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4 lessons from TFA's summer bridge class

By the Notebook on Sep 1, 2011 01:08 PM
Photo: Creative Commons License By Tulane Publications

Wendy Kopp, chief executive officer and founder of Teach for America, speaking at a leadership speakers series in 2008.

Megan Carlson is a second year Teach for America corps member. She worked alongside Tom Ng, who is also in his second year with TFA; Jason Watson; and Samuel Reed of the Philadelphia Writing Project in a weeklong course to prepare incoming 2011 corps members for the realities of teaching in Philadelphia schools. This blog is adapted from The Carlson Salon blog. Megan Carlson wrote the post; it was submitted by Samuel Reed.

I felt humbled when I finished my duties as a teacher assistant for this year's summer bridge course. During the course, facilitators demonstrated creative methods and strategies for teaching, and, more importantly, they encouraged a critical discourse around issues of testing, grading, creativity, race, privilege, and inquiry.

We asked the tough questions and came away with some reflections that will guide our work this school year.

The corps members (CMs) pushed themselves to answer:

  • Who are we as teachers?
  • Who are our students?
  • How will we form classroom community?
  • and more.

At times the conversation was frustrating, as it must be when discussing the myriad of challenges that face urban teachers and students. But, it ultimately forged a deeper understanding and a renewed commitment to foster social change within our schools.

Here are some of the key take aways from the week:

  1. Learning occurs within a context.
    Our schools exist in a specific social, political, and economic environment that affects who we are, who our students are, the way we communicate, the societal aims of education, and learning itself. Within the learning process, any “skill” that a student attains occurs within the context of the text which lends it meaning. Yet, the standards-based reform movement, with emphasis on testing basic skills, has created the myth that a student can somehow understand one aspect of a text in isolation. Absent the big picture, it is easy to see why our students become disengaged.
  2. Learning is relational.
    Learning is a process that occurs as teachers and students work together to derive meaning from the subject at hand. This is why it is essential to form a trusting classroom community, so that students feel safe enough to take the necessary risks to achieve true learning.
  3. This is a weird time in Philadelphia school history.
    For the first time, most new CMs will be placed within charter schools, as the District has placed many “failing” schools under outside management. Additionally, due to staggering budget shortages, the District let go of 1,500 teachers in early summer. On August 15, the District had 1,335 vacancies for fall and recalled 325 laid-off teachers. If this doesn't make sense, you're paying attention. All of this has just added to the chaos already occurring within Philadelphia schools.
  4. Be comfortable with contradictions.
    There are no easy answers. We need school accountability, yet tests reflect low-level skills. We need small classes, yet don't have enough money to hire the teachers. We need innovation, yet stifle creativity.

One class discussion about possible contradictions centered on the subject of grades.

What do you give students who have tried their best and made admirable progress, yet are still not technically passing? If you pass them, will they continue to fall behind? Does the calculus change if the students have learning disabilities or are English language learners?

If you do fail them, will they internalize that “F”? What if they see no rewards for the effort and progress they have made? And what are the chances, after that failing grade, they drop out?

I observed the pain of the CMs as they grappled with these difficult questions. However, I have grown comfortable with contradictions. I do not to torture myself by trying to find "The Rule" that will govern every situation in the classroom. The truth is that every student, every situation, is different and judgment is often not based on some abstract code of teaching, but is completely wrapped up in the context of a moment.

The CMs reached this conclusion, as well.

I am left hopeful by the discussions of the week. It is within the space of discomfort (the kind that arises with irreconcilable contradictions) that critical thinking occurs. This is the space of freedom, where new ideas and new formulas can be arranged without the constraints of prior language or dogma. It is only through this type of discourse that real change will occur.

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Comments (20)

Submitted by Jobless (not verified) on September 1, 2011 3:57 pm

I would love to ponder these questions in the context of my own classroom right now, but alas, TFA seems to have taken many of the jobs that I might have been assigned had the district called me back.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 4:28 pm

You shut your mouth. It is your fault, or the fault of traditional teachers like you, that urban schools are failing to help all learners reach their full potential.
/S I'm just being sarcastic. Good luck finding work.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on September 2, 2011 11:40 am

What an arrogant and nasty statement telling someone to "shut their mouth!" Why do you have the unmitigated gall of stereotyping all "Traditional Teachers." Where did you learn your manners? I hope you are not a TFA because you most certainly would not be a person I would want or expect to be teaching our children. What sort of role model would you be? Is this what you would teach your students "Shut your mouth" - don't have an opinion or freedom of speech because you disagree?
I am not a teacher and I find your reply offensive and alarming!
I know people who have graduated from college who would be considered "new teachers" who cannot be hired. They have attended school to earn a degree, hae been taught all of their applications and been graded on those applications, while they were in college. They performed their student teaching obligation and could not get a job because of the hiring freeze placed on the district in 2010 and then once again in 2011. They have taken the Praxis and are certified to teach.
I understand TFA's have degrees, but not in the teaching field. You are learning your classroom applications while on the job! You have not been previously educated to teach and are learning on the job! A TFA is given a two year contract within the School District before "new teachers" who have graduated from a college.
How is this fair? There are many "new teachers" who will be subbing, have gone on to charter schools or going to other School Districts because they cannot be hired in the Philadelphia School District where they want to teach.
Let's tell the truth about what happens in the teaching profession and is unfair to "new teachers!"
One question for you - what traditional teacher taught you and failed you?

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on September 2, 2011 12:04 pm

I apologize - I made a mistake and did not read your entire comment! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa!

I take back whatever I directed to you "anonymous" concerning your post!

I admit I made a mistake by not reading all the way through. I have learned a lesson from my mistake - I must read the comment in its' entirety! (mental note to one's self)

I do not apologize or withdraw the statement I made about TFA's in comparison to "new teachers." I stand by this statement.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on September 2, 2011 12:41 pm

I have made a mistake - Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa!

I did not read the comment by "anonymous" to the end!

I am apologizing for my statement concerning the person who wrote the comment. I have learned from my mistake and will read all comments completely before I comment! I withdraw any comment that I made in the negative to "anonymous."

However, I do stand by my statement about TFA's in context to "new teachers." I will not withdraw that portion of my comment.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 11:50 pm

has TfA been hired by SDP at all? I thought SDP wasn't taking any new hires and that TfA was going exclusively to charters this year.

Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on September 2, 2011 10:58 am

TFA has a contract with the district where SDP pays TFA for new teachers. I do not know the amount nor the number supplied. They are also given an office in 440.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 2, 2011 10:58 pm

There are no new TFA within the school district this year; any active TFA members are second year teachers now that were rehired according to seniority.

And I believe the office in 440 is for Teaching Fellows. Teach for America does certainly maintain a working relationship with the district and does receive a financial commitment (which they also pay into, of course) when new staff are hired.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 4:58 pm

How are they still assigning jobs to TFA's when there are teachers who are still laid off. This is incredible.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 4:53 pm

How are they still placing TFA's when there are teachers who are laid off? This is incredible.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 4:47 pm

There may indeed, be problems with TFA, placements, and certainly the school district. But let's step back for a moment and applaud the writing of this young teacher and her reflections on teaching and her work with new teachers and the Philadelphia Writing Project. Bravo Megan.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on September 1, 2011 4:00 pm

You will note that Megan points out that "For the first time, most new CMs will be placed within charter schools"

Of the 23 TFA CM's in our summer bridge course (Humanaties Teachers- English, Social Studies, and Spanish) all excpet one had been placed in charter schools. One CM was still waiting for placement.

Submitted by Philly HS TEacher (not verified) on September 1, 2011 6:59 pm

Do you know if the charters considered hiring Philly laid off teachers who are fully certified? (e.g. not TFA who were laid off from last year and who are yet to get certified and not new TFA recruits) There is no need for "emergency" certified teachers if others were laid off.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2011 7:50 pm

Charters hire whoever they want. I know of several laid off teachers who were hired in charters, and several others who got offers. That's one of the main points of charters -- they hire who they feel can be the best teacher, regardless of certification status, seniority, etc.

Also, very few TFA teachers teach on an emergency certification. There is a relatively major difference, at least legally, between and intern and emergency certification.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on September 4, 2011 10:49 am

If a charter school has to rely on TFA to fill teaching positions, it is not a very good school. If it is a good charter school, they should be able to recruit teachers with at least full certification ("highly qualified") versus relying on TFA. There certainly are a lot of "highly qualified" teachers in PA - if the charter provides a solid working environment, equitable pay/benefits, etc., it should attract "highly qualified" teachers. I would be very leery of a charter that has to rely on TFA.

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on September 1, 2011 5:12 pm

 It's a shame these conversations get lost in the battlelines of the "reform" movement.

Understanding that what happens in school doesn't always make sense or feel good is one of the toughest challenges I found when I started teaching, not sure I'm all the way there yet either.

Thank you Sam for bringing these ideas out. Wish I was having these conversations to begin school myself.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on September 1, 2011 5:18 pm


Thank you for making this valuable point.

During a mini-session of our PD tommorow we are having Dr. Kira Doyle Baker, author of the book "The Networked Teacher" visit Beeber Middle Schol to share with staff the power of teacher networks; encourage us to consider doing a book study ; and help us think about ways to develop our social capital in the face of challenging school reform efforts.

We have to find the "cracks" in the battlelines of reform.

Submitted by Trey Smith (not verified) on September 1, 2011 9:36 pm

What impresses me the most about this post is that Sam invariably encouraged a second year teacher to publish her thoughts and reflections following a week of teacher-led professional development for new teachers. Teachers like Sam get it: embrace, encourage, and collaborate with colleagues--veteran or very new. Thank you, Sam, for being a mentor and guide. You show new teachers what is truly best about this profession.

Submitted by Michael (not verified) on August 24, 2014 6:49 am

I am apologizing for my statement concerning the person who wrote the comment. I have learned from my mistake and will read all comments completely before I comment! 

swire mt

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