An (aspiring) Educator’s Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Memories

“Don’t tase me, bro!” (AKA – the Obligatory Edublogger TFA Post)

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This post is inspired by a debate I’m having with JR Atwood on playthink:

JR Atwood: TFA does not aim, I don’t think, to create lifelong professional educators. What it does aim to do is help provide the human capital necessary to at least make a significant impact in the teacher shortage epidemic and to expose high-achieving college graduates, who might not otherwise understand just how deep the public education system is fractured, to the students and families — the people! — that make-up the dire statistics that fill newspaper editorials, speeches by politicians, and on blogs like yours and mine calling for drastic education reform.

Educatorblog: I’m tired of at-risk children being life and learning experiments for affluent adults.

Rewind to two years ago. I’m sitting in my politics seminar with 11 of my peers. We’re discussing race, poverty, and education reform. We’ve just spent the past few months reading about all of the problems – the poverty, health problems, low performing schools, and violent and/or economically depressed neighborhoods that many students face. The professor suggests that TFA might be the solution to all of our problems – a bunch of elite college students can solve just about any problem. Even if TFAers don’t remain in the profession, they’ve had a valuable learning experience that will influence their leadership.  My peers nod in agreement – my school was considered to be a ‘TFA feeder’. About 15 – 20% of each class applied and many got into the program. TFA posters adorn the dining hall, dorm cork boards, and just about every other blank space.

I wasn’t nodding. I started to talk about the mixed findings that studies in peer reviewed journals have had about the impact of TFA – Kerr and Berliner (2002), the infamous Darling-Hammond (2005) study, the Mathematica evaluation (2004), and many others. I take a bold position against TFA – I say that it should be torn to shreds and its financial remains fed to other programs. My peers jump on me. To them, TFA is common sense – what could go wrong with putting the best college students in the worst classrooms? My arguments about professionalism, opportunity cost, the importance of teacher preparation, school support, and what we now call the “Bold Approach” to education reform, fall on closed ears. Cynics like me and our education heresy were public enemy number 1 – the opponents of “real change”. After 20 minutes of raised voices and finger pointing my professor changed the topic (to the Thernstroms and the Bell Curve – I would encounter finger pointing and raised voices again that afternoon).

It’s two years later and I’ve changed my position: We need to reform TFA.

The major premise of my proposed reforms is that TFA and weak schools share the same problem: the mismanagement of human capital. When TFAers and traditional teachers aren’t given the professional tools that they need to succeed, too much of their passion and intellect goes to waste. The quality of education opportunities provided to at-risk students should be the most important factor in decision-making. I don’t like the argument that the primary purpose of TFA is to expose elite students to problems in education – there are many cost-effective ways of exposing college students and young professionals to the education sector without putting the learning of students at risk. Example: my college gave me a grant to volunteer full-time at an alternative school inside of a juvenile detention center. It was almost like student teaching. I worked 30 – 40 hour weeks. I spent most of my day in the classroom. After class was over, I took an intern position with the administrative side. Over the course of the summer I gained more responsibilities. The classroom teacher was a highly qualified and caring special education instructor – the students’ learning experiences were not sacrificed for mine. This experience and many others inspired me to become a professional educator in a Title I school.

The reforms:

1. TFAers need better preparation. As any educator will tell you, scaffolds are important to learning. Scaffolds coupled with classroom experiences can jumpstart a TFAers learning process. Master teachers, administrators, and researchers should not only teach TFAers in seminars, but critique their work as student-teachers. Currently, the TFA training program is 5 weeks. I propose that TFAers make the transition from student teacher –> co-teacher –> classroom teacher in a period of 4 – 8 months. Classroom experiences must complement academic coursework about best practices, professional development, and serving the needs of learners (English language learners, at-risk students, students in special education, etc). Students could be student teachers by day and take courses in the evening (many schools of education use this model in accelerated MA+credential programs that last for 12 months). The course and clinical work completed are transferable to a traditional MA+credential program. Since this training period is so short and leads to a complete certification and MA, TFAers could still put in 2 – 5 years of service.

2. TFAers need more support. Many of my friends in TFA say that they do not receive professional support from master teachers or administrators. Even after TFAers are full-fledged teachers, they need a network of master teachers and administrators who can help them troubleshoot and develop their teaching philosophy. As a part of the TFA placement contract, administrators must promise to provide networks that include their best master teachers.

TFA could be a true reform leader – the reforms I suggest for TFA could be used in existing teacher prep  and school district induction programs. Penny for your thoughts?

In case you didn’t get the title reference (or if you did get the reference and enjoy watching the video):

Microeconomic Life Lessons: Sunk Cost

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Imagine: My friends and I are at an all-you-can-eat Japanese restaurant celebrating a tournament win. We are stuffed to capacity and cringe at the thought of putting another piece of food in our mouths. An uneaten roll taunts us from the table. The sushi can’t be wrapped up and taken home. We do what the average American would do -the ladies are spared as the big guys at the table eat themselves to near-sickness. Their argument for eating the last roll is that they would not get the full value of their initial payment if they didn’t. To my surprise – they finish the roll on the table and order a few more. Then dessert. Then someone throws up.

This episode occurred before I took my first economics course. An understanding of sunk cost may have helped our over-eaters make better decisions.

Wikipedia entry on sunk cost:

In economics and in business decision-making, sunk costs are costs that have been incurred and which cannot be recovered to any significant degree…Economics proposes that a rational actor does not let sunk costs influence one’s decisions, because doing so would not be assessing a decision exclusively on its own merits….For example, when one pre-orders a non-refundable movie ticket, the price of the ticket becomes a sunk cost. Even if the ticket-buyer decides that he would rather not go to the movie, there is no way to get back the money he originally paid.

When we saw the roll on the dinner table we had two options:

1. Eat the roll – causing discomfort.

2. Let the roll go (and learn not to waste food in the future by ordering smaller portions).

No matter which option is chosen – we have already incurred the cost of the meal. Therefore, the information about the price we have already paid is irrelevant. A rational actor would choose the option that provides the greatest happiness (utility). In our case, leaving the roll on the table with a big tip and going home with a “I just ate sushi” glow on our faces, would have been a much better alternative to leaving an even bigger tip after a watching friend throw up in a restaurant.

I’ve been taught never to waste anything (especially food) – I’ve been known to use questionable bread for French Toast, pick brown pieces of lettuce off out of the bag, and prefer information from a “smell test” to to written expiration dates. My knowledge of sunk costs has helped me realize that I should buy less and order smaller portion sizes to avoid these situations altogether. Sunk costs should be barriers to entry – people should think about costs that cannot be recovered no matter what course of action is taken and factor that into their decision-making. In situations where I have to make the choice to suffer or let it go – I’ve learned to just let it go.

This concept can be applied to other situations:

– Choosing whether or not to go to a lame party after you’ve bought the non-refundable tickets and attire.

– Deciding to downgrade to Windows XP after buying Vista (I offer my sympathy to Windows users who have to make these tough decisions…).

– Exiting the Iraq War

Written by TeacherC

16 June 2008 at 2:39 pm

The Kindergarten Existentialist

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I’ve managed to fit 17 years of school memories into a blue tub in the back of my closet. As I placed my recent acquisitions into the tub (my (sweaty) graduation gown, tassel, cum laude ropes, and cap), I found a short story that I wrote for my pre-calculus class in the 11th grade.

Ah, 11th grade pre-calc… I had an adversarial relationship with my teacher. So adversarial, that we had to have a mediated meeting with the head of the upper school and the dean of students. Our relationship has a few redeeming qualities: on high school graduation day, my old math teacher gave each student a bound book containing each of the stories she had us write about mathematical concepts. I wouldn’t have remembered the class or what I was like in the 11th grade without this book. I chose to write a short piece about existentialism – I discovered satire and existentialism in the 11th grade (I liked the fact that I could rebrand my ‘smartass’ comments as ‘satirical’ and my intellectual highmindedness as ‘existential’).

The Kindergarten Existentialist

A short story

Life, society, and math held no mystery for me until that fateful day in Kindergarten when my teacher thought it was time for her students to understand nothingness as an existential truth. Zero.

She drew a circle before the numbers 1, 2, and 3. She asked us if we knew what the circle was. Being the “smart kid” in the class, I raised my hand and confidently answered “it’s a circle!!!” The class nodded in agreement. The teacher said that I was “almost” correct. Me? “Almost correct”? – that in itself was a new concept for me. She said that this “circle” had a special meaning behind it. I was right and my mind. Clearly, she was wrong. I was never “almost correct” until I met her. She was the problem. I stared out of the window and let my classmates deal with this mystery “circle”.

She gave us a simple math problem: 1+1. The answer was not new news to me: 2. I doodled anti-teacher cartoons on my paper. She put a new problem on the board: circle + 1. Silence from the peanut gallery. She told us that the circle was called “zero”. Good hint. Without raising my hand I boldly answered: “zero 1!!!!”. She ignored my outburst and told us that this was an easier problem than “1 + 1” because zero means nothing – so, whenever we see “0+number”, the answer would be the number next to the zero. The rest of the class nodded in understanding and relief. This was much easier than the algebra homework they saw their siblings doing at home. The math lesson was over for the day. My blissfully ignorant peers rushed out of the classroom and onto the playground. I stayed behind.

I always had many questions and my teacher prided herself on her ability to answer any questions asked by kindergartners. We had a good relationship. I asked her to explain zero again. She did it the same was as before. Zero is nothing. I asked “if zero is nothing, then how come it is something we have to learn during math time?” I continued: “Why does zero need a symbol if it represents nothing?”. I violated the terms of our relationship. I asked questions that she could not answer. She could no longer pride herself on being able to answer the questions of kindergartners. She told me to go outside. I went outside and started playing because there was no point in wasting a break.

I think all of my problems with math, life, and society stem from this moment. I drew the shapes on the playground with chalk. My classmates had no answers for me. They lived for  shadows on the wall. I had seen the sun. I was Plato’s enlightened prisoner. I’ve realized that the questions I have about life stem from zero: As human beings, how can we rationalize nothing as something? What is nothing? Do we just call it ‘nothing’ so that we can dismiss it? Does empiricism make us prone to naivety? Does existence come before essence? How can something have no value if it exists? Are my feelings of nausea indicators of the existential anguish I feel about my place in society?

The existentialist does not lead an easy life. Existentialists violate the terms of healthy relationships. Have you ever met an existentialist who did not believe that they were a cut above the rest? Have you met an existentialist who didn’t use the word “existentialist” at least 20 times per day to convey their superior position in the cave of shadows?

All of my social inadequacies and math issues could be easily cured if I understood one thing: the essence of nothing (which is obviously something).


This math assignment is interesting – I wonder if I can adapt it for future lessons.

Written by TeacherC

2 June 2008 at 11:12 pm