I wanted to blog about Institute. I really did.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Or what they say about Institute being a total timesuck of every last second in your day. You know, whatever.
I’m here now though, on the other side of Institute, and since I’m in a lovely Tempe hotel waiting to leave Phoenix, I finally have time to reflect on my experience…and practice using TFAspeak in everyday life.
Frankly, Institute was incredible. The Cleveland corps is amazing and full of inspiring people who I am so proud to call my brothers and sisters in the movement to improve Cleveland education. But I didn’t realize how many amazing people from other corps I would meet when I got to Phoenix and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with so many other corps members from outside my region – especially since I was so nervous about meeting so many new people at the start of Institute.
“Apprehensive” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt about Institute in the 36 hours between the end of Induction and when I boarded my flight to Phoenix. Sure, the Cleveland corps was cool but what were other corps going to be like? And how was I going to survive the long days, few hours of sleep, and little food? And what about actually teaching? How was I going to stand up in front of a class that I would only have for a few weeks and expect them to take me seriously? I’m not going to lie and say that Institute was easy or that, once I got here, I figured out all the answers immediately. But looking back on it now, I feel like I do when I reach the end of a really suspenseful book (or an intense “Law and Order: SVU” episode): I can see all the twists and turns and get how it all came together in the end.
I think there are a couple of key points that made a difference in my Institute experience and without these, I don’t think I would have seen the growth I saw in my students’ classroom performances, I don’t think I would have made the wonderful friends I did from other regions, and I don’t think I would feel like I’m ready to go back to Cleveland and set up my own classroom and be a leader for my new students. So what is it that got me through Institute?
1. Flexibility. TFA is not going to give you all the answers at the beginning of Institute. I didn’t learn how to teach writing until the last week of Institute. I didn’t learn how to manage cultural conflicts until the third week. But if TFA had tried to cram all of that information in before I got into my classroom, my head literally would have exploded. Pretty much no one feels ready to be in front of their class on the first day. You are not alone, so commiserate with other CMs and embrace the uncomfortable feeling of not always having all the answers.
2. Positivity. There will be CMs that complain about everything. Do not let yourself be one of them or you will be MISERABLE. And you will, in turn, make your collab teachers miserable, your roommate miserable, and – most importantly – you will make your students miserable. See above about embracing the unknown and then commit to waking up each morning with a smile on your face. Being cheerful and smiley every day helped me feel better about my own experience and (hopefully) made those around me feel better too.
3. Rituals. TFA has this thing called the “locus of control” and it refers to what CMs can and cannot control in their experiences. In theory, CMs should commit to doing everything they can to be masters of their own domain in their classrooms and not let external factors drag them down. This definitely applies to Institute. I didn’t know anything about lesson planning, classroom management, teaching literacy, or working with the South Phoenix community. I couldn’t control the long days at Institute, the subpar selection of lunch sandwiches by the end of lunch pick-up, or the lack of class sets of books in the Resource Room. But I could control what I ate in the dining hall, what time I went to bed, how I spent my time in the evenings, when I worked out, and how I started my day.
With all of the uncertainty around me, it was so comforting to start my day at exactly 5 a.m., do some lesson planning, listen to Hoku’s “Perfect Day” as I got dressed, eat my tater tots for breakfast, work out at 9 p.m., and go to bed by 10 p.m. I used my locus of control to create structure for myself and it made me feel like I had the ability to steer my own life – even when Institute kind of did that for me sometimes.
4. Know your work style. You know how you work best. And I am pretty convinced after years of working with college students who struggle with study skills that most people don’t actually do that well studying in loud, crowded, social settings. I definitely need to be by myself in my room in silence to get work done, but I saw a lot of people who tried to hang out in the hallways and plan lessons or work in large groups in the resource room. Usually, it looked like people would do 5 minutes of work and 10 minutes of talking. Your social life is going to take an inevitable hit at Institute and as one CM put it to me, “It’s easy to feel lonely in a room full of people.” But I found that sometimes, it’s easiest to separate from others, get my work done, and get to bed.
5. TIME MANAGEMENT. Do not spend more than 25 minutes eating dinner and do not spend more than 15 minutes eating breakfast. Work out, but only after your work is done for the night (or in the morning, if you can get ready that fast). Make your personal phone calls on the bus, even though it’s difficult to make yourself heard on the phone. Don’t stay up goofing around online, don’t rewrite a final lesson plan more than once, and do NOT spend more than 30 minutes making posters for your classroom in a single night. Get as much done during the weekend – make all of your handouts for the week and run off all copies on Sunday afternoon so that you have them at school and don’t have to spend precious time in the evening fighting with the copy machines.
6. Set a bedtime. I told myself every night I needed to be in bed by 10 p.m. and up by 5 a.m. and I held myself accountable to that. I would close my laptop at 9:50 p.m., make a list of the things I had to do the next morning, and go to sleep. I was so much happier going to bed early and it kept me from developing a caffeine addiction or becoming an angry, bitter CM the next morning.
7. Love your students. Love, love, love them. Chances are, these kids are the first students you’ve ever had and they will change your life forever. Don’t be their friend, but be their teacher. It’s cheesy and I didn’t know what that meant until I got up in front of the classroom and taught them my class rules and explained – very clearly – that I would not allow any foolishness in my classroom. They knew I was serious and that helped me push them academically instead of just babysitting them. I miss my fifth graders every single day now, so enjoy the precious few weeks you have with them.
8. Whatever you do, don’t panic. This advice isn’t that much different than what most other CMs told me about coming to Institute, but as I reflect, it’s actually kind of hilarious because I knew all sorts of words of wisdom and I still went into Institute freaking out anyway. It’s not that big of a deal. Thousands of CMs go every year, they survive, and most of them have a great time. I loved Institute and I’m actually really bummed out leaving it behind.
It’s hard to believe Institute is finally over. I felt like I really went through a time warp every day for the last five weeks. The days are packed with sessions and teaching for, like, 12 hours straight and then I’d go home and do work and crash and get up and do it all over again. And during the day, it felt like forever, but suddenly it would go from being Monday to Friday and then it went from being June 10 to July 6 and everything was over.
And now that it really is over, I go back to that comparison between the Institute experience and the ending of a super intense book and I think about how I felt after I finished A Tale of Two Cities for the first time. When I read Sydney Carton’s final words, I had this feeling in my chest like my lungs were so heavy they were just going to crash down into my stomach and I felt devastated and proud and frightened and elated all at the same time. It’s the same with the ending of Institute. I have that same physical pain in my core and I feel a little bit defeated by how sad I am. It feels like I’ve left college and my sorority all over again and I have to say goodbye to too many wonderful people all too soon and I don’t really know what to do with myself or my free time.
But if I’ve learned one thing at Institute, it’s that I am on a very clear mission to end educational inequality and it’s not so much about what I feel about this experience as it is about what I do about this experience. So really, the best possible thing I could do now is to take everything I learned at Institute and apply it back in Cleveland. It’s the only thing I can think of that would even begin to honor and recognize the incredible role models and peers I worked with at Institute.