After one month at Institute (training) in Los Angeles, I am learning that teaching is a careful balance- both inside and outside the classroom. These are three of the dichotomies I juggle every day:
Personal/Professional Alignment (PPA)
This Teach for America acronym (one of thousands) refers to the idea that healthy, happy teachers are better teachers. The staff constantly encourages us to take time for ourselves each day, to take Saturdays off, and to maintain our long distance and local friendships. For many, this has been the most difficult part of Institute. While working 90 hour weeks, it seems impossible to sleep, let alone to exercise, reflect, call home, or drop the unending work for the weekend.
I feel certain that my Institute experience would not have been as positive if the Induction coordinators had not exposed me to the idea of non-negotiables: the things I am unwilling to give up each day. During Induction, I set a goal to work out daily and to sleep every night of Institute. So, when I arrive at Loyola Marymount from Stevenson every day at 5:15pm, I do the Insanity workout with a group of Los Angeles corps members at 5:30pm, eat dinner at 6:30pm, lesson plan, and go to sleep by midnight. Not only do I feel prepared for each day, but I am in better shape than I was in college. In addition, I take Friday night and Saturday off. My corps friends and I have explored, with the help of some Los Angeles natives, bars and beaches in West Hollywood, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, and Hermosa every weekend. Plus, I call my mom every morning on the way to school, which always sets a positive tone for the day. (Love you, Mama!)
Mastery and Remediation
My seventh grade math students have difficulty adding and subtracting positive and negative integers, multiplying and dividing decimals, and understanding the connection between fractions, decimals, and percents. These are foundational skills that they should have mastered by now, and it is crippling our ability to move forward on more complicated topics as a class: conversion of fractions to decimals and percents, exponent manipulation, and market math (discount, commission, interest). This summer, I am charged with exposing these students to 19 pre-algebra objectives. There is very little flexibility in the unit plan I have been given, and many days, we are not successful as a class. I have cried several times out of shear frustration with my students’ math backgrounds. How could they have been promoted this far while repeatedly failing elementary math tasks?
Nevertheless, we are moving forward. My students, as a class, achieved mastery on evaluating exponents on Thursday and on multiplying and dividing exponents yesterday. They began the summer with a 30% class average and have progressed to a 51% class average, meaning that they will likely reach their 63% class average goal and their individual summer goals when we take our post-test on Thursday. I am more proud of them than I can express. Without a doubt, the best part of my day is standing in front of them.
Responsibility for Student Achievement and Locus of Control
Teach for America uses an Academic Impact Model (AIM) to facilitate student achievement. Simply put, teacher mindsets, knowledge, and skills impact teacher actions, which impact student actions, which ultimately impact student achievement. For example, if I believe that all students are capable of learning a given objective, and I increase the effectiveness and reliability of my checks for understanding in class, my students will be given a greater opportunity to practice our objective and will perform well on our assessment. This is easily said, but my students’ prior educational experiences, family situations, and attitudes about school can all impact their willingness to participate in my class and to actively learn.
Our most recent Diversity, Community, and Achievement session challenged us to maintain high expectations for our students and to take responsibility for their progress. It is so easy to let some students slide when we become aware of the fact that they are staying up nights to take care of their siblings or that they are actually homeless or that they have a learning disability. In form or content, we make their assignments easier and carry a mindset that we should not further burden them. The challenge is to understand what is in our locus of control (teaching students in the classroom) and to continue to hold these students to the same high expectations as the others, understanding that achievement will be more difficult for them, but that they are capable of carrying the load- even if it means creating extra homework packets for them, holding tutoring sessions, or making house visits.
I realized yesterday that I had let my behavioral expectations for Frankie dip below my expectations for the other students. He is my lowest achiever in math, has ADD and a hearing disorder, and rarely participates in class. I have been working with him individually to complete assessments, and I began to let him avoid participation in class without consequences. This does not benefit him. He will not be successful in math this year if I do not require active participation and high engagement, so I finally began giving him the consequences he required. I am looking forward to watching his progress during our last week, as I try to convey to him how important this summer is to setting him up for success in the fall.
This is one of the most controversial TFA concepts, because it requires superhuman effort. While it is true that students are responsible for their learning, it is also true that the public education system has not served them in a way that has necessarily prepared them to understand their role in their own achievement. As such, teachers must never falter in their support for students and in their high standards. A student may make the negative decision to opt out one day, but the next day is made for a second and third and thousandth chance, which the teacher must always provide.
For the kids,