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.

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