Archives For wendy kopp

My school district completed four days of first class professional development that began with a visit from Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like a Pirate and ended with faculty-led collaborative committees organizing for an accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).  In four short days, the veteran teachers adjusted, organized classrooms, and prepared the first week of lessons. The administrators indicated that schools were off to a “great start”  while the facility management personnel finished polishing the floors and touching up wall paint. One group however, looked different.

teacher appleThe new teachers’ eyes glazed over. Although some have taught for years in other districts, each one has been lost in the labyrinth of our hallways at least once this past week. There are at least fifty names they still need in order to match staff to academic disciplines and a number of faces before they begin to match their attendance rolls with students. The location of materials for various units of study has yet to be established; boxes are unopened in their classrooms.

In short, they are whelmed. Merriam-Webster online defines whelmed as

1. to turn (as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling : overwhelm

According to the dictionary, there is no “over” in being “overwhelmed”. Watching the newest members of the faculty trying to mentally sort through the information they had taken in the past four days reminded me of how I felt my first few years of teaching. Putting “over” with whelmed seemed redundant; I was “engulfed completely” my first years of school as well.

Twenty-three years later, I am less whelmed by the start of school, but I still have to adapt. There are always new materials, new changes to schedules, new students to get to know. In 2013-2014 there is also a new state mandated teacher evaluation system and a set of new tests will be rolled out this year to measure the new Common Core State Standards. For these new-to-district teachers, the flood of information in the early days of the school year must seem insurmountable. There is research, however, that indicates with three years of practice, teachers develop strategies for being effective in improving student achievement in the classroom.

In particular, there is research that demonstrates that “teachers in their first and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their second year tend to perform significantly worse in the classroom” (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain -2005). In a follow-up interview to this study, Kati Haycock was quoted in Education Next as saying,

“And experience does matter for inexperienced teachers. As a group, first-year teachers tend to be less effective than those with even a little more experience, and effectiveness tends to climb steeply for any given cohort of teachers until it begins to plateau after a few years. According to research by Eric Hanushek and others, disproportionate exposure to inexperienced teachers contributes to the achievement gap.”

How a teacher develops on a learning curve is significant for both the teacher and the students, which is why the story from Mokoto Rich of the New York Times At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (8/26/2013) flies in the face of both anecdotal data and research studies. The article addressed the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools by first highlighting the story of 24 year-old teacher, Tyler Dowdy. With two completed years of teaching behind him, Dowdy is “exploring his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.” The article described him as someone, “who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more.” His interest in education appeared cursory, “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Supporting Dowdy’s lack of commitment to the profession, was the statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of  Teach for America (TFA)  who said,

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers…The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Kopp’s claims, however, have little credibility considering her own lack of classroom experience. While she has taken TFA from a $22 million dollar enterprise in 2003 to a $244 million dollar business in ten years before her departure this year as CEO, there is no record of her creating or delivering lessons to students herself. She has not had the experience of developing or implementing classroom management skills, a major cause of much teacher turnover.  Teachers, new and old, experience first-hand the fallacies in her argument. Yes, during the first years, teaching can be greatly improved, but that does not mean a new teacher has become “great”. Like so many educational reformers without classroom experience, Kopp dismisses critical teacher training as something that can be condensed, like TFA’s five week summer teacher preparation program.

A five week training for TFA is luxurious compared to the two and a half weeks of training over the summer for other teacher training programs, such as the YES Prep program like Dowdy’s, where new teachers “learn common disciplinary methods and work with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.” Yet, these teachers from these accelerated programs will look the way new recruits in my district look, glazed and anxious. These teachers will soon learn the importance of experience. They will understand that the only way to learn how to teach is to practice teaching over and over and over….in spite of being whelmed.

Tributes for teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week are welcome coming just as the school year comes to a close when very tired teachers are looking back to see student progress over the past eight months. Many of the tributes are touching, and some are comical. Comedy was the intent of the The Late Show with David Letterman, when the producers invited ten (10)  Teach For America teachers to deliver Letterman’s Top Ten List. In introducing the selected ten teachers, Letterman prefaced the performance with his own tribute,

“My God! If there is a future, it is in the hands of our teachers doing thankless work day after day (APPLAUSE) …..and by the way thankless is the wrong word… we should be grateful, eternally grateful, for the work these people do…”

After his heart-felt introduction, each of the ten Teach for American teachers stepped forward to deliver one entry on the list:

The Top 10 Reasons I Decided to Become a Teacher

  • 10. I hope to live up to the teachers who inspired me. . .like Ms. What’s Her Name
  • 9. It’s no fun saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day by myself.
  • 8. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention the first time through school.
  • 7. Kids need to know the moon landing was faked. 
  • 6. If I could make a difference in just one student’s life–well, that wouldn’t be a very good average. 
  • 5. The glamour. 
  • 4. You work long hours, but at least the pay is bad.
  • 3. Hoping to teach in an all song-and-dance high school, like on “Glee.” 
  • 2. In the summer, I can watch all you losers go to the office. 
  • 1. I want to help kids talk good. 

This very funny video was posted on the Teach for America website, listing participating teachers as members of the Class of ’13. Teach for America is a not for profit organization established in 1990 under a proposal by Wendy Kopp. The original objective is explained on their website:

We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.                 

Teach for America sent 500 teachers to low-income schools in its first year. To date, over 33,000 have completed the program, however, Teach for America has come under some criticism for the “temporary” nature of the assignments. Two years of teaching is not enough, argued David Greene in an editorial featured in the New York Times (4/30/13),Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching”:

Corps members should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher, then teach for at least four years, not two. That may discourage some. Good. We want career teachers. A “temp” work force does not improve education or erase the achievement gap. Rather it helps to create havoc in schools desperately trying to gain stability, a key factor in any school’s success.

Greene explained that he has served in the past as a mentor to Teach for America corps members, and that he has seen their “tears, anxieties, heartaches, successes and achievements.” He claims, however, that the preparation for these teachers now includes “simple, formulaic scripts” instead of letting these teachers be “creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending.” He noted:

Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom. In our anti-teacher world and scripted teaching climate perpetuated by corporate reformers, what room is there for the teachers we want for our kids?

Greene cautioned that the today’s Teach for America has “morphed into more of a leadership institute”, with too little classroom experience to inform the members as they move quickly from the classroom into higher levels in education administration and in educational reform.

Letterman’s producers must be applauded for focusing attention on teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, but in the future, they might consider a different group to represent teachers. Perhaps they could recruit seasoned veteran teachers who made this career choice, or if new teachers are what they want, they might look to spotlight new teachers who do not have the benefits of training and continuing support from Teach for America. Or, they might look to recruit the teacher described below in a letter published in the NYTimes written by Derl Clausen, a high school student, in a response to Greene’s editorial:

He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; they leave inspired.

He tells them about life: the challenges, the problems, the reason he’s half-shaven. He turns “Romeo and Juliet” into a lesson on love, algebra into a philosophy discussion, and science into an art appreciation class. Vocabulary, equations and historical dates will enter and leave children’s memories, but the inspiration, motivation and wisdom that he gives them will remain throughout their lives.

It’s that teacher who is worth the five-minute wait, the smell of coffee — and if anyone questions his half-shaven beard, he’ll learn a whole lot more about life.

Clausen’s describes a teacher who goes “off script”, a teacher that fits Greene’s observation that, “Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students.” Clausen’s portrait could be a choice worth of a Top Ten List, or maybe even a guest appearance. Clausen and the half-shaved teacher as guests on The Late Show with David Letterman for Teacher Appreciation Week 2014? Not a satirical list, but one real teacher-student relationship as part of a Teacher Appreciation Week “Top Ten”.