Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 28 2012

Dear 2012 corps members,

I’m so glad that you’re joining the movement for educational equity. To tell you the truth, there’s a bit of an older-sibling syndrome within TFA, wherein previous corps years scoff at the apparent naivete of first-year CMs and grow somewhat envious of the attention that they receive. (I’m guilty of this myself.) Don’t let this discourage you. We need you—your energy, your enthusiasm, your willingness to talk about the big picture—to balance us out at the end of what has been, for most of us, a long and draining year.

In the spirit of big picture conversations, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you before you dive into the next few weeks. Most of you have graduated or quit your current job and are gearing up for Induction and Institute in your respective regions. As you enter the trenches of fighting the achievement gap in the classroom (most of you, for the first time), you will find yourself feeling exhausted, disenfranchised, and tangled up in details and deadlines. Below are some situations you’ll probably encounter, and the reasons why you can and must fight through them, from the perspective of an almost-former first-year CM and soon-to-be staff member at Institute.

  • You will be bombarded by negativity at Institute. This is a fact. From snappiness at 6 am breakfasts, to complaints about the lack of time for lesson planning, negativity is the inevitable byproduct of putting hundreds of young, ambitious go-getters accustomed to success in a high-stress, close-quarters environment. For everyone’s sake, but especially yours and your students’, please try to stay positive. Dinner conversation turning into a complaint fest? Don’t join in—it might feel good in the moment, but the additional adrenaline and cortisol from the emotions that you invoke will only impair your digestion and make you feel worse later. Working on your third lesson plan for the night and feeling like the impossible is being expected of you? Stop, turn your laptop off, and step outside for a few minutes (or maybe even go for a jog). You’ll be surprised at how refreshed and empowered you feel when you get back to work. Above all, no matter what the situation is, remember that you joined TFA because you believe in the unlimited potential of students growing up in under-served inner city and rural areas, and the only way to unlock that potential is to bring your infectious joy and passion to the classroom.
  • It will sometimes feel like TFA and its staff are out to get you. Another byproduct of bringing together so many independent, passionate individuals is that no system or instructional style (on TFA’s end) will have 100% buy-in. There will inevitably be push-back on lesson plans being “graded” on the Teaching As Leadership rubric, or school site staff seemingly randomly observing corps member instruction, or the copy room not being open all night. Trust me though, every single structure and staff position at TFA, both at Institute and beyond, is designed with your welfare and student achievement in mind. That’s not to say that things can’t be improved, and indeed, there was much to be desired when I went through Institute last summer. But my point is that corps members are not alone in facing these challenges. All of the staff members at Institute, from the venerable Senior Managing Director down to the lowly School Operations Manager (such as myself), want you to succeed in your classroom and will do everything in our power to make that happen. If you notice something amiss, try talking to a staff member about it. You’ll most likely find that he/she shares your frustration and wants to work with you to fix it. Seriously, try it sometime.
  • You will probably not feel prepared for your first day in your Institute classroom, and especially for your first day in your placement school classroom. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no way that five weeks of training can hope to serve as a substitute for four years of education school. The scary reality is that you will spend more time in front of your students during the first three days of school in the fall than you will during all of Institute. But what you’ll come to realize is that (1) nothing prepares you for leading your own classroom like actually leading your own classroom (to wit, making Institute three times longer would not make you three times more prepared for the fall), and (2) five weeks is more than enough time to develop the right habits and mindsets, if not the hard skills, of teaching. If you go in and maintain a positive attitude, an open mind and heart, and a willingness to work with every possible person and resource to develop as an excellent teacher, then I can guarantee that you will not only effect significant growth in your classroom this summer, but also take those qualities to your placement region and play a major role in closing the achievement gap there.

Maybe these things sound obvious now. Certainly, they would have sounded obvious had I read them a year ago, during the lull before Induction. But human beings have a tendency to forget the obvious when stress and pressure build up, so I ask that you force yourself to keep this letter in mind as things start to go crazy over the next few weeks. I hope it makes your experience a little more enjoyable. Best of luck, and feel free to leave a comment with your email address if you want to talk further. And remember, we’re all rooting for you and your future students!

Mr. K

P.S. For those of you 2012s who have started a Teach For Us blog, don’t forget to activate your comment sections! :)

11 Responses

  1. Lauren T.

    Thank you!! :)

  2. Eric

    I posted your link in our groups of incoming CMs for our region … If you don’t mind :)

  3. Kierra

    I am currently in Morocco and as much as I am trying to enjoy my vacation all I can think about is Institute. Sure I’m nervous, but I am anxious to get started. Thank you for your insight, especially the advice about staying positive. At least not I don’t feel so blind going into institute, but I’m craving for that hands on experience! Delta K

  4. Miriam

    Thank you!

  5. Kim

    This was very well written, thank you for sharing your insights and reflections!

    “Dinner conversation turning into a complaint fest? Don’t join in—it might feel good in the moment, but the additional adrenaline and cortisol from the emotions that you invoke will only impair your digestion and make you feel worse later.”
    I found this particular piece of advice amusing!

  6. Jackie

    I thought this was great! Will definitely share with my 2012 CMs this summer @ Institute!

  7. Sandra

    Thanks for the realistic depiction of Institute!

  8. TFASA

    Sorry but this post sums up the essential problem in the mentality of TFA enthusiasts. The post is strikingly cognizant of the many weaknesses in the TFA training model — unreasonable expectations, TFA “out to get” people, not enough preparation, needlessly stressful assignments, needlessly stressful working conditions. Yet after acknowledging these issues, it explains them away as “inevitable byproducts” of putting high-achieving people together. The natural byproduct of putting high-achieving people together should be that they come up with reasonable and effective practices, not the opposite. It is surprising that people so optimistic about solving something as intractable as the achievement gap are so resigned about the inevitably flawed methods of their organization.

    The second – and downright obnoxious – claim in this post is to create a blanket category of “negativity” and group it all together as something to avoid. This is the kind of rhetoric one expects from groupthink and which flourishes in “movement-based” societies rather than pluralistic ones. In this sense, It is a good preview of the rhetoric incoming CMs can expect from institute leaders. But one need not study very much to learn that critical thinking and dissent are fundamental to solving big social problems and also to the human dignity we believe in for ourselves and our students. The idea that certain thinking – call it “complaining” if you want to prejudge it without considering it -should be presumptively dismissed out of hand lies at the root of TFA’s failure as an organization to address its mission. And this is not surprising, because dismissing ideas out of hand is what an excellent education teaches people not to do. The irony is that if the person who wrote this post encountered such “negativity” from his students in the form of critical or dissenting ideas, he would encourage and celebrate this as a milestone for their education. Yet his advice for colleagues is to shun such thoughts in themselves and their peers. An organization that aspires to a universally excellent education should be the last one to spurn – or is the right word “fear” – the negative.

    • Hi TFASA, I’m actually really glad that you brought up your concerns. This post was originally meant for a small group of close friends who had been accepted to the 2012 corps, and it was just supposed to provide a bit of advice from personal experience. In essence, this meant that I already knew the people reading it, and was confident that they would apply their (very) critical lenses to TFA regardless of what advice I gave them about surviving Institute. I’m not saying that not every incoming CM is capable of doing that, but I think I would have taken a different tack had I known that TFA would share this far and wide.

      That said, I’d like to address your concerns, since they are totally valid. First of all, keep in mind that I wrote this with an immediate timeline in mind: five weeks of this summer, and the beginning of the fall semester. There are undoubtedly flaws within the TFA training model—perhaps even fatal ones—but incoming CMs will likely not have the power, time, or wherewithal to bring about the changes that would dramatically improve said training model. In light of this, I tried to provide some simple (perhaps overly so?) advice that would help make this summer and the fall less stressful and maybe even enjoyable.

      To which one might sarcastically reply, “So if I don’t have the power to effect institutional change, I should just shut up and forget my concerns?” My answer would be a resounding no. One thing that your second paragraph mixes up is the direction of presumptiveness in my post. It’s not that I’m dismissing all critical thought as “negativity” and “complaining,” it’s that what I refer to as complaining is exactly the type of unproductive whining and outburts of anger that are so ubiquitous at Institute. There is most definitely a place for constructively critical thinking and dissent at Institute and beyond—indeed, my second point was that if more CMs knew to bring that critical thought to staff members rather then letting it stew amongst themselves, they might be surprised at how much systematic change they can actually enact.

      Again, let me just emphasize that everything in the post is from personal experience. The advice that I give is what made Institute manageable for me, and even though I was cognizant of the weaknesses within the training model, at least they weren’t disastrous to my own development as a teacher—in fact, I think I was a pretty good teacher this year. I also personally found staff members to be extremely competent and supportive. But I can’t speak for anyone else, which is why I think it’s good to have multiple perspectives in this conversation.

  9. TFASA

    Hi Mr. K,

    I think your responses make sense. The post was presented to me as something being promoted by TFA, so I interpreted it less as personal practical advice than as a TFA mindset argument. Reading it again with this in mind, I don’t disagree that you’re advice is likely to make corps members happier and relaxed at institute. There is a fine line between complaining and legitimate dissent, and mere venting is generally pointless. However, my experience at institute and in TFA as a whole has been that most people do not realize the distinction, and they tend to group complaining and dissent together so that both can be ignored. This is responsible for the toxicity of the intellectual environment at institute with CMS afraid to ask questions at sessions and chants/cheers substituting for reasoned instruction. So while I take back any accusation that you have supported this kind of environment in your post, I would still want to emphasize that in some cases giving voice to “negativity,” that is, legitimate criticism is not mutually exclusive with happiness. Or even if it is, then perhaps happiness is not worth it in some cases.

  10. Two years | Break Every Yoke linked to this post.

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