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.
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.