Though many things have happened since then, I feel that I can’t get to any of that until I explain where the month of July went. And there is a good explanation. A week ago, I finished what is known in Teach for America as “institute”—which was really odd to call at first considering how my church uses that word. It is an intense training period (read: boot camp J) where the goal is to become “basically proficient” in the core areas of the Teaching As Leadership rubric. If you really take the time to read said rubric, becoming proficient in any sense of that word in 5 weeks is a daunting task. But I was excited: this was one of the things I was looking forward to when I accepted Teach for America’s offer. The whispered rumors of the intensity of this experience was the stuff of legend: days so long that you have to count the hours by taking off your shoes, work so hard that the question is never “what am I going to be doing tonight” but rather, “how will I be able to do all of this tonight”, constant supervision and feedback, and—this was actually the most frequent warning when people who knew found out that I was doing TFA—a complete lack of sleep.
It lived up to its reputation in terms of difficulty.
Institute was the third most grueling time of my life (and I really like to think that I have tried to lead a pretty intense life). I woke up at 5:30AM every day and would often not get to bed until 1:30AM. And on what, you may ask, is all of this time spent? An average day would consist of waking, getting ready, rushing (literally, I ran every day) to the dining hall to grab breakfast and pack your lunch, riding the bus to school, going over announcements, prepping the classroom before the kids arrived, picking up the kids and sitting with them during breakfast, coteaching math and/or language arts, lead teaching a lesson in either of those areas, lesson planning for said teaching opportunities, and, by far the most time-consuming overall… sessions. Sessions were training meetings of various sorts. Workshops. Lectures mostly, but with a college “class” feel. The content was actually quite awesome. We covered topics such as effective lesson structure (Introducing new material with reinforced key points, guided practice, independent practice, etc.), scaffolding, establishing a long-term vision with aligned(hugely important concept) intermediate goals and short-term lesson objectives, effective testing (exposes the precise point at which gaps in knowledge occur), behavioral management (they taught us an amazing system by Lee Canter. Truly exceptional. Ask me about it sometime. This easily makes the top 5 list of take-aways from institute), building a classroom culture of achievement, diversity awareness, and many of the million other things that make up a successful teacher. We also had administrative info sessions and optional workshops and activities peppered throughout the evenings. In a few short weeks, I really do feel like I have a “new sight” as to what it means to teach effectively.
I am conflicted in describing my feelings toward what I have experienced during institute. On one hand, I am extremely fulfilled by the relationships I made, the substantial progress I was able to make as a teacher and in my 4th grade classroom (man, I am going to miss those kids! I feel like I left just when I had a solid relationship with my kids and the progress was most palpable…), and the golden nuggets of knowledge imparted to me in the sessions and from the experience overall. But on the other hand, I am extremely relieved to be rid of the 20-hour days, burdensome workload, rigid lesson plan deadlines (another frustrating thing was that there would often be up to 5 assignments due—sometimes a week before they would actually be given—and they told me ‘no’ when I asked if I could have more time for the sake of a lesson I had to give the next day), and the sessions that were so extraneous as to make me feel like they amounted to little more than “seat time”—the very thing that Teach for America is fighting against. Don’t misunderstand me, I repeat that I learned a lot from institute and I consider it a valuable experience. What other method can boast that it bring someone from level zero to mostly confident and adequately equipped to handle a full classroom in five weeks? I simply lament that it did not leave us superiorly equipped and fully confident. In short, it did not live up to my conception of a world-class-intensely-rigorous-yet-always-relevant-and-worthwhile experience. It was more like a lots-of-people-with-good-intentions-trying-to-fulfil-a-plan-that-looks-great-on-paper-but-never-stopped-to-ask-themselves “how does our approach avoid the pitfall of burnout?” Sigh. Now, I’ll try not to commit the classic flaw of complaint without remedy. How would I change it?
First: don’t have us do anything that isn’t modeled first. (The first time a lesson like one we would teach to our students was modeled to us wasn’t until week 3). And focus on one part at a time, with time for practice on each piece. E.g., instead of having a week and a half of sessions—with each session presenting a new piece with the idea that we will have been exposed to all the most essential pieces of information before the first time we teach—have us learn one principle (that has been ideally modeled to us already), then practice it (yes, even before the kids get there—adults can pretend to be students very effectively) with feedback. It will be a slower pace, with the consequence that we will be in front of students before we will have even heard of some important concepts, but it was not uncommon to hear from other corps members, even long in to institute, that they have ‘no idea what they are doing’. And, speaking for myself, I would much rather be thrown in to a circumstance where I have a firm grasp on a few principles than a shaky grasp on a dozen. It was like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.
Second, cut the presentation time of the sessions in half—in an ideal world, by up to two thirds. I think doing so would force a focus on what is actually the most important. The people in Teach for America are smart. We know how to take notes and retain information. We lose focus, though, when you ask us to reflect for 15 minutes on something as self-evident as why you might have to make adjustments for special ed students or English language learners—we get the why, just give us the how. I would likewise say that much of the investment aspect itself can be trimmed—if you tell us it is important, we’ll believe you. You are the experts. We have no experience. We are eager to learn and follow what you say is best. But I think I speak for everyone when I say that we would much rather save the 20 minutes of class discussion on why aligning our lessons is important, and be given that time to actually work on aligning a lesson plan that is due that day. This is actually what happened later on at institute: we were given much more time to work—and that is an example of one of the qualities that makes Teach for America world class. I have never been in an organization that cared as much about gathering survey information, and then actually implementing it. On several occasions, a suggestion was made and the team leaders implemented the idea the same day. Truly exceptional, and it inspires my loyalty.
Third, be more prepared. I’m not talking about the logistical problems. Those are completely forgivable (and should always have our sympathy. I’ve tried to plan events like this—it is extremely daunting and my hat is off to anyone who can achieve just a semblance of smoothness). I’m talking the presentation of the sessions themselves. The presentations should be solid weeks before institute begins (on not a few occasions it was painfully obvious that the presenters had prepared the bulk of their lesson the night before—and it really made me suspicious that the ‘reflection’ time was really a way to ‘fill time’ because they couldn’t plan something more rigorous). Make a rule that you have to do a complete run-through to a senior adviser before you give it to the room full of 60 people or something. It will pay off hugely. If we dream of every child having an excellent education, it necessitates that every training minute be treated as sacred. In my case, unfortunately, it felt like a lot of my time was wasted.
Fourth, change the deadline schedule. This suggestion is less certain to help, depending on how the structure is changed. If we are given more time to work during sessions, for example, the idea that a lesson plan for next Tuesday be due on Wednesday might be an effective plan, but for me—as the structure was—, it was overload. I would have thrived on a system akin to something like, instead of 5 things due two or three times a week, 2 things were due every day: tomorrow’s final lesson, and the rough draft for two days in advance. I believe the system was set up to ease the burden of the ones giving feedback on our rough drafts, but it felt like a reverse-psychological ploy to keep us from planning all our lessons the night before because we couldn’t be trusted—especially when I was not granted an exception on a due date that was so far in advance.
Fifth, make the support system “go to the teacher” more. This is another one that perhaps does not need to be changed. My situation was probably just an exception. The support system is actually quite a strong point of Teach for America overall. They set up, literally, an entire K-12 library that corps members can go for materials and help from experienced teachers (I used it every day, and was probably the biggest reason that my successful lessons were effective). In addition, we have our session specialists that often offer extra help, and plenty of online resources that are actually quite helpful and easy to find. But in my case, our adviser took the attitude of “if you need help, ask me.” No, not effective. Asking for extra help should always be assumed, but there should be office hours that, in contrast to the mandatory observation debrief meetings (at least in my experience, basically a work performance critique with your adviser), are open, low-pressure times to ask for any sort of help you desire. Only once did my adviser offer such a time, and it was so far in to institute that we had already turned in several lesson plans (which offered no formal opportunity to be helped to write them—I literally felt told to build an ark with nothing in my arsenal but trees and a hammer). But that one on one session where I was able to ask such fundamental questions such as “could you show me how would you do this?” put me worlds ahead. It should be a central feature of the program, not a tertiary event (on the flipside, though, that is what the real world is like: if you don’t ask for help, you are a fool to think that someone will come to you—to make yet another counterpoint, I personally believe that is one reason why organizations are so inefficient).
Whew, enough about institute. In short, it was hard. And now you know why I haven’t written in over a month. And I want you to know that I was actually very calm and happy through it all: I honestly kept the mindset of “I am doing the best I can for the kids—there is a lot of pressure on me, and I know I can’t be perfect in keeping up with it all, but I am going to do what is most important. One day at a time.” And I made it through just fine. I just think it didn’t have to be so cumbersome.