Maybe Bruce Friedrich raised the lesson-plan issue because he was so out of sync with the recent college graduates who were the other Teach for America instructors at his Baltimore high school. He was 40. He had switched to education after first running a homeless shelter and then working for animal rights.
He thought it was odd that despite the forward-looking reputation of the Baltimore district and Teach for America, beginning teachers had to construct their lessons from scratch, as they have done for centuries. They were shown samples of the state tests their students would have to take. They were told where they might find good material. But as rookies, they had little idea which of a million possible options would work.
“There were no exemplary lesson plans, no recommended class activities, nothing,” he said.
Friedrich asked about this at every faculty meeting and every conference with his Teach for America adviser. He learned that many teachers, and the organizations that represent them, don’t want ready-made lesson plans. They think it limits their creativity and turns them into robots doing whatever their department head or the district curriculum chief wants.
Friedrich began teaching in 2009 and had a splendid two years in Teach for America. In his second year, he was named the school’s outstanding teacher. But he still doesn’t understand why the district didn’t try to save him and other novices from many beginner’s mistakes by offering the best lesson plan possible for each subject.
Jeff Wetzler, Teach for America’s executive vice president of teacher preparation, support and development, showed me a 2010 survey of the organization’s beginning teachers in 30 states. Forty-one percent said they were provided with low-quality instructional tools such as lesson plans or none at all. Twenty-seven percent were provided with tools they were required to use and an additional 7 percent got tools they used because their colleagues used them. Only 15 percent said they were provided tools that they used freely because they were of such high quality. Teach for America instructors in the District and Prince George’s County do their own lesson plans.
Wetzler explained that Teach for America corps members share lesson plans on a special online portal, and often rank those they consider best. But many still feel as Friedrich did: How are they supposed to know which works when they have so little experience? Couldn’t the experts get together and give us the best possible guide?
If you are like me, and preferred learning your job by doing it rather than being told what do to, you wonder why Friedrich didn’t appreciate the freedom of making his own choices. He was the outstanding teacher in just his second year. How can he say the traditional system didn’t work?
In fact, he said, he is grateful for all that he was given, and still wants the right to choose. He just wishes his choices were better than a long list of possible lesson-plan sources.
Here’s another fact: Having watched and interviewed hundreds of teachers over 29 years, I am convinced that their jobs are more difficult than mine, particularly at the start.
I asked Friedrich if textbooks filled the gap. His school had them, he said, “but there was no requirement that they be used and no guidance regarding how to use them.”
How about his department chairman? Friedrich said she “was pulled in a million different directions and didn’t really have time for someone who was not in obvious distress,” he said. “But even if she had the time, she should not have been tasked with helping me do something that the system should have already created.”
As a grown-up starting a new job, Friedrich saw that more clearly than most. His experience exposes an issue that could use more attention than it is getting.