My first year, re-evaluated

A lot of what has motivated me throughout the past twenty-one years has been the desire to redeem myself for what I considered to be an unacceptable first year of teaching sixth grade math during the 1991-1992 school year at Deady Middle School in Houston.

Nowadays, districts pay a $5,000 recruitment fee to TFA for the opportunity to hire the new TFA trainees.  I don’t know if back then TFA got any money for me.  I hope they didn’t.  At my school that year there were about 150 teachers.  Three of us were new, me, Jon, and Mitzi, all TFA.  I don’t know who the school would have hired if not for us, so it is hard to say whether or not we were a positive or negative influence on the school compared to what it would be without us.  Though that year did nearly break me, and wasn’t so kind to Mitzi or Jon either, I’ve always felt that, in the scheme of things, we didn’t do ‘damage’ to our students.  One reason for this was that we taught middle school so I was just one out of seven teachers my students had each day.  The other six teachers knew what they were doing so in some ways my class became an opportunity for students to try to learn self-control since the teacher wasn’t doing a very good job at creating a controlled learning environment.

Sometimes I hear TFA defenders say that while it is true that five weeks isn’t nearly enough time for someone to learn how to teach, four years isn’t enough time either.  This is nonsense.  With the right kind of training, four years would certainly be sufficient, and perhaps for something like middle school five weeks of the right type of training would enable teachers to avoid the common mistakes that doom them to a horrible first year.  But the training then, as it is now — in some ways the training has gotten worse as they try to train 6,000 people before they truly have figured out how to train 1,000 — was not what my students deserved.  By the time I ‘figured out’ what I should have done differently, maybe by January of my first year, it was too late.  The spiral of doom was already spinning and there was no escaping it.  The knowledge I had gained would have to wait until I would get a chance for a fresh start the next year.

I beat myself up a lot during and after that first year.  As a coping mechanism I tried to make some good come from that first year by writing funny stories about it.  These essays eventually got published in magazines and grew into my first book, ‘Reluctant Disciplinarain.’  I also turned my stories into a workshop which was partially a stand-up routine about my first year and partially advice about what sorts of things to prioritize to avoid having a first year like mine.  The political climate around TFA back then made it OK to joke about how bad I was, even as it suggested that my experience was not all that unusual.  My stories wouldn’t be so funny if they were written today where ‘reformers’ have very efficiently hijacked public education and are driving it into the ground, whether they realize it or not.  These same ‘reformers’ use the supposed success of new TFAers as a proof point that those whiny teacher’s unions are liars when they say that there is a reasonable limit to what schools can be expected to accomplish in overcoming all those out-of-school factors that too many students in this country face.

But having lived through the TFA experience and having many TFA alumni who are close friends of mine — I think half of the friends I invited to my wedding were people I met through TFA — I do know that there is a big difference between ‘the organization’ which is a greedy and power hungry one that will lie about their statistics when it benefits themselves to do so and ‘the corps,’ the mostly twenty-two year olds who just graduated college and who try to use whatever skills they have along with their very limited training to get through that first year and try to still make some kind of difference.  And while I am sure that TFA, the organization, at least in its current incarnation, harms children, teachers, and communities, overall, I do think that most of the individual teachers don’t.

So for many years I used my bad first year experience to try to scare new teachers into understanding that this job is not to be taken lightly.  Humor and drama were ways to make people remember the lessons I was trying to teach them.  If my story of my first year struggles could help other teachers avoid the traps that I fell into, then all my suffering that first year was not in vain.

But for people who know about my first year and have been following my writing throughout the years, it will surprise them that nowadays I’m beginning to remember that my first year did have some good parts, and some of those good parts might have even balanced out some of the damage I might have done by not knowing how to keep a class under control.  I’m writing about this now because the things that were good about that year were not the sort of things that would be captured in any sort of ‘data driven’ metric.  We didn’t have ‘value-added’ back then.  My students did take standardized tests and knowing what I do now about how difficult it is to assess teacher quality from those, I would not be surprised if I were to learn that my student’s ‘growth’ was probably in some acceptable range.  But whatever their test scores were, the things that I did well that year were more about the more human aspects of teaching.

When I started teaching in 1991, I had already done a lot of math teaching in my life.  Starting when I was 16 years old, I would make money privately tutoring math.  I also worked for The Princeton Review when I was in college.  I did know how to create a relevant math lesson, and I did know a lot of math, as I was a math major.  But my problem was that knowing some cool math might be enough to inspire a student like the one who wrote this letter, just after Halloween 1991, but without the knowledge of how to get a whole class involved and interested in what is happening I was doomed.

I may have inspired some kids, and I try to think about those kids more than I do about the student who wrote this note to me instead of doing the math work for that day.  This student was eventually expelled after hitting me, surely in frustration about my inability to handle a classroom.  She was one of three students that year who would be expelled for hitting me.  I don’t know how these kids’ lives were altered by this.  Maybe this was something that helped them see that there were consequences for their actions — I like to hope so, but equally likely was that this made them believe that they were not cut out for school.

That this student could sign this ‘your friend’ and maybe even expect me to write back (I didn’t) definitely shows how much I failed in conveying that I wasn’t there to be their friend, but to teach them math.  Also ironic that one of the ‘slow’ students named Angel was actually one of the sharpest students in the class, but his behavior caused him to be kicked out of class so much that he ultimately failed the class and was left back because of it.  There’s another thing I try not to think about too much.  How much impact I had on Angel’s life by not being a competent enough teacher for him to pass, I’ll never know.  But a note like this at least seems to show that some students thought of me as a teacher they liked, which I suppose is worth something.


Again, this student seemed to appreciate, at least, the effort I was making.  Certainly the fact that her other six teachers were doing a very nice job made her more forgiving.

Mr. Popcorn Pinnochio Afro Rubinstein is one of the meaner nicknames I’ve been called as a teacher.  (The Pinnochio is because of the size of my nose, and not, I think, because they thought I was a liar).  Better nicknames have been Mr. Frankenstein and even Mr. Robitussin.  As can be seen in the picture, till the end I had faith in the TFA endorsed ‘Assertive Discipline’ method of writing names on the board and putting checks next to them.  Still, you either have to hate a guy a lot to make a picture like this, or maybe like them a little.

On June 3, 1992, the last day of school, I passed around a stapled packet of blank paper and asked students to sign it or to write me something.  Though my students that year really saw me at my worst, screaming like a crazy person, being nasty sometimes when I wasn’t yelling, another way to get my frustration out, when the year was over, most of the kids wanted to write me nice notes in that book.  Most of the most severe discipline problems had been suspended for the last day of school, as a preemptive way of making the last day go by smoothly, so most of my pictures from that year, which I took on the last day, don’t have those students in them.  I taught five classes, and this is what remained of one of them on the last day of school that year.  (Why I thought it was OK to wear a red pocket-T shirt to school and expect to get respect, I don’t know.)

That this student could see me as ‘funny’ and as his ‘friend’ is really something considering I really don’t remember being very funny or friendly that year demonstrates that some of these students had forgiven me pretty quickly.

Of course not all students felt this way.

So my first year was certainly ‘mixed.’  I did get to know my students quite well which is probably why by one metric I was one of the best teachers in the school that year:  The number of students who tracked me down fifteen years later wanting to keep in touch with me.

In 2005 I got an email from a student from that year named Felipe.  I had last been his teacher when he was about 12 in the spring of 1992, so this was 13 years later.  He wanted my advice as he was thinking of becoming a teacher.  He said he was in touch with another former student of mine, one who was also an incredible student, named Olga, who was also becoming a teacher.  A few days later Olga emailed me.

Hi, Mr. Rubenstein!  I don’t know if you remember me from Deady Middle School , but ironies exist and I am a teacher.  Felipe gave me your address and so I wanted to contact you.  …  Anyway, this whole teaching thing is overwhelming and I have had my doubts.  I need a lot of advice and sadly not many people can give it.  I hope we can start some type of communication.  Where are you now? What is going on with you?  Hope to hear from you soon.

I’ve stayed in touch with Olga.  I’m Facebook friends with her, also, and have enjoyed following the growth of her son, who is now about two years old.  About two years ago the New York Times was doing a story about the effects of TFA and they asked me to put them in touch with one of my former students to write an op-ed about what it was like to be taught by a TFA teacher.  I kind of figured that she would be anti-TFA after having suffered through my first year of teaching with me, but apparently as Olga’s piece explained she still saw that TFA had a bad and a good side.

And I guess I feel the same way.  I hope nobody sees this as TFA ‘spin’ claiming that I was some kind of hero because two students from my first year wanted to keep in touch with me fifteen years later.  My purpose, I think, is to think about my first year again, after so many years of mourning it, and to bring to it the ideas that teaching is about fostering a positive relationship with students and, ideally, harnessing the power of that relationship into helping the students learn.

Like TFA itself, my TFA experience was a mix of bad and good.  But unlike TFA, I believe that my teaching career — four years in Houston, one year in Denver, and eleven years in New York City — has been a net positive while I’m unfortunately confident that TFA as a whole — particularly their alignment with self-anointed ‘reformers’ — has been a net negative.

About two years ago, just after I published my most widely read blog entry ‘Why I did TFA and why you shouldn’t,’ I was in Miami, of all places, for a bachelor party.  Outside a club a limo pulled up and ten new TFAers got out of it, they had rented it for the night.  I struck up conversation with them and when I told them who I was, one of them said, “I just read your thing about how we’re all worthless.”  I guess the point of this post and about some of the good and the bad that is the first year of teaching is that I have not forgotten how hard new TFAers have to work to compensate for their lack of training.  I also know that you didn’t hire yourselves.  Somehow, some principal felt that you were the person he or she wanted to hire, which is pretty scary, when you think about it.  So when I critique TFA, I’m not trying to critique the corps members who are really just pawns in this big power play which TFA is involved in.  You can be a hardworking teacher and even do some good while, unfortunately, contributing to the relentless growth and greed of TFA, which should by now rename themselves the more accurate TFTFA.

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10 Responses to My first year, re-evaluated

  1. Reteach 4 America says:

    I’m guessing that TFTFA is Teach for Teach for America? –which sounds apropos to me, since TFAers are really serving the organization a lot more than America.

    My first year of teaching was long before TFA was established, but I didn’t have any training whatsoever beforehand so I can relate to the honest characterizations of both positive and negative experiences, as well as the anger towards those who would let and encourage someone to teach without proper preparation. We can only hope that what we did had no long-term deleterious effects on any innocent minors.

    Does TFA advise TFAers to tell their students that they are in their first year of teaching? I never said that to my students and I would not advise others to do so, because I think its unnecessary and unlikely to result in a positive outcome. I has recalled all the first year teachers that I’d had who told my classes they were new, when I was in school, and I realized that in many cases, it was not a good idea that they told us, because so many kids took advantage just because of knowing that. So, I decided to spare myself and not mention it and I think that was the right decision.

  2. NewarkTFA says:

    Thank you for this piece.

    I may have been a fool to join TFA, but I was an earnest, well-intentioned fool. I was told I would be teaching students who would otherwise have nothing more than a long-term sub. At the time, I did not see how that could hurt anybody.

    What I see now is that the positive contributions of the many decent, well-meaning people TFA recruits cannot possibly outweigh the systemic damage the organization as a whole is doing to public education in the United States.

    After eight years teaching in my placement school, I now have a front-row seat to the spectacle of a fellow alum taking over an already troubled district and ripping it to shreds.

    Her “impact,” alas, is much greater than that of even the most “effective” or “ineffective” teacher, whether first-year or veteran, and it is exactly this sort of “impact” that TFA as in institution now seems bent on inspiring.

    TFTFA, indeed. The A in TFA sure doesn’t represent any “America” I want to serve.

  3. Educator says:

    I’ve posted before on this, but I believe the biggest danger of TFA is not the new teachers. They’re all for the most part very well intentioned and trying their best and they do work incredibly hard (sometimes a few bad apples slip in, but that’s understandable considering there are thousands of corps members each year). I think a lot can be learned from CMs, like their enthusiasm, sense of possibility, and energy. They can learn a lot from more veterans too.

    The real danger is the two year teachers becoming managers and policy leaders affecting hundreds of thousands or even millions of students with bad policy that was based on their very narrow view of what education is about and limited experience. It’s strange, I keep hearing about TFA corps members or ex corps members who agree with this criticism, yet they don’t really voice their opinion. I do think Gary speaks for a lot of people.

    I wonder if those who go into policy or district leadership for “more substantial change” really just couldn’t handle teaching, or felt it didn’t pay enough, or have enough prestige. But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they tried to go into policy and education leadership to make a difference. The problem is that you have 24 year olds with such little experience making so many major decisions.

    Don’t believe me? Here’s a recent article that names TFA alum influencing policy. I have no clue who the author is so maybe he’s really biased, but it makes one wonder. Another example is Rhee. Some of you reading might be Rhee or NY education department supporters, and I get that, but try looking at the John King videos and see the angry parents and teachers, and ask yourself if that will bring everyone closer to one day….

    • Michael Fiorillo says:

      Wendy Kopp has explicitly stated that TFA’s real purpose is develop “leaders,” – which in translation means privatizers and serial public school killers – not teachers.
      That well-meaning and idealistic young peope are manipulated into this racket, and that it receives the uncritical media attention it does, demosnstrates how far along we’ve come in destroying this public resource.

  4. Victoria says:

    Hey Gary,
    Interesting re-evaluation.This post sounds that this one year teaching journey was full of fun with students.Practice makes a man perfect always. 🙂

  5. veteran says:

    Educator as usual nails it

    Yes there are many great individuals who enter TFA and contribute who may never have been in education. This happened in 90 and still today.

    But it seems instead of continuing this plan of recruiting people for areas of need something went astray.

    I also agree with Gary’s point in a previous post. At least Rhee is honest. TFA on the other hand tries to be Switzerland in terms of reform and that is just confusing for everyone.

  6. beelitenotfab says:

    I’m a first year teacher with a lot of training and experience (for my age), who also grew up in a background similar to my students. We have TFAers on campus and they are lovely and very sweet but if I had a nickle for every time one of my kids complained that they didn’t know what they were doing I’d have a lot more paper and supplies in my classroom. I teach history and have actually had to help my students with their math….. I went to an elite school, so I know a lot of people that did TFA, the only ones who didn’t flounder grew up poor. It is frustrating. The kids are very aware and critical of TFA. When they found out that our district had to 5000 a head for them they became enraged, they see it as taking from my resources….because it is.

    • Educator says:

      Sounds like you are justifiably upset about the inexperience / naivety of the tfa cm’s that affects your kids learning. I think you are in a position of influence more than you realize, and you should use that for the best possible end given the unfortunate reality of tfa cms who are unfortunately not going to disappear.

      It seems that by helping your kids with their math (which seems like a perfectly natural and good thing to do) you are reinforcing that their tfa teachers can’t teach. In the end it might just make those kids resent their tfa teachers more. Same for engaging the kids regarding district policy / training fees for tfa. It creates a wider gulf and isn’t really appropriate to engage kids or parents in this kind of social activism when they are expected to learn from these individuals (what you do individually on your own time is up to you and I don’t disagree with your feelings about inadequate tfa training, life experience, etc)

      Instead you might (and I know you are incredibly busy, as I’m also a teacher in a low-income school) accompany kids to tutoring WITH their tfa teacher; give lesson / assessment feedback to the tfa teacher (in math — maybe this person is aiming for higher-level skills without realizing that the kids really thrive on structure and predictability of algorithms, at least at first); encourage the tfa teachers to read The Reluctant Disciplinarian by Gary Rubinstein; have a relationship with the tfa teacher so you can learn and genuinely speak to what they are good at (maybe even have the tfa teacher do something to help kids in your class — these tfa teachers need all the support they can get in terms of gaining credibility with the kids and if it’s not coming from the administration you are in a powerful position to help these teachers and more importantly their students.

      Learning to work with others not from their socioeconomic / racial background will be important to your students if they are to pursue higher education as you also did. Use that part of your story to engage the kids. Not saying it’s not a huge struggle, not saying this is really your job…but if you’re focused on leveraging your power and experience and improving your kids’ educations I think these things could be worthwhile.

  7. Olga Serpas says:

    Hi Mr. Rubenstein! I can see clearly how your first year really affected you. To be honest, I guess I have always loved school and always tried my best. That is why no matter how unruly the class was, I always paid attention.
    I can also tell you that the first year is very difficult period! My first year was based on a few hours of training by a certification program and I taught very near where you taught. I remember the lack of proper training had me in difficult discipline situations where I went home crying almost on a daily basis. I was cursed at, ridiculed, etc. Sadly some of our colleagues tend to also be the biggest bullies, and some our biggest helpers. Had it not been for the support of some of my colleagues, I would have gven up completely. As for my classmates, some of us got very far, but many did not. I think it had to do with demographics, socio economic status, etc. As I became a teacher myself, I realized that I wanted to help all, but sadly that doesnt end up being the case.

  8. Pingback: Bait-and-Switch For America | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

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