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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 04 2011

Institute, Week 1

Four days ago I sat down to work on this blog. It went about this well:

I started writing my first lesson plan today. Well, hopefully by the time I post this, it will be ‘I wrote…’

In some respects, I’m more energised and…

Within the week, I’ll be in front of a class and expected to be able to teach them. It’s not the first day that worries me. It’s the actual teaching that’s going to come later. Honestly, it’s not even that. It’s the completely unforeseeable circumstances with a potentially huge range of consequences that I don’t even know how to start planning for.

Yeah. That’s it. We’re going to call it a huge success and leave it at that. Anyone, the first week of Institute looked roughly like this, with variations on times, lengths of times, and locations:

5.30 Wake up, breakfast, etc…

7.30 Start sessions
Spend hours being taught how to be a teacher, according to TFA’s hard-and-fast, thoroughly tested methodologies. Oh – and just so you know, guys, the Los Angeles Institute is trying out a whole bunch of things that have never been done before at Institute. Now feel the reassurance when everyone tells you, repeatedly, to not worry and trust the process. It’s definitely logos in action… Aristotle would be proud… (How well does the internet convey sarcasm, do you think?)

11.30 Lunch

12.30 Go back to more sessions
I think a medical research lab should come in and do a study on TFA Corps Members at Institute. After this past week, I’m fairly certain that Restless Leg Syndrome can be induced by prolonged sitting. And it brings a new sense of clarity to ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ – if the founding fathers spent nearly as long sitting in close contact discussing detail after detail, they were probably intimately familiar with it as well.

5.00 Gym

6.00 Dinner
Okay, so I sound like I’m complaining. I might be. A little. Here is where I point out that, despite my complaints, I’m having the time of my life. Maybe it’s being around other people who are just as driven (whether by choice or by force…) or maybe it’s being in a new setting doing something that I truly relish doing, but I’m thriving. In my own way.

7.00 Work for tomorrow’s sessions

It’s been intense. Between Management Plans, Investment Plans, Lesson Plans, the list goes on, the fact that I’m just learning all of this isn’t exactly helping things along quickly. Last week was, quite genuinely and completely without my usual hyperbole, the longest week of my life thus far. The notion that two weeks ago I had not even met these people and hadn’t even started all this is surreal and disquieting. It feels like so much longer (and simultaneously not very long at all, as such things are apt to be). Plus the amount of self-realisation that has happened in the past two weeks, it’s certainly an eye-opener. And possibly the best people-watching environment I have ever come across. Seriously.

For as long as I can remember, my father has been telling me that I like to make things difficult for myself – taking the “hard” way out. For as long as I can remember, I’ve fought with him about why he has a problem with my desire for challenges – given how many people try to make their children work hard. (Admittedly, this has not always gone well for me, but that isn’t the point of this commentary…) Being here, at what my mother summarised as “boot camp for teachers” after my descriptions – and I’m inclined to agree with her – I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not the one spending the longest time working, or the one working the hardest. Not to say that there’s any problem with being either of those; I spent a notable portion of my life in one or both of those roles. More that there’s an almost I-told-you-so self-satisfaction of knowing that I may enjoy a good challenge, I may deliberately seek out difficult situations, but I do not (always) do it blindly. And that I’ve learned how to pace myself, to only bite off as much as I can chew. There’s a solace in that, in knowing that I’m not at risk of working myself into the ground.

(Plus there’s this little fact that approximately 15 people, mostly from the Bay Area Corps if hearsay is accurate, have already quit Teach for America after week 1 of Institute. Now, I find this both baffling and rather sad for them. Apart from the fact that they ought to have known what they were getting into, I can’t imagine giving up on myself – or on the students – at this point in the game. Besides, I feel like, for all that I’ve complained and worked, it really hasn’t been that bad. Not that I am in any way, shape or form qualified to pass judgement on their situation.)

It helps that I’m loving what we’re doing. Especially now that we’ve actually started writing lesson plans and doing the real teacher work. I say this two days before I ever see a student or stand before an occupied classroom. But I have a classroom, a chemistry classroom at Hamilton High School where I will be teaching 10th grade English with three other Corps Members. It’s still a classroom. And my whole being is thrumming with anticipation. I want to see my students. I want to learn who I’m teaching – the what is only a fraction of what I’m facing – and I’m all the more excited about getting back to my classroom and my students in Kansas City because of it. (Let’s not even get into the ‘jumping ahead’ implications of my already thinking about post-Institute, if you don’t mind.)

The system, which is apparently a novel one for TFA Institute, is one of Instructional Leaders. It’s set up rather like any other school system, which makes it an odd thing to think that it’s new for Teach for America, wherein each teacher has a couple of subjects they teach and the students switch teachers for each topic. Apparently the old(er) model is of CS’s (I can’t remember what the initials are for… sorry.) where one instructor kept all the same students for all 5 weeks and taught them all the subject areas. The plus and minus sides of that are the quality of one’s Institute experience is then uniquely reliant upon the quality of one’s instructor. I’m quite pleased that I don’t have to deal with a single instructor the entire time. Even if I had the best instructor who will ever have existed, I would still be lacking the variety in teaching styles that comes with multiple instructors.

I can’t wait to start discovering what my own teaching style looks like. In one of our sessions we took one of those little A/B/C quizzes to determine our rough teaching style. The options were, ultimately, showman, relationship builder, and tough love. I “tested” right on the cusp of relationship builder and tough love. Upon informing my little sister of this, she promptly began laughing. She’s under the impression that Institute is doing nothing more than teaching me “official” ways to be even more like me. My best friend agrees. And they both laugh. I’m happy I have them, because those conversations always end in a lot of laughter.

At any rate, in two days I will be teaching. (Not that I necessarily group ice breakers in with the actual teaching of lessons) I will not be co-teaching, I will not be assistant teaching, I will not be student teaching. I will be teaching. I may be one of four teachers in that classroom over the course of the day, but I will be up in front of the classroom all on my own. Help will be forthcoming for planning and grading and the like, but the actual teaching is all on me. It’s exhilarating. I might be getting even less sleep this week than last week. I might be even more desperately thrilled about the arrival of the weekend. I might be even more stressed, physically and/or emotionally.

It doesn’t matter. There’s a contentment that’s keeping me grounded, or uplifted. There’s a near-complacency in the reality that’s keeping me motivated and driven. In inverse order, or in no particular order: It’s not about me, it’s about the students. And even if it was, I’m happy. Bring it on, week 2.

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