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The Crash and Burn Model

May 1, 2010

As a new teacher adviser, I have been fortunate to come across some of the most productive and committed teachers in my 15 year career, many from the Teach for America program (TFA).   In their stints at our school, all varying in length from 1-5 years so far, I have been impressed with their drive and motivation to improving students’ learning.

But at times, they have worried me.  They would show up at new teacher support meetings with bags under their eyes, from their 12 hour workdays, staying up late to lesson plan when they got home, and coming back to work early to do it all over again.  Had they been on a traditional career track, I would have advised them against such a strenuous schedule; they do the students or themselves no favors if they burn themselves out.  But these teachers were not necessarily going to be career teachers.  There was a good chance they would leave after two years.  Knowing this, I tried to monitor their mental and physical health like a mother hen, and let them proceed with their plans (with careful oversight.)

I appreciated the difference between a TFA teacher and a regular long-term substitute, the latter which my students used to get regularly before TFA’ers became available.  Teacher turnover in urban schools is still an  issue.  Like the Peace Corp, these teachers are sent to schools like mine to serve the community, and in many cases, they are making a difference.  But in the era of education reform, many are pointing to an endless (mythical?) fountain of young, energetic teachers as the solution to improving public schools today.

Is a school full of rookie teachers with caffeine in their veins the answer to all of our problems?  I do not believe so.

Teaching is an art that can only be mastered with time. There are simply many things that cannot be learned in an eight week boot camp over summer vacation.  While TFA teachers are quick studies, most of them will tell you they encountered more failure in their lives in their first year of teaching than at any other time before or after.  While many young teachers show great promise, it takes years, if not decades to hone your teacher radar, the purported “eyes on the back of your head” that allows you to truly gauge your students’ strengths, weaknesses, and penchant for mischief.

It is unethical to use and abuse young teachers just because you can.  Paul Vallas, Superintendent of Public Schools sees nothing wrong with churning through young teachers.  “I don’t want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years. The cost of sustaining those individuals becomes so enormous,” he says. There is something very wrong with a model that is contingent upon  the stress, the sleeplessness, the pressure that these young teachers experience.  Burning through teachers as a modus operandi gives cheap labor a whole new meaning, and creates a host of other physical and social problems for these teachers.

Students need stable figures in their lives, people committed to their schools, the community, and to the profession.  Students in the most challenging schools often have difficult backgrounds.  It makes a world of difference when they know an experienced educator is at the helm.  They know they will be safe in that class, that the teacher is not just there for a short run, and that the teacher had enough respect for them to make teaching a career, not just a note on their resume.  There is a world of difference between a second year teacher and a 25 year veteran.  Only with time, does a teacher get to master not just their content, but their method of delivery.  A new teacher does not know what they do not know, and all of the good ones will tell you that themselves.

It is easy to fall in the trap of over-generalizing the merits of veterans vs. new teachers.  It is not that simple.  Teachers are human beings.  Like workers in any profession, there are talented ones and struggling ones in all phases of their careers.  Teacher retention programs should be an integral part of any new education reform, because healthy, qualified, and experienced teachers are good for all students, good for everyone’s future.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 12:57 pm

    I love this whole post – you touch upon so many important points! Thank you for sharing such wonderful insight – this speaks to me especially as I begin my first year of teaching (with the intention of many more years of teaching to follow) with TFA in the fall. It’s a shame that TFA fails to preach mindfulness, reflection, and dedication to the teaching profession/career. So far, it appears to me that their obsession with achievement and results from students and teachers (over deep learning and understanding) leads to what you call a crash and burn model, which does a disservice to both students and teachers. Again, thanks for your insight, and I hope to share it with fellow CM’s during my upcoming TFA stint!

    • May 2, 2010 4:13 pm

      Alyssa, I wish you lots of luck and support as you embark on your teaching experience! Thanks for your comment; while many have grave concerns about the presence of TFA in schools, I have found these teachers willing to meet a need that no one else cared to fulfill. For that, I appreciate the time put in. Good luck.

  2. Terilyn permalink
    May 3, 2010 12:42 pm

    “While many young teachers show great promise, it takes years, if not decades to hone your teacher radar…”
    Where is the data to back this statement up? I have seen excellent teachers with innate and learned ability to effectively teach after a few years of experience. DECADES… really? I feel sorry for their students while they wait for their teacher to “hone the teacher radar.”

    “…that the teacher had enough respect for them to make teaching a career, not just a note on their resume.”
    Kudos to the teacher that continues their own education and earns a Masters and Doctorate, then after ten or so years goes on to work in higher ed to teach future teachers and share their experience. It helps keeps the lifelong learning process new, fresh, and current, dare I say relevant?

    • May 3, 2010 7:31 pm

      Observation is a form of data. I don’t think it is an unreasonable statement to assert that it takes time (as stated: years, if not decades) for a teacher to refine his/her skills. I think one of the greatest dangers to the profession is early service teachers who think they already know everything (and thus believe they have nothing to learn from any “veteran,” a word which is often spit from the side of one’s mouth as if being a veteran teacher is a curse…full disclosure, I’m in year eight, so not a neophyte, not yet a veteran). Teachers can be good, even great, right out the gate. But motivation cannot always trump experience. The combination of the two is profound.

    • May 3, 2010 8:22 pm

      Terilyn, thank you for taking the time to read my post and sharing your thoughts. The debate on teacher quality tends to rapidly crumble into absolute positions and statements. Obviously there are talented new teachers in the profession. As a new teacher myself, I achieved National Board Certification in my 4th year of teaching. Nonetheless, it was not until years later (with experience) that I realized the hundreds of different angles and approaches that when combined correctly can lead to superior teaching. When I talk about decades, I am referring to becoming a master teacher. You can be a great teacher right out of the gate; I referenced such teachers at the beginning of my post.

      The reference to a “note in the resume” refers to the reality that many TFA teachers specifically enroll in this program to boost their chances for acceptance at certain Ivy league grad schools. This is a known fact in TFA circles. It may not be politically correct to say, but it happens. Kudos to them, sure, but from the point of view of students who need the most stability in their lives, a merry go round of teachers may not be the model for all schools to aspire to. Data? That’s a whole different post. How do you measure teacher quality? Through standardized test scores? Or through student letters who thank you for the role you played in shaping their lives? Both?

      Again, the point of this post was not to say TFA was absolutely good or absolutely bad for the teaching profession. There’s a lot of gray there. But as @Mark commented, observation is a form of data. As a now 15 year vet, I have seen hundreds of teachers come and go from my schools. And having worked extremely close with new teachers, the insights I share are authentic; they may not be pretty, but it is what I have seen and experienced.

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