Notes from the Field: Ryan Biner of TFA Talks Teaching Quality

Ryan Biner is a 2009 Teach For America corps member. He teaches English Language Arts for students with special needs at a charter school in north Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. This summer, he worked with the Teaching Quality team at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy.

This past February, I remember thinking: “Hey! I finally get it.” I had finally figured out how to teach. This wouldn’t seem so bad if the school year started in January. But, in the 5 months previous to my enlightenment, I had been “teaching” my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders much to my own exhaustion and frustration, and unfortunately, not so much to the benefit of my students. I cared, and I planned, and I led my classes, and I never felt like I was doing a poor job. But if I ever spoke the words “quality” and “teacher” about myself, they were at least 6 sentences apart. By June 13th, the last day of school, I didn’t think I was a bad teacher or that I had wasted my students’ time, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I could do much, much better.

I landed a summer research job with the Center for High Impact Philanthropy in early June, just before the end of the school year. As I stumbled to the finish line, I couldn’t help laugh at the irony of myself working as an authority on “teacher quality” in the weeks to come. As I began my work at CHIP, I immediately observed that my own experience as a first year teacher was not only extremely common, but also that there are millions of people in this country whose livelihood comes from helping teachers like me and more importantly, the children we teach.

Going all the way back to the father of education research, James S. Coleman, we have known that a high quality teacher can singularly change a student’s life. Unfortunately, as long as we have known this, we have also seen America’s ineffectual public school system reach crisis mode, with shortages of quality teachers and a dearth of college-ready high school graduates. I had always wanted to be a teacher, but these realities pushed me to apply to Teach For America for an opportunity to serve where the American Dream has largely become a nightmare—our inner cities. In my school, I saw teachers and administrators come to work every day, believe in our students, and work relentlessly to hold them to high expectations. It made me feel proud that so many people willingly toil in relative anonymity to reach for something that they believe in.

In my work at CHIP, those feelings of pride were amplified as my point of view zoomed out to the level of nation-wide education reform. Starting with my co-workers and supervisors at CHIP, I see a group committed to social justice that works everyday to mobilize those with power and influence. In early August, I had the pleasure to see Dave Levin (founder of KIPP schools and Teacher U) inspiringly lead a class of first-year teachers in New York City public schools. I investigated the success of Uncommon Schools in New York and New Jersey, who are giving their students a brighter future. I read about the Duval County Public School system, which has overhauled their professional development program to ensure that each of their students is being taught by the best teacher possible.

During my time at CHIP, these people and organizations just scratch the surface of what I was able to learn about this summer. And what I was able to learn about this summer just scratches the surface of the rising tide of reform-minded educators who will change our schools for the better. When I think about my second year as a teacher, I can see the words “quality” and “teacher” inching closer together. I know that when they finally meet, it will be thanks to the millions of people across the country that work every day to change the face of education.