Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m Gary Rubinstein, TFA Houston 1991. Yes, that’s a long time ago. You likely were born in 1992 so I was doing TFA before you were born. That doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily smarter or wiser than someone who started TFA in 2002, or something like that, but since this is the first time that I’m able to make such a bold statement, I thought I would.
I’m still a teacher, which is pretty unusual for a TFAer. I haven’t taught all 22 years, just 16 of them. After my fifth year of teaching, I took six years to pursue a ‘real’ job, which was computer programming. I didn’t like it very much so I went back to teaching, which I continue to love and, I hope, be good at.
I wrote a book about my TFA experience. I think you’d like it. It’s called ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian.’ I’ve got a few extra copies. If you want a free one, email me and I’ll send you, until I run out. I also wrote a book about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of teaching called ‘Beyond Survival.’ I think that one’s pretty good too. I don’t have free copies of that one, though. I also co-wrote a children’s book with a TFA buddy of mine. That one’s called ‘The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.’ I’m not telling you all this to brag, or to sell books. I’m trying to figure out a way for you to trust me, and maybe if you are impressed by these accomplishments, that is a way of doing that. It isn’t easy to get a book published, you know.
There was a time when I was a ‘rising star’ at TFA. I think I peaked in 1995, just after I had won ‘Teacher of the Year’ at my school (again, not trying to brag, trying to win trust) and TFA had me come and speak to the entire 1995 corps, which was about 1,000 people all training in Houston at the time. Then, in 1996, it all went downhill for me and TFA. That was the year that I worked as a staffer at the Houston institute. I had trouble getting along with some of the staff. Not the other trainers, but the managers. I was never hired back. This began a nearly 20 year struggle where I wanted to help the new corps members. I would volunteer to do workshops at the institute still. I would offer my constructive criticism of the training model. For a bunch of years, I still got invited to speak at various things, but by 2011, I was definitely not part of the TFA ‘in’ crowd.
In February of 2011 I attended the TFA 20 year alumni summit. As one of the few people to have attended the 5 year, 10 year, 15 year, and the 20 year, I was pretty proud to be there. But looking around, I saw an organization that I did not recognize. TFA, it seemed to me, had ‘sold out.’ They had aligned themselves with a group of people who identify themselves as ‘the’ education ‘reformers.’ And though I think all teachers want to see the system ‘reformed,’ these reformers favored a specific type of reform that was based on fear and punishment. Kids are struggling to learn because teacher’s unions protect teachers from getting fired so those teachers are lazy and have low expectations. To combat this, teachers need to be more scared about losing their jobs, and ‘failing’ schools need to be threatened too, if they have low test scores.
Along with this story, TFA promoted miracle charter schools, run by TFA alumni. These schools proved that ‘Poverty is not Destiny’ (as if anyone thinks that it is impossible for someone who is born poor to beat the odds) by getting 100% of their ‘graduates’ into college. What they don’t mention is that ‘graduates’ needs to be put into quotes since these schools still had a 50% attrition rate. But of the students who made it to be seniors, all went to college. These schools have made their founders very rich. And these stories have made TFA very rich and influential too.
Maybe I don’t sound like a good guy to you by now. I promise you that I am, but my tone is sometimes misleading in my ‘writing voice.’ Here’s a video of me doing a skit at the 1993 institute when I was 23 years old, not much older than you are now:
Here I am in 2002, making a speech after TFA hosted a movie night.
Well, I’m writing to give you some advice. TFA is an organization that now thrives on greed, deception, and fear. The deception, though, is the thing that is more relevant to you. I’ll let you know about the others some other time. Part of the deception is that they promote a very oversimplified view of their success. They would have you believe that a good percent of the new CMs are way better than the ‘average’ teacher, mainly because of the high expectations of the CM. They may even say this is aided by the new high expectations of the fancy new common core standards. Unfortunately, this oversimplified version of reality will lead you to struggle very much your first year, and to fail to be the teacher your students deserve.
In an article I wrote for ASD a few years ago called The Don’ts and Don’ts of Teaching the very first rookie teacher mistake I warned about was “Don’t try to teach too much in one day.” I made this my first rule since when you go too fast, students get frustrated, they don’t learn, and they lose trust in you. This advice, though, seems to be the opposite of the “Have high expectations” rule that TFA promotes. You are going to have to figure out which competing piece of advice is more feasible. With the new common core standards, you might be at a school with a strict ‘pacing calendar’ forcing you to teach at a speed that is way too fast. You need to find a way to convince whoever is going to be watching over you that you are doing what they want while simultaneously teaching at a pace that does not cause the students to shut down. I’m glad that I’m not in your position, but I hope that hearing it from me now will get you thinking about things like this. Things that your trainers likely will not really tell you at institute.
Let’s face it, aren’t the TFA staffers you’ve encountered so far a little ‘off’? Like that recruiter? They’re just a bit too chipper. I worry when I meet people like that. It seems like they’re hiding something, and they are. If you feel like you don’t relate so much to them, that’s fine, you’re not alone. I know I’m generalizing a bit here. Surely TFA prides themselves on diversity. But there are different types of diversity, and the type of diversity that TFA does not foster is diversity of ideas, and they, of course, hire those who agree with the TFA party line. It’s easier that way for them, but much harder for you since you don’t get diverse ideas to ponder in your training.
I have about 400 blog posts on this blog. Feel free to read them. My early posts are mostly about teaching and the last three years mostly about lying charter schools and things like that. These used to be on a site called teachforus.org, a place for TFA corps members and alumni to share their stories. This site, though, has essentially been shut down. I think it is a conspiracy. Maybe it is just negligence. I don’t know.
I worry about you, the 2014 corps members, since I believe you will have a harder time than any group of corps members for a long time. You see, the reason that TFA has always had a bunch of success stories each year is that despite their horrible training, they managed to recruit the “Best and Brightest” who were able, somehow, to overcome the awful training and figure out what they needed to do to survive before it was too late. But, and please don’t take this personally, with all the honest information about TFA out there now, the true “Best and Brightest” were ‘best’ and ‘bright’ enough to do their critical research and opt not to apply to TFA at all. The second teir of potential corps members, the ‘Best, but not so Bright’ and the ‘Not so good, but Brightest’ were the people who applied to TFA, got in, but then before committing to TFA, did one last round of research and opted to not accept the invitation to the 2014 corps. Which leaves you guys, ‘The not so good, and not so bright.’ And it’s not that I have anything against you, personally. I’m actually worried for you since the poor training you are about to receive is not going to be enough, and you won’t have what it takes to compensate. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but it is good to hear it from a friend like me since sometimes only a friend can be honest with you.
Anyway, for the sake of the students you are soon going to teach, and really for your own mental and physical well-being, please try to think extra hard about what they teach you in your training. Perhaps you can prove me wrong.
All kidding aside, I really do think that with all the honest negative press TFA has been receiving lately, the new corps are going to be the weakest yet. And though this is sad for the kids that they will teach, it will start a chain reaction where there will be even more on-line criticism of TFA and then next year the 2015 corps members will be really less ‘best’ and less ‘bright.’ Ultimately, it will likely be the downfall of TFA.