Didymath

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 10 2013

#74: Lessons to unlearn from Institute, No. 2 – “Hype”

Institute has a pretty classic narrative structure. Induction is your exposition, setting the scene. Your rising action: first day jitters, getting your dorm room, ice breakers, the first big pep rally where you stand with your regional compatriots: it’s college all over again! Then, teaching for the first time, being excited to meet your students, etc. Do they do well on their exit tickets? Did your classroom management fare well? Climax depends on if your story is a comedy or tragedy, but it might be some triumph in the classroom or your kids results on the exit assessment. Maybe it’s the big pep rally at the end where you stand with your summer school teaching compatriots. The falling action is you packing everything up, the denouement your doleful departure.

Institute is a glamorous time and place, now that I look back at it. Unlike the relative banality of actual teaching, it is a climate-controlled environment designed for you. The dining hall chefs are here to prepare food for you(1). The TFA staff are there to serve you. Discussions about students achievement ultimately circle back to what you can do to affect it. Those massive pep rallies are there to inspire you to action.

The implicit lesson is that you are the protagonist in the fight for educational equity. Whether or not your story is a comedy or tragedy depends on your efforts, your ability to access unknown strengths or overcome hidden weaknesses. Your students are important to your story, but they are the supporting characters. You will see shades of this in other TFA training events, too. For example, our region (and I assume others) were asked to develop a “story of self” this year. I don’t remember what purpose this served, exactly, but it nonetheless was another opportunity to think about you. The outcome of all this is you start to believe your own hype of your own importance.

Teaching — as I am sure you will discover or have discovered — is not really glamorous work, though. And you are not the protagonist in that work! You are not Snow White; you’re one of the seven dwarfs. You’re Dopey. You’re not Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless, you’re Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn). You’re John McVie in Fleetwood Mac(2). Each of your students is the protagonist in his or her own story. You play a supporting role in that story, perhaps an important one, occasionally monumentally so. But with this comes a recognition that when a student stumbles, it is not a setback in your personal narrative. It’s theirs; they own it. So you play your role and guide them to more stable ground. Your scene is done. Exit stage left.

Out of Institute, you will come in guns a-blazing about universal or near-universal test mastery and college matriculation goals. You’re high on your own hype as transformational leaders. Your students have different ideas of what their goals are. You’ll talk about a Big Goal for all students to pass their state exams and that they will be ready for college. You will communicate this goal to students who routinely fail formal assessments, to students who have no family members who have set foot on a college campus, to students who are dead-set on not attending college because they can’t imagine paying someone to endure what they hate for free. By high school, many of these attitudes are calcified. If you can open doors for them they never thought possible, it’s an incredible experience for them and a fuzzy feeling for you. If you are unable to convince them of the worthiness of your goals for them, it is not a failure on your part. Listen to them and their concerns. Adjust your plans accordingly. If you temper your excitement a little and don’t believe your own hype, you are better able to connect to your students and meet their needs.

NOTES

(1) This was the case at Rice for Houston Institute. Your mileage may vary, I suppose.

(2) Or Mick Fleetwood. But, what a rhythm section!

3 Responses

  1. I think you’re right, but I don’t think anyone should read this and think “It’s ALL hype” and “Now I’m not going to do any of that” because students do need some big goals to rally around over the course of the year. But you’re 110 percent right that it’s important for a teacher to understand that the hype is a tool that you use along a long and often treacherous path. Alongside hype is reality. In order to succeed, a teacher must be in tune with reality, too.

  2. mches

    “…students do need some big goals to rally around over the course of the year.” Depending on the context, I’m inclined to dispute this. Students should have personal goals, absolutely. But the practicality of classwide goals when there is so much scheduling and transfer flux is arbitrary to me.

  3. “Each of your students is the protagonist in his or her own story. You play a supporting role in that story, perhaps an important one, occasionally monumentally so. But with this comes a recognition that when a student stumbles, it is not a setback in your personal narrative. It’s theirs; they own it”

    Yes, yes, yes. So much yes to this whole post, but especially to the above.

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"Brilliant, stunning analysis…" – Diane Ravitch

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High School
Subject
Special Education

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