because they know what they’re doing.

  6. Ali says:

    I think a huge issue with the TfA training is that they set it up as- do a+b+c and you will be successful. Set big goals, work relentlessly, believe in your students. They put the onus on you- if you are not successful, it is because you are failing to follow the directions we told you. And if you don’t get that 1.5 years of growth like you are supposed to- well that is your fault for not trying hard enough.

    I have never seen a more depressed, anxious group than the TfA corps members who believed it was their fault they were not succeeding and getting the growth tfa wanted quickly.

    Teaching is really hard. Teaching kids in difficult circumstances is harder. Being told that your lack of success falls squarely on your shoulders because you weren’t as good as everyone else, leads to a lot of corps members in therapy.

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