Thursday, April 28, 2011

To Teaching, With Love (Institutionalized Part 3)

Right idea, wrong subject.

           In my past two posts, I have done a considerable amount of complaining about TFA Institute.  I’ve saved the best for last.  I really did fall in love with the teaching profession during Institute, and I have spent much of my first year teaching trying to rediscover that love.
            As I discussed in my last post, the most infuriating aspect of Institute for me was how little actual teaching it entailed.  Most of Institute seems aimed squarely at convincing you how wonderful TFA is.  Many TFA-ers have the camp counselor personality type, born with a megaphone in hand and an inexplicable enthusiasm for whichever organization they are currently in.  I am deficient in team spirit; Institute drove me up the wall.

Does this look like fun to you?  If so, you will love Institute.

            In the second week, we began teaching.  While I still didn’t love Institute, suddenly the soggy sandwiches we ate for lunch tasted just a little bit more palatable.
            I remembered this feeling from my interview with the school that would eventually hire me.  I nailed the phone interview, and then the principal uttered a truly awful sentence – “So we really like you so far, so why don’t you come down here and teach a class, and then we can make our final decision?”
            Anxiety flooded my stomach, gnawing at my insides like a parasitic, carnivorous guinea pig (because, you know… they gnaw on stuff).  I had never taught a lesson before, and now I had to be in front of students for 60 terrible, terrible minutes!  I barely slept the night before, and throughout that morning my hands were trembling.
            I walked into the classroom; 20 students were watching me, and at least 5 teachers – oh god, experienced teachers, they’ll judge me, what if my fly is unzipped or something, but I can’t check it now, that’ll look weird – and I started to speak.  “Good morning class,” I said, with less shake in my voice than I expected, and less desire to bolt out of the room than I’d thought.
            Then, the strangest thing of all happened – I was enjoying myself.  The students were answering my questions, laughing at my jokes.  My lesson was on Phineas Gage and how brain damage teaches us about brain function, and when I had a student act out the part where the 3-meter rod blasted through Mr. Gage’s head, he hammed it up with gusto.  I finished early, and took my students on wild ride of scientific factoids, including the true story behind zombies. 

Who wouldn't want to be this guy?

When I read the feedback from students at the end of my interview, I saw the word “calm” over and over – the last thing I expected to hear.  It was a lie, though; I was better than calm.  I was exhilarated.
            At Institute, this feeling came back.  My nervousness melted away in front of my students.  I am myself to a fault in the classroom; I just can’t put on a stern disciplinarian face, and I still prefer to get students to listen by convincing them that we’re all in this together.  I gave (and give) cheesy speeches and celebrated correct answers with dorky chants like the “cheese grater” (“that was… grate grate grate!”, while miming the action of shaving a block of cheese).  Other Institute-ers voted me “teacher persona most similar to real persona,” a high honor in my view, and I earned my lead teacher’s respect by drawing a diagram of meiosis that involved a stick figure with an arrow pointing at the crotch (and for being able to do this without the room devolving into giggling).
            Unlike most TFA-ers, I loved teaching at Institute; no matter how I felt going into the classroom, I walked out with a grin.  That was one of the two things that helped me survive; the other was that my “CMA”, or mentor, shared my dry sense of humor, and didn’t mind classroom discussions involving crotch diagrams.
            I am in a strange position of having an approach that I feel is opposite both to most veteran teachers and to most young TFA-ers.  Unlike the vets, I don’t think that the teacher needs to yell much to be successful.  Admittedly, I am just not very good at discipline, and I have to work hard on being stern without coming across as pissy or agitated, but (and I may just be na├»ve) I still think that students need to feel like you believe in them, and that your love for your subject should be contagious. 
Unlike most TFA-ers, though, I don’t have that boundless, camp-counselor enthusiasm.  In a way, this is a good thing, because high school students respond to “realness” and sarcasm, at which I excel, and I still manage to project empathy enough to serve as a confidant.   On the other hand, it makes me more vulnerable to hopelessness; I have found my joie de l'enseignement sucked out by lesson planning, and management, and benchmark tests, and credentialing classes, and 14-year-old boys thinking they’re tough, and so on.
            I was a better teacher at Institute than I was for most of the year because I was clearly having fun.  Once I started the school year, having to teach 5 periods a day, one in a subject I felt completely unqualified for, sucked the joy out of my practice, and I didn’t have the disciplinary chops to hold things together.  Now, though, at the end of my first year, I feel like myself again in the classroom.  It’s a fragile happiness, maybe, but it’s nice all the same.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Institutionalized Part 2 -- The Bad

The second post in my series about TFA Institute (click here for the previous post); this one covers basically everything I didn't like.  The next will discuss the good parts.

Your sweet ride for 5 weeks.

            After one week of endless talks about professionalism and the glory of TFA (also known as ‘Induction’), Institute proper begins.  Institute, the dreaded TFA boot camp; the scant 5 weeks of teaching experience a TFA-er will boast at the beginning of his first year; the land of lesson plans and sleepless nights; light of my life, fire of my loins!
            My one disclaimer – Institute experiences can vary somewhat region-to-region.  For example, in Arizona, it is hot and there is no air conditioning, while in LA it was just hot; in the Mississippi Delta, one has to get up at 4 AM to drive an hour plus to school; and presumably, since in MI you are legally allowed to hit children, they cover corporal punishment techniques (which were left out in LA). 
Largely, though, the experience is the same: 5 weeks, 4 of them involve classroom teaching for about an hour per day; lots of lessons about pedagogy; frantic copy-machine-use at night; inedible dorm food.  Your days are spent at an assigned school, at a subject matter and grade level that roughly approximates your actual placement.  Luckily, mine was a perfect match, but this is no guarantee.
As mentioned above, the focus of Institute is on teaching, but it occupies the minority of your actual time.  You do not step into the classroom for the first week, and for the subsequent four, you teach for about an hour, then lead small-group tutoring for another 30 minutes.  The rest of the 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM day is consumed with classes.
There are lessons to be planned at night, of course, but I happen to be an extremely efficient worker; efficient to the point that I rarely had more than an hour or two of planning to do once back at the dorms, and often I finished on the bus ride home.
This is probably a good place to mention that I was uncommonly good at Institute.  I was heaped with praise by the various people overseeing me, and renowned for my ability to deliver lesson plans at warp speed.  Yet, I still felt lost and unprepared when I actually started teaching in the fall, probably because Institute does not resemble being a teacher so much as being a student.  Hell, you arrive to school in the morning on a yellow bus full of fellow TFA-ers in identifying badges, all with identical boxed lunches.  It’s pretty hard to feel like an authority figure when stepping off of a school bus while being serenaded with camp songs (I guess I didn’t mention the singing.  Just like the acronyms I mentioned in my last post, it’s more fun as a surprise).

Unfortunately, there are no silly vests... yet.

The vast majority of your day is spent being a student, as well.  The topics covered are what one would expect: discipline (now called classroom management), lesson planning, literacy, and so on.  What isn’t covered is just as revealing, however.  During Institute, you write daily lesson plans, but your topic is given to you, down to the exact item on a test your students should be able to answer by the end.  I didn’t learn how to plan a unit, or write a test, and while I felt well-prepared to be in the classroom at the start of my first year, my long term plans were, frankly, abysmal.
So Institute is student life, during the most stressful finals week[s] imaginable.  On stress: yes, the pace is pretty frantic, and yes, most people don’t sleep much.  My fellow journeymen-teachers looked frightful each morning, baggy-eyed and coffee-jittered, running on 3 hours of sleep.  I slept; or rather, I could have slept.  My efficiency allowed me to set 9:30 pm as my bedtime, but I laid awake for hours on my extra long bunk bed with lesson plans and to-do lists running through my mind.
I would have quit TFA shortly into Institute if not for two things: the kids, and my “boss.”  And for those, you must wait… until next time.  While this post has been dominated by kvetching, it’s not all bad.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Institutionalized Part 1

You don't actually have to do your prep-work.  There, I just saved you 30 hours!

            Given that Institute is fast approaching for many TFA newbies, I thought I would write a post reflecting on my own experiences there.  Bottom line – it is probably not as bad as you heard.   Addendum to bottom line – it comes pretty damn close.
            TFA Institute is notorious for its sleepless nights and general high level of stress.  Bloggers routinely post guides on how to “survive” it.  My aim is not to write a how-to guide here, but rather give you a reasonably accurate picture of what it is like.
            If you are anything like me, TFA Institute will be your first experience working in a corporate environment.  You will have to wait for the audiobook version of this blog to hear the utter loathing with which I put those two words together.  The first week of Institute, known as Induction, is a neverending cascade of discussions on “professionalism” and “core values” and misc. BS, in which you are expected to not space out and be a fully engaged participant.  Like much of TFA Institute, this is a good time to reflect on how not to teach.  Lesson 1: if both parties involved realize that a given class is irrelevant, there is no reason for either one to be there.
            This is where you will hone your aforementioned “60 Second Tale of Overcoming Discrimination” [or, more commonly, “60 Second Story”], so if you haven’t overcome any discrimination this might be a good time to find something to be oppressed by.  You will also learn many wonderful TFA acronyms; I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but if you hear the term “Wid-Wat-Double-U” [a.k.a. WIDTWW, “what is due to whom, when”], the Standard English translation is “syllabus.”
My CMA didn't like the INM or the GP in tomorrow's LP on the WIDTWW! FML.

            You will also become familiar, at this time, with the degree of overscheduling and mindless self-promotion that Institute is all about.  If you are of the camp-counselor bent and find organized getting-to-know–you games fun, you are in for a great time.  You will probably hear from TFA founder Wendy Kopp, whom everyone else will discuss in hushed, reverent tones.  You will also be treated to statistics-free, doublespeak-heavy “lectures” on why the TFA method works; apparently, you just have to take their word for it.  Typical statement [from a diversity talk]: “We have found that, although in some cases students do learn better from teachers who share their racial/ethnic background, your own background will never get in the way of being an effective educator.”
            You will also get to know your roommate[s].  Since many TFA people are relocating across the country, Induction is a pseudo-collegiate experience; one gets the sense that this is what college must be like for people who join too many clubs.  One of my roommates played religious songs on the guitar and used “Hey bro, how many hours of sleep do you get a night?” as a regular small-talk query; the other showed me pictures of strippers on his cell phone and explained how he was going to “f*** the gay out" of the new car that he purchased from a same-sex couple.
            Incidentally, all of the TFA employees who staff Induction are physically perfect white or half-asian women.  Don't inquire about this at the diversity sessions.
            That is week one.  Next, Institute proper begins, and you step into the classroom for the first time.  Believe it or not, that’s the easy part.  At the risk of sounding saccharine, if it wasn’t for the kids, I’d have quit TFA by week two (and honestly, I came very close).  But your eyes are straining, and I have to get back to playing Wii (spring break is rough), so you will just have to wait… until next time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Greasers: alive and well

            One of the most striking differences between the high school where I currently teach and the one I attended (besides the fact that everyone at my school was white, we were rolling in money, and the students actually had some amount of freedom) is the subcultures.  The groups of kids at the school where I teach are all but unrecognizable to me.
            At my old high school, there were two main brands of cool kids: the athletes, and the music kids.  The athletic presence at our school was toned down due to the lack of a football team, and it was the soccer boys who dominated that scene.  The other, broader category of cool kids, which I reluctantly call the “music kids” for lack of a better name, encompassed a wide breadth of northern California hipsters: the folk musicians in tweed coats and unkempt hair, the skinny boys in neon hoodies, the stoners, and so on.  This is the scene in which I was incubated, and this is the power structure that makes sense to me.

The cool kids

            When I first stepped into a Los Angeles classroom this past summer, during my TFA training program, I was immediately struck by the continued vitality of archetypes I assumed were long dead.  Metalheads still exist, apparently, as do Greasers – just 25 and 50 years past their prime, respectively – and all of them are Latino.  It’s shocking enough to suddenly be the only white person in the room, but I knew to expect that.  The massive popularity of swing music and Led Zepplin?  Nobody warned me about that one.
            There is one subculture, though, that’s instantly recognizable.  The shaggy hair, the too-thick glasses, the wisps of mustache – this was familiar territory.  Watching the gaggle of young folks at my school exchange hugs and talk endlessly about Xbox games fills me with nostalgia for my own not-so-distant high school days – Magic cards, girl gossip, hell, I even built an analog calculator with my best friend for a school project.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world: people who understand bina-- nah, I can't do it.

            In my adult life, I have taken on what I like to see as an avuncular role for these students.  On Friday afternoons, my classroom turns into geek central; a Wii is connected to my interactive whiteboard, games are played, and girls are scarce (although not, it must be noted, nonexistent; last week a few brave lady-souls showed up to ask if they could look at things through my microscope set).   For a magical hour, I am transported back to my youth -- all 5 years ago.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Teach the Controversy Part 2 -- "Not how it looks on Teen Mom"

This week and the next, Mr. N is highlighting his experiences with religion and sexuality in the classroom.  Check out the previous post.

Once, during an ecology lesson, I asked students to brainstorm factors that limit the size of the human population.  I was expecting to hear answers like food, water, shelter, disease, but no: by far the most common answer was “abortion”. 
While I try to avoid the issue as much as possible, a student forced it on me the other day by inquiring about stem cell research.  Another student asked when a fetus’ heart begins to beat, and she was indignant when I didn’t know the answer – “Aren’t you a biology teacher?”  My response – that I didn’t bother learning it because it’s a completely irrelevant factoid – had the good sense to stay in my brain.  The moment then became completely surreal as another student began chanting “a person’s a person, no matter how small!” over and over again.
I have my own opinion on abortion, which I’m sure is clear to the reader at this point, but I don’t feel the need to push it on my students.  There is one attitude about reproduction that I am completely intent on changing, however. 
In my students’ community, teen pregnancy is often not seen as an unfortunate mishap, but rather a cause for celebration.  Both girls and boys see childbearing as a sign of maturity and a way to attract attention, and since care is often a generation removed (as in, babies are raised by grandparents), the costs are diminished as well – except the opportunity cost of a lost career.  It’s a little worrisome to hear a 14-year-old boy in my class joke that he wants to have eight kids – “enough for my own soccer team” – when seniors are dropping out because of unplanned pregnancies.
When I taught my week of sex ed in biology, I made sure to include a completely unglamorous video of natural childbirth in which the wrinkled, blue-tinted baby emerged in a flood of screams and amniotic fluid.  Students covered their eyes in horror, especially the girls.  When one blurted out “Damn!  That’s not how it looks on Teen Mom!” I smiled to myself with the satisfaction of a job well done. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Teach The Controversy Part 1

As a full-time biology teacher and frequent sex educator, I am naturally poised for religious conflict.  While I have previously written on the linguistic barriers separating my students and I, there are bigger gulfs that separate us other than their belief that “idk” is a perfectly fine abbreviation to use in a formal essay and their calling me “Meestur” despite my insistence that I have a name.
Surprisingly, very few students have made a point-blank inquiry about my religious beliefs.  Whenever they do, I answer honestly that I am an atheist.  The first time it happened, the questioning student’s jaw dropped with something approaching awe.  “Wow!” she said, beaming, “An atheist?  I’ve never met an atheist before!”
Last week, some students were having a religious debate in class.  One boy in my class was infuriated to discover that his neighbor believed in God as a sort of nebulous spiritual force, but didn’t accept Jesus Christ.  “Can you believe it?” he demanded, turning to me.  “She doesn’t believe in Jesus!  You believe in Jesus, right [Mr. N]?” 
When I responded that I didn’t believe in anything, the indignation vanished, replaced by curiosity.  “Oh,” was all he could say, looking away, then back, as if to indicate “Well, shucks, I’d never thought of that before…”.
Some teachers would balk at my openness about my [absence of] religion, but transparency is my approach to essentially everything in the classroom.  I am on the receiving end of outlandish sex-related questions almost every day, and (assuming it’s asked in a way that’s tangentially related to the topic at hand, at least) I answer everything.  Students have learned that they just can’t get me to blush, nor laugh, so it’s no longer a game of Let’s-say-a-naughty-word! – they just have nowhere else to turn.
In addition, I also think that familiarity paves the way to tolerance.  Before meeting me, my students likely thought of atheists as some kind of intangible force for evil discussed on Fox News.  Now they think of me, which, for at least some of them, is a positive development.

Admit it -- we look great in loincloths.

My students are devoutly religious, but have very little knowledge of their own religion.  I recently overheard the following remark, verbatim – “No, I’m not Christian, I’m Catholic!  It’s different.  We believe in Jesus, and stuff.”  Sadly, all of them can readily cite the passage of the Bible that calls homosexuality an abomination, and often do this when I throw them out of my classroom for using the “other” f-word (little do they know that seafood is also an abomination; oh well).
Later this week and into the next, I am preparing a series of posts on religion in my classroom, highlighting abortion and homophobia.  Stay tuned – it’s sure to be juicy.