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Spreading the movement


Teach with examples. Offer real-life scenarios. Use visuals if appropriate.

Less than two weeks ago, I made my official transition from Teach for America corps member to program director by helping usher in almost 100 energetic and committed new teachers to the Rio Grande Valley. On their second evening in the sticky heat of South Texas, I helped facilitate a discussion with a small group of new teachers on their roles as leaders in the community. One of the points we discussed was the organizational theory of change.

The theory is two-pronged: In the short term, it means teachers will work hard to make changes in their classrooms and work to invest others around them about ending educational inequity. In the long term, it means continuing to invest others in this goal and to work toward closing the achievement gap no matter where your professional path has taken you. The plan is for everyone, TFA or not, to work toward this shared goal.

My group of teachers got it. But what impressed me more were their ideas on how to convince non-Teach for America teachers to join the movement. They brainstormed ideas on motivating whole communities and convincing people that educational inequity could be closed—starting with their own parents. These new corps members even imagined sending TFA coffee mugs to all alums so that it could perhaps spark many a discussion on educational inequity around office water coolers.

So it made me cringe when I read the Post’s piece on D.C. Mayor Fenty’s pick to lead the District’s public schools, Michelle Rhee. Teach for America as an insurgency? World domination? Sure, many TFA alums are emerging as leaders of schools and other sectors. But to me, the point isn’t to take over the system. The point is to energize everyone to take over the system together.

It also turns away from the less advertised goal of the organization: The only way the achievement gap will be closed is if more and more people join in the cause to demand better teachers and administrators, to tutor kids after school, to provide good jobs for parents, and to clean up neighborhoods. But to suggest that Teach for America will take over and fix everything shifts the responsibility away from the rest of the community.

P.S.—I’m also not so impressed by the article’s portrayal of Teach for America’s apparent disdain for traditional teacher prep programs. There are good ed programs, there are bad ed programs, and there are simply amazing ed programs out there. Who would have thought Western New Mexico University's Gallup branch has an incredible special education masters program?


I agree totally when you said: "But to me, the point isn’t to take over the system. The point is to energize everyone to take over the system together."

We must find a way to channel the energy and idealism of new teachers so that veteran teachers can be re-energized and parents can get jazzed about the education process as well.

Closing the achievement gap is indeed in EVERYONE'S best interest, so I look forward to seeing the ideas that you and your younger colleagues come up with. Good luck!

Hi Jessica- Nice mugshot, and good luck in the new job, terrain, and blog! Remember true north and you won't get lost.

I hope you like your new job, Jessica, but sadly you are an example of what is wrong with alternate certification. YOU ONLY TAUGHT FOR TWO YEARS. It takes 3-5 years to learn your job! The more disabled the child is, the longer it takes to learn to teach them. Apparently you were not teaching the special kids I love best, severe/profound and multihandicapped.

You don't stop teaching when you start feeling better anymore than you stop the antibiotics when your throat stops being sore! You have only just begun. You finally know how to teach and you go on and do your job, get your Masters and learn to be the best of the best. You don't stop teaching spelling after kids can spell short -A words and you don't stop teaching after one or two years if you have been successful. You keep on keeping on, preferably with a committment to the low income students you started with and you become a master teacher. I hate when rookies quit before they know their job but after the schools spend a lot of time and money teaching them how to teach.

A teacher who starts with disadvantaged kids needs to make a committment to stay with disadvantaged kids because they need good teachers who know what they are doing even more than advantaged kids do. Maybe with the new government administration, extra funding will be provided for teachers in challenging fields or schools.

And you taught special education!!!! Those poor lost babies are going to get another scared rookie in August; another teacher who does not know what she is doing; another baby who does not know how to communicate with that adorable child in the wheelchair or that all the hyperactive one needs to complete his worksheet is a piece of scotch tape to hold it in place or boxes around those math problems so she can focus.

That is why our disadvantaged and special needs kids are having trouble in school. They don't get any continuity. They never get a teacher who can come in with confidence and take charge, one who can look at a child in the hall or even in a store and say, "That girl is one of mine", a teacher who will stand up for any special ed kid in trouble by uttering two dreaded words---"due process" or the short sentence that makes principals stomachs turn, "It's in his IEP." They need teachers who can calm a big high schooler who lives in a crack house and smells like stale beer who has gotten upset because school is just too much today so he does not get suspended and denied the only meal he will get.

New Orleans spent millions on school security last year because they fired their veteran educators after Katrina and hired rookies and ACs instead of keeping the teachers who could restore order with a look on payroll until they could re-open. Cops instead of teachers. That was the result of going cheap.

Now you are going to work for Teach For America. I think it needs to change. Maybe with your high verbal skills you can facilitate that change. If teachers are going to be allowed to lead classrooms without commitment to the field and a proper education in education, they need to be required to make a longer committment---3-5 years. That length of time gets them over the rookie hump and makes them teachers. If they can stay for 5 years, they just might make a career. I really wish you would go back and teach for a few more years.

I knew ONE good AC. She taught self contained EBD. This has got to be the hardest area of special ed. The kids are troubled, prenatally drug affected and some are actually mentally ill. She had one who tried to jump from a third floor window and trashed the nurse's office where she had been taken to calm down. (But, know what, she was great working with my severe/profound kids and they loved her. She acted quite normal in my room.) BD teachers tend to burn out in about 2-3 years, even real ones. They go to another area of special ed or escape to regular education. The ones who stay tend to have personal experience with a disability. This woman had 7 years of experience, a past career as a parole officer, and no interest in leaving her disability area.

I have to get you in one more area. You stated in your last column in Ed Week that sometimes you were ashamed to admit you were a teacher. There is nothing wrong with being a teacher! It is nothing to be ashamed of! There is even less wrong with being a special educator, although I have fought misperceptions about us for 30 years. Teaching is not something to be ashamed of, especially if you are special ed!! If there were no teachers there would be no other professions. Who do you think taught Jesus to be a carpenter? His stepfather, Joseph. He was not certified but he was a vocational teacher. Now previously a lot of regular teachers went to college to get an "Mrs.". Women were limited in career choices and college was a good way to catch an educated husband. I went to college with a lot of frilly little "Mrs." poodles. Maybe some regular ed people still go into education to get an Mrs. It has been a long time since I did my undergrad. As a result, education graduates were not always the highest performing college students.

Special ed has always been different and the college professors tended to screen out the poodles. However, the advent of the "generic" special educator has lowered our standards and I have actually known some special educators for whom it was just a job. For the first 25 years of mandated special ed, however, almost all of us had a background that pushed us into the field---a friend or family member with a disability or a role model who was a nurse or therapist. Sometimes we had disabilities ourselves. Now it seems that more teachers, especially ACs simply consent to doing special education because the jobs are available. And, I am sorry to say it but, they do not know what they are doing and they totally mess up the children---especially in the self contained classes. I say this because I have had to do incredible amounts of repair work to both my paraprofessionals and my children. Those babies I had in New Orleans had been taught precisely NOTHING FOR SEVERAL YEARS. Every teacher they had since the original one died was either a regular education rookie or AC. trying to put a foot in the door of the system. It took a lot of work to even partially fix them and then Katrina came.

Think about what you are doing, Jessica. Your language skills indicate that you have potential to be a good teacher if you get a little more experience. An M.Ed could polish you up and if you get it in special ed. you might be able to become the kind of advocate we need.

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  • Rhonda: I hope you like your new job, Jessica, but sadly read more
  • Emmet: Hi Jessica- Nice mugshot, and good luck in the new read more
  • Phil Nash: I agree totally when you said: "But to me, the read more




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