Advice to the 2014 TFA Corps Members

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.

ImageAnyway, 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.

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28 Responses to Advice to the 2014 TFA Corps Members

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. Educator says:

    Geez. You’re pretty straightforward. I hope potential corps members who read this aren’t turned off by the tone and still hear the argument.

  3. Fellow thinker says:

    Yes, some good points. I would, however, delete the whole ‘best and brightest’ assessment because it has no real validity and only insults many who may have the best of intentions. As a corps member 10 years ago, I wasn’t aware of all the politics of education reform and what was going on and I wasn’t willfully ignorant – just knew there was a major problem and inequity and wanted to help. So deeming from your writing chair who was and is likely the best or the brightest (whatever that means) is unhelpful and kills the trust you were trying to build. I see how you may be trying to knock down the hubris of those new cms that are doing TFA for the prestige factor. But those are not the ones likely to heed your message. I do recommend all the incoming corps tdo some research, google “TFA’s outsized influence” which will give you a official report on the organization’s political lobbying, and start to ask more questions. There is much more going on than TFA portrays. Best of luck.

  4. Pingback: Listen to Gary Rubenstein: “TFA…thrives on greed, deception, and fear” | the becoming radical

  5. urban teacher says:

    I think your advice is spot on. Another point to make is this: TFA talks about “joining the movement.” A movement which, supposedly, will end educational inequity. They are, in essence, making people think they are somehow related to, for example, the civil rights movement. But what real movement that ever made change was funded by the super-wealthy in this society? What movement that altered the inequities in our society (and there are now many) was led by the likes of the Waltons and the Broads, whose fundamental interests are aligned with the right’s efforts to cut taxes for the rich and destroy unions that helped create the middle class? I say this as a veteran teacher who ran a teacher education program for TFA corps members for six year, with the recognition that the young people who join, many of them, truly believe that they can make a difference.

  6. JH says:

    LOL, I was there at that movie night (I think I can hear my guffaw in the background even.) I was really annoyed at the organizers of the event, because I was a corps member and they asked us to pay $15 to watch a movie that was pretty much a 2 hour commercial for TFA. I heckled a little and laughed out loud at the sappiness of the thing the whole time, which was fun for me, but someone yelled at me at the end of the movie.

  7. Steve M says:

    Ouch.

  8. d-tch says:

    Gary,

    I’d like to read the disciplinarian book. I’m doing TNTP.

    • garyrubinstein says:

      TNTP is pretty evil too, but first I have to send to TFAers. The idea is that they would have it at the institute and be passing it around. Should be one left for you too, stay tuned.

    • Emily says:

      Just a normal ol teacher but am also interested if you have any extra. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and sharing it with people who mention TFA to me.

  9. Eileen says:

    I would like a copy of your book. What is your e-mail address?

  10. yalecritic says:

    I’m intrigued and heartened by this post, as a former member of the Corps of 2014. Yes, you read that right: I was admitted in the 2nd deadline, accepted the offer, and participated in onboarding for five months before ultimately deciding that I couldn’t in good faith continue with the process and resigned as a CM to pursue different opportunites. I suppose that makes me something between the “best, but not so bright” and the “not so good and not so bright.” I’ll take it. I read posts like yours and Diane Ravitch’s throughout the months that I was onboarding, and my fears were only confirmed by a “fly-down” interview I did, where I saw some truly weird practices happening in New Orleans. Thanks for all of your writing, and I hope more potential Corps Members see this and think hard about what they want their futures to look like.

    • Educator says:

      yalecritic,
      What truly weird practices did you see in New Orleans? Please don’t keep us in suspense!

      • yalecritic says:

        Oh, I shouldn’t have made it sound so dramatic. I don’t think it’s anything readers of this blog aren’t aware of: every principal I interviewed with was a TFA alum of the past 3-5 years, every school had a nearly all-white all-TFA alum teaching staff, every school I interviewed with was a charter school (given that New Orleans will be an all-charter city next year). That sort of thing.

  11. Joe Nathan says:

    Advice to others in TFA – Gary now works in a school that systematically excludes students with disabilities who can not pass its tough admissions tests. Gary now works in a school that uses as its only admission measure a standardized test that the United Federation of Teachers has criticized. Gary now works in a school that represents the worst form of elitism and exclusionary practice for most students. Gary now works in a school that has suffered scandals because of wide-spread cheating.
    Gary might spent more time questioning and challenging what’s happening in the school he has chose to work.
    Nope. He spends a lot of time and energy criticizing others who work with students most of whom would not be able to get in the school that he has chosen to teach in.
    For what it’s worth, I worked for almost 15 years in urban public schools open to all – with no admissions test, and served as a PTA president at one of those schools. Gary is committed to serving the tiny % who can pass a traditional standardized test.
    Some of us are committed to serving all kinds of students.

    • Educator says:

      That school he works for is controversial I agree. But at least they don’t claim to have better results than other public high schools because their teachers work harder or are more accountable. It’s obvious they have a different set of students.

      Many TFA leaders would help with public policy if they acknowledged how their schools, especially charters, often have exclusionary practices or high drop out / kick out rates. Many do have great results with the students who do stay in their schools. But that’s the key – many never get in and if they do many drop out. Is this better? I’m not sure.

  12. I think it’s always best to know worst case scenarios before approaching any situation. I imagine, however, that TFA experiences vary be region and district. I am CONSIDERING doing TFA and just go an email stating that the recruiter was “intrigued” by my submission. Kinda sounded a bit form? I’ve been perusing this blog to see if I can locate blogs by region, with little success. I also was looking for the most appropriate place to post this, also with little success. I decided here. Maybe if I’m selected/choose to go I’ll be in the “Dumb and Dumber” corps? Any input in finding TFA experiences by region would be swell.

  13. Gary,

    I was a 1995 corps member in Houston. I’m still teaching, too (but in an independent school). I think I remember you from my Houston years. I think you gave a talk to probably all of us incoming corps members about your teaching philosophy. Maybe it started with you talking about how you asked a mentor teacher at your school what they would do if a kid threw a paper airplane in class—and they were dumbfounded by it, that it would never happen?

    Anyways. Your blog is excellent. You perfectly describe my own feelings about TFA (I don’t recognize it anymore!?!) and I want to thank you!

    Jen

    • garyrubinstein says:

      Hi Jennifer, Yes, back in 1995 was the last days of my TFA honeymoon so they invited me to speak to the whole corps and I did used to tell that story about the veteran teacher who had no answer for my question since he prevented stuff like that from happening. Glad to hear that you are still teaching. There are some great TFA teachers who went on to long careers and also some who became principals of regular non-charter schools and are doing a great job, but haven’t gotten any recognition from TFA because they are only getting modest test scores, though they are getting those scores honestly at least. Thanks for the comment, and stay in touch!

    • Joe Nathan says:

      An independent school means a private school, is that right, Jennifer? Would you care to describe which students the school serves?

  14. Charmaine says:

    If it is true that student academic achievement is significantly correlated with teachers who have ‘very effective’ teaching skills, why is it that the conversation seldom seem to include discussion around how to develop teachers so that the skilled teacher is the norm in urban schools rather than the exception.

  15. Pingback: My Two Cents on Teach for America | The Education Activist: From Student to Teacher

  16. Pingback: TFA continues to set new corps members up for failure | Gary Rubinstein's Blog

  17. D MILLER says:

    I’m a 2014 corps member in Texas. I read things like this more often than one should and always come back to the same thought, why attack an organization trying to do good? I see similar stories attacking the mormon church, climate scientists, and most recently Planned Parenthood. You are not a better person by attacking those trying to make a difference. You did nail it when you said your bragging doesn’t make you look better, but it definitely doesn’t add trust. I luckily didn’t join TFA at 22 like the crowd you’re ignorantly trying to persuade. I came in close to 30 with substantial and successful work experience. I teach in public schools where apathy is the norm and very few educators reach above and beyond their 8:30-4:15 routine taking sick days before and after every holiday passing every student who shows up to class. TFA teachers in my district are some of the few who go above and beyond and it makes a noticeable difference. Again, your criticisms of an organization trying to do good in this country are a sad way to spend your time. Stop blogging and start teaching.

    • Leen says:

      I can’t speak to the good or bad that TFA does, as I know very little about it. I would venture to say that there are probably some wonderful and caring teachers in the organization, as I believe Mr. Rubenstein probably was and still is. Apathy is not a good thing. And I can’t apathetically allow your comment about Planned Parenthood to simply slide by. Honestly now, “why attack an organization trying to do good?” How can you possibly conscientiously say that Planned Parenthood is doing good? The basic premise that it is built on is horrifyingly corrupt. Yes, they are making a difference, and a terrible one.

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