Along The River

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 23 2011

11 weeks in Memphis

So far, no one has asked me for my thoughts on this, but in case they ever do they can find them here.  We have had at least 10 CMs (only counting people who actually had jobs) quit in the first 10 weeks of school. Apparently, this is extremely uncommon for this early in the year. I think Memphis had about 160 placed 2011 CMs, so about 6% have quit. So the question is, why? Here are my hypotheses.

CMs did not feel prepared to manage their classes: At institute, our classes were, for the most part, under 15. Many of us got to Memphis and stood in front of a room of 30+ students. We had TAL1 on the first Saturday of school. I don’t remember the focus but I know it was NOT management, which is what so many people were struggling with. The best help I’ve gotten with management is from someone from the district, not from TFA.

CMs did not feel prepared to make long term and unit plans: The overwhelming feeling can sink in pretty quickly when you don’t know what to teach next and don’t know how to break anything down. Institute provides you with your objectives and their sequencing so you can learn how to plan but the bigger picture is saved for Orientation. But during Orientation we had a really poor introduction to breaking down standards. We were basically told to go at it with little information about how. Additionally, since many of us did not have jobs we were breaking down some random set of standards in our placement area.

CMs felt overwhelmed by all of the things they needed to do: There is almost a tug of war for our time, between what our schools expect of us and what TFA expects of us. TFA’s focus is on vision and changing your students’ life path while our schools need us to teach content so that students can show mastery on the TCAP. These two things can and should work wonderfully well together but to throw it all on a new teacher leads to a feeling of drowning. We have to figure out how to develop a grading system and plan a week in advance while at the same time weave our vision into our classroom every day and invest our students in the big goal.

One of my suggestions would be to hold off on the vision-setting. 11 weeks in I realize how incredibly important a vision is to changing your students’ life path, but at Orientation all I wanted to know was how to teach and how to manage my classroom! Additionally, your vision really needs to be specific to your students. You need to get to know them, spend some time with them, before you can set goals for them. What my students need more than anything in the world is self-confidence, so that they don’t feel the need to “check” each other and respond to “checking.” I couldn’t have known that before I met them, before I even had a job.

TFA Memphis did a great job at Induction. In fact, I think the corps culture we developed at Induction and strengthened at Institute has saved TFA Memphis from losing even more corps members in the first 11 weeks. But I think priorities for Orientation and the first 8 weeks need to be rethought. We need a foundation in teaching before a foundation in leadership will mean anything to us.

11 Responses

  1. katb

    this sounds A LOT like the situation in the St. Louis region as well. I think your critique is right on.

    • kc

      I agree. Drowning her in STL but keeping my head above water!

  2. KH

    Although I agree with some of the points you make, this is the case for many CMs in every region – everyone feels overwhelmed by the volume of work to do, classroom management, and lack of knowledge on how to plan. What is it about this year and specifically in Memphis that makes our attrition rate higher? I think the causes you’ve pulled out account for a normal attrition rate, not one that is as high as we have had. What are your thoughts?

    • CY

      I can’t really answer those questions fully, having not experienced life in any other region. I suppose the placement landscape has a lot to do with frustrations about Orientation. I’m not entirely sure why the attrition is so high, if what we are dealing with is normal. I’ve certainly had my struggles and thought about quitting but this experience isn’t entirely different from what I expected it would be.

  3. Kayla

    I feel like this is the KC region to a T.

  4. CY

    So to Kayla and katb, do you all have a lot of people quitting as well? Or are people dealing with the challenges pretty well? How big are the KCMO and STL corps?

  5. MeghanK

    Maybe it’s worse in Memphis because these new evaluations are freaking everyone out – including administrators who have less time to support teachers and deal with discipline because of the enormous number of observations and post observation conferences they have to do this year. The new evaluations are also causing an all-time record low of morale among veteran teachers – who in turn have that much less encouragement to give to newbies.

  6. Kayla

    Lots have been quitting here in KC. They usually only bring in about 50 corps members each year and this year they brought in 150. Our superintendent, who left 2 weeks into the school year, made the decision. Our district also just lost its accreditation about a month and a half ago. There are a lot of messes going on.

  7. Andrew

    It’s really disturbing that “what to teach next” is an issue at all. The district has an obligation to provide a curriculum and materials that teachers may use in meeting the goals if they so choose. Throwing one more thing on the plates of overburdened teachers is a failure on the part of management.

    • CY

      The district provides a curriculum but it’s not detailed in terms of daily objectives; it’s mostly just based on the standards.

      • Andrew

        They should have much more. You shouldn’t have to go searching. You may choose to bring material you find, but the district should have done the hard work to help you out.

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