Stir Up the World

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 25 2011

Institute: false sense of everything

While I acknowledge that I have been drinking a lot of Kool Aid recently, and will say that this Institute experience has been preparing me for teaching, I can’t help but think that TFA is not preparing me as well as it could be to be a teacher in the fall.

1. we get unlimited copies.  I’m not complaining, but I do know that the copies I get as a teacher will be VERY limited.  I’m becoming dependent on worksheets and guided notes, which is NOT a good thing.

2. my class has all of 11 kids.  I know this isn’t true for everyone at Institute, but being able to manage 11 kids is very different from being able to manage 30 kids.

3. I teach my kids for a grand total of 17 days.

4. TFA tells us exactly what rules to implement in our classroom and gives us our own classroom management system that we have to use.

5. you only have one lesson to plan a day, so you can spend 4 hours on it if you want.

5 1/2.  you only teach for one hour a day.

6. we have no real authority over our kids.  we can’t give them detention, we can’t keep them in at lunch.  heck, we don’t even give them grades.  the worst we can do is send them to the office.

7. we’re not expected to give homework or tests, except for the pre-and post-assessments.

8. we’re expected to run our class the exact same way as the 3 other pre-novice teachers in our collab.

9. you can go make copies at 11:30 pm.

there are some things about Institute that are true to teaching, though.

1. long days.  4 am – midnight is a long day, I’d say.

2. the achievement gap is very, very real.

3. Fridays are better than Christmas.

4. classroom management is hard.

5. you can spend 3 hours planning a lesson and have it fall flat.

Don’t get me wrong — the Institute staff here is incredible.  They are all people who have been CMs, who have been in the trenches and so they know what they’re talking about.  And SO helpful.  Seriously.  Even the people that work in the copy room will stop and ask about your kids and about your day and offer advice.

I know that teaching summer school is convenient and in many ways suited to a summer teaching training program, but I feel bad for our kids!  They have to have these baby teachers who have been teaching for a grand total of 5 days, and who very haphazardly try to teach them stuff.  I know that some people at Institute end up doing a great job teaching, and I know that teachers have to start somewhere, but still.

I’ve learned a lot this week, and I know that I’m a much better teacher now than I was on Monday, but I’m still very much a novice and because everyone else I’m teaching with is a novice too, it makes us feel like we’re doing a much better job than we actually are.

TFA is having us use Lee Canter’s Behavior Management Cycle, and it seems to make sense so far.  It consists of:

1. giving explicit, clear directions.  some students misbehave, I think, because they honestly aren’t sure what they should be doing.

2. narrating positive behavior.  apparently this is like teaching magic.

3. correcting misbehavior.  non-confrontational and private.

They also have us use this behavior letter-grade system (I don’t think these letter grades actually affect any kind of academic records they have, though).  It works like this:

1st infraction: verbal warning, stay on an A.  Verbal warnings are only effective, though, if the kids know you’ll actually enforce the rest of the consequences.

2nd: “B”, take away a positive privilege.

3rd: “C”, have them go to the back of a room and fill out a “think sheet”, basically saying “this is what I did wrong and this is why I need to do things differently.” has to be signed by parents.

4th: “D”, phone call home or detention.  we can’t really enforce this because we can’t give them detention, and we can’t reach many of the parents on the phone for a number of reasons.

5th: “F”, removal from class and referral to the office.  this one is effective because the kids listen to the discipline lady (she’s amazing).  I haven’t sent anyone to the office yet, but I probably will this week.

I teach the last block of the day, which has its own difficulties, one of which is that the kids are just DONE.  We’ve been using “pro points” (going with our theme), little tickets that we hand out and that they can use to buy prizes at the end of the week, and class points that can add up to a party, and that positive reinforcement has been working really well.

I think that our kids definitely need positive reinforcement and a place where they can express themselves in a constructive way.

TFA also had us set a class-wide big goal, which we sort of did and sort of announced, but we didn’t enforce it at all.  I can see that students (and teachers) need to know what they’re working towards, but… I don’t know.  I’m not sure how I feel about big goals.

Overall, I’ve learned more in the last week than I ever thought I could learn in a week.  I’m going to lesson-plan and re-read teaching books all weekend.  I do really love teaching so far.  It’s HARD.  But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.

I just have to make sure I don’t get cocky — the circumstances I’ve already described aren’t comparable to the normal school year, and being successful at Institute does not necessarily mean you’ll be successful in the fall.  And, all things considered, I’ve only been teaching for 5 days.  I can’t make any generalizations yet.

4 Responses

  1. Alohagirl

    UGH…reading this gave me PTSD-like flashbacks! I hated that management system at Institute. All those letter “grades” for behavior- and we were supposed to be constantly running over to the chart and moving their little clothespins down – and then remembering to give the class points and handing out tickets – I just could not keep on top of it when I was trying to TEACH at the same time. WAAAYYY too complicated for a real classroom. Well, maybe it might work in elementary, but really – if you have 20 or 30 kids in a class, it’s gonna be a lot. And I teach secondary and in that case, this management system just a baaaaaad idea.

    There are a lot of other management styles out there – TFA likes Lee Canter (he actually came to our school at Institute last year and did this Secret Service-esque audio/earpiece real-time advice thing with some of the CMs as they were teaching- hysterical) but there are some very different styles (I like Kagan and Glasser). So don’t feel pressured to stick with just what they hand you at Institute- when you go into your class in the fall, its your class!!!! so find what works for you. And simplify, take what you like and modify what you don’t. It sounds like you already are instinctively going toward the positive reinforcement – I’d say that’s probably the most worthwhile part of all it, so you’ve already started to figure it out!
    =:) good luck!

  2. Teach For Us Community Manager

    Your post has been featured on the slider at the top of the Teach For Us homepage. Check it out at

    Keep working hard at Institute, and yes, the last teaching block definitely is the most challenging.

  3. Gary Rubinstein

    Canter system sounds like a mess. Anything that begins with a verbal warning and no consequence is doomed to fail. Even ignoring first infraction is better than that.

  4. Beth

    Those are exactly the issues that make me question how Institute is designed and run. Although it sounds like it can be exceptionally helpful, if taken with a grain of salt.

    Narrating positive behavior was surprisingly effective for me, even with older kids. Also always following through with consequences. That was huge.

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"If one desires to 'stir up the world,' it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story's end can forsake its beginning and its middle." -Joshua Wolf Shank on Abraham Lincoln