Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Institute is where incoming corps members are trained by experienced Teach For America teachers and staff members to become teachers.  Corps members will also work with non-Teach For America teachers, called faculty advisors, in their classrooms.  As a new teacher, institute can be tremendously overwhelming.  You're presented with an incredible amount of information with little context and can be given 15 things to work on without ever actually seeing how each one should be implemented.  Add in the stress of moving to a new city, working closely with strangers, and having too few hours in a day.  You're given so much more information than you can hope to process that institute has rightfully been compared to collecting water by holding a dixie cup under a waterfall.  It ain't easy.

When I was a corps member at institute I felt entirely overwhelmed.  I left institute thinking that I had processed some of the key information I needed and zoned out the rest because I knew what was important and what wasn't.  (Needless to say, I was not a rockstar corps member.)  When I returned as a staff member, it all came together for me.  Information I had previously disregarded made complete sense and matched what I had tried to do in my classroom as a teacher, and it all clicked.  The lesson here is twofold:  the things you will learn at institute are in fact important, and if you feel like you aren't processing everything being thrown at you, fear not - the exposure is a foundational step.

That said, here are a few things I'd advise corps members to keep in mind.

Advocate for yourself.  If you don't understand something, don't assume it will magically click at some point in the future.  Ask for clarification, a demonstration, and a follow-up.  Your staff is there to teach you, but they can't read your mind.  Ask for the things you need - for the sake of your development as a teacher and for your current and future students.  If you're uncomfortable, frame your question in a manner that focuses on your students.  It's better to be the one person who speaks up and then learns something than to be the other twenty who are afraid to speak up and then go home wondering about something all night because they thought someone would snicker at their question.

Be productive during the day.  Spend your down time at school (yes, there will likely be some) working on lesson plans.  Minimize the work you have to do at the end of the day.  And when school ends, start working immediately.  Work during dinner.  This will get you to bed at a reasonable hour, and sleep deprivation makes institute unbearable.  With a bit of work you can have your lights out by 10 o'clock.

Deadlines are not flexible.  Meet them.  If for some reason this will be a problem, talk to your CMA (or other staff member) immediately.  There are situations where it's better to ask forgiveness than permission.  Institute is not one of them.

Do not stress about your fall placement.  Maybe you're teaching something different than you teach at institute.  Maybe you don't have a placement.  Maybe you dislike your placement.  There isn't anything you can do about it.  Many people go through institute unplaced or with placements different from their institute placement.  Regardless of where you'll end up, you will be better off with a productive summer. Don't worry more than is necessary.

Do not despair.  If you don't click with your collaborative or some of your staff members, that's okay.  Institute can be a tough place to find your groove.  Almost 50,000 people applied to Teach For America, and you were one of the 5,000 or so people chosen.  You're here for a reason.  Nobody slips through the cracks - you were chosen.  Institute is not an attempt to weed out corps members - every bit of feedback you get (including any professionalism concerns documented by your CMA) is focused on your development.  Your school team and collaborative group members bring a lot to the table.  Leverage all of their experiences relentlessly.  It will pay off.

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