Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 06 2013

#71: Lessons to unlearn from Institute, No. 1 – “Work Ethic”

2013 TFA teachers: you are finished with Institute or are about to finish. You’ve spent hours poring over lesson plans, listening intently to feedback from your advisors(1), attending session after session, and reflecting more than a funhouse mirror. You’ve been staying up late and getting up early for a month-plus. You are probably exhausted.

This is no accident. An implicit lesson of TFA’s Institute is that, in order to perform your job well, you will have to burn the candle at both ends. Perhaps in the corporate world or some high-powered law firms or working as a staffer on Capitol Hill or whatever it is TFA really wants you to do, it isn’t unusual to work 70 or 80-hour weeks. But for the purpose of training new teachers to become career teachers, this is an insidious practice and is a lesson that must be unlearned.

My Institute experience was atypical. I had taught for a year prior to Institute, so I was eager to learn some new things and open to suggestion, but I also had some confidence going into classrooms and an idea of what a basic lesson looked like. So, here’s my dirty Institute secret: I never stayed up past midnight. In fact, I was in bed by 11 PM most nights. I was fortunate to have a wonderful working partner who was able and willing to split duties in the interest of not dying of sleep deprivation. We were still tired because the days were long, but it was nothing compared to the horror stories of many of our colleagues who were going it alone and staying up until 3 or 4 AM working on lessons.

One of the things I started to learn to do after that first year was to draw lines in the sand and say, “Not past this point(2).” It is incredibly easy to want to “finish” everything you can possibly do: contacting parents, finalizing lessons, making copies, looking at data, tidy up your class for the next day. But that list is not exhaustive, and there is always something else you can do which means you can never, ever leave your school. Or, you can learn to prioritize between what must be done and what would be nice if it were done. This is the difference between teachers who go home by 5 and those who go home at 7.

The common analogy is that Institute is a sprint and teaching is a marathon. I think the fierce urgency of NOW NOW NOW that Institute encourages is probably counterproductive to your success as a teacher. Unfortunately, you’ve been hyped up as someone who has a superior work ethic, so you are going to feel intense pressure to keep this pace up. Unless you are a ghost and do not need sleep on account of being dead, this ain’t happening without some serious mental health strain which does not a fine teacher make.

I feel like the sprint-marathon construct is helpful, too, for another reason. If TFA teaches you to sprint, you will exhaust yourself right out of the profession. Your two-year commitment will fly by and you’ll be eager to find some other job that isn’t so mentally and physically draining. On the other hand, if you treat your professional growth as part of a years-long process(3), you can slow down a bit. If you can make peace with the fact that you probably won’t be an excellent teacher after two years, you can focus on continual growth over many years and the day-to-day challenges of being a teacher will become more manageable. Now you don’t have to conquer the world so darn quickly.

For your proverbial self-portrait, you can look at a bigger canvas. Ah, suddenly I have room for these other things in my life! For me, it means more time for my wife and son at home. When you achieve a sane work-life balance, you can stop being the job. You may come to realize that you actually are a better teacher this way.


(1) Who, I’m guessing based on probability, have 1 or 2 years of teaching experience.

(2) In the interest of being geometrically correct, “this point” is a point which resides on the line you just drew in the sand.

(3) How many years, you ask? Well, it took Michael Jordan 7 years to win his first NBA championship. So, let’s say 7 years for giggles.

3 Responses

  1. Mike Sacken

    Such a great counterpoint perspective – teaching is a zero sum game & you can easily turn it into a zeroing out of all other aspects of life but futile efforts to get everything prepared/completed.

    I also liked your description of sharing the work and thus creating more time for 2 people – dedicated to needed sleep. I use obsessively a principle that you’d think was self-evident, except that teaching remains an isolated experience on average: We cannot do this alone. Simple but countervailing to the norms of teaching. Isolation is a path to sleeplessness, then frustration, then despair. It isn’t that hard to get off that path downwards.

    Very useful commentary, as always.

  2. Wess

    Love this!
    If I would’ve read it at or just after Institute, though, it would have gone in one ear and out the other. In the short term, I saw so much more of a correlation between staying up till three “finishing” everything and actually seeing improvements than I ever saw long term.

    And the fatigue I faced in the long term was about so much more than sleep. It was about trying to make every breath I took about my kids, every moment about student achievement and continuously increasing effectiveness, and forgetting I was a person who was failing at something and needed to give myself some TLC.

  3. extfa

    The Institute as sprint, teaching as marathon analogy is apt. If you train for a marathon by doing sprints, you’ll die. You train for a marathon gradually, sensibly.

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