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Jul 26, 2012

Learning with TFA

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague and I went to NYC to attend Teach for America’s Summer Institute. We are starting a collaborative program with them and this was an attempt to learn about the experiences the Corps Members have before they will come to our classes.

The relationship between TFA and the teacher education community is anything but easy. We sometimes end up on the opposite sides of educational debates. At the same time, in many states colleges collaborate with TFA and help their members to obtain state certification.

Some in our field perceive TFA to be the main existential threat. I never thought this to be the case. Their model of teacher preparation cannot be scaled up significantly because of its cost, and the high level of idealism it requires of Corps Members. Yet it would be completely foolish to ignore the organization’s success in recruiting people who would not have consider teaching as a career, and in creating a large following amongst a large segment of school principals and superintendents. When we started working with them, part of me was just very curious about what it is they do, and what we can learn from them. So, if you think they are our friends, you agree we should learn from them. If you think they are our sworn enemies, well, it is even more important to learn from them, right?

We have been working with a local TFA in various ways for almost two years now, and I already knew quite a bit about them. Still, I was going in a bit skeptical. What can you do in five weeks training? The very phrase “five weeks training” is often repeated in our circles with sarcasm. Of course, we spent decades our lives in teacher preparation, and just know a thing or two about what goes into training a decent teacher. Well, I had to admit that I was wrong. One can actually do a lot in five weeks, and evidence was pretty undeniable.

The secret is very simple: when what you lack is time, you compensate by the intensity of the experience and by strong organization. In other words, if you make the experience super-charged, and eliminate the waste, you can achieve good results.

Yes, TFA members teach only about 20 lessons over the course of the 5 weeks to small classes of 6-15 children. But every single lesson plan is critiqued ahead of time, and every lesson is observed by at least one experienced teacher; often by two or three. Every lesson observed by a TFA mentor is analyzed and critiqued in an hour-long one-on-one session. It is a hard drill on a certain kind of thinking, not on behavior. TFA uses the Teaching as Leadership rubric. It is not that superior to what we use, but they stick to it for years, and of course, learn how to use it. Corp Members also attend seminars, right in the schools where they teach, lead by curriculum specialists. They are expected to apply directly what they learned in their classrooms within the next couple of days. The whole thing has a feel of a boot camp, and it is not just a superficial comparison. The military discovered the value of short and intensive experiences a very long time ago.

We observed a few lessons taught by the corps members. Were they perfect? Not at all, but they were darn good for someone in the second week of one’s teaching career; definitely better than my first few weeks of teaching. We could see how the Corps Members struggle, and where they need help. In this sense, there are no miracles; it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft. But it can be done faster under the right conditions.

Of course in this model one has to sacrifice something. There is no time for reading much theory, or for in-depth discussions about the dynamics of learning and relationships in classroom. There is no time to search for great creative ideas in lessons design. This is where we hopefully come in with four RIC classes, a part of the RIC-TFA collaborative program ( But I got an impression that TFA people are fully aware of what they are sacrificing, and what they are gaining.

The operational side of thing is remarkable – as an administrator, I appreciated the enormous challenge that comes with bringing 600 young people to New York City for five weeks, and trying to make teaches out of them. They also need to be fed, housed, observed, evaluated, taught, briefed, etc., etc. Because TFA has many more applicants than spots, they can afford to select candidates carefully. It helps to have bright and dedicated young people. TFA is also not skimpy on providing human resources – about 150 “adults” work to support the institute of 600 new Corps Members; it is a 1:4 ratio. It is very expensive (although TFA recruit their alums to help for relatively cheaply). The economy of scale and years of previous experience help, too. But here is my point again – if they did it for three months, the cost would become prohibitive. So the choice of the 5 weeks is not random; it is the only way to keep the cost under control. And if you have to do this, you may as well squeeze everything out of this short experience.

The lesson for me is that it is too easy to see our way of doing things as the only way. This applies to everyone, not just teacher educators. It is helpful to see alternatives, just to shake off these self-imposed blinders. It is like going to another country – you recognize the same things, but are surprised by how they can be so different. We are not going to become like TFA, for our constrains and resources are very different. But nothing prevents us from looking at shorter but more intensive field experiences – in addition to what we are doing already. I wish we learned to be less tolerant to waste and fluff, and more focused on what we believe is important.

Jul 17, 2012

The Peace House

In the Summer of 1992, we were leaving the Peace House, which is a big name for a small dorm in the Columbia Hall at the University of Notre Dame. We are: Aixa, Nepo, Jasmin, Bishu, Mike, Katy, Yousef, Ingrida, Marianna, Hong, Xiao Yun, Njubi, Cristian, and Sasha. We came from 10 different countries to spend a year in the International Peace Studies Program and. We were leaving citizens of 12 different countries, because the Soviet Union broke up within the first couple of weeks of our stay. Yesterday, some of the same people were leaving Providence after our 20 year reunion.

Surprising to me was how easily we could start where we left off, as if the 20 years were just a dream. We could skip the small talk and go straight to what is important – our children, families, truth, justice, faith, love, life, peace. People become friends when they share some history together. Friendship is literally a stock of stories held in common property. We struggle, work, learn together, make errors and fix them. Each scar on one’s psyche matches to other people’s scars. This makes us close.

And we had a plenty of scars that year; some from pain some from joy; after time passes they are the same. A human life does not have even density; some periods are much more significant than others. Well, that year was certainly very dense. With the exception of two Americans, we all were new to this country. All of us were new to graduate school. We built a community, got on each other’s nerves, argued endlessly and threw great parties. People fell in love and broke each other’s hearts, except for just a couple of us whose hearts already belonged to someone else. To balance that out, I spoke almost no English, and wrestled with the language more than anyone else. The frustration of speechlessness was perhaps the best learning experience that happened to me. I recommend it to everyone.

We remembered very few readings and classes, but we did remember the relational side of things – who were close, who had a crush on whom, and who did not get along and why. It made me think of a silly theory popular just two decades ago – that our brains have this tremendous reserve capacity we can tap and use. The theory was inspired by savants who able to crunch big numbers in their heads. However, it is because they do not have to use their brains for the high calculus of human relationships. Most people’s brains, however, work at full capacity to just keep track of other people in their lives. It probably takes up most of our brain power, because it has always been so critical to our survival. We live in the world crowded by humans, and little space allotted for everything else – from stars to algebra to big ideas.

As we become individuals of “certain age,” our lives’ narratives gradually appear out of the fog of forgetfulness and the confines of confusion. One does need friends to make some sense of it all, and I am just grateful to have many. It was a very good weekend.