Healthy Exit Update: Max

In October 2010, I blogged:

By embracing and welcoming the notion of teachers exiting during training (including helping them think about “what’s next” — other professions they might want to pursue), you reduce the number who quit later (at more perilous times).

Here’s a nice healthy exit story: Max. Tall dude, Harvard alum. I asked him to share his tale....

Back in 2010, Max was working for Sierra Club in San Fran.

He wrote then:

My decision to leave MTR was in some small way a result of some lingering doubts I had since that rocky fall. But mostly it came from a desire to explore other interests and passions of mine before committing wholeheartedly to a career. I think that in order to be a good teacher, you need to be ready to unflinchingly put your all into it. I wasn’t there.

If I ever go back to pursuing teaching, I’ll make that decision from the empowered standpoint of knowing that I want my life to center on my work. I decided to leave MTR right before April break, before the job search process. I finished MATCH Corps in June and felt immensely proud and satisfied with the work I had done all year.

Well, he did decide to go back to teaching. At a prep school. Like I said in my recent blog about Healthy Exit-er Steve,

Sometimes our sector gets caught up in trying to make a utilitarian calculation of how to somehow “generate the most good.” It can lead to an implication that only teaching poor kids is noble and meaningful. That is silly.

That is as true today as it was 2 weeks ago. Max, like Steve, emailed me to tell me about his teaching job. I'm sharing with his permission.

Hi MG,

Overall I'm feeling good about how the year is going. I feel like I'm learning a lot every day and have at least one or two salient moments that reveal a path to how I can improve in the future. It's definitely been a challenge, but in a different way than the way than I found at MATCH. Working at a private school offers an environment that's more forgiving of initial mistakes, but I think still just as challenging to achieve excellence.

I can't tell you how much of a help my experience at MATCH was going into this new context. So many of the same principles still apply.

Most obvious is the fact that it's still all about relationship. When I have a strong relationship with a student, I feel empowered in the classroom to ask a tough question, or push them not to opt out of an answer, or work harder on a section of classwork.

I think the absolute most rewarding and downright fun moments for me as a teacher are when I see a moment where a student goes above and beyond and then follow up with them about their success after class. I had a pretty open ended question built into my lesson yesterday on finding a theme to a set of events surrounding the US's Westward Expansion. I remember distinctly two students diving into the question and not only finding the theme, but taking it one step further to say what it showed about governments in general. What MATCH taught me is how helpful it is to tell students that you RECOGNIZE and appreciate those moments. It felt great to give them that positive feedback at the end of the day and I feel like I'll be able to continue challenging them.

Management is still definitely present with my 3 sections of 8th graders, though not so much with the two ninth grade classes I teach. I don't use anything as specific as a consequence system, but I've found that relying on pro-active moves and the tenets of presence, coupled with a few stand-by's like stop and stare has been effective.

One thing that I've found that works well for me is the power of private correction. I think I always had a tough time in MTR with stopping the flow of instruction to deliver a demerit. Now, when a student has committed a "demerit-worthy" misbehavior in my class, I usually just stride over to them and whisper privately "It's time to get it together, bud" or "1st strike, you've got one left so you better bring it." Another really useful strategy has just been taking a few steps closer to a misbehavior happening off to the side without interrupting my speech or continuing to listen to whatever student is answering a question in that moment. When you privately correct a student's misbehavior, it takes away the incentive for them to stick up for their badass image in front of the rest of the class and act out or respond unprofessionally.

I can't lie-I still feel sometimes like there's a secret that I haven't unlocked about what makes a lesson plan that truly drives engagement. It can be frustrating sometimes when I pour hours of effort into a lesson only to realize that I've made it with too many moving parts.

The other day, I thought I had a really knock-it-out-of-the-park Lesson Plan that had an opportunity for my 8th graders to get creative and represent the Missouri Compromise graphically. With my first two sections it kind of flopped. There was a momentum loss when it came to independent work.

When it came time to teach to my third class, historically the most management-y, I was nervous. I was thinking going into that last class about how I was going to need to really stick to my guns in terms of management moves and be as proactive as possible given that I had a weak lesson plan. And you know what? Because I went back to basics in terms of presence (emphasis on eye contact, getting an 'all eyes up here' moment at the beginning of class) my last section had far and away the best level of engagement on the day. That emphasis on presence created more engagement during the direct instruction part of the lesson, so when it came time to work independently, my guys were set up for success.

I think the big take-away from that experience that I want to try to rely on going into next week is to keep it simpler and really focus on the proactive and see where that takes me.

Alright, I've really written an essay here, so I'll wrap it up. What I want to emphasize is that many MATCH moves and principles are totally applicable in this prep-school environment. This career move has been good for me because it gives me the freedom to make mistakes a little bit more freely without feeling like consequences are going to be irreversible.

In the moments when classes DO get off track, I find that it's pretty easy to get things back together, since management is less of an issue. As a result I've been able to try a lot of different strategies and I feel like I'm getting a solid understanding of what works and what doesn't. I'm going to leave you with one of my favorite David Brooks articles that I think illustrates this idea,

Hope the year is going great back in Boston. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss that dirty water.

- Max