Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 06 2011

Institute: a reflection (and some life updates)

Overheard on the last day of summer school
F.: “I like that vest, but it looks ugly on Mr. K.”

Today marks exactly one week since the end of Institute. It’s hard to believe that just seven days ago, there was still very little on my mind except big goals, student investment, purposeful planning, effective execution, and other such TFA kool-aid. I definitely still think about my students all the time, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve abandoned them to some extent, but I pray that they would carry the skills and the confidence that I tried to equip them with this summer into the upcoming school year. As for all the other parts of Institute, I feel like I’m sufficiently removed from them now to do a clear-headed, unbiased reflection on the entire experience.

First, a couple notes on what Institute is not. Institute is not a substitute for four years of education school and student teaching. It definitely feels like a ton of work in the moment, but the sobering reality is that the total number of hours I spent actually teaching is about the same number of hours I’ll spend teaching during the first four days of the school year. Four days. That’s peanuts. This will be something to be mindful of as I begin to participate in conversations about best practices with the faculty at my school over the next few weeks. (Wow, that was a lot of prepositions.)

Second, Institute is not designed to break people’s spirits and weed out CMs the way orgo weeds out prospective pre-meds. I can only speak from my experience, but I truly felt that every support system that TFA had in place–from the CMA who would spend hours brainstorming ideas for better execution, to the SD who knew everyone personally and genuinely cared about how they were doing, to the many opportunities to voice our opinions on the way things were run–was designed with both student achievement and the well-being of CMs in mind. And obviously, Institute is a much happier experience when you don’t feel like TFA is constantly out to get you.

So what is Institute? It is an opportunity for learning and growth, if you let it be one. I mean that for both CMs and the students, as I’ll explain in a moment. In all honesty, I walked into my classroom on day one abhorring the prospect of countless CMs, staff members, and visitors observing and criticizing my teaching. I came from a place of pride, and, as I know intellectually but not often viscerally, “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Fortunately, God was gracious to save me from said destruction. My moment of enlightenment, if you will, occurred when I observed a couple classrooms myself (including one taught by my CMA as a substitute) and realized that I had nowhere near the teaching ability of the same people who had been trying to help me improve my own practices. As soon as I began incorporating feedback into my planning and execution, my students began learning more, as evinced by their scores. And student learning and growth is ultimately what Institute (and teaching in general) is all about.

In addition, Institute is manageable. It truly is, no matter how daunting it may seem to have to prepare three lesson plans in one night, or deliver a lesson about geometric rotations on four hours of sleep, or reteach an objective when there already aren’t enough days to teach the original objectives. What I found is that the key to not being overwhelmed is not just spending time productively, but spending time productively in the right ways. For me, that meant occasionally shutting down my laptop, picking up the Bible, and just spending some time in a psalm of praise or supplication. Or sometimes it meant taking a break between getting back from the copy center and beginning the next set of lesson plans to go for a quick run on the track. Oftentimes, spending time productively in the right way meant having wonderful and deep conversations with fellow CMs about the important things in life, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts. The main idea is that, at Institute or elsewhere, it is impossible to be a good teacher if you’re not a human being as well.

Finally, Institute is fun. I don’t mean to sound like a tool, but it is very possible enjoy the experience even amidst the stresses of teaching, attending countless sessions, and dealing with logistical complications. I can honestly say that my CMA and school group shared more laughter than tears, more smiles than complaints, because we started off with the attitude that only joyful teachers can lead a classroom of joyful learners, and I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, as a follower of Christ, I believe that life can only be properly lived in joy. Two passages come to mind: Philippians 4:11-13, where Paul talks about being content regardless of circumstance, and Galatians 5:22-23, where he talks about the fruit of the spirit, among which is joy. Though Institute was hard, and though students could sometimes be frustrating to no end, being wholly devoted to the service of God and thereby experiencing the fruit of the Spirit enabled me to have fun and enjoy my time with students, CMs, and staff members alike.


Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I expected, so I’ll keep this next part short and sweet. For those of you who know me personally and therefore follow this blog to keep up with my life in addition to my teaching, things are going well:

  • I moved into my apartment in Cranston (just south of Providence) on Sunday, and because we’ve had abbreviated sessions for the past couple days, I’ve finally had a chance to start settling into my new home.
  • My housemate and I set up our bookcase/library yesterday, and it was interesting to note how much more welcoming the living room appeared after the addition of books. Hooray literacy! (At the moment, most of my books are theological in content, and most of his are classic works of literature or teaching references, but more are forthcoming.)
  • Cooking is a struggle since I don’t know very many recipes, but surprisingly, nothing I’ve made so far has tasted awful, and I consider that a success. Also, note to self: plums are the best snack food ever.
  • I’ve been sleeping on the floor for the past week since I’m never home early enough in the afternoon to receive my bed delivery, but it’s scheduled to arrive tomorrow, so tonight is the last time I’ll have to experience this particular trial. Truth be told, it hasn’t been too bad, but I have missed having a bed to crash in sometimes.
  • Tomorrow will be full of errands and catching up on all the C. S. Lewis that I meant to read as soon as I finished Institute. I’m excited–I haven’t had a completely free day in a very long time.

And finally, just so I don’t forget, here’s a preview of a couple things that I hope to touch on in my next post: a description of the turnaround school where I’ll be teaching next year, and a deeper reflection on why I Teach For America. Until then, so long!

3 Responses

  1. I felt the same way about institute at first; I feared criticism more than anything. And then I realized, there are countless support systems here and you might not take advantage of them? Fool! So many people were there with the sole purpose of making me (well, and the others at my school) a better teacher.

  2. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! Your post has been selected to be featured as a slider on the Teach For Us homepage!

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