Numbers and Newark

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 07 2011

I survived institute!

Well, the subject sums it up. I survived what I have been told is one of the harder experiences I will go through as part of TFA and what different people have labeled as “boot camp”, “hazing”, “prison”, and “not as bad as people make it seem.”

My institute experience was a decent one. During institute, I think I only partially realized what I went through. Looking back, at first, it does not seem as bad as people described it to me. When I examine it closer, I realize that it was definitely exhausting. I made it a point to do almost nothing TFA related from 4:15 on Friday afternoons (when sessions ended) to Sunday afternoon or so because that was almost the only free time we got. I am the type of person who like to do things slowly and leisurely. In college, I would pull all-nighters sometimes as I preferred no sleep and some breaks to working super fast and sleeping for a couple of hours. Institute was different. Literally from 6 am to about 12 or 1 (or later) at night, I was working with little or no breaks. Now, I know people who slept by 10 and 11 pm each night so maybe I was doing something wrong and not actually working as diligently as I thought. I do know that I made pretty good use of my time by my standards though and still generally got under 6 hours of sleep per night.

I have mixed feelings about institute. In terms of training and preparing us in a very short amount of time, I think it i a fairly good model. It’s tough in the sense that you are thrown into a very real classroom with not a lot of preparation so it kind of forces you to figure out what works and such. You get a pretty good amount of feedback so if things don’t work, you can try to fix them. I don’t think it is ideal in terms of preparing teachers BUT given 5 weeks, I think it is fairly good. However, I had a lot of issues with institute as I know many other people did also. I do not think that everyone at institute, including myself, should have been teaching as soon as we did. I think  Teach for America has pretty strong applicants and so the people accepted are generally pretty capable. And don’t get me wrong, at the school I was teaching at, there were some really amazing classrooms. Some of the teachers had education experience (either as education majors/minors or through previous jobs) and those people generally did a pretty good job as far as I know. There were also some people who just naturally were really great in the classroom. However, I think other people, such as myself, definitely needed more training and for sure more practice before we stepped into an actual classroom. I understand that it is hard to kind of distinguish who should be teaching and who should not be and that they are trying to fit things into 5 weeeks. So even though I definitely do not think one week of training is ideal, I guess I see that TFA has decided it works after many years of practice and kept this model for a reason.

I do not agree with the way Week 1 of our institute was handled though. When you have so little time, I think it is wise to use that time to the maximum. Did this happen at institute? I do not think so and I was pretty frustrated by it and  I know other people were also. For example, we arrived to institute Sunday and had an opening ceremony Sunday night (and that’s all) which seems reasonable enough. But then, we had absolutely nothing all day Monday until the evening time. Pretty stupid if you ask me. I also don’t think the sessions we had were all that helpful or even relevant to our first week of teaching. There was a lot of information that I would have liked to see given but was not (like content specific stuff, a better introduction to lesson planning and classroom management, and even model lessons and examples on what to do and not to do). I did not feel adequatley prepared to begin teaching on Tuesday.

Aside from that, there were the changes that happened. Now, to some extent, I guess it was good because it did prepare us for the uncertainty and chaos and what not that I am sure will come with working in the education system. It made preparing pretty annoying though. TFA institute classrooms generally have this collaboration model. You have a “collab” and the 2 of you teach the same subject and same students. Person A teaches the first hour, Person B the second, and then you switch. You plan your classroom set-up (rules, management systems, etc.) together and when the other person is teaching, you can either help students or just prepare or whatever. Our school was supposed to follow this and so my collab and I were going to plan as such. Literally a couple of days before instruction started though, we were told this would not be the case. We would be teaching different students and so we would have to each plan separately. This meant that our students would have be getting half the expected instruction and thus half the material. People (luckily not me) suddenly were given different objectives to teach (after already preparing for one set) and different tests to administer/teach to.

That was a lot of negative stuff/things I had issues with. Honestly though, institute is not all bad. If anything, I had issues with it because I felt that student achievement for our summer students was not the  top priority (rather, training us for the fall was). The experience did teach me a lot and I know exactly what I need to improve, change, strengthen, keep, etc. for the fall. So in the sense of training and preparation, it was fairly good. It also definitely made me realize that this is an amazing movement. I met so many passionate, talented, amazing people and the few times I got to see other corps members teach, I was in awe and learned a lot. I think people have not been prepared for the craziness that institute is in the past and so we were definitely constantly prepared for the worst. As a result, I think I was able to get through it and I for sure learned a lot, not just about teaching but also about myself.

As I move towards the fall and my permanent placement, I am definitely scared and worried. I taught at a charter school this summer that had a pretty good school culture and so the students were all disciplined and fairly motivated and such. I know that my fall school is going to be a lot tougher in terms of behavioral management and since that is a huge area of struggle with me, I am kind of anxious about that. I also am very aware of the shortcomings in my classroom this summer, especially in terms of keeping students engaged and invested. That is another thing I struggle with and something I know I need to improve on. However, I am forcing myself to think about the positive also. I am lucky enough to be teaching the same subject (Algebra) in the fall as I taught this summer so that is nice. I also realize that the content is something I am pretty comfortable with and I have kind of found ways that make it fairly straightforward for students so that is something I hope to keep doing. I also have a placement teaching 9th grade math so I am happy to know that I actually have a job. The nice thing is that my school has a few corps members working there so that will be nice too hopefully.

Institute ended 8 days ago and since then I have been relaxing (which is probably why it seems so far away and also not so bad). First I went home to California to get some more of my stuff and mainly to see family and friends since I probably won’t be home until the winter.  Now I am vacationing out East with family before starting the first 8 weeks stuff. Excited to begin planning for the school year, moving into my apartment in Newark, and starting my life out here but also scared obviously. It is going to be very different but hopefully I will not only survive but also be able to make somewhat of a positive impact on my students.

I should definitely update this more often (but somehow I doubt that will work out).

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