May 14, 2011

Reflections and Suggestions

May I just say that the next time I have to retrieve a student who is hiding from a parent/teacher/student conference in the staff bathroom, I'm bringing a broom. Just one of the many things that's not in a middle school teacher's job description, but hey, there's no way to plan for everything students are able to come up with- the possibilities are endless.
Summer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia- it seems like a lifetime ago.
I am nearing a different type of ending: the end of my Teach For America commitment- my induction into the "Alumni Movement" is actually this week. The last day of school is nineteen days away. My 24th birthday is twenty days away. It hasn't hit me yet that a big stage of my life is ending, because I'm staying in St. Louis for another year teaching the same subject to the same grade. Hearing many of my fellow TFAers talk about their plans to continue on into law or medical school, to move across the country for a corporate job or to work in a cutting edge charter school makes me feel...I don't know. I've been grappling with the sensation for a while now, and I think the best descriptor is conflicted.
On the one hand, I am grateful to the program for having this experience that has forced me to grow so much. TFA gave me the instructional support I needed to really focus on rigor and student success. I am happy to have finished my second year strong- I taught two more novels than I did last year, my students have mastered WAY more 6th grade standards than they did just 12 months ago, and I feel confident, organized and positive in my classroom. No matter how weird my students act (and hiding in a bathroom isn't the strangest thing, it just proves that I really am teaching children), I am satisfied with my life because I know that what I dedicate my time, talents and treasure to has a purpose.
Just thinking about how stressed out I was last year makes me smile. I took much better care of myself this year (monthly massages and living by my self helped immensely), and understand so much more. I am totally excited for all the improvements next year will bring. I can't imagine what Jessie from three years ago would do if a 12 year old were to tell me to go blankity blank in you know where, but current Jessie can stare that student down, go home and have a good night's sleep. Here's a quote from the ultimate Renaissance man (Leonardo de Vinci) that kind of sums up how I handle situations now:

Patience serves as protection against wrongs as clothes do against the cold. For if you put on more clothes as the cold increases, it will have no power to hurt you. So in like manner you must grow in patience when you meet with great wrongs, and they will then be powerless to vex your mind.

It was a personal goal of mine to not take so many things so personally- to be more patient. I have been tested over fire recently: the center piece of my final project in painting was stolen straight from my still life, one of the windows of my car was shot out by a BB gun, and students bring their personal problems to school and take it out on me more often than they should. I don't blame them- any of them. I am working on forgiving and forgetting and moving on with my life. It's an on-going goal, and it always helps that I have unlimited minutes to call my Mom when patience fails.

On the other hand, I feel the same about TFA as I did when I was hired: TFA is a band-aid on a gaping wound. This became very apparent when I hosted two new recruits (2011 corps members) and had an end-of-the-year dinner discussion with fellow 09er corps members. First, I watched the nervous, eager, naive and fresh college graduates walk around St. Louis for the first time, wondering what to expect, hoping for success, unsure of what the next two years of their lives will bring. It kind of depressed me because they were really wonderful people and I know what's in store for them- failure, frustration, and freaking hard work, among other things. This will be the first time many of them have not succeeded. Ever. You see, TFA recruits the creme de la creme, the tip top graduates, the successful leaders of colleges across the nation who have practically no experience with education.
That's on purpose. TFA wants its corps members to have a 'blank slate' when it comes to education so that they can create an educator who teaches the TFA way. I see the reasons behind this, and have lived through the problems it causes. Each education school pumps out teachers with certain mindsets: I was fortunate enough to have graduated from a superb education school (Go UP!) with very open philosophies, extremely useful skills and quite a bit of experience. That is not true of education schools everywhere, and it is part of the problem with our school system today- our teachers are not adequately equipped upon graduation. But neither is an insanely smart political science major equipped to teach the 5th grade with no prior classroom experience, which often happens in TFA.
As I ate a great sandwich from St. Louis Bread Co. (one of the many joys of living in the Lu) and discussed the last two years with my fellow 2009 corps members, I realized that TFA is like the little boy in Denmark, with his finger in the dyke, holding back the sea from flooding the land. Sure, we feel like we are serving our community and country, but who wants to stick their finger in a hole that's inevitably going to burst someday? There's no satisfaction in just keeping a broken system from going bust. TFA recruits the most talented, asks them to fix the unfixable achievement gap in two years, then they are free to go. I understand why so many TFAers leave the classroom or the city they were placed in after two years: most of us have no investment or family in the city we are placed in, a significant majority have suffered a great deal at the hands of their students, the students' parents, their staff, the school district or life in general, and many just chose to be part of this program to boost their resume. Not all, but many.

As I believe that no one should complain about something without having an idea of how to do it better, here are my suggestions to make Teach For America the real program it strives to be:
1. Recruit education majors. The only real useful preparation for teaching is teaching. We have quite a few great teachers leaving the TFA program this year because they had two years to become the wickedly awesome teachers they were capable of becoming. And now they're leaving the education field! Where's the logic in that? TFA should recruit not just talented individuals, but talented individuals who are invested in devoting their life to education. It's not a job for everyone, and TFA says that anyone can do it. A truly great teacher must first and foremost love children, have experience teaching, believe that each one can learn if taught well in the right conditions, and then be masters of knowledge. TFA has that list backwards, and doesn't always include the first two.
2. Recruit locally. I'm not staying in St. Louis past my third year, and such a small minority of TFA alumni stay a third year in the same classroom that I'd rather not mention the number. About 30% stay in education, but imagine the influence we would have if we wanted to stay in the school districts we first taught in year after year, becoming master teachers and leaders in the communities that need it the most. Goodness, we would change the world. The impression that TFA leaves wherever we go is that we are only there for two years, then we're done. Personally, that's not the right message, especially for the children. "I care about you, I want you to succeed, and I believe in you, but only for two years." It's not as if many of them don't have abandonment issues already or anything. I love St. Louis and have enjoyed living here. If my family was within driving distance, I would stay in the school I'm teaching forever. Or if I had a local hubby, but that's another story.
3. Be transparent and less business like. I didn't learn that only 25% of St. Louis corps members had made significant gains until a week before my first year of teaching began. I arrived here thinking that TFA was a driving force in educational reform, and it is, but not as much as it says it is. TFA is run by people who graduated from college with a variety of majors, from business to biology, but what we all have in common is a sense of confidence that looks like capability, whether we really are capable or not.
A recent Wall Street Journal article compared the American school system to a grocery store, mostly to illustrate just how inefficient and incompetent a system it really is, but I personally think that education should never be a business. In capitalism, there is a winner and a looser, and yes, healthy competition promotes progress, but no one should lose when it comes to learning. EVERYONE needs to be taught well, and EVERY SINGLE CHILD should be able to open their mind with education.

Frederick Douglas had it right when he said, "Once you learn how to read, you will be forever free." That is what education should be about- opening the minds of children to all the possibilities life holds. No one can take away the potential of an enlightened mind.
Some of my wonderful students from this year, with a Holocaust survivor.
At the end of my two-year commitment in Teach For America, I'm still not sure how to solve the problems that exist in education today. I am sure that in order for TFA to become the program it wants to be, it needs to make some fundamental changes. I hope that someday I can say with pride- "I was a part of the movement."

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