To say that Teach For America places a strong emphasis on planning would probably be an understatement. According to one of the six characteristics of TFA’s Teaching As Leadership framework, high effective teachers “plan purposefully.” (Without ascribing undue significance to the order of said characteristics, it’s interesting to note that “plan purposefully” comes before “execute effectively,” “continuously increase effectiveness,” and “work relentlessly.”) A considerable portion of Institute is focused on teaching incoming CMs how to backwards-plan—that is, how to start with a tangible and measurable end goal, such as an assessment or set of standards, and create unit/lesson plans based on it. Even now, in the midst of end-of-quarter craziness, CMs are expected to unit plan and use data to shape instructional planning decisions on a regular basis.
The point, of course, is that without the structure of a well-thought-out plan, teaching loses focus; it becomes a random walk of lessons based on what the teacher thinks students should learn rather than what will be most beneficial for them in the long run. In the language of academic research, a discipline that is still fairly fresh in my memory, teaching without a long-term or unit plan is like embarking on a project without a research proposal or prior literature. Indeed, my most recent unit in Algebra 2 has been a case study in how awkward it is to teach day-to-day when I’m not sure what the students should be learning. (I tried to write the summative exam for the unit today and was struck by how few NECAP-level questions my students would be able to answer, based on what I’ve taught them.) In short, planning lays down the foundation for everything else that goes into teaching.
I mention all of this because I sometimes live life without the foundation of a plan—or, more often, I attempt to live out my own plans rather than God’s plans for me. I can recite Jeremiah 29:11 off the top of my head (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”), but those words ring hollow when, in the very next breath, I start worrying about what I’m going to do this summer or after TFA. I say the Lord’s Prayer at night before I go to bed, but in relying on my own strength and ability to barrel through the next school day, I nullify my own petition that “Thy will be done.” I give supposedly biblical advice to friends and loved ones when, in reality, my life is the picture of “worthless idols” (Ps 31:6) and rebellion against God.
Lord, I know that “blessed are all who take refuge in [You]” (Ps 2:12). Help me to trust in Your plans for me and not in my own wisdom. Without You, I am just a directionless first-year teacher struggling to stay afloat; but by Your strength, I can be the light and the salt of this earth. I can take those blessings that I’ve been given and share them with my students and their families; I can turn their eyes to You, the solid rock on which they can stand even in the midst of their infirmities and burdens. I can do Your will and build Your kingdom here in the city that is named after your faithfulness. Amen. Amen.
In other news, evidently the first cohort of 2012 corps members was just notified this past Tuesday. I’ve been meaning to write my thoughts about joining TFA and what I think it takes to be successful as a CM, but now that I have a legitimate excuse to do so, here goes nothing. (Disclaimer: this is all from my own experience and that of my fellow CMs, so any overlap with TFA’s “what we look for” is either purely coincidental or an indication that TFA’s research aligns with the actual teaching experience.)
The most important quality that you’ll need as a first-year teacher is grit. While a tiny minority of teachers sail through their first year with no major trials, this is assuredly not the typical experience. Whether it’s classroom management, incompetent administration, belligerent parents, or lack of sleep, you will probably struggle with something. And to overcome your struggle, you’ll need to be able to step back, reflect on the reasons why you decided to become a teacher, and find the motivation in those reasons to push through. (For multiple examples of CMs exhibiting pure grit in the face of adversity, just browse through a few of the blogs on Teach For Us.)
The second quality that you’ll need is a genuine love for your students. (This should arguably be number one, but I figured that you could love students all you want and still not be an effective teacher if you fell apart when things got tough.) Too many people think that, by becoming a teacher, they can combine their passion for a subject matter (e.g. math, science, history, etc.) with their desire to do something meaningful. Unfortunately, this mindset leaves out the most important aspect of education—the students. How do you feel about children? Do you actually enjoy teaching, particularly to people who will most likely not share your enthusiasm for what you’re teaching? Are you ready to spend a good chunk of your time outside the classroom tutoring, mentoring, and building up relationships with students? These are important questions to ask yourself before committing. Remember, you’re going to be a teacher first, and a TFA corps member second.
The third quality that you’ll need is the ability to multitask and maintain a robust system of organization. To a certain degree, this can be learned on the job, but trust me when I say that the learning curve will be much steeper if you’re someone who keeps all your papers in a pile and can’t focus on more than one task at once. I considered myself pretty organized in college—I used Google Calendar and Tasks, maintained daily to-do lists on my computer and phone, kept a separate binder and notebook for each of my classes, and cleaned up my workspace at least once a week. Yet even now, two and a half months of teaching, I feel like I’m drowning under the endless river of homework, quizzes, exams, administrative paperwork. At any given moment, my mind is juggling ideas for my next lesson, names of students who need make-up work, tasks that need to be done for my principal, errands that need to be run, and a million other things that I haven’t quite prioritized yet. I’m still learning what it takes to be an effectively organized teacher, and as a first-year CM, you’ll probably have to do the same.
I could go on and on, but since I still have to submit first quarter grades and write lesson plans for this week, I think I’ll stop here. If you have any questions about anything I’ve written, leave a comment with your email address and I’d be happy to have a conversation with you. And if, after reading this, you still think you have what it takes, then congratulations. As my Institute School Director liked to say, welcome to the most important work on the planet.
It’s becoming customary to end my posts with an encouraging YouTube video, so here’s a song that I often turn to when I’m overwhelmed and feel like I don’t have much to hold on to.