After graduating from college, I taught 7th-grade math as part of Teach for America (TFA)—a non-profit organization that seeks to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach.”
Overall, it was a miserable experience. Frankly, I was pretty bad at my job. I didn’t have the interpersonal or classroom-management skills to constructively keep groups of 25-plus thirteen-year-olds focused for 50-minute blocks of time. I couldn’t provide a healthy learning environment for my students.
The summer before I started teaching, I participated in TFA’s five-week summer institute. In TFA’s view, we learned the basics of teaching: how to structure rigorous I-Do/We-Do/You-Do lesson plans, effectively track students’ academic progress, and how to motivate—to list a few. We focused heavily on Lee Canter’s model of Assertive Discipline. During the training, I taught summer school math to a small group of middle-schoolers.
For me, learning behavior-management techniques came least naturally. As a student, I attended very high-performing public schools, and I always took the most challenging courses. I don’t remember my classmates moving-up the “consequence ladder” for misbehavior in class—there just wasn’t any.
In hindsight, I’m sure my teachers were doing a number of subtle things to keep class on track. But continuously reminding students precisely what they should be doing, verbally noting the students that were following directions, and providing consequences to the rest were very foreign to me.
Additionally, while I had held a number of leadership positions in a variety of organizations and contexts, I had always led people who, intrinsically, wanted to get involved. I had never been in a position where I needed to motivate a captive audience (my students), a very different skill which I had not yet mastered.
In TFA, I wasn’t really able to share the beauty of mathematics with my students or earn their respect. Many of them (though certainly not all) came in with the mindset that “learning” was boring, school was boring, math was boring.
Facing those roadblocks, I couldn’t develop relationships, and I didn’t have the classroom management experience to maintain order.
Many of my students spent much of their time misbehaving: refusing to stop talking during quiet portions of the class (including tests), walking into the room and knocking stacks of papers off desks, throwing paper at each other and at me, stealing things from each other and from me, and purposely putting classroom supplies in the garbage.
I had lots of support from my TFA supervisor, and from my supervisor from the district program I was enrolled in to earn my teacher certification. They came into my classroom every few weeks and gave some good ideas and advice about how I could improve my teaching.
But I didn’t get much support from the school. Twice during the year, I contacted my TFA and certification advisors, and the assistant principal I reported to, asking if we could schedule a meeting for how we could all work together to get my classroom back on track.
My assistant principal didn’t respond or attend the meetings. I found out that he had a stack of unprocessed behavior referrals, lying on his desk, that I had written on my students who had reached to top of the misbehavior ladder—after warnings, calls home, and detention.
Some of those referrals were for skipping detentions. It is easy for students to stop listening to a teacher who repeatedly says that they are being written-up, which I did in fact do, but then never receive any consequences from the school administration.
Still, I frequently put in 14-hour days and did whatever I could to ensure my students’ success. I simply wasn’t skilled enough at teaching or at handling this stressful and challenging environment.
I do wish to note that many TFA corps members who receive the same training and support are very successful. It is reassuring to know that TFA is continuously working to identify what leads to that type of success, and how they can better select and train corps members to get more positive results.
I left TFA after one year and joined City Year, a national non-profit that places young adults in schools to tutor and mentor, helping at-risk students remain on track to graduate.
City Year corps members serve in classrooms alongside teachers, and offer support by working with kids individually or in small groups. Corps members act as a second adult in the classroom.
This can be hugely beneficial to the learning process. A corps member can help students catch-up and stay on-task—all the more advantageous for students returning from an absence. A City Year corps member can answer individual student questions, help students fill in missing background knowledge, and provide extra challenge and support to advanced students.
All of this can be done without compromising the focus of the classroom teacher, who could be leading a whole-class activity, or doing any of these same things simultaneously with other students across the room.
I work with fewer students in City Year than in TFA, but my overall positive impact on kids is significantly greater.
That being said, City Year does have its own shortcomings.
City Year’s internal culture can be pretty annoying: various chants and rituals are performed at various points during the day. For example, every morning each team of corps members must stand in a circle and point to pieces of their uniforms and shout, “I have my boots, I have my belt, I have my name tag.”
City Year highly emphasizes supporting students to improve their grades, classroom behavior, attendance, and test scores—all of which is worthwhile. However, like TFA, City Year has a long way to go before it is able to effectively train corps members to truly empower students to have their own original and innovative thoughts, to take ownership over their own lives, and to actually be empowered to make their own positive impact in communities. Programs such as The Future Project, which focuses heavily on these areas, provide an interesting contrast.
I am often asked what advice I would give to recent college graduates, interested in pursuing
TFA. I don’t necessarily discourage applying, which is surprising to some. For the right person, serving as a TFA corps member can have a very positive impact on all involved.
However, I do encourage graduates to at least make themselves aware of other alternatives to TFA, which allow young people to address education inequity in other ways.
Recent graduates who think that they want to enter a long-term teaching career in high-needs schools could explore options such as the Boston Teacher Residency, which includes a year of teaching apprenticeship, along with a master’s degree and a three-year teaching commitment.
For those who want to address education inequity, but don’t necessarily want to pursue a long- or short-term teaching career, City Year or other Americorps programs could be good possibilities. For those on the fence about teaching in the future, City Year is currently working to improve its support of corps members who may choose to use their year of service as a stepping-stone to a lifelong career in teaching.
Serving in TFA and City Year has been an extremely useful educational experience for me (and Ihope for my students, too)! While those programs are based on very different models of how best to support students, they share a crucial mindset: it is imperative to work intentionally and relentlessly to ensure that all students have access to an excellent education.
Zachary Goldman is a 2011 graduate of Denison University, where he majored in mathematics with a minor in physics and strengthened the university’s ability to effectively educate and empower changemakers. He has taught 7th–grade math as part of Teach For America and supported 9th-grade algebra 1 students as part of City Year. He blogs about educational issues at HavingNewEyes.