A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 10 2009

Iron Teacher

People here tell me they’re impressed that I’ve done an Ironman Triathlon. In response, I tell them I’m impressed that they’ve completed a week of Institute.

(Although we’ve technically finished week two of Institute, this week was significant as the first week of actual teaching.  I took control of a classroom of a dozen high school English students.  My goal for the summer is to guide 100% of my class to their “Summer Achievement Goals”.  When my class average on the diagnostic is 39% and the average summer achievement goal is a 70%, I don’t feel like much is on my side.)

It’s really no exaggeration–this has been the toughest week of my life.  I’m sure I speak for many others here, too.  I almost never cry of frustration, but I was pretty darn close this week.  I’ve seen my fair share of breakdowns and heard the sobs that reverberate throughout the Temple dorm more times than I would like to remember.  The TFA rumor mill has it that 40 or so of the 600 corps members (6.6%!) at Philly have already flat-out packed their bags and left.  After committing so much to get this far, it’s not an easy thing to decide to quit. But people have done it.  Many of them.  The terrible thing is that the mass exodus creates a ripple effect, because the remaining members of a collaborative have to plan and deliver the lessons of the fallen.  This is not good for morale.

But in my first week, I’ve discovered three interesting things about the Institute process:

First, smart planning is the key to success. The execution–the actual delivery of lessons in the classroom–is nothing compared to the intense planning necessary for each hour of instruction.  Each day, we have anywhere between 4-10 hours of curriculum and literacy sessions, classroom management seminars, professional development workshops, diversity sessions, all-school meetings, etc. This is not to mention the average 5 hours spent each night planning lessons–final plans for the following day and drafts for the week ahead.  My alarm each morning goes off at 5:05am, but I don’t collapse into my bed before 1am.  That’s not enough sleep.  It’s hard to fathom that, given all of this toil, I only spent 6 hours at the front of the classroom this week.

It’s no surprise, then, that the planners do well here and the procrastinators don’t.  It’s actually taught me how effective it is to plan.  Indeed, in my writing, I’ve never been one to outline; I feel like going with the flow and just typing away makes the most sense.  Yet, Institute is showing me that putting effort into a strong “outline” makes “writing the paper” almost effortless.  We’re learning to spend a lot of time–perhaps too much!–time creating a detailed map of where we want to take our students and less time fumbling in the dark and on-the-go.

It’s funny to think that I actually have good planning skills locked up in a portion of my brain that only gets used when I compete in athletic events.  When I was preparing for the Ironman, I created a detailed training plan a year ahead and stuck to it.  By sticking to my schedule–obviously adjusting from time to time when necessary–I found myself completely prepared and confident on race-day.  The actual 12-hour endurance event was a breeze relative to the almost 10,000 miles I rode on my bike, the hundreds of miles of pavement I pounded, and the thousands of meters of water I pulled through to prepare for the 140.6 miles of the triathlon. The day of the Ironman was enjoyable and not excruciating.  So lesson one, which applies to all walks of life, is: “plan well and success will come to you.”

Second, Institute, no matter how many criticisms get thrown at it, is a truly effective teacher-training experience.  We spent our entire first week attending at least 9 hours of seminars, workshops and sessions each day, on topics as varied as “Plan: Objective-Driven Lesson Planning” or “Literacy: Text Demands” or “Invest: I Want (Building Students’ Value)” or “Diversity, Community and Achievement: Working with Families” or “Execution: Asserting Authority”.  That first week was tough to handle because we were spending so much time talking about theory and spending zero time applying any of our knowledge.  The consensus among corps member was that TFA had gone overboard with the number of sessions.

Yet, having just completed my first week, I’ve discovered how helpful all of those sessions were, even if I haven’t explicitly drawn from any of them.  I feel well-equipped and confident as a teacher.  I feel like I am capable as a manager of student behaviors.  I feel like I know where I want my students to go and how I will get them there.  I feel like I understand the cultural sensitivity necessary to build trust with my students.  I have it all–and it’s only because I went through that first week of theoretical training.

This is only one example of something about Institute that I absolutely hated but have now come to love.  I like to be a critic, but I realize now that my criticism of Institute came too soon.  TFA has run Institute so many times, and they are always looking to improve.  i now feel confident that almost everything that we are doing is ultimately a long-term gain.  The second lesson: “trust the system (or, at least, give it the benefit of the doubt for as long as you can).”

Third, struggling through a process like Institute is worth it if you are doing it for something that you believe in and are passionate about.  I haven’t necessarily bonded closely with all of my students yet, but I know that I cherish every single minute I have with them in the classroom each day.  I’ve learned to build my trust with them by providing as much positive encouragement as possible.  Many of these students receive very little of this (e.g. WR has no father).  When I feel like quitting–and, believe it or not, the thought has lurked in my head throughout this week, attempting to surface when I am weakest–I think about the students that are looking up to me as “Mr. K” for guidance and support.  And then I realize I’m doing it for them: I write each excruciatingly-tedious lesson plan knowing that I am doing it for my students.  And I won’t give up, no matter how difficult things become.  Lesson three, then, is: “if you believe in something, you’ll do whatever it takes–no excuses.”

I look forward to a restful weekend.  Hopefully I will get a chance to talk about and do something other than teaching.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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