Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 28 2013

What does Institute do, exactly?

As Institute recedes farther and farther into the distance, as the memories of those five weeks get wispier and wispier, I’ve found myself thinking back and wondering – why was I at Institute? What did it do for me? Did it do the things it was supposed to do for me? And I don’t mean that in a confrontational or critical way, just in a questioning way.

I don’t even know where to begin with this so I will do a quick run-down of Institute for me, and life for me right now, just to see the vastly different contexts of these two experiences.

INSTITUTE
school type: traditional public school
demographics: 29 African-American students, 1 Hispanic student
hours per day teaching: 1
students per class: 30
SPED students: 10
accommodations/modifications given: 0
subject taught: Math
strengths: planning, seeking feedback
weaknesses: everything else

MY LIFE RIGHT NOW
school type: non-traditional public school
demographics: 30% African-American, 70% Hispanic
hours per day teaching: 6
students per class: ~27 (ranges from 25-30)
SPED students: 4
accommodations/modifications given: 4
subject taught: English/Language Arts
strengths: planning, behavior management, sense of urgency
weaknesses: content delivery (specifically key points), pacing

 

I could go on and on with qualitative differences, but suffice it to say…Institute world seems like a different world. A harder, more terrifying, more helpless world. One commenter on this blog told me, “Brace yourself. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t find teaching infinitely more challenging than Institute.” My life right now is so much easier than it was at Institute. Does that make me some sort of weird exception? Maybe. Who knows.

I don’t really know for sure what the point of Institute is. I guess I could see many potential points:

1) brainwashing/socialization
2) development of pedagogical skills
3) development of leadership skills
4) networking w/ other CMs, CMAs, CSs, etc.
5) trial by fire/grit-building

For some of these points, Institute hit the nail right on the head. Socialization? Check. Networking? Check. Trial by fire? Check check check.

But what about the real points? Development of pedagogical and leadership skills? I’m trying to think – and think hard - about pedagogical skills I learned at Institute. And I honestly can’t remember many. I remember sitting in session after session, and certain ones (like the one on high expectations) stick out for me, but none of it was concrete enough to really still be a part of my life right now. And some of the concrete stuff I DID learn (like not praising, like giving a consequence immediately after misbehavior) has been beaten out of my head by my new school because these things lead to negative culture. Is it any surprise that my Institute classroom was an absolutely miserable place?

And then we get to the kicker. Development of leadership skills. I don’t know if I’m a leader now at all. I try and step up and do things for my kids…like figuring out the DonorsChoose projects, and starting coffee chats, and potentially getting a Holocaust survivor to come speak to our kids about prejudice/hate/speaking up…but in millions of small ways I am infinitely more leader-y than I was during Institute. At Institute I was basically a shell of a girl. I got beaten down every single day. I cried every single day. I felt absolutely incompetent, with no end in sight, no hope for becoming even a minimally successful teacher. My life is so different from that now – in so many ways – thank god. And it makes me think. What, exactly, was Institute preparing me for? What leadership skills did I build there? Are they at all transferrable?

All the feedback I got from the closing conversation with my CMA at the end of Institute was (as it inevitably has to be) very Institute-specific. I need better behavior management skills. I need more confidence with my kids. I need to believe in myself. And quite honestly, none of those things are still very relevant to my life right now. So much of it was contextual. We are all new teacher-molds, shaped exactly like the vessel into which we are poured during those 5 weeks, and my vessel was particularly difficult (an objective statement echoed by many, many of the adults who observed my classroom). So I floundered, which was fine, and got advice, which was fine, but…it all just seems very far away right now.

 

When I taught 6th-grade math during Institute and worried about my ability to teach 8th grade ELA, I was told, good teaching is good teaching. True. But I still wonder. What did Institute prepare me for, exactly? What was the point of being so emotionally shaken? Do I see any positive effects in my life right now?

 

It’s funny. Institute taught me to be humble to the point of not believing in myself, to assume I was one of the worst and I had nowhere to go but up. I went into the school year bracing myself to be one of the worst teachers among the first-years at my school. And you know what? I’m not the worst. I’m not the best, but I’m not the worst, and that’s totally okay with me. But I’m still surprised by it. I still feel like an impostor. It’s hard to shake off my Institute identity of let’s-help-this-corps-member-because-she’s-struggling. Sometimes I look around and can’t believe that things are the way they are now, that my post-Institute mantra of just be okay with being the worst because it builds humility isn’t actually as applicable as I thought it would be. I still try to be an incredibly humble person and always always always seek feedback/continuous improvement. But believing you can succeed and being humble about it is a very different thing than believing you are hopeless at something and the most you can do is just get incrementally better before you finally succumb and fail.

Was Institute a good thing for me? Did it do what it was supposed to do? I don’t know.

 

I signed up for the Sponsor-A-Corps-Member program (i.e. some wealthy Houston benefactor wants to support my classroom, in some way, though the details are still fuzzy right now) so I just got the invitation to the annual TFA Houston Benefit Dinner. I’m excited to go and learn more about the way TFA presents itself to the “outside world.”

I like that I’m still so on the fence about my feelings towards such a complex, intricate, multifaceted organization. It’s given me time to think things through.

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    Journeys, challenges, & writings of a first-year teacher.

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    Middle School

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