Stir Up the World

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 17 2011


Institute is, as of Friday night, over.  There are so many things to say — I don’t even know where to start.

First of all, what’s next?  I have Orientation from 12-7 today then 10-6 tomorrow.  It looks like it’ll be pretty pointless, but I keep telling myself that I’m getting grad school credit for it.  At 6 o’clock tomorrow night, after Orientation is over, I’m packing up my car and moving to my little town in Arkansas for good!

Second of all, what just happened to me?  Suddenly it’s July 17 and I have blisters on my feet, a head cold, pasty skin, muscles that haven’t been exercised in weeks, and a head stuffed full of ideas for next year.  My body isn’t very happy with me right now, but I think it understands that I’ve been through a metaphorical clothes wringer, and I think it’ll forgive me once I start eating real food and exercising again.

A metaphor for Institute:

But, in all honesty, Institute wasn’t really that bad.  It wasn’t hell.  I wasn’t miserable the whole time, and it definitely wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It did feel a bit like boot camp, but it’s definitely doable if not sustainable.

I feel slightly more prepared for the fall, but I keep telling myself that I’m not as prepared as TFA has been telling me I am.  I have a lot of ideas, and I learned a lot from teaching this summer, but MOST of what I know about teaching I’ve learned from books, not from Institute.  Institute is very inefficient.  I know that planning logistics for 500+ people isn’t easy, but I feel like I wasted a lot of time and unnecessarily lost sleep over silly scheduling things and pointless sessions.

On the other hand, I loved a lot of things about Institute.  I loved the Institute staff — it’s crazy that there were literally dozens of people whose entire job was to make our lives easier, and they were all SO nice and SO helpful.  I loved my kids, even though they drove me nuts, and I’ll never forget them.

And I did eventually adjust to the insane schedule, even though I *never* enjoyed waking up at 4.

Let’s talk about humility.  There were quite a few contradictions in all of the Kool-Aid I drank this summer, and the pride/humility dichotomy is one of them.  TFA tells us that we have to go into our communities/ schools with HUMILITY.  But then they tell us that we’re amazing and show us all of these videos and case studies of teachers who had perfect first years and taught their students basket-weaving at lunch in addition to making them grow 8 years in reading.  I think that the result is a lot of pride and borderline arrogance, based on what I’ve seen in myself and in my peers.

As TFA-ers, we tend to think we know better than everyone else, and there’s this archetype we have of the savior teacher coming into a backwards community with outdated, ineffective methods and turning everything around.  That’s simply not true.  Especially with regards to administrators.  We had a session last week on working with administrators, and some of the responses in our discussions genuinely scared me.  No matter how incompetent we as baby teachers might think an administrator is, we can’t deny that he/she has been in the trenches of education for longer than we’ve been alive, in most cases.  We have ABSOLUTELY NO RIGHT to pass judgment on the way our schools/districts run, at least not until we’ve earned the right to have an opinion about it.  And 5 weeks of drinking Kool-Aid and teaching for 1 hour a day doesn’t earn us that right.

We all worked very hard this summer, and some of us were very successful at teaching summer school.  I think the danger of that is that success in teaching summer school will not necessarily translate to success in the fall. A lot of people think that teaching at Institute is harder than teaching in the fall, which simply can’t be true.  Not that I know firsthand.

Another thing.  TFA is VERY data-driven, and they tell us all summer that numbers don’t lie.  And I can only speak for the people I’ve talked to, but based on our data this summer, we weren’t all that successful.  Only 3 out of our 8 students met their growth goals for the summer.  But then this last week they started telling us how amazingly successful we were, when by their own standards we weren’t.  They either need to be realistic from the start and not lie to us about what success means, or tell us how to be more effective.

Enough ranting now.  I really don’t know what I’m talking about — it’s just that a lot of what TFA has been telling me in the last few weeks hasn’t sat right with me, and I needed to put it out there.

In other news, I’m SO incredibly excited to be moving!  I love my little town from what I’ve seen of it so far, I love my roommate, and I love our house.  I think it’ll be good.

This week will be filled with catching up with friends and family, sleeping, feeling like a human again, and countless trips to Walmart and Sonic.

I also have this NEED to go see Harry Potter, but I can’t yet.  I don’t think my little heart can take it — when I finished the 7th book, I sobbed for hours (no joke) and was all emotionally tweaked (in a good way) for days.  HP has waaaaaay too much power over my emotions, and I have to be very careful with it.  But it’s wonderful.  The nearest movie theatre to my little town is in Louisiana, and that might be a good field trip to take once I get my feet under me again.

5 Responses

  1. Gary Rubinstein

    I hope when you say ‘from books’ you still mean my 2nd. Am I right to understand that your class had only 8 students in it? Is this still common?

    • elsa

      It really varied at Institute, and even at my school. We had 25 on our roster, and about 16 showed up on the first day, but by the middle of summer school we only had about 8-12 on any given day. Some people I know had 4 kids in their class; some had 24.
      As for books, I have a few teaching books that I’ve been re-reading, yours included. Mostly Teach Like a Champion, See Me After Class, and The First Days of School. Kind of overwhelming to say the least.

      • Rob

        Elsa, I thought that your post was really interesting and very true. I’m going to be heading into my 2nd year of teaching this fall, and a lot of what you said reminded me about my Institute experience in Philly last summer. TFA raises expectations so high, that we forget how little we actually know about teaching coming into our first year.

        However, for all of the talk about TFA-kool aid drinking, I do think that at least some of it is necessary. In the beginning of my first year, there were some really rough days at my school; classroom management was poor and my students were not making nearly as much progress as they should have been. However, I did feel that the very high expectations set by TFA did help to keep me going and to continually work hard despite all of the difficulties that I was having.

        Nevertheless, I do agree that Institute could benefit from at least a small dose of humility.

  2. christinetung

    I really benefited from your reflection on the data/meeting growth goals.. Based on my midterm assessment scores, only about 4 of my 37 students are on target to meet those goals. This is definitely something I’m going to ask my school director about!

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the title

"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