I know I’m not supposed to say this, and maybe I’ll jinx myself, but I really really love Institute.
To be fair, this is only the first week, and things will get more intense from here: the material itself will ramp up, plus I’ll have the additional struggle of fighting fatigue/burnout. And it’s hard as hell already. But I’m loving it.
I love learning about classroom management, culturally responsive teaching, asset-based thinking, content knowledge, lesson planning, all of it. There’s an unmanageable amount of information but it’s okay. I just breathe through it and learn what I learn and accept that what I don’t learn now, I’ll learn later, along the way. It’s like learning a new language in a full immersion setting. If you try to be perfect and learn everything at once, you just get overwhelmed. So you relax and just learn what you can, and along the way you just enjoy the ride.
I don’t consider myself an expert at Institute by any means. but if I had to give an incoming CM some advice for his/her first week of Institute, here’s what it would be:
1. Check your ego at the door. Do not, do not, do not be a perfectionist. There will always be something more you can do. One more edit of the lesson plan. More context for your vision. More notes you could take on the tutorial videos. But, as my CMA said today, “Staying up two extra hours doesn’t mean you care two extra hours more about your students.” He’s right. At a certain point, you have to be okay with “good enough.” Maybe this isn’t exactly how TFA is telling you to think, but a happy/energized you is far more valuable than a tired/burnt-out you.
2. Respect & humility. It’s the TFA core value I love the most. You’ll be surrounded by dozens and dozens of people who know far more than you do. They know about content, planning, grading, tracking. They know the community and the students you will teach. They have a far deeper understanding so what you need to do is just be quiet and listen. Listen to what they have to say; their wisdom is invaluable.
3. Make friends. And I don’t mean this in the hang-out-with-people-you-only-met-while-partying sense, although maybe that works for some people. But I mean it in the sense of making a concerted effort to form true friendships with your fellow corps members. These can be people who will work at your school in the fall, who work at your school for the summer, who are in your CMA group, who are in your collab, who you happen to sit next to at a training session one day. On the bus coming back from school today, a friend of mine and I sat next to each other and cried. and for fifteen minutes, that’s what we did, and by the time we were eating dinner together a half hour later we were totally and completely okay. Challenges are more bearable with a friend by your side.
4. Don’t get sucked into a cycle of negativity. It’s easy for a cycle of negativity to start pervading everything, from your conversations to your thoughts to your habits. There will always be something to complain about. It’s too hot. We got back late from school. My [insert faculty/staff member here] doesn’t understand why I’m stressed. These sorts of complaints are not constructive and not productive. They will just drag you down and increase your level of panic. Instead, make a concerted effort to stay positive. Bounce back from the small failures and the difficult days. Surround yourself with people who lift you up. When you catch yourself complaining or thinking negatively, immediately redirect.
5. This journey is about you and your students. Don’t compare yourself to others. You should certainly collaborate; collaboration will sustain you through the inevitable frustrations. But it’s completely pointless to compare your journey to those of others. There will always be someone who plans a little more, has a better “stage presence”, seems to understand the theoretical concepts more easily. Comparisons won’t help you get where you need to be, and will only drag you down to a place of negativity and self-doubt. Besides, you never know the battles those around you are fighting. Maybe the girl with the picture-perfect lesson plan is too nervous to execute. Maybe the guy with a great stage presence lacks adequate content knowledge. You don’t know what you don’t know, and it’s pointless to worry/judge yourself over others’ journeys.
And most importantly…
6. Take care of yourself. There’s a sort of masochism that can quickly accompany being an Institute teacher, because it’s far too easy to get trapped into a cycle of getting no sleep and eating poorly and being stressed out all the time. Take time for yourself. The half hour you spend at the gym will make you far more productive later on in the evening. Getting to breakfast in time for a balanced meal will sustain you in the mornings, and taking time to just relax and not think about teaching for even 45 minutes in the evenings will help keep your head on straight. Call a non-TFA friend. Go for a walk. Exercise. Read a non-academic, non-productive book. Watch The Office. Do things that are totally and completely for yourself, because you are at your best when you’re happy.
I’m still struggling to do some of these things more consistently, and I know it’ll get tougher as the pace picks up later on. But I’m writing this down so that I can look back later and remind myself of what’s made Institute really fun for me so far.
Sometimes I get caught in self-doubt, or worry, or anxiety over what I’m doing here. whether I’ll be effective, whether my presence even matters, whether I made the wrong choice by choosing this path. But deep in my heart I know I’m doing the right thing.
Last night I hit a particularly low point and called my mom as I was walking back from the parking lot. My mom ended our conversation with, “Remember, we love you and support you, and Daddy put the Teach For America sticker on his car.”
that was really all I needed to hear.