I have to say, I intended to write a lot more when I joined North Park Street. But, I am in the middle of Teach for America’s summer institute, and, as those of you who have been following us for two years or more know, Institute is an intense “teacher boot camp” in every sense. I get, on average, five hours of sleep a night—for comparison, in Madison I was getting about ten a night. I’m eating dorm food in small quantities, and usually my meals are five to six hours apart. Back in Madison, I ate something like five or six “meals” a day every few hours or so. Needless to say, it’s been an adjustment.
Let’s not forget that sleeping and meals are my “personal time,” taking up a grand total of seven out of twenty-four hours in my day. If you’re anything like me, you can’t imagine what you’d possibly fill seventeen waking hours with. Let me tell you, now I know.
My day starts at 5:30AM. At best, I have been asleep for 6.5 hours. I shower, dress in my professional get-up—heels, skirt or slacks, the works. By 6:15, I have already picked up my lunch (why yes, it does come in a bag… and I do ride a school bus to and from school…) and started to pick up my breakfast. I eat for 25-30 minutes, fill my water bottle, then get on the bus. Last week, my bus departed at promptly 6:55AM, which meant that I had to start walking to the bus at 6:45. Last night, there was widespread celebration amongst everyone at my school site because our bus departure time was moved back to 7:30AM. I tell you, I will never feel the same way about having to be somewhere at 9AM again.
The morning is the easy part. Last week, before I started teaching real kids, I spent nine hours a day in “sessions” which covered anything and everything from behavior management, how to teach literacy, how to design a vision for both a classroom and a daily lesson, and much more. Sometimes we did “fun” things like check out what kind of resources we had available for academic intervention time (or AIT). At 4:30, I got to go home (to my dorm), take about ten minutes to change, about 30-40 minutes for dinner. Then lesson plans…
Oh, the lesson plans. The first time I discovered designing lessons might be kind of hard was back in April when I taught my first model lesson at Catalyst-Howland (the school I’ll be teaching at in the fall). I realize now that this was a mistake. Writing lessons is incredibly hard. My first lesson plan (which I executed today, thank you very much) was six pages long and took me five hours to write, not including all the prep work I did such as reading the chapter book I was going to use in my lesson. You have to plan for every contingency, envision perfectly what it looks like when your class achieves your objective and meta-cognitively know exactly how to get them there. And you can imagine, if you finish dinner at 6PM, and you have a target bedtime of 10:30PM and your to-do list is 20 lines long and growing, the task of writing a slightly-better-than-mediocre lesson plan might seem prohibitively stressful.
You would be exactly right about that. Each time I embark on a new large task—like drafting a new lesson—it seems impossible. I am almost crushed by the weight of it. But this Institute is an exercise in perseverance and constant recognition of what is at stake and what you are responsible for. If I write a mediocre lesson because I’m tired and I took a little too long to chill out and watch netflix, one of my kids might not learn an objective they’ll be held accountable for on Illinois state assessments. All of my kids right now are in summer school. If they don’t get good enough grades, or they don’t pass the ISAT (the state assessment), they will be held back from seventh grade. Instead of being put on a track of success leading to a love of learning and a college trajectory, they’ll be labeled as a kid who can’t learn as well or who shouldn’t be concerned with success and high standards. This, I’ve found out, is categorically false and dangerous thinking.
Last week, I tested the kids in my class for their reading proficiency. The Institute staff prepared us to test kids 2-4 levels below their actual grade level. Every kid I tested read at or above their grade level. This seemed like incredibly good news. I realized that I would get to spend the summer teaching them how to draw deeper meaning from a text that they could use to change the way that they looked at the world and the people in it. For the first time, I was super excited to be a teacher.
Leading up to this experience, if I had to pick one word to describe my feelings about becoming a teacher, it would be “terrified.” What if I can’t handle the workload? What if I’m awful? What if my students don’t respect me? What if I collapse from exhaustion in the middle of the classroom? What if I’m too weak to take on these challenges? I approached the TFA atmosphere with an attitude of “don’t drink the kool-aid.” I was determined to remain suspicious of TFA’s rhetoric and mentality. What if the achievement gap can’t be closed? Aren’t we setting ourselves and our kids up for failure?
I will say, while I still approach this new career with a heavy dose of uncertainty, I have found the reason why I am here. I love knowledge. I love trying to figure out the mechanics of how I read and knowing that I can systematically communicate my personal skill to a group of kids. Teaching isn’t just about fluff and “building relationships”—something those of you who know me may understand is not my forte—it’s hardcore. It’s about extreme intelligence combined with extraordinary compassion. Do you know how introspective and smart you have to be to be both incredibly skilled at something and then break it down such that someone who has none of the intuitive clues that you do can attain that skill in the space of a few hours? The transfer of knowledge has always been critically important to the sustenance of society, and I am now—if I wasn’t before—honored to join the ranks of those who do this for a living.
I AM TEACHER. HEAR ME ROAR.