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  • Interviewee: Andrew, Olin College graduate
  • Organization: Teach for America
  • Role: TFA corps teacher, served for one year
  • Interviewer: Andy Pethan
  • Date: October 2010

Interview notes

Andrew applied to Teach for America directly out of college. He attended the standard 6-8 week summer training program before spending a year teaching in one of the toughest schools in the district he was assigned to. He is now working full time in a technical position in a biomedical company.

First we talked about the summer training program. The majority of the intense content delivery and coaching comes during this 6-8 week program before corps members are thrown into classrooms. A typical day consisted of a morning of training, a few hours of teaching summer school classes with a partner and a coach, and more classes in the afternoon. Given the rigor of the schedule and the homework, Andrew slept 4-6 hours/night throughout the summer program. Despite the draining nature of the training, one of the primary aims of the training is to excite the young teachers and instill a strong sense of mission. By the time they leave the summer program, they understand the TFA philosophy and are excited to take on huge challenges with their students.

One of the core skills that Andrew talked about was effective lesson planning. This has anecdotally been echoed by others (some who criticize TFA for "only teaching about lesson plans"). When probed about classroom management and other teacher skills, he said that they were absolutely included in the training, but that effective lesson planning is one of the best tools of classroom management. The methodology they used was based on the principles of "backward-design", a concept popularized by Wiggins and McTighe in their book "Understanding by Design (UBD)". Backward design starts at the learning goals you have for your students, and then follows with "essential questions (EQs)." This Huff English article does a great job summarizing EQs and clarifying what they are not: http://www.huffenglish.com/?p=363. In a sentence, they are guiding questions for the class that probe them to think critically, debate one another, and justify their position relating to the theme of what you're learning. After the EQs, the teacher needs to develop very specific, measurable objectives for the class. For example: "students will be able to explain why the economic situation of Japan prompted the bombing of Pearl Harbor". After this is all in place, the teacher fills in the lesson with specific activities that meet the objectives and provide a good basis for the EQs. Lesson planning is central to TFA. As one person put it, "If you don't have a plan for them, they will have a plan for you".

Getting back to the philosophy of TFA, most things can be summarized by six metrics they give to teachers: Set Big Goals; Invest in Students and Their Families; Plan Purposefully; Execute Effectively; Continuously Increase Effectiveness; Work Relentlessly. Andrew recalls that the first point, setting big goals, is really drilled into the young teachers. Specifically, they look to close the achievement gap by 50%. This means that if last year's students scored 50 points below the state average, their goal was to raise their scores by 25 points. They relied on standardized testing as a final metric of their effectiveness. They also encouraged the teachers to bring the students in on this mission -- they should know what you are aiming for as a teacher and feel motivated as a class to achieve at this level. It was important that teachers speak concretely about their goals for students and used direct language ("I want you to...", not "can you...") when asking their students to follow them in pursuit of the class goals. Andrew always kept visible signs of progress towards this big goal in the classroom. In general, the big six (known by their letters G, I, P, E, C, and W) provided a way for other teachers observing you to give concrete, meaningful feedback in a shared language. The TFA materials include a detailed breakdown of each of these parts that can be used as a rubric for a teacher. For a detailed look into the big six, read "Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap".

A typical period in Andrew's class during the school year would look like this: students walk quietly into class, sit at their seat, and start working on the "do-now" posted on the board. After a few minutes, Andrew started about 20 minutes of new material. The remainder of class included some group practice and individual practice of the new skill. Some days, this would all run smoothly. Other days were battles for survival as Andrew did his best to make sure nobody would hurt each other before the bell. His classroom rules, like those of other TFA teachers, were very strict. He upheld the school's demerit policy, but often found it difficult to be fair when deciding to hand out a demerit to one student but not another. Knowing when to deal with discipline problems on his own where he had control or when to send kids to the office was also a difficult challenge -- the office solved the short term problem of having a distracted classroom, but rarely solves the discipline problem. He also had to be careful to always follow his own rules -- if students were not allowed to have a cell phone out, he should not be checking the time on his cell phone. Andrew was looking to create a safe space to learn, one where students were not afraid to be wrong, one where all students were comfortable participating. He tried to help students value class time with his rules and provide for the majority of students, deserving students, who were really hungry to learn.

During the summer, Andrew received daily feedback from his teaching partner and mentor teacher. During the school year, this feedback was far less frequent. The program encouraged a lot of self-reflection and provided someone who would observe class every few weeks. Andrew's school consisted of about 260 teachers, of which about 60 were in their first year and about half had been teaching there less than 3 years. 8 of the teachers were from TFA. Andrew recalled his group of TFA teachers receiving far more feedback than the other young teachers.

Overall, Andrew was very satisfied with TFA and believed they are doing great work. He doesn't know whether it solves long term problems in schools, but acknoledged its effectiveness as a band aid in the worst schools. Andrew decided not to finish the two year commitment for personal reasons, especially due to the physical distance from friends while working in such a stressful and poorly supported school environment for so long.