Soft Eyes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 14 2011

Institute is Kinda Weird

Weird, I tell you. Besides the intense, long days that you’ll hear about from everyone who’s every done it, what you don’t hear about is the really weird developmental place you’re in. The message from TFA, and it’s one that I don’t think they can stress too much, is “Hey, we know you just graduated from college and you’re high on life and all, but you need to grow right the eff up, NOW. There are children coming on Monday and they need you and you and only you are responsible for their future, so hoist up your big boy pants.” Which is exactly right, and totally scary, but it’s kind of undermined by the reality of daily life at Institute.

For starters, you’re living in super traditional dorms; most of us haven’t done that for years (while some of us, like me, never have), so you get a lot of people running around giggling saying “aww, we’re freshmen again!” It doesn’t feel very adult at all. Then you get up early in the morning, grab your backpack, put a sandwich and a cookie in a lunchbox with your name written on it sharpie so it doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else’s, and board a bright yellow school bus. Then you get to the school where you sit in little-people chairs all day and your every minute is structured and when the teacher says “1-2-3 Eyes On Me” you shut right up and listen to whatever she has to say. I get all the rationale behind all of this, but it is impossible not to feel infantilized.

In other news, while I still have no idea what I’ll actually be doing in Charlotte, for the next four weeks at least I’ll be teaching creative writing to high school students, which I couldn’t be more thrilled about. And that’s good, maybe, because the other people I’m co-teaching with seem less than thrilled. I’ll just have to be enthusiastic enough for the four of us! We had to take the pre-assessment today so we could patch up any gaps in our content mastery if need be, and I was pretty impressed both with the intensity of the exam and the quality of the texts we were asked to work with, including not just the perennial favorite “The Lottery” (which still gives me the heebie-jeebies every. time.) BUT that awesome scene from Watchmen where Rorschach has broken into Daniel’s house and his eating his beans; students were asked to talk about characterization. I know, right? Totally perfect. This is the first time I’ve seen teens asked to study Watchmen legitimately, but I hope it’s not the last. We’re meeting the teacher in charge of the project tonight, and I hope to give him a high five on his excellent taste.

I can’t wait to meet the students, even though I’m pretty terrified. My biggest worry, though, is that this class will be so chill that it won’t prepare me for being the no-nonsense adult teacher I’m going to need to be in the fall. My adviser said this class is supposed to be kind of relaxed, which is exactly what a creative writing class should be, but that’s not very helpful to me trying to develop a professional persona.

Another weird thing about TFA is that no matter how well you research it before you sign up, no matter how many feel-good recruitment events you go to, you can’t really get a sense for its culture until you’re actually in the thick of it. I’m still trying to get a handle on it, really. When I try to succinctly describe the Teach For America approach the only word I can come up with, honestly, is “American,” with all the cultural baggage both good and complicated that word implies: A worship of exceptional individuals, a hunger for biting off more than is maybe a good idea to chew, a youth-driven, DIY, haters-gonna-hate, never-tell-me-the-odds sort of mentality. It’s as inspiring as it is sometimes troublesome. Sometimes I get really into it, sometimes I think it’s a little short-sighted. But at the end of the day, you have a bunch of brilliant, dedicated people who are working tremendously hard in a teeny tiny swelteringly hot town to help kids, and it’s exciting to be in that environment. I’m really interested to see how the next few weeks play out, and I’ll try to update as often as I find time.

In the meantime, I have to go stand in a very adult line to eat my very adult dining hall dinner.

5 Responses

  1. ashwood

    Thanks for sharing institute thoughts–I start induction/institute in one week and the dorm life is that worries me the most!
    Good luck with summer school! :)

  2. elsa

    my thoughts exactly. This whole institute thing has been weird, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

  3. Wess

    I LOVE your assessment of Institute and TFA! I need to link this somewhere so I remember to refer people here when they ask. :)

  4. parus

    I hated that “1-2-3 eyes on me” thing so much that I refuse to ever use it on students, ever, even little ones. Shudder.

  5. Kurt (Community Manager)

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