Raw Emo: Choosing A Teaching Approach

1. First, the punchline: Our first cohort of teacher trainees was 2008-09. Their first teaching jobs in various schools were 2009-10.

We're tracking down how this first cohort of teachers fared. Ideally, we'd use value-added data. It's not easy, for various statistical reasons.

Still, we've gotten a couple nice nuggets of information. Like this, from a Chicago charter school principal who hired Laura Rincon (pictured):

Laura had the highest gains in the entire nine school network for English during her first year here. Her EXPLORE to EXPLORE yearly gains totaled 3.9 points where the network average was 2.4 and the national average is 2 points.

Whoa. A rookie teacher generates the highest gains across all teachers within 9 schools? Now we're talking.

2. The Present

I asked Laura R: does she love her job? Her kids? Her school? Is she a No Excuses style teacher? Here's what she said.

I'm ridiculously happy at my job. My students are hard-working, compliant, and SO much fun. I also knew within the first week that I was meant to teach freshmen...and Pritzker was my school.

My first semester was interesting because I was one of the strictest teachers in the building, and everyone who observed me just kept saying "I couldn't do that. You just have that personality."

I wanted to scream "NO! I had to be trained! I was a goofy, engaging, 'fun' teacher who got kids to learn because I was entertaining. I have to FORCE myself to be this way because if I'm doing something, I'm doing it right. But sometimes I feel like a robot!"

They didn't buy it.

Then, right around January, something clicked. I was able to be strict AND goofy. My kids were learning AND having fun. I could give a student a demerit, but he knew I was fair and -- more importantly -- cared about him as a person. I finally merged the "me" teacher with the MATCH Teacher Residency teacher, and it felt incredible.

I'm so thankful that I forced myself to master the structure first because I see those teachers who run solely on engagement and relationships with the students. They're EXHAUSTED at the end of the day.

I'm not. I'm a No-Excuses teacher, and life is so much better over here.

So that's the punchline.

3. Now, the background:

Laura R had some major issues with our approach during the first few months of training.

Basically, we say to people: "We're not right for everyone. At some point fairly early on, you either need to buy in 110% to every single thing we say, or you should leave our program -- on very friendly terms."

If trainees are on the fence, we encourage them -- with lots of success -- to be open with us about that. And then ultimately we help them choose sides -- ALL in, or out.

With her permission, Laura R was very much on the fence after 3 full months of training. What she wrote:

I feel like every week I go back and forth: I definitely want to teach next year vs. I DO NOT want to teach (or at least not at a No Excuses charter school).

At that point, Laura actually preferred her work teaching/tutoring in a traditional, highly chaotic school. That is, our trainees work in 2 different environments. One is our charter school. The other is a traditional school that district officials have identified as unusually low performing. Laura described it this way:

Twice a week I lead group discussions at [Chaotic School]. I love it. Without this, I would want absolutely nothing to do with teaching now.

But after two wonderful days there (where yes, there's usually an instance of falling asleep/swearing/zoning out) I remember why I loved this. These are students who don't HAVE to listen to me, whose grades aren't REALLY affected, and who don't have ANY behavior consequence that I know of. And yes, much of the learning is driven by their questions. And there's no structure. But they're happy. And I'm happy.

So pretty clear, right? Three months into training, she says she does NOT want to teach in a No Excuses school. She prefers a traditional, chaotic school -- because it makes her feel like "herself"...i.e., never disciplining kids.

She continued:

I hear about other MATCH Teacher Trainees injecting humor and personality into their lessons, while remaining firm. That still doesn't really happen for me. It's one thing if it were paying off, but I'm not seeing it pay off yet.

So do I tough it out until August and work at a traditional public school next year? What a waste of this program.

Do I suck it up and try to be this very demanding kind of teacher, that MATCH Teacher Residency coaches for? I definitely have ups and downs.

Do I really need to go through this to TRULY close the achievement gap? Or do I just turn into a jerk when I'm wielding demerits? I'm doing something so wrong, and I'm losing the desire to pinpoint it - let alone fix it. Frustrating. I've never been this whiny in my life.

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4. What have we learned in 2 years of MATCH Teacher Residency? A hesitant trainee can either:

A. Go "All in" as they say in poker. "Marry" the program and its philosophy. Like Laura R did at some point during the program.

B. Or with our utmost respect -- not do our program. I'm not sure how many teacher training programs, whether Ed Schools or alternative, are permitted to do anything except try to cling to everyone who enrolls. That's what I'm frequently told by people who run these programs: their funders think of attrition-during-training as a bad thing.

Thankfully, our backers are different. They really don't care so much about raw numbers of teachers generated, and they agree that healthy attrition is a good thing. The goal is how many unusually effective rookie teachers we can produce.

C. The only non-option: sit on the fence and 2/3 commit to our way. Or as we joke, try to "date" our approach, or even vie for a "friends-with-benefits" relationship.

The trainee ends up with the worst of both worlds: both ineffective and unhappy. Commit or don't, two great options. It's the middle one that doesn't work.