Coming Home from Teach for America's Summer Institute

I’m writing this from a car on the way up to San Francisco. I just finished Teach for America’s intensive five-week training institute, and now it’s back to the Bay to get ready for my classroom.

I’ve heard that Institute is kind of like war– you can describe it to someone all you want, but unless they’ve been through it, they’ll never quite get what you’re talking about. I’ll give it a try, though.

Imagine 400 of the brightest, most driven people you know, people who are used to excelling at everything they do in life, tossed into a vast unknown where nobody gets it from day one and everyone fails many times on the way to success. Imagine intense Type-A personalities, used to doing everything themselves just to ensure it’s done right, realizing that it’s impossible to get through this experience without relying on your co-teachers. Imagine valedictorians, varsity athletes, lawyers, businessmen, and every other breed of competitive overachiever learning to rate success in an environment where all that matters is personal benchmarks and your students’ achievement.

Institute is a magical place where people go to become teachers. A day at institute feels like a week or more in the real world, and looking back on my first day, it feels like it was years ago. Corps members I met on the first day are now close friends, and my co-teaching group feels like family.

A typical day at institute:

6:20 AM: Wake up. I’m one of the latest wakers on campus; I skip breakfast, and just grab coffee at the school site. Many of my friends got up at 5:30 or earlier to get a shower, breakfast, and even a run in.

6:55 AM: On the big yellow buses to our school sites. Our backpacks and lunchboxes make the whole thing feel very grade-school.

8:00 AM: First bell. Our day kicks off with a 30-minute “Academic Intervention Time (AIT),” where we get to borrow two other teachers from different periods, split our class into four small groups and work on trouble spots with students. With a rowdy class of 37 crammed into a fairly small classroom, we have to teach one group in the hallway.

8:30 AM: My class starts. I taught fourteen 45-minute Geometry lessons over the course of institute, covering area, volume, the Pythagorean Theorem, and beginning Trigonometry.

9:15 AM: My co-teacher takes over for his class. We each teach one lesson a day, so the students get a 90-minute block of instruction (two hours if you’re counting Academic Intervention Time).

10:00 AM: “Nutrition,” which is apparently what they’re calling recess these days. We spend 15 minutes milling about the schoolyard, striking up conversations with students with varying degrees of awkwardness. Some kids love talking to us; others are weirded out.

10:20 AM: Now we’re the borrowed teachers, helping out with another co-teaching team’s AIT. If teaching is like parenting, working during AIT is kind of like being a grandparent or uncle– you get to spoil the kids with presents of knowledge, but don’t have to deal with discipline or lesson plans.

10:55 AM-4:30 PM: Our school schedule changes every day, but we have combinations of work time and classes, either as a whole school or with our Corps Member Advisors (CMAs). CMA’s are second-year corps members or alumni who run about eight corps members each. I hear that it’s a competitive process to get the job, so CMA’s tend to be some of the top performers in what’s already a pretty intense organization. Behind my CMA Andrea’s tiny Asian figure and quiet public demeanor is a straight-talking ass-kicker with a wonderful, dry sense of humor, a fierce intensity about her kids and our work, and a nurturing side that comes out just when you think she’s going to rip you apart.

5:00 PM: We’re back on the Loyola Marymont University (LMU) campus. Sometimes I try to crank out some work before dinner; there’s also a group that likes to do Insanity workouts out on the lawn. Dinner is the exact same every night: a standard college cafeteria grill and a station that rotates through stir-fry, pasta, and Mexican. My Paleo diet went on a bit of a hiatus.

6:30-late: Work time. We have 1-3 lesson plans due a night, in varying draft stages. There are also parents to call, reflections to write, and other random work. I never made it to bed before midnight, and probably averaged 5-6 hours of sleep a night.

The best part of the day is always the teaching. Especially in the beginning, a solid lesson gave me a rush I rode through sessions at the school site and the endless work on campus. Knowing you put an idea in a kid’s head that wasn’t there before is a mystical, beautiful feeling.

Especially if the morning lesson didn’t go so hot, sessions (classes) at the school site could drag on. We learned everything from classroom management to studenpt and parent investment to how to grade, as we were tossed between our CMA and two school-wide teacher-teachers. They timed some of the sessions spookily well- we’d leave with the exact solution to a problem we’d had that day in class, ready to implement the very next morning.

I had heard a bunch of horror stories about institute- about long hours, write-ups and dismissals for underperformance, inadequate resources, and scrappy accommodations. At least at the LA institute, the fears were all unfounded. Our dorms were great, we had unlimited copies and plenty of supplies, and even the late nights were full of focus and camaraderie. They’ve also made a policy decision to not dismiss corps members based on performance issues anymore (though you can still get kicked out based on professionalism concerns), which is a great step toward easing anxieties.

I was also dreading putting up with a bunch of entitled Ivy kids full of law school dreams and noblesse oblige. There were a few, but most people I met were beautiful, selfless, kind souls. Even better, I saw a few people who joined up for the wrong reasons flip their entire worldviews upside down and become dedicated soldiers for the cause.

My kids were my everything. Jasper, the tough-looking tattooed kid that got the highest score on the diagnostic exam and turned into the student leader of my class. Warner, whose head was on his desk every day and who didn’t care if he passed, then one day decided he loved surface area and wanted to learn it all semester long. Don, who mastered every geometric concept quickly but struggled with basic arithmetic. My 37 high schoolers were difficult at times, but they were so eager to learn, so invested in their own education that I knew any misbehavior was really a reflection on the quality of my lesson and my ability to communicate the content to them.

On the last day of class, we told our kids how old we really were, and that their first day of summer school was our first day in the classroom. They sat in shocked silence for a second, then Chantelle spoke out: “Oh yeah, y’all was so NERVOUS that first day, shakin saying this is the area of the triangle!” Thinking back to my first day, that Thursday morning that feels like it was years ago, I can just barely remember standing at the front of my classroom stuffed full of inner-city youth (most quite a bit bigger than me), petrified that they would see through the button-up, tie, and lanyard, see that I was just a student like them.