Are you a timpanist or a violinist?

A full orchestra has over 100 musicians, each playing their parts to make their music.

Some players, by virtue of their instrument, ‘stand out’ more than others.  An example would be the timpanist.  If the timpanist was missing, the piece would sound noticeably different compared to if one of the twenty violinists were missing.

Perhaps the timpanists ‘needs’ to stand out.  Needs the recognition.  Needs to be able to listen to the recording and say “that was me.”  Or maybe the timpanist just feels he is part of the orchestra, no better or more important than one of the violinists.

But we can be pretty sure that the violinists are content in their contribution to the orchestra.  They chose to be violinists despite the fact that it is unlikely that their individual contributions will often be ‘noticed.’

When I was a new teacher I certainly wanted to be ‘the timpanist.’  I wanted to be able to look at a group of kids at the end of the year and say, definitively, “if I wasn’t here, those kids would not be as well off as they are now.”  I don’t know if I would have joined TFA if I thought that I was just going to be one of many violinists who would contribute, but who might not get recognition for what I did.

When I told people what I did, I was careful to say “I’m an inner-city teacher” rather than just “a teacher” since I wanted people to be impressed by my selflessness.  BA-BOM BA-BOM.  Even when I left teaching after five years, started my second life as a computer programmer, and then was lured back into the classroom six years later, it was to teach at a school that was considered to be one of the best schools in the country.  “I’m a teacher,” I’d say, almost begging people to ask “Where?”  I suppose I still have the timpani complex that I had when I joined Teach For America twenty-one years ago.

Certainly TFA recruits people with this idea that these kids need you.  Even though it isn’t really true — the kids don’t ‘need’ another first year teacher.  They need someone with experience.  And though you will likely have a good second year, and nearly half stay for a third year — it really doesn’t add up to much since I’ve calculated the ‘average’ length of a TFA career to be between 2.5 and 3 years.

In that short period of time, despite your visions of banging steadily on the timpani, the best you can hope for is to be a violinist.  And though the violinists are a bit interchangeable if they do even an OK job, a violinist can stand out by messing up.

And I think this is a good lesson to all the new teachers.  You should know what your role is and what your role is not.  You are a violinist.  You will likely not be noticed on the recording, even if you do your job very well.

In Teach For America jargon, you will likely not make ‘transformational’ change.  You will likely not ‘change the life trajectory’ of your students.  And that is OK.

I taught for four years in Houston, from 1991-1995.  My first year was quite tough, but I’ve come to terms with this and feel now that since I was teaching middle school and only really interacted with each student for about an hour a day, I didn’t do that much damage in that time.  Truthfully, I did a lot more damage to myself, still probably suffering a bit of PTSD when I wake up in a cold sweat thinking “I’ve got it!  If I switch Jose’s seat with Gabriel’s and Karina’s with Monica’s, then Monica will be a buffer and period four will be OK!”  My second, third, and fourth year were in a high school where I built a name for myself and was, I think, very good.  My fourth year I was the teacher of the year at my school, which I’m still very proud of.  Still, I do not think that I achieved ‘transformational’ change or changed anyone’s ‘life trajectory to and through college.’  That does not mean that I was a bad violinist.

Even in my ‘prime’ I was not the timpanist.  I was one of many violin players and I tried to contribute my soft sound to the symphony that was my student’s lives.  I am still in touch with many of those students.  Many of my Facebook friends are these former students who are now in their 30s.  I recently scanned in all my photos from the Houston years and put them on Facebook, and within a few hours they were all ‘tagged’ as everyone reminisced about the good times we had at our ‘failing’ school, Furr High School.

Unfortunately, TFA PR has promoted the idea that teachers are not violin players, but timpanists.  We hear that effective teachers get 1.5 years of gains per year.  We hear that three great teachers in a row close the achievement gap.  All of this is unrealistic, misleading, and now that politicians believe it — actually damaging.

After you do your job contributing in your own small way to the team effort of helping your students, you can use the wisdom you’ve gained to find a way to get recognition later.

BA-BOM BA-BOM BA (rest) BA (rest) BOM.

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16 Responses to Are you a timpanist or a violinist?

  1. Rachel says:

    Not to be nit-picky, but, well, I am…

    Several years ago I read a study saying that orchestral violinists had incredibly low job satisfaction. This is because there are so many violin players that orchestras can pick the cream of the crop. Problem is, the cream of the crop was trained with the idea that they would be soloists/concertmasters/etc and they spent a lot of time as the big fish in a small pond. Suddenly, they’re one violin among many and, unless they mess up, no one’s impressed.

    I’m sure there’s a connection between this and TFA’s “best and brightest” thing, but I’m too tired to find it…

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Maybe there’s a more accurate analogy, like someone rowing on a crew team, but I hope this one still makes the point I’m trying to.

      • Rachel says:

        I think you’re analogy is quite accurate. The (stereotypical) TFA/violinist is constantly told how they’re the best, how special they are, and then they end up in a job where they’re just one of a group. In fact, being interchangeable is kind of part of the job. While I want to be the best teacher I can be, if my school would collapse without my presence, there’s a BIG problem.

        Now that I’m more awake, I think the whole “you’re not that special anymore” thing could be one of the reasons that many people don’t last past their 2 years, particularly those that state their intention to stay in teaching and then leave when their commitment is up.

  2. Midcareer Teacher says:

    People seem to forget (TFA especially) that the first year of teaching is not one of success. I taught AP US History my first year to one section (what was the admin thinking?!?!?) while the retiring 30 years experienced AP US History taught the other three sections. I worked with him a lot. He said to me, “No matter how hard you work your first year, you just can’t be that great. I feel like I should go back and apologize to those students I taught my first year.” I listened, but thought to myself, “There is no way that will be me. I am working so hard and my students like my classes. I am the exception.” When I look back on that first year now, I realize he was right. I worked much harder that first year than I need to now. However, my teaching, class management, organization, evaluation of student work, and overall teaching was weaker then. Really, it only took me about five years to see how weak i was my first year. How lucky was I to have an administration and mentor who understood that as a first year teacher I needed support and experience. But, I did not need the expectation that I would be as good that first (or even second) year as I would be after five.

  3. yoteach says:

    While I agree with the main trajectory of this post, I think your pessimism about the potential for a TFA teacher to transform is a tad too cynical. Transformation doesn’t always happen as a result of outrageously large academic gains, but can happen through personal connections, inspiring interest in a certain career or college, or connecting students to valuable outside resources. TFA really emphasizes these things, and I think they are right to push us to be transformational in these regards even if, in the end, our data is average.

    I also believe that the “lie” TFA tells us (you mentioned this in a past article) that we can be transformative is a necessary evil. We are indeed set up to fail, especially if our goal is transformational academic growth. But I believe without this unyielding drive for more, TFA teachers would be much less successful than they already are. Maybe we all will suffer from PTSD because of this lie, or will have very low self-confidence, but something tells me a little failure will do most of us some good. Plus, I think TFA is hoping we’ll connect the dots: transformational growth is all but impossible because of external factors. Therefore, we need to help fix everything else in our country (childcare, inequality, health, continuing education) as we tackle education. This is in part why I disagree with your hypothesis that TFA teachers leave with the mentality that more people like them, more no excuses schools, are the answer.

  4. Michael Fiorillo says:

    Gary, your point is well taken, but perhaps a better analogy would be the contrast between principal musicians (who play solo parts during a symphony), and section players, who do not.

    Having worked for the musicians union (Local 802, AFM, here in NYC), and represented symphonic players, I can also say that teachers in general are less catty and backstabbing than musicians.

    However, it would not surprise me at all – in fact, it’s to be expected- if TFA has a psychological profile that it uses to identify candidates with more of a soloist/ principal mentality. After all, the organization clearly has a policy to identify, groom, train and advance people with a pathological will to power, in service of the Overclass.

    Identifying and choosing egotists and self-promoters would be far from the most calculating and destructive thing TFA has done.

  5. skepticnotcynic says:

    As a former corps member, I remember how special TFA made me feel, as if I was one of the chosen one’s to combat the social injustice that our minority children encounter while attending their failing neighborhood school.

    On one hand, you could say that this gives corps members the confidence to help them get through their two year commitment; however, I actually think this does more damage to a corps member’s professional growth, since they may not take their professional development as serious, which is further exacerbated by a false sense of confidence/competence that TFA imparts.

    At my placement school there were some less dedicated teachers than myself, but many of them were also a lot more efficient at their jobs, had families, and didn’t need to work 80-100 hour weeks to get equal or better results with their students. Some of them actually made teaching look effortless, while others should’ve retired a long time ago.

    In any organization, company, or school you work for, you will see a bell-curve of low-performers – high-performers. Not everyone works to live or cares to be noticed by management for a promotion. Some people just want to do a decent job and be left alone, while others do just enough to not be noticed, so they don’t get bothered or fired.

    I always felt the first year TFA teachers in my corps, who hyped up their classrooms, and let everyone know how well things were going, probably weren’t the most effective. Furthermore, some of them didn’t take the profession seriously enough to even attempt to get somewhat competent, since many of them knew after their two years were up they would be off to something else.

    As a first year and second year teacher, even if you have good presence and seem to connect with your kids (which I did), you lack understanding of the various academic levels of your students and how to reach students differently. You are less likely to teach the “whole child” and will instead focus on the wrong things, like raising test scores.

    With experience, you are able to think on your feet or adapt to patterns that you have encountered many times before. Contrary to what TFA instructs, differentiation is not realistic in your first few years of teaching. Executing a lesson, understanding pacing, scaffolding, appropriate questioning techniques, grading/feedback, spiraling, depth of your content, and classroom management are enough to keep one occupied for years.

    Although my test scores demonstrated significant growth during my second year of teaching, doubling the pass rate from the previous year, I knew I was not a great teacher. If raising test scores is great teaching, we might as well hire Kaplan/Princeton review teachers who only need to have done well on the test, to teach our children. Teaching a child is far more complex than a state or college board exam. Unfortunately, I didn’t really understand this until after year five.

    This past year, I coached a couple of TFA corps members at my school, and I can tell you it took me literally a year to deprogram the training they received during institute. I won’t get into details, but I do think the training TFA continues to provide sets corps members up to be less successful than they could be during their commitment.

    The biggest problem I see is the unrealistic expectations of the type of results TFA wants their corps members to achieve in their 1st and 2nd years of teaching. Their expectations are even unrealistic for a 10 year veteran like myself. This sort of creative accounting encourages unethical behavior and is akin to Enron and Wall Street culture, nothing more than faux numbers/results.

    If I was to think of an analogy to demonstrate TFA’s mindset when it comes to getting corps members ready for the classroom they are like a like a helicopter parent who thinks their kid is more special than the other kids and that they deserve to be treated differently. This parent also has unrealistic expectations of their kid, thinking they are more talented and skilled than they really are. Of course, parents who value proper development don’t live vicariously through their kids; they provide their children with the right opportunities and help their children develop through encouragement and support, but get out of the way when necessary, knowing they don’t always have the expertise to make their kid successful.

    I wish, after 20 years, TFA would reflect on their weaknesses and actually try and improve their practices. Unfortunately, I remain skeptical, since the vast majority of those who work for TFA have spent fewer than 5 years in a classroom.

    The dialogue will not change until more experienced veteran teachers (more than 10 years), either apply for executive roles within TFA, or the opinions of alums who still continue to teach are taken more seriously as a voice of reason/dissent to the current trajectory/mindset of the TFA organization. It remains to be seen if they can turn it around and become a more respected force among career educators.

    • salsa says:

      Would love to hear what you had to deprogram from institute…

      • skepticnotcynic says:

        I guess my standards for excellence are much higher than TFA sets for the teaching profession. They do a pretty good job of recruiting and selecting many individuals with the potential to be good or even excellent teachers someday, but their expectations for their corps members success are unrealistic and misleading. When you focus on flawed data and promote policies that encourage the evaluation of teachers using measurements that are entirely unscientific, it bothers me.

        Research in education is unfortunately not conclusive. If TFA can show me valid “scientific” research that supports their training methods, which I haven’t found, please show me. Furthermore, if you can find me research in education that actually controls for the multitude of variables in a classroom and child’s life, I would like to see that as well.

        I will leave you with this question to ponder. Would you rather be trained by food service workers at McDonald’s or by chefs at a Michelin 5 star restaurant?

      • mches says:


  6. skepticnotcynic says:


  7. E. Rat says:

    The key issue I have with the call for transformative change is that it tends to inspire some CMs to see themselves as bright lights who will save those in need. This has some ugly implications.

    I always am reminded of this quote from Aboriginal activists in the 1970s: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

  8. Cal says:

    “Transformation doesn’t always happen as a result of outrageously large academic gains, but can happen through personal connections, inspiring interest in a certain career or college, or connecting students to valuable outside resources. TFA really emphasizes these things, and I think they are right to push us to be transformational in these regards even if, in the end, our data is average. ”

    But if that’s all you have to offer, then what do you have over actual teachers who aren’t planning to bounce out after a couple years?

    TFA is convincing you that you’ll be *better* than those teachers, that you’ll transform and achieve and change their lives. Otherwise, there’s no point to them not just doing an ed school.

    They’re appealing–successfully–to a very narcissistic group of people.

    • Parus says:

      “They’re appealing–successfully–to a very narcissistic group of people.”

      I was going to argue with this but then I realized that how many of us TFAers and former TFAers blog blog blog is clear evidence of narcissism 😀

  9. Desiree Smith says:

    As I read this post, it took a mere 10 seconds to identify where I fall in this metaphor: timpanist. I am a 2nd yr. teaching whose hopes of fixing all 1st year rookie mistakes by now are dissolving as Quarter 2 begins. I am not as bad as I was last year, but I am nowhere near (as) competent as I hoped to be despite tons of planning over the summer. I completely agree that TFA targets “type-A” personalities as that is a cute way of describing how the company survives by recruiting perfectionists who have likely not had much experience with failure and will therefore self-destruct emotionally and physically in an attempt to make things better because “when they’ve believed (and worked hard) before, they’ve always managed to achieve/succeed”.

    I am struggling to remain optimistic the more I take a step back and realize the bigger picture of current situation. Few other careers are treated with the same disrespect as teaching. If an organization was started up that took college seniors to “mock trial law camp” for a few weeks and then expected them to cut it inside the courtroom, it would not be funded and lawyers would rise up in arms against the audacious belief that their professional craft could be mastered by novices through 1-hour/day practice sessions for 1 month. But that’s exactly what TFA does, in addition to brainwashing us (or confirming our already naive beliefs) that we can expect to get a handle on the art/science of teaching in significantly less time than your most experienced and impressive teachers.

    I will not quit for various reasons, the main 2 being: 1) my kids are used to teachers leaving and I do not want to send the message that this mess is their fault (for ex. of and 2) Conceding defeat would be heartbreaking as I genuinely came into this experience with good intentions. I wanted to know that if I were ever in a position of power, I had experience with the reality of managing a classroom. This was the right decision because now I could never respect someone pontificating on educational matters who has not had the “pleasure” (pain) of corralling 32 6th graders onto one mathematic accord.

    I am learning to work through the daily dose of “humble pie” that reminds me I am a violinist in training, not a timpanist. I am also constantly reflecting on how I allow my overall sense of failure to outweigh the numerous “small victories” of each day and how, for my emotional sanity at least, I might show more gratitude for these moments. However, the point of this job is to teach (well), inspire and guide, not necessarily just build strong relationships with my students and teach effectively on a hit or miss basis.

    So, as I journey through my 2nd year, I’m realizing that I could use some advice:
    HOW DO I KNOW IF A) MY CURRENT DISCOURAGEMENT (as a result of unrealistic expectations) IS NORMAL & I SHOULD STICK WITH THIS IF I’M IMPROVING (slowly but surely) or B) THIS IS UNHEALTHY FOR ME (working hard, not smart) and FOR MY KIDS (inexperienced teacher) and consequently I SHOULD LET THIS GO in June and consider other career options?

    Its hard to know because my heart is in this and I think teaching could be a great fusion of my skills, passions and interests, but who knows if teaching means teaching math or teaching this age category? Any advice, suggestions, metaphors would be MUCH appreciated.

    –A D.C. middle school math teacher

    • Gary Rubinstein says:

      Thanks for the comment. For whatever it’s worth, I switched to high school after teaching middle school math and it was a much better fit for me. I think my ‘training’ in middle school helped me be a very organized and time-efficient high school teacher and I’ve enjoyed it ever since. Maybe you could consider transferring and see how you like it. Middle school is so draining. Important, but draining.

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