About this time last year I met Steve. I was conducting research for What They Don’t Teach You and hoping to speak with a couple TFA teachers from around the country. Steve was just about to leave for the Teach for America training institute and got in touch, so our first conversation occurred months before he’d even set foot in a classroom. Like so many, he joined Teach for America right out of college because he wanted to make a difference. Say what you want about the program, TFA is an appealing opportunity to new graduates. We kept in touch over the months and in January 2014, we met in a swanky bar not too far from his school.

The following is a transcript of our conversation. Details have been removed or altered to protect Steve’s identity.

 


 

What made you want to get into teaching?

S: In college I studied human services and international affairs. My focus was social change. I did a lot of work with kids. I was always volunteering in elementary schools around the Austin area. I love working with kids. I taught a little bit in college too with a volunteer program. We taught essentially a social and emotional curriculum through games and such. I’d go in once a week and taught for about an hour.

You’re originally from Austin?

S: No, I’m originally from New Jersey. Yeah, I was born in Brooklyn and then we moved down to Jersey. Went to college in Austin. I’ve always had a sense of justice, I guess you’d say, so I did a lot of organizing. I did a lot of work with labor rights organizations and umm, throughout the latter half of college I was spending time organizing students to get involved with labor campaigns around Austin. So, I worked on a campaign for my college’s dining hall workers to form their union my senior year. And they won, which was really good. Big big victory because my college has one of the biggest dining hall staff in the whole city of Austin. It set off a kind of chain reaction for other colleges. So I’ve always been interested in social justice stuff…

So is that was appealed to you about TFA? That’s how they kind of market themselves, as this guerrilla teaching force that’s going in and making a difference.

S: Yeah, they definitely have this…their rhetoric is, we’re a progressive organization. You’re, like, in the grassroots working with communities, serve them, and all this stuff but that’s not really what’s going down. So I have friends who have done TFA and they were like, ‘Steve, you’ll be great. If I know anything about you, this is exactly what you need to do’ – and I’m like, okay… I had some hesitations about Teach for America as an organization and some critiques but they were like, ‘yeah so did I but just go in with an open mind and like, they’re receptive to feedback and they want to make it a good organization and stuff like that.’

So from the moment I went to institute in the summer I realized this was a load of crap. Um, there was never a time when we were talking about, oh, learn about the community you’re about to go teach in for the next two years. It was very surface level stuff. They have these affinity groups for people of color and if you’re LGBTQ teachers you can go talk to other LGBTQ teachers and if you’re working class you can talk to working class people.

They have all these things they’re doing to be like, we really are listening and we care about actual real social change and want to talk about oppression but, you know, I hear stories from other core members telling me, ‘I’m from Kansas and my dad is actually the one who brought Teach for America to Kansas’ and I’m like ‘really, how did that happen?’ And he was like, ‘oh well my dad is really rich and he just basically started funding Teach for America to come to Kansas.’ Isn’t that crazy? This one random guy is able to do that and totally transform the education landscape of an entire state and as I started researching more that’s essentially what’s happening in other states that didn’t previously have Teach for America.

When you go to Institute, do you know where you’re going to be placed?

S: Yeah, so they have different deadlines. First deadline, second deadline, whatever and I was in the first deadline and I found out I was placed in NYC. Then you go through the motions. You have to change your resume so we can then send it to different schools who want to interview you and have you placed in their schools. So I was like, okay, cool. They asked, ‘Do you want to go through the first hiring event in the winter?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely I want to go through the first hiring event because I want to know where I’m working.’ What they failed to tell me is that only charter schools are hiring during the first hiring event in the winter and public schools in New York City, in general, aren’t doing their hiring until closer to the summer because that’s when they know what teachers are leaving or retiring.

So I didn’t know that. I get this list, ‘Here Steve, these are all the schools that want to interview you, for you to teach there.’ And it’s all charter schools. It’s like Achievement First, Success, KIPP, Uncommon, all the big networks in New York. And I was like, ‘this is a red flag.’ I had even indicated to them, ‘I don’t want to work in a charter, I want to work in a public school. I want to teach high school. I want to teach history or English.’ All I got were charters, I got all middle schools and lower grades and what they also said is that you have to accept the first job offer you’re given.

So you can’t pick from several offers?

S: No.

So if there’s an offer on the table, you have to take it?

S: Yeah. And so, I interviewed with all of these schools, these networks, and Success was the first to offer me a job and I had to take it.

Do you think they have an arrangement with all of them? Do you think they manipulate who goes where?

S: I think so. I think that it might not be intentional but that the impact of this policy creates an dynamic where Teach for America corps members, at least in New York City because that’s all I know, are a direct feeder to charters, you know? Um, at least in my school a good majority of the 28 teachers are either Teach for America corps members or alumni from Teach for America. My principal is Teach for America. My vice principal is Teach for America. Yeah, it’s all TFA in the charter schools.

So are most of your colleagues in their first two years? Are they all new teachers?

S: Mmmhmm, yeah. The teacher that has been teaching the longest at my school has been teaching for five years, this is her second at Success, my network, my specific school. The second longest…the person who has been at Success Academy the longest has only been there for three years and if you’re thinking about the school that I work in, it’s only been open for three years. She, like, all the teachers are essentially brand new. My principal is 30. She taught for three years before she became a principal. Um, she taught third grade and she’s the principal of the middle school.

She started teaching with TFA?

S: Yeah, in New Jersey [city withheld].

So she didn’t actually go through traditional teacher prep?

S: *Shakes head* And she has her Master’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

So yeah, everyone is super young. Success Academy as a network is very young too. They opened their first school in 2008. They started with Kindergarten and first grade and they’ve been expanding up since. They don’t accept kids after Kindergarten or first grade, {so the students I teach started then, rather than moved in]. They started out with around 50 and now we’re down to 31.

They’re opening 10 new schools as a network next year which would bring them to around 33, 32, 33. Um, and one of those will be the high school that they essentially wanted the current eighth graders to go to and have the seventh graders to go and be in eighth grade there just so they could have more people in the building. What they’ve started to realize is a lot of their current eighth graders are applying and going to other high schools in New York City, you know? I’ve talked to parents and they’re like, ‘I’m over it, I’m sick of it, we’re the guinea pigs they don’t listen to us.’

When I first spoke to you before, you said you weren’t really feel great about the situation. You’re team teaching, aren’t you?

S: So the way it works with Success is Teach for America corps members are, more often than not, hired as an assistant teacher for their first year. The plan is essentially for you to be a lead teacher and have your own classroom for your second year. So I’m an assistant teacher in the seventh and eighth grade English classrooms. My lead teacher, who I’m partnered with, is really fantastic. She has given me a lot of responsibility. So, since, I want to say around Thanksgiving I’ve been co-teaching the class with her. Whereas some other assistant teachers in the school are just administrative or behavior managers and they’re just like checking names off of the clipboard and putting homework into the computer, stuff like that. I am fortunate that I’m actually teaching and I started out, they hired me as a fifth grade assistant teacher, well first off they hired me as a fifth grade teacher and they didn’t mention the AT thing until I was doing onboarding after institute and training. They were like, ‘Oh, you’re fifth grade AT.’ I was in there for one day and they came to me and said, ‘Oh, actually we’re going to move you into the sixth grade classroom because that sixth grade teacher is quitting and that other teacher is going to be the sixth grade teacher and you’re going to be her assistant.’

Do they give you a curriculum or is it just like, good luck?

S: It was, so the lead teachers are primarily responsible for creating the lessons and instruction um, we have, Success has a curriculum that is delivered network wide. It’s written and delivered by the network and we access it on the Google Drive. We download it, tell it to the kids, and collect the data. So that’s how it is for Kindergarten through sixth grade and since we’re the only seventh and eighth grade in the entire network we have a little more freedom, at least we did. We wrote a lot of it with the curriculum writer cause she also has some disagreements with the way Success is run so she has been a really good advocate for us as teachers. She’s like, ‘They know what they’re doing, let them teach.’ *laughs* But we have been fighting against it.

All of the other grades, besides seventh and eighth grade, have been doing test prep since November, like the beginning of November. So that means they weren’t having English class, they were just doing stupid passages by random authors of no literary basis, quality, and just doing multiple choice questions for the past two months or so. We were able to push it off until January 22nd and we’re like, ‘We’re not doing it in seventh grade, we’re not doing it in eighth grade, we’re not doing it.’ And they’re like, ‘Okay we see we aren’t in line 100%, teachers and the network but the kids really need to do traditional test prep.’ We said, ‘No, our kids are performing far beyond everybody else. We had a 90% pass rate on the practice test we did last week, they do them every week. And our seventh and eighth grade classes compared to the fifth grade class, which only had a 19% pass rate on their practice test.’

The parents must get fed up with that.

S: Yeah, a lot of parents do but they don’t feel like they actually have a voice because they all express it to the network or the powers that be, Eva Moskowitz. And Eva is kind of demeaning when she talks to them. She talks to them as if they’re kids too.

As if she knows better than they do, type of thing?

S: Yeah. I mean that’s the general sense I’ve gotten from the network. That they don’t trust the parents to parent. Tomorrow is our practice test and they expect us to call every parent of every student that we teach letting them know, “Hey we have a practice test tomorrow. Make sure your kid is eating breakfast and coming to school on time. What time do you plan on waking up your child?”

Wait, you have to go home after this and do that?

S: Mmmhmmm, yeah.

Well, at least you probably have a good relationship with the parents at least.

S: Yeah, I have a pretty good relationship with the majority of the parents.

That must be a weird conversation to have, like, “Yeah, this is me. Make sure you wake up your kids…”

S: Right, exactly! Because if they have siblings in the school I’m like, “Hi, I know you’ve gotten this phone call three other times because you have three other kids, but I just want to know what time you’re setting your alarm.”

And we also have to send our leaders a  minute by minute plan on how we plan to spend our time in the morning with them. Like, 7:05 I’ll arrive to school. 7:10 I will collect the test booklets. 8:00 I will tell my kids to do well on the test. 8:15 we will go to the bathroom. Cause that’s the best use of my time.

They’ve shifted the schedule two weeks ago to now, we teach twice the amount of classes we were teaching. Because now instead of just having English class we now have a test prep block and a writing block of both an hour each. Kids used to have current events in the morning, we don’t do that anymore. They used to have an advisory period with us at the end of the day for 45 minutes where we would do conversations about class culture, social and emotional growth, and our roles as people, as humans, like, who do we want to be and stuff like that. They took that out. They extended all the classes by 15 minutes and now they’re an hour each. They cut their recess time down from 20 minutes to 10 minutes.

They get to school 7:45, class, first period starts at 8:05 and they don’t dismiss until 5:15. I think the reason why they have the extended school day, they say that it increases the amount of learning and adds on year of academic time that they spend in the class learning. My theory is that when they started this school they had to have some sort of incentive to parents to get them to go to this no-name school and they were like, ‘Look, you can send your kids here before you go to work and after you get out of work and you don’t have to worry about daycare.’

Huh, clever. That’s a good sell.

S: So they get breakfast, lunch, and two snacks a day.

*We discuss whether Success is non-profit, a CMO or EMO. I mention funding.

S: They do fundraise a lot and they milk these kids for all their worth. They constantly bring cameras into my classroom, camera crews being like, “Actually, could have Guyana shift this way and say what she just said again.” And I’m sitting there like…*he makes a face and rolls his eyes* Then they’re like, “Could we have Sam stand up at the front of the class and debate somebody” *laughs*

Wow, like, “No, we’re doing math right now actually.”

S: Exactly! It’s crazy. My kids are at the age now and they have teachers like myself and Elise and their eighth grade history teacher who kinda subvert a lot of what Success does and we ask them, “So, how does it make you feel when Ms. Moskowitz only comes in here when she’s trying to raise money?”

Actually, I had one of my students, she’s going onto the high school next year as an eighth grader, she’s in seventh grade now and we were hanging out on Wednesday after school, she stayed because she needed help with her work.

She says to me, ‘Mr. J, are you coming to the high school with us next year.’

And I said, ‘No, Susie, you’re going to have all new teachers next year.’

She was like, ‘Aww, I want you to come.’

And I was like, ‘I can’t do anything about that. You’d have to tell Ms. Moskowitz.’

And she was like, ‘Okay, what’s her email!’ So I gave it to her and she pulls out her iPad, which all the kids have been given and she starts emailing Ms. Moskowitz. She’s like, “Hi Ms. Moskowitz, this is blah blah blah from such-and-such school, I want all these teachers to come to the high school with me.” And she names off all the seventh and eighth grade teachers.

Eva Moskowitz replies, “I’m not sure I understand your question,” so [the student] replies, “I want to know if all these teachers can come with us when we go to eighth grade.”

Eva replies, “I’m not sure we can accommodate this request. Did you send this to John or Annie?” Annie is my principal, and John is the principal of the high school.

So, as I’m reading this I’m like, “She doesn’t realize who you are.”

And she’s like, “Wait, what?” So she wrote, “I don’t know those people. Could I have their email addresses?”

Eva Moskowitz replies, “They should be in your contacts.”

I’m finally have to say, “Susie, she doesn’t know who you are.”

She says, “I don’t understand. She always says hello to me in the hall when she comes.”

And I’m like, “How does that make you feel?” And she’s like, “Ugh, I hate her now.”

So, they’re really fed up with it. They’re like, ‘When we go to the high school next year we’re going to protest! I don’t want to wear uniforms anymore.’ I encourage them. I say, ‘You should. You should really write a petition.’

 

To be continued…