What Teach for America Taught Us

05/06/2020


Three members of the Fishtank curriculum team spent their formative teaching years as Teach for America corps members. Here they share the high points, the struggles, and how their time in the classroom informs their approach to creating the Fishtank curriculum.

Anne Lyneis, Managing Director of ELA Curriculum, South Louisiana ‘06; Sarah Britton, Curriculum Director Elementary Math, Massachusetts ‘09; Caroline Gambell, Curriculum Director Middle School English, Connecticut ‘13

 

Fishtank: Why did you decide to apply for Teach for America?

Anne Lyneis: I decided to apply because my older brother had done TFA in the Mississippi Delta. When I went to visit him, I think for the first time I saw how different educational experiences were in the rural South in comparison to my suburban public school education. TFA gave me a chance to grow and become an educator, but also continue to develop my understanding of the educational inequity in this country. 

Sarah Britton: I ran a tutoring program in undergrad that I really enjoyed. I loved the relationships that I built with kids, and how I could influence their self confidence and their idea of what it means to be a good student, especially in math. I was hoping as a math major that I could be a math teacher—it was something I’d always thought about. I wanted to get into the classroom sooner than later, and TFA seemed like a great way to do that. 

Caroline Gambell: Unlike many corps members, I didn’t start Teach for America right out of college. I was maybe 5 years out of school when I realized that I wanted to be an English teacher. I took a job as a paraprofessional at a middle school in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, but I knew that I wanted to get trained and certified to be a full teacher. So I decided to apply to TFA, with the hope that I would be placed in Connecticut and get to stay at the same school. Luckily, it worked out!

 

Can you share a highlight of your time as a TFA teacher?

SB: I taught 7th and 8th grade math, so I had a student named Kiana for two years in a row. She came in hating math, with a failing grade on the MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System]. That failing grade had convinced her that she was not good at math. Slowly but surely I convinced her that it was possible to be good at math and change your impression of your ability. Working with her, watching her make progress and begin to believe she could become a better student were really important for me.

AL: When I was a TFA teacher, I taught 2nd grade and there’s something magical about seeing kids go from being non-readers to being readers. I loved every year just seeing the light bulbs go off in kids’ heads, seeing so many students who had been turned off from reading fall in love with it, and watching them find their place and passion in my classroom.

I have also always been a teacher who taught with relationships and I had very strong bonds with all of my kids and families. I’ve been able to stay in many of their lives, even 14 years later. Last year, I went to see some of them graduate from high school. It was crazy how many of them remembered me, and still have positive memories of 2nd grade!

CG: I love words, and so I wanted my students to love words too. Many of them struggled with reading, and so they didn’t always have positive feelings about ELA class. There was a lot of talk in our school about getting test scores up, and I knew that one of the most significant ways to build reading fluency and comprehension is through direct vocabulary instruction. So I decided that vocabulary was going to be one of my big pushes that year. I implemented Vocabpalooza: we practiced our vocabulary words every day, and then had a huge vocabulary party at the end of every semester. We played different vocabulary games and ultimately crowned two students in each class “Vocabulary Royalty,” complete with gold crowns. My students beat every other school in our network on vocabulary exams, and their ELA scores rose too. The best part was that kids all over the school started begging their teachers for Vocabpalooza too.

 

What were the major lessons you took away from your time in TFA?

SB: You really get a sense of the extent to which one teacher can make an impact, and simultaneously how little control you have over the system and the larger set of obstacles that many of the kids face. 

AL: My first two years, I learned that I could face some very hard challenges and make it through and reflect and improve and keep going back in with a smile on my face. As Sarah said, understanding what my role was—how I could control what happens within the four walls of my classroom, and how I could make my classroom a safe space for my kids was something that was challenging but also very rewarding once I figured out how to do it.

I’d say the other thing I learned in TFA was the power of planning. I was an effective teacher because there was not a moment of time in my classroom that I had not planned for. I was able to keep the kids engaged and invested in what we were doing and avoided those times in which there was nothing to do, because that’s when kids start to lose interest. When you don’t have a well-planned lesson and you haven’t thought through things, behavior management can be a nightmare.

SB: It’s interesting that you say that because in my first year, when I was really struggling with classroom management, my program director came in to observe me and he said, “We’re going to rewrite your unit plan.” I was like “What?! That’s not what I need help with. I need help with the kids!” It took me a while to see the fruits of the labor of backwards planning a stronger unit, but it really showed me the power of having better plans. Really rigorous, really engaging lessons taught well can actually have a huge impact when it comes to managing a classroom.

CG: I think probably the most important lessons I learned were about the value of persisting at something that’s really hard. In my first year, I had a student who was incredibly diligent and hard working. Things did not come easily to her, but she was just one of those kids who was so careful and determined with her work. We did weekly reflections in our advisory, and one week she surprised me by writing: “I wish I didn’t want to give up so much.” 

It was my first year of teaching, and I wanted to give up more often than I’d like to admit. I was really hard on myself about all the ways I thought I was failing as a teacher, and felt terrible that I sometimes really wanted to quit. So when I talked to that student, I gave her advice that I also needed to hear: “Don’t beat yourself up about wanting to give up. Wanting to give up and actually giving up are two different things.”

 

How would you say your TFA experience influences the decisions you make as curriculum content creators?

CG: Anne and Sarah both talked about the importance of being prepared and how your kids learn more—in part because your lessons are better, and in part because classroom management is just easier if your lessons are interesting and you know what’s going to happen next. 

The lessons that we provide require that teachers do the intellectual prep that’s necessary to be ready to teach the material effectively. Our lessons require that you read the plan and really deeply read the text. My hope is that our curriculum not only prompts kids to do important thinking, but really prompts teachers to do the necessary thinking to make sure that they’re ready.

SB: I agree—I think that where we’ve landed with our curriculum is the right level of giving teachers material so you’re not spending 4 hours a night like I was in my first two years writing things from scratch, but we’re also not giving you so much that you can just print it and go. You actually need to do some of the thinking that’s going to help your kids, and going to help you understand the content better. 

The other thing for me was just developing a new level of awareness about different people’s experiences in classrooms, with math, and at home. I’m a white woman from an upper-middle class community, and I think if I hadn’t done TFA I would not have that important lens. I strongly believe that all kids can learn and be good at math, regardless of background, and that has led me to write a rigorous curriculum with the expectation that kids will be able to access it, do well with it, and enjoy it.

AL: I think my curriculum development has been informed by the things I didn’t know or prioritize when I was in TFA. At the time, I didn’t focus on making sure that the texts that I was putting in front of my students were diverse, allowed windows and mirrors, or pushed conversations of diversity and equity and racism. By stepping back, doing my own DEI reflections, and participating in conversations about the role of curriculum in empowering kids to see themselves in diverse perspectives, I’ve been able to reflect on where I hadn’t done right by kids in my eight years of teaching.

In this role, I’ve been able to think about how to incorporate these kinds of texts into a progression over a sequence of years, and how to make a curriculum that ensures that more new teachers are able to expose kids to a diversity of perspectives and voices.

CG: Maybe it’s obvious, but I think we’re all saying that it’s really not possible to write curriculum without having been in the classroom, without having a bunch of different kids to think about as you’re writing lessons. How would my most struggling kids with IEPs respond to this question? How would my super high fliers respond? I regularly think about the students I had sitting in front of me seven years ago.