Miss Bennett in the Bay

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 24 2008

An Open Letter to Gary Rubenstein

Dear Mr. Rubenstein,

Hi.  You don’t know me, but you can probably guess a lot about how the way my first year of teaching went when I tell you I am a 2007 Bay Area corps member.  As I’m sure you are painfully aware, I didn’t receive any of the “reality checks” that you are clearly so adept at giving to new corps members.  Now that I have been exposed to them, I really wish that I had been given these tools earlier.  As in, a year ago.

Now, here’s my quandary.  According to TFA, my first year was just fine because my students met their Big Goals (I teach 2nd grade).   But when I think about what happened in my classroom on a minute to minute basis, I know I have a long way to go before I’m a truly effective teacher.  At least, effective to the level that I want to be.  By the end of the year, most of them would be quiet long enough to do their work at least, but it took 7 of the 9 months I had with them to get there.  Their behavior on the playground was atrocious.  (I try to tell myself that that was due, at least in part, to the culture of my school and not just my classroom.)  I’d say that basically the reason they met their goals is because I forced them to.  And some of them really hated it.

But, given that I am a Teach for America corps member, one of my strongest points is reflection.  So, I’ve spent the first 2 weeks of summer mulling over all of this in my head.  That’s when I discovered your blog and your workshop videos. Suddenly, everything makes sense to me. When I think about days (or even just lessons) that went well, I realize that they went well because my students were behaving. Why were they behaving? Because I was teaching. Like a real teacher. I wasn’t standing there telling them how awesome they were and how I knew they could do it, looking into their highly skeptical eyes. I was showing them that through their own accord they could do it, and that’s when the turnaround really happened in my classroom. When my focus students passed one (that’s all it took!) quiz, they were suddenly hungry for more and their success helped the entire class make quantum leaps. I didn’t make that connection until now.

So why has nobody bothered to tell me this before? Why did I walk into my classroom on the first day of school feeling like all I had to do was challenge my students to meet some (rather arbitrary) Big Goals, and they would be fine? The short answer is because that’s what TFA taught me. Your point on your blog is right. Everybody at institute had awesome experiences as corps members and that’s what they want you to do, too. But it’s not as balanced as it needs to be. I hope that TFA will do some of that reflection that it’s so famous for and even out the scales.

But even if they don’t, I have to say thank you, Mr. Rubenstein. After spending an hour watching your workshop, I now feel a great urge to re-do my entire (yes, all of it) classroom management system. I’ll spend some time thinking about what I want my teacher persona to look like (since right now it’s pretty schizophrenic.) And on that first day of school, I’m going to do something totally crazy: teach them something.

So thank you for starting your TFA blog. I look forward to reading your posts in the future.

Ms. Bennett
Bay Area 2007

2 Responses

  1. You are absolutely right!! I feel the exact same way after watching Mr. Rubenstein’s videos and reading his blog. Isn’t it an amazing realization to make?

    This year, my kids also met the TFA goals, but I didn’t reach MY goals as a teacher. And because of that, my students didn’t reach their own personal potential. Not to mention the fact that many of them didn’t even LIKE school.

    Thanks for posting such a well-written letter…. I can relate to your feelings on the matter. :o )

  2. garyrubinstein

    Hi Ms. Bennett,

    I really appreciate your letter. Looking over your blogs, you’ve done a very good job with your teaching, even if you were working with TFAs oversimplified premises. I like that you’re saying that had you seen the workshop earlier, your already pretty good first year would have been even better.

    It’s nice to get some positive feedback, especially after a very frustrating thirteen years of trying to convince TFA that my ideas can be incorporated into the institute curriculum so that everyone can have more tools to enable them to have a better first year. In 1995, I started doing the workshop. Then, for the next couple of years, I’d volunteer to do it at the Houston institute. Even after I left Houston, I’d come back to do it (at my own expense) because I felt I was filling a gap in the TFA training. My thought was that I’d help ‘fix’ the institute by showing the higher-ups all the positive feedback I’d get. (Some was pretty extreme, like “I learned more in one hour than I did in the entire institute”) Well, I’d submit the feedback forms, and then another year would go by. Nobody would ever call me to ask, “What do you tell them?” and then I’d be volunteering again. I kept hoping that the feedback forms would be less enthusiastic, meaning that TFA changed things a little. Just once, I would have liked to get a stack of feedback forms that said “This was funny, but I really didn’t learn anything new.”

    Well, more and more years went by. 1997, 1998, 1999 … I even got my book published in 1999. I figured that would get the attention of TFA, but it didn’t. Still, the book doesn’t appear on any TFA reading list, required or otherwise. I moved to New York and invited myself to speak in New York in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003. Still with the same feedback, with some of the comments you’ve made. I stopped even submitting the feedback forms. It was obvious nobody ever looked at them, or if they did they just dismissed them. I decided that my dream to speak to the entire TFA corps was never going to happen. I’d have to settle for talking to fifty or a hundred New York CMs, just a small percent of the corps. Then in 2004, I made my yearly e-mail to volunteer to do the New York Institute, and I was turned down! It was really frustrating. At that point, I pretty much gave up on TFA. There was just no getting through to them. They had become as inflexible as the school districts they were trying to reform.

    I did have some conversations with some very high TFA people about why they sugar-coat the first year. I know that part of it is that they get a very non-random sampling of alum to work at the institute. They don’t get the diversity they claim to value so much. What TFA claimed was that they have two reasons for not revealing how tough the first year is. One is that TFA has a lot of critics and if they let it ‘out’ that some people have really bad first years, that will be fuel for those critics. Though that may be true, this strategy ultimately produces unprepared teachers who then go and teach and are not as successful as they could have been. The other thing TFA admitted was that they fear that some CMs might give up before they start if they think they’re about to try something so hard. To me, that is not trusting the CMs they so selectively chose to utilize all the information properly.

    Back to the timeline … For the last four years, I had come to terms with the fact that I was never going to get my point of view out to the majority of new CMs. It felt good to get that pressure off myself after nine years of constant rejection by the organization (What kept me going were all the great feedback forms, which I still have.) I was really able to get on with my life a little better. I took satisfaction that other programs, like the New York City Teaching Fellows felt that my book was important enough to purchase a copy for each of the 3,000 fellows. I was getting my ideas out there, at least, even if it wasn’t for TFA.

    Then, just as I felt I had ‘let go,’ about two weeks ago, I had an idea: I can put the thing up on YouTube and see what happens. Well, already based on your letter (and on the comment to the letter), there are at least two people who might teach a little better next year. I see that there are about 100 views so far. What would make me really happy would be to see the count get up to 3,700, so that every CM can have the opportunity to see it. Even if they don’t agree with what I say, the idea that students respond to clear teaching rather than empty inspirational speeches is something that they can mix together with their other points of view.

    If you want to ‘spread the word’ that the videos are worth watching, I’d really appreciate it. As someone who was so successful in the classroom, your opinion carries a lot of weight.

    By the way, I think that you would have had a great second year, with or without seeing the workshop. The first year trains your instincts and even if you haven’t analyzed exactly why what you’re doing is working, as I did, you would still have made a lot of good decisions.

    Gary Rubinstein
    Houston 1991

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