The Ringer

A few months ago, I got an interesting email from TFA:

From: alumni.teaching.awards
Subject: Teach For America Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching
Date: Friday, June 24, 2011, 11:16 AM

Dear Gary,

As a teacher who has been recognized for your tremendous accomplishments in the classroom, we believe you could be a strong candidate for the new Teach For America Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. We are writing to encourage you to apply for the award as we are eager to learn more about your work and impact.

The Teach For America Alumni Awards for Excellence in Teaching will be presented annually to alumni teachers who are having a transformational impact on their students’ lives. In addition to providing us with a means of recognizing the exemplary work of our alumni teachers, these awards will also allow us to learn from the best practices and approaches of these outstanding educators, thus advancing the work of our corps members and alumni teachers throughout the country.

Award recipients will receive a monetary award and will be invited to participate in a teacher leadership forum, mini-summit or trip in which they will have the opportunity to share best practices with current corps members and alumni, as well as teams within Teach For America that are directly responsible for the training and ongoing instructional support of corps members.

We believe that the ongoing leadership of our alumni in the classroom provides an incredible example to our corps members and younger alumni, and demonstrates that excellent teaching is sustainable and absolutely fundamental to the broader movement to achieve educational equity.

We look forward to reviewing your application, Gary, and we offer you our sincerest thanks for your continued leadership in the classroom. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us with any questions.

Though I’ve been pretty hard on TFA lately, I thought I should still give it a shot. As a career teacher with a growing family, I could really use the money. Also, I thought I’d give TFA a chance to do the right thing, for once.

I had to get several letters of recommendation, including one from a former student. For this one, I went way back and asked one of my stars from the 1992-1993 school year. I doubt too many other alumni are getting letters from a 37 year old mother of 4.

To whom it may concern,

I am truly honored to recommend, Mr. Gary Rubinstein, for the award pertaining to this letter. I have known, Mr. Rubinstein, for nineteen years now. He was my algebra teacher back in high school. Mr. Rubinstein, is an excellent teacher who takes the time to ensure the success of his students. When I first took math in high school I hated it. I had a teacher who made me dread going to his class and my grades dropped dramatically when I was in ninth grade. When, Mr. Rubinstein, became my teacher everything changed. He made math easy for all his students to understand. Everyone in class comprehended the math problems and did great in their report cards. I remember my peers and I even had competitions amongst ourselves, as to who would get the highest grades in the tests. When I finished taking my two years of algebra and moved on to another math course, I sometimes had problems understanding the work that was given to me. Even though I was no longer his student, Mr. Rubinstein, would take time to help me with my homework after school. He was the only teacher I knew at that time, that would stay after school to tutor if a student was struggling and needed help. His continuous dedication and love of teaching helped us to succeed. I went on to graduate fourth in my class, and wouldn’t have done so without the help of, Mr. Rubinstein. I have four children of my own now, and know with certainty, that if they are struggling with a math problem I can reach out to him for help, and he’ll help with the same enthusiasm and dedication that he did when I was his student. If there were more teachers like, Mr. Gary Rubinstein, students would stay in school and reach their educational goals. Therefore, I strongly recommend that all his selfless dedication and hard work be recognized with this award.

Elvia V. Guzman

Also as part of the application, I had to answer two essay questions.

Question 1: What specific steps have you taken to improve your teaching practice over time? Describe a time when you intentionally developed one aspect of your practice. What did you do, why, and what was the outcome? (250 words suggested)

I have just begun my 14th year as a classroom teacher and have tried to improve continuously throughout my career.  Early in my career I worked very hard to improve my ability to give clear concise explanations during my direct instruction.  I noticed that if I was not efficient with my direct instructions I would lose the student’s attention and then have to explain again, which made my lessons even less efficient.

The next phase of my development, however, was to work on a more student-centered skill.  Good explanations are important, but they still are a passive part of the student’s learning.  More recently, I’ve been working on how to get more active participation from students.  For me, this includes being very conscious of who I am calling on to answer questions.  I often decide, in my mind, before asking a question:  “I’m going to call on the second student that raises her hand from row 2.”  This way, I’m sure to give proper wait time and can’t “cheat” by just calling on the most eager participants.

Student involvement is, for me, the most challenging aspect of teaching and something I continue to improve upon, even after thirteen years of teaching.  It is all part of the evolution of my teaching style from the teacher-centered approach early in my career to the more student-centered approach I continue to develop.

Question 2:
Describe any impact you have had outside of your classroom and how your efforts have led to changes for students in your school, in your community or beyond. (250 words suggested)

Of course over thirteen years of teaching over the past twenty years I have taught several thousand students.  Some of those students, especially ones from early in my career, are even Facebook friends with me.  Through their stories, I’ve learned how I’ve impacted my students in ways that I never anticipated.  Though the vast majority of my students did not complete college, I still made an impact on the way they feel about learning and how they pass that feeling onto their own children – many who are teenagers.  These kinds of impacts are difficult to measure, but they are real and very important to me.

The biggest impact I have had outside the classroom, over the past twenty years, has been the way I have indirectly helped hundreds of thousands of kids by sharing my knowledge with new teachers about how to be effective as a beginning teacher.  This is something I started in 1993, after I completed my second year of teaching and felt I had ‘figured out’ the essence of what made me a successful second year teacher.  I would go to TFA happy hours in 1993 and find new corps members and try to share what I learned with them so they can have a strong start to their first year.

My passion for sharing my teaching advice resulted in my presenting a workshop at the 1995 Houston institute and then participating in a panel in front of the entire corps.  This helped me get a job working at the 1996 institute as a corps member advisor.  I still keep in touch with several of the corps members I trained.

Even though I didn’t work at the institute after that, I continued to volunteer and present a workshop for new teachers at institutes from 1997 through 2007.  In doing so, I helped thousands of new TFA corps members be more effective.

As I honed the content of my workshop, I had my first book published ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ in 1999.  Over the past twelve years this book has sold 80,000 copies and has helped countless teachers teach more effectively.  My second book, ‘Beyond Survival,’ was released in 2010 and one 2011 corps member wrote that it was the best book on teaching she had read.

For me, my ‘legacy’ is that I have used what I have learned to help teachers be more effective.  In this way the thousands of students I have taught directly is only a tiny fraction of the, hopefully, millions of students I have helped indirectly.

Over the past twenty years, since my first year of teaching, Teach For America has been a huge part of my identity.  As an alumnus, I have been keynote speaker at many TFA events.  I have served on panel discussions, have presented workshops at TFA institutes and induction days.  I even volunteered to critique and edit, at the request of Jeff Wetzler, the Classroom Management guidebook given to new corps members.  I am one of a very small group of people who can say they attended the 5 year, 10 year, 15 year, and 20 year alumni summits.  Though I sometimes disagree with the way the organization wants to get there, I believe that I am committed to the mission of “One Day …” as anyone can possibly be.

And the winner isn’t …

Your Teach For America Alumni Award Application
Wednesday, January 11, 2012 1:22 AM
From: “Nalley, Laura”

Dear Gary,

Thank you for your application to the Teach For America Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching and more importantly for your continued leadership as a teacher. Your work is an inspiration to other Teach For America alumni, corps members and staff, and to so many in the community in which you work.

Although your application was not advanced to the final round of our process this year, we deeply value the work you are doing every day on behalf of your students. Please know that our selection committee engaged in a great deal of deliberation and discussion throughout this process and we recognize the difficulty of conveying any teacher’s full impact in any sampling of materials. We hope that you will consider applying again in the future because we know that we have a great deal to learn from you and we know that your skills and impact will continue to grow over time. Your application will be kept on file and we are working to develop a modified application process for applicants to reapply in future years so that we can incorporate important updates in your work without asking you to resubmit many of the same materials.

Also, we truly appreciate your willingness to share your materials more widely within our organization. Our teacher support and development team will be incorporating resources from applicants into our training and support for corps members and young alumni, so your participation in this process will actually impact the lives of children in classrooms throughout the country in the year(s) ahead.

Thank you for all of the time and effort you invested into this application process and once again thank you for continuing to teach. We are honored to have you as a Teach For America alum.

Sincerest thanks,

Laura Nalley (DC ‘98) and Tamara Arroyo (NYC ‘98)

Teacher Leadership Team ∙ Teach For America

I suppose I’m not surprised. When I started working on the application I thought I might be shut out because of my outspoken criticism of TFA, but by the time I finished the application which also included a video taped lesson, a series of lesson plans, and samples of student work — all which were great — I thought there was really no way I could lose. The lesson here is ‘never overestimate TFA.’ I know this is a really ‘sore loser’ thing to do to post all this, but I’m frustrated and this helps me relieve some of that frustration so I hope everyone excuses me for this one. I’ll get back to debunking, ranting, and helping new teachers in my next posts.

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11 Responses to The Ringer

  1. parus says:

    Interestingly, the initial email is a form letter – I got one with almost identical text, although I haven’t been particularly recognized for my “tremendous accomplishments in the classroom” – couple of minor awards, but nothing spectacular, and I don’t think TFA knows about them anyway. I wonder if they sent it to everyone who replied on the alum surveys that they were still classroom teachers?

  2. R says:

    Thanks for sharing the letter from your former student. It helped to remind me of the long term impact teachers can have on students’ lives.

    But your bar for TFA “doing the right thing for once” is giving you an award? Really? Come on …

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Well, maybe I didn’t have to win the whole thing, but I didn’t even get selected to go on to the next round. Are there really that many alumni that have the credentials I do. Come on. I got two books published. That’s not easy.

  3. Gary –

    Obviously you didn’t get the award because you continued teaching. I’m sure the next award will go to someone like our new Louisiana State Superintendent John White – a TFA grad who, after his two years teaching, was propelled to CEO of TFA in Chicago, then on to New York to close public schools and ignore parent and educator input, then to New Orleans to boost our still FAILING “model for the nation” the Recovery School District. Last week he was appointed by our Board of Education, in spite of not having any of the legally required credentials, as Superintendent. Our Board can issue a WAIVER of qualifications for Superintendent but no other educators at any level in the state can receive such a waiver – unless you are employed by a charter school, of course, in which case 5 weeks of training is sufficient.

    • James says:

      “The Teach For America Alumni Awards for Excellence in Teaching will be presented annually to alumni teachers who are having a transformational impact on their students’ lives”

      This award is strictly for current teachers. Nice try to make an argument though.

  4. cheesenstein says:

    Given how much emphasis TFA places on conformity and obedience to the creed, it’s not surprising to me that they would not value your contributions. Yet another reason why it is sane, right, and proper that you do not rely on them for professional validation!

  5. Iteach says:

    Maybe another interesting way to look at this is that TFA decides to honor alumni who are still teaching. As a result, they receive a body of work from applicants in the form of sample lessons and videos of you in action that it looks like from your rejection letter become theirs to use in further educating current recruits. It’s a very inexpensive way to acquire materials while also making some of you feel good about the possibility of being honored. They give a plaque and a nice letter and receive in return dozens of lessons and tapes to use in educating new teachers. I could be completely wrong. i just thought it was funny that they mentioned this as a consolation in the rejection letter. Many of you who took the time to apply probably have good stuff to share. This was a great way to get it. Lots of people will jump through hoops to get a prize that they would never have done if someone had just asked for their materials. Again, this may sound cynical. It’s also possible that they truly want to honor alumni and point to the evidence of these great legacies of the program still in the classroom doing good work. Either way, your article does have a “sour grapes” feel to it as you said, but you’re allowed to vent and then move on.

  6. Ray says:

    “the vast majority of my students did not complete college,” I find your apparent indifference to whether or not your students complete college to be baffling. I am not a TFA alum, but I do teach in a high poverty school. I am always aware that what I do may be a struggling child’s only ticket out of poverty. For you to just through that line out without any plan to help your students or even any indication that there is something wrong about this situation is shocking to me.

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      I’m proud of my former students, even though they didn’t complete college, for the most part. They became great parents and hopefully the next generation will get there.

    • parus says:

      College should be equal opportunity and it shameful that it’s not. But college completion certainly isn’t the only indicator of life success and it isn’t the only “ticket out of poverty.”

  7. Ray says:

    I understand that college completion isn’t the only ticket out of poverty, but the odds are certainly stacked that way. If you truly don’t care if your students complete college, what are your alternative plans to help your students escape poverty? Try to understand where I’m coming from. I find the poverty that my students live under to be heartbreaking. I do everything in my power to break that cycle. I tutor students. I work to broaden their vision of the future. I am constantly researching more effective teaching practices. I am stunned to think that your are comfortable with just shrugging all of that off.

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