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Bilby & Greene: Tough Lessons from Teach For America

Last week, by way of a video posted through something called the Teachers Talk Back Project, I met a former Teach For America intern teacher by the name of John Bilby. He spoke of his relationship with his mentor, David Greene. I asked the two of them if they would share some of their experiences with us. This is their conversation:

John: My name is John Bilby and I taught with Teach For America for 6 months before leaving the program because I think that it doesn't prepare or support its teachers for the challenges they will face. I'm currently enrolled in a traditional teacher certification program so that I can get a firmer grounding and more experience before heading back into the classroom. David Greene was my field observer from my graduate program during my time with TFA; he was the biggest help to me, and the kind of advice that he gave me went above, beyond, and sometimes around the advice that TFA gives to its first year teachers.

Dave, let's start at the beginning. In order to prepare me for a job teaching English in the South Bronx (the poorest congressional district in the nation), TFA had me teach Social Studies at a summer school in East Harlem for 45 minutes a day, 4 days a week, for 4 weeks. I was a History major in college, I recently completed my MA in American History, and I hadn't taken an English class since 2006, when I finished my minor for college; the principal of my school needed an English teacher, though, so that is what I became. TFA wasn't concerned with the particulars of content area, I guess. Dave, how does that compare/contrast with your training experience?

David: John, let me first say that training experiences are quite complex and more often dependent on who trains you than where you were trained. I went to Fordham University's undergraduate School of Education, which no longer exists. Too bad. The undergraduate program had a 4 year program that included heavy academic work in your subject area, classwork in pedagogy, and field work in local neighborhood afternoon centers before you began a full time, semester long internship as a "student teacher". The pedagogy classes weren't worth much, but that's true in all schools. I have always believed that more practical experience with great teachers beats theory in an ivory tower. Everyone at Fordham and other University based training programs had similar sets of experiences. So far we were all on equal footing.

However, the real difference in training was where you were assigned to student teach and, more importantly, what cooperating teacher you were given. I was extremely lucky to have a woman who was a marvelously talented teacher and mentor. Phyllis Opochinsky was the best social studies teacher in the South Bronx school I was assigned to and also gifted at mentoring new teachers.

A major difference between you and I was that I gradually entered teaching. I wasn't dumped into the quicksand up to my neck. The first few weeks I did nothing but watch her, learn from her work, and practice writing lesson plans. I was then allowed to teach one of her classes on occasion. Then, for the last quarter I took over one of her classes as my own, but always with her in the room. By regulation, she had to be there. More importantly, she was there for me. We had preclass and post class discussions to work on my improvement.

Notice I am not even talking about the style of teaching. That is another conversation.

The second difference was where and for whom I worked when I started my first job, also in the South Bronx. My immediate supervisor (Department Chair/Assistant Principal) and my principal were also master teachers of social studies and gifted mentors of new teachers. Together they gave me the foundation to become a confident teacher in my field of study. They also gave me academic freedom. They trusted my intelligence and creativity. As a result, I knew I could grow, and grow I did.

One of my biggest frustrations for new teachers, TFA or otherwise, is not only the lack of quality time to prepare to teach, but more significantly, the lack of highly qualified mentors to train them. As I travel to the various schools I work in as a field supervisor for Fordham Universtiy, I am both encouraged and shocked by the large number of younger teachers in these schools.

I love the energy they bring, but oh the inexperience! Often, novices are training novices in how to follow the simple prescribed scripts TFA or the school gives them while proscribing those very techniques more experienced teachers know work. It often becomes my job to find a compromise between what they are being told to do, and what I know works; to fit the square peg of tested and successful teaching techniques into the round hole of whatever is used today to "increase student test scores."

John: That was my experience with their mentors, as well. My immediate TFA supervisor had taught for two years; the program's "big gun" had taught for 5. My principal had taught for 4, the AP had taught for 3. Between all of them, they still come up twenty-four years short of you.

Dave, I remember when you first came in to observe me and everything was, to put it nicely, a mess: I was doing some confusing lesson on God knows what that I had picked up from my grad school class, I never varied the tone of my voice and the only way I knew to get people's attention was to count down from 5 or clap my hands. I also had posters covering every inch of available wall space and I didn't use my whiteboard, an absurdly labor-intensive and un-academic TFA "trick" where you write everything on chart paper and then "reveal" it as class goes on (it has the byproduct of completely stifling any class conversation). You sat me down and told me that it was, politely, "not too good;" more importantly, you gave me ways to fix it, number one being to have a personality in the classroom, which actually WENT AGAINST what I had been told, which was to be neutral in all things.

TFA would also give us access to "teacher-proof" materials, when in fact it would be some thoughtlessly scripted lesson with all the right buzzwords that would be over in ten minutes and leave you with an hour and a half of chaos. You mentioned the "prescribed and proscribing" scripts that TFA hands out - how do you think we can do these things better? I think more preparation with experienced teachers is key, but that means time and money, two things in short supply. What can new TFA teachers and mentors do now?

David: John, Those are two questions. TFA teachers are hard pressed to do much unless they can wean themselves off of the prescribed formulas and look for proscribed alternatives. That is not likely to happen for two reasons. TFA puts a lot of pressure on you to do it their way. They also give you the big TFA teat to suckle. They give TFA teachers the "safe" way to prepare, so TFA becomes like an enabling parent. As a result, only the strong and more independent type of TFA teacher will separate themselves from this without help. And that is more likely to happen with a mentor who knows about and successfully uses proscribed alternative methods.

Unfortunately many mentors, as you describe, are still either enabled by TFA or another big approved program (the Teachers College model come to mind). Mentors and more experienced teachers must develop a mind set that there is more than one way to skin the cat of teaching. They must become students of teaching, so that they can pass along what they discover to their mentees. That is what is missing. When did teachers, especially mentors of new teachers, stop becoming students themselves?

What do you think? Does this correspond with your experiences?

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