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 naïve) 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.


  1. I, for one, would definitely not like to be Phineas Gage. In my neuroscience and cognitive science coures, as far as I can remember, he was prone to emotional outbursts (usually rage) and was unable to organize his life at all (executive function being controlled primarily in the pre-frontal cortex, through which that railroad spike was blown through). On the other hand, being famous for surviving a crazy railroad building accident and being studied by every student studying brain function for the rest of time is at least a passable trade-off.

  2. Just wanted to say that I got sucked into an hour of reading your blog today when I should have been working, but I am not even mad. I am an 07 ENC alum, former CMA and current RD and although I am totally the camp counselor type, I own it and I really enjoy reading your perspective on things. I think I might send this out to all of my recruits! Good work.

  3. Thanks Gonza! I have nothing against camp counselors; just don't understand y'all. Anyway, much appreciated.