Texas Flood

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 31 2008

Summative Assessment (Pts. 3 & 5)


TFA

I’m proud and relieved to be able to say, honestly, that at this point in the game I have no really significant complaints about Teach for America as an organization. I realize that, as a current member, I’m somewhat biased in terms of seeing my organization through rose-tinted lenses, but I’ll also remind you of what I mentioned in my first post—I have a cynical streak that can be a mile wide, and there’s nothing that would usually bring it out like the do-gooder-filled, jargon-laden, i-banker-wannabe nature of Teach for America. And while TFA is all of these things, I am thus far convinced that in five weeks, they’ve prepared me for teaching in my classroom in ways that I’d argue exceed even the preparations of some of my friends in four year teacher preparation programs. Can increased quality make up for a lack of quantity? I think that remains to be seen—though TFA would say that there’s plenty of data that attests to that fact already, I’m more interested in how it plays out local to my classroom/world.

The summer institute was a lot of work. A lot of this work was irrelevant in many ways to what I’ll be doing this fall—I taught math and therefore prepared myriad lesson plans, worksheets, and assessments designed for first semester geometry students, rather than chemistry—but in other ways, there’s a common denominator to all the classrooms that we were in over our four weeks. We were all getting to beta test our teacher selves, sort of giving ourselves dry runs as educators in a situation that was slightly less intense in some ways and greatly more intense in others. I’ve heard it said that if you can thrive (or even just keep your head above water) during institute, you’ll be decently-prepared for the fall. I’ve also heard that the first year of teaching is exponentially harder than any of the sleep deprivation or CS sessions or inane WIDWATWs (my favorite acronym) of institute. I think I believe both of these things, and look forward to the challenge.

Content wise, I’m fairly well-prepared, though that doesn’t have anything to do with Teach for America. When it comes to teaching chemistry, I might be a little out of my depth, but I feel confident that I’ll be able to improvise something at least halfway interesting, compelling, and informative.  When it comes to lesson planning, developing measurable goals and aligned assessments, and making the best possible use out of the time I have in the classroom, I feel like I’m as well prepared as any first year teacher could be. A whole semester of student teaching or observing/shadowing a teacher in a local school would certainly teach me quite a bit—sort of like a residency for teaching—but I think that, lacking that, the TFA Institute did as good of a job as possible. My FA (faculty advisor) was amazing in terms of being both incredibly supportive and simultaneously constructively critical, and my CMA (corps member advisor) was just a generally solid, intelligent, and grounded person when that was exactly the sort of person needed amidst the chaos of Moody Towers.

So what would I change? That’s hard to say. Most of my grievances with Teach for America are with the culture of the organization, rather than with the organization itself, and are more microscopic than macroscopic. What I mean by that is that I think, at times, TFA can take itself too seriously. The mission is dire, the work is serious business, and it’s imperative that we approach our mission with a  sense of urgency and attention, but I feel like we’re all working so hard to assume overnight the mantle of being grown-up, “professional”, and all sorts of other adjectives that we lose sight of the commonalities that brought us here in the first place. When I read about the earlier Institutes as places where a radical movement grew, and which buzzed with energy and ideas, and where people wore more Birkenstocks than Manolo Blahniks, it makes me nostalgic. Not necessarily for Birkenstocks—I don’t think I’ll ever bring that particular component of my life, Havianas are much more comfortable, not to mention 1/10th the price—but for the idea of young people with a lot of focused energy and excitement and passion for something. I think the corporate culture of TFA, while to some extent necessary to recruit and retain people who ultimately want to land cushy jobs as consultants, bankers, lawyers, or politicians, and to another extent necessary to cohesively manage such a gigantic organization, can kind of put a damper on everyone’s core values that brought them to TFA in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. The energy is still there, bubbling under a calm exterior of half Windsors and pantsuits, but it’s shaped through linguistic conduits such as our core values, things which everyone has/had and believes/believed in when they first joined, but which become punch lines when they’re beaten into the ground like the proverbial dead horse. So I guess that’s my delta—and it’s not one that generalizable to the whole organization, but only to some of the people who get caught up in being part of that organization, and lose sight of the original reasons they joined, and of the people they were when they joined. One of the smartest people I know observed once that most non-profits are essentially “poorly-run businesses” and that this was a shame, and TFA seems to be able to defy this, perhaps due to its adoption of so many things that work for in corporate America. But if TFA extends this too far, it will lose its resonance with those people who are most passionate about change, and who are passionate about engaging in this change as a life pursuit, rather than as a means to other ends.

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