updates for 06.05.2011
I'm very into New Year's Resolutions, and I thought that since my life is going to completely change in three days, I'd make a fresh set of resolutions, specifically tailored to my TFA experience. Without further ado, here they are:
Here’s an interesting NY Times article on outspoken teachers losing their jobs over Facebook posts, which has sparked a debate over professional responsibility vs. freedom of speech outside the classroom. I think we in the teaching profession hold the added responsibility of always being on the job. We are not only teachers but role models, super heroes, mentors, friends, and day-time parents. Remember that weird thrill that came from seeing your teacher doing some mundane task outside of school, like grocery shopping? Imagine if you'd overheard that teacher venting that she wouldn't throw you a life vest if you were drowning in the ocean. Ouch.[/caption] Partially, I think I doubt TFA because I doubt myself as a teacher. I doubt my ability to give my students the high-quality education I feel they deserve and therefore doubt any organization that will give me that magnitude of responsibility after only 5 weeks of training. Each day when I enter the classroom, no matter how thoroughly I’ve prepared, I don’t know if anything I do that day will result in my students actually learning. My kids’ education is my job and I’m still just a student myself. *Next post will be a 2-parter and something I've wanted to write on for quite a while: the differences between the American and Taiwanese public education systems. They're very different and make for quite an interesting comparison, and while both have their individual strengths and weaknesses, I think both countries could learn a lot from each other. Stay tuned!
I have said goodbye to the students and staff of my school for the year. The book has pretty much closed on my sixth year working for and leading reform at the building level here in Saint Louis at my original placement school. In just 10 days, I will journey to Chicago to serve as a school director for some incoming 2001 CMs from the Saint Louis, Jacksonville, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Twin Cities regions. I am experiencing the same panic they probably are at this moment as we hang precipitously on the edge of our summer school assignment. With such heightened focus on continuously increasing the rigor of the TFA training model, I wonder if I'm ready or if I even can be. The bar just continues to rise, albeit in a very great way. My institute experience in 2005 in Los Angeles was at the very start of the data/tracking movement within TFA and there were only four institutes across the country with a loosely implemented curriculum that has now evolved into Institute Student Curriculum (ISC). I taught Chemistry in a collaborative at the now famous Green Dot run Locke High School in Watts. Now there are 8 institutes nationwide with plans for 9 next summer, I find this expansion simply phenomenal and the strategically planned growth the organization has experienced is inspiring. The achievement gap will close, and we are closer now than ever to making that happen. I am ready to lead a school in Chicago, I must be, as I have a staff of 7, ~60 CMs and ~600 students counting on me. Whoohoo, my seatbelt is buckled!
My principal hired me sight unseen - in fact, we never even talked on the phone or emailed until the first day of district orientation - so it's interesting to read about you newbies interviewing for your positions. And by "interesting," I mean "I am entertained by your suffering." I was one of approximately four thousand CMs at my school. The school building itself was a crisp gleaming piece of modern prison architecture, and the principal was competent and honest, even if the rumor mill was accurate and she originally got her job through sweet, sweet nepotism. The district couldn't hire or retain local teachers for love or money, though (more on that later), so we didn't run into that grumble grumble carpetbagging do-gooders sentiment that CMs elsewhere did. The handful of real teachers in my department snuggled me to their bosoms, in one case literally. Many of the CMs in my region moved into gated communities and upscale housing complexes. I did not. I rented an ancient bungalow near my school. I could play this off like I was trying to integrate into the community I was serving, but my real reason is that, as I may have mentioned once or twice, I am terrified of rich people, much more scared of them than I am of muggings and whatnot. I got a dog with orange eyebrows and settled in to my new home. My neighbor across the street was a wizened old man who sat on his porch all day with his own orange-eyebrowed dog and his shotgun, wearing a wifebeater and boxer shorts and gesturing threateningly at any anyone who looked remotely like a thug, drug dealer, police officer or social worker, so our block was quite secure. I felt immediately at home. We didn't get paid until the end of September, so I couldn't afford furniture right away. I slept in the bathtub. Wordpress told me to tag this "boxer" and "drug dealer police officer." Will do, Wordpress.
Four days ago, early in the morning, I pulled away from my parents' house in Oregon. My two years in Phoenix began behind the wheel of a red Camry, filled to capacity. After two days of driving, and with the help of a marvelously supportive girlfriend, I arrived in the desert. My first step towards TFA was months ago, when I clicked "submit" on my application. However, this was the first of many steps that actualize what I am undertaking. In Ms. Lora's story, part of our pre-work, walking into her classroom was a "no turning back" step. In my story, the act of moving was my first step where I truly felt that I was committing. There will be many more, I'm sure, but this was my Step One. For now, it's pre-work, seeing Phoenix, and loading up on sleep while I can. I'm still waiting to hear back from the school I interviewed with, but wherever I land, I'm excited to make a difference with my students.
This has been a long time coming. I decided I wanted to become an educator and work on behalf of children and families early on into my freshmen year of college. Over the past few years, I have shoveled out money and spent countless hours reviewing for expensive and intense education exams. I have buried myself into books of theory and practice in pedagogy and methods classes. I have slaved and lost sleep, instead spending the late night hours reviewing (obsessively) tomorrow's lesson plans. Are these directions clear enough? Will the students respond well to this question? What color tie am I going to wear with this shirt? I won't forget the students I worked with on my way here. I won't forget the little girl I helped learn English after her and her mother escaped an abusive home and came to Ohio from Texas. I won't forget the second grader with Asperger Syndrome who kicked me in the shin one day. I won't forget the time my freshmen students donned Renaissance Fair-esque outfits and did reader's theatre to Romeo and Juliet or teaching Bruce Springsteen's lyrics as poetry to my behaviorally challenged seniors. I remember a second grade boy with whom I worked one-on-one with and how he went from not being able to read a sentence to being able to read me a small book. Perhaps my favorite memory is my student teaching semester at Parkersburg High School, home of the Big Reds, Ms. Mary Weber (the best teacher I've ever come across, and arguably the best mentor), and the wonderful Freshmen I had the privilege of working with. I taught them The Odyssey, and what an odyssey it was. For months we followed Odysseus from Calypso's Island to the underworld and back to Ithaca. I remember the horrible feeling of certain lessons tanking, of my car being totaled by a drunk driver, and when August felt so very far away from December. In my own right, I felt like Odysseus himself. But we persevered, me and them. Test scores increased dramatically and I got kids who wouldn't even make eye contact with me to hug me goodbye and write me farewell cards on my last day. That did it for me. That experience solidified and reaffirmed my sense of purpose. At 22, I knew what I wanted to do and I had the opportunity right in front of me. This was good. I applied to Teach For America in August. I had a phone interview in September. I was invited to participate in the final interview in October. I was forty-something minutes late and ran like Forrest Gump up and down the Ohio State University campus until I finally realized that my GPS got the address wrong and I needed to be ten minutes across town. I have never driven a car so brazenly in my life. Odysseus continued to influence my life, as I used a lesson from my teaching of The Odyssey as my sample. However, I had to condense about forty-five minutes worth of material and teaching into just five. It seemed impossible, but I did it, and I didn't miss a beat, even though my heart was pounding and sweat beads formed on my terrified forehead as I showed up late that day. My interviewer asked me "what happened" and I basically told her. We then went into my own experiences with life and with teaching, and then I was informed I would hear back in November. I drove back to Marietta, Ohio, where I planned the next day's lesson with my students and we pressed on. On November 9th, I tested them on part II of The Odyssey, when, during 8th Period, I received an email that I had indeed been selected and offered a position to teach in Metro Atlanta (my first regional preference). As my students concentrated and focused on their matching section, I let out a rhapsodic yelp and started jumping up and down. They soon joined in, if only for about one minute, before I realized that we were still taking a test. I put them back to work as my heart fluttered furiously. I cannot express the happiness I felt as I shared this news with my family around the Thanksgiving table, or as I booked my flight to come visit Atlanta in January for an interview fair. I wrapped up student teaching, received my teaching license, got a job waiting tables at a local Carrabba's (always choose Carrabba's over Olive Garden). The visit in January was wonderful and I got to meet many great future colleagues who I have only become closer with over time. My group would be placed in Gwinnett County, Georgia, a district which I feel incredibly proud to be a part of. A snowstorm left me stranded here for seven days longer than I had intended, but I had fun; I'm moving in with my best friend and we were meant to live together. So that sort of gets you up to speed on who I am, how I got here, and why I'm here. In between, I bought a new car, endured crazy scheduling at the restaurant (once, a 21 shift-in-a-row stretch, and had a fantastic going away dinner with my best friends (Chef Vola's in Atlantic City is a must...if you can get in). Am I a boxer? No. Let me explain. When thinking of my future career and the role teachers play in our country, especially teachers in areas of high need, the metaphor of the boxer came to me right away. The achievement gap is undoubtedly the foe in the other corner who needs to be knocked cold to the ground. I feel as though I've been training for this moment all of my life. And I think I'm good; I've gotten great reviews and feedback and received many awards on my way to this point. However, I have no doubt that no experience I've ever taken on in my life has been nearly as challenging as the one I'm about to embark upon. Nonetheless, I will continue to train, to build my strength, to prepare for this battle, and to believe in the power of optimism and hard work. I've never given up before. It would be a lie to say I have never failed before, but I never let that stop me or debilitate me. And no cause, in my eyes, is more worth fighting for than our children. Our children are the future (obviously) but our children are also plain and simply wonderful; they deserve every opportunity they can get and we need to make sure that they are given the tools and the resources necessary to nurture their own potential and realize what they can do in this world. As the first member of my family to go to college and to get out of New Jersey, I know firsthand the serious and sacred value of an empowering education. My Mom made sure that I got into a good school, stuck with it, and came out successful- no matter what sacrifices or night terrors came along because of it. When I spoke to my graduating class at Marietta College on Mother's Day last year, I dedicated that speech to her, because she really did push me to get to this point and to dream big, but to work hard and realize that hard work is the vehicle to dreams. I plan on dedicating every moment I'm in that classroom to my Mother- and to ever Mother- to every parent, mentor, coach, confidante, advocate, friend, to every person who has ever touched a child by believing in them, encouraging them, supporting them, and helping them realize what they can do. I got here last Thursday. I moved into Georgia Tech on Tuesday. Induction began on Wednesday. It has been a whirlwind of sleepless nights, endless days, weird bricks (yes, we painted, personalized, and carried around bricks) whose purpose is still unknown, lots of paperwork, an excessive amount of perkiness in early mornings, and meeting new people- great people. Leaders, hard workers, ambitious professionals, and dedicated souls to a movement that means the world. Today was the first free day we've had since. Naturally, I slept until 12:30 like I was a high schooler in the summertime again. Institute begins tomorrow (but really Monday), and I'm sure that the demands and rigors will only intensify tenfold. Bring it on. Back to the boxer. Another aspect that made me embrace this "motif" (if you will) was the very real fact that I am about to get my ass kicked. I expect many bruises and blows along the way. Teaching is difficult, and being under a microscope of scrutiny makes it even more painful when our best moments seem far away. I am also sure that the kids I have are not all instantly going to run up to me and hug me like I'm the Kool Aid man. I anticipate challenges in my instruction and in my rapport with my students. But, like I said, I've been training for this moment all my life. I can take the hits. At this point I am expecting anything... But, please, no Tyson-Holyfield moments. I like my ears right where they are.
The past two days have been an whirlwind of education, socialization and reflection. We heard a panel from our district speak about policy and education, met the First Lady of Georgia, visited the capital, toured our districts by bus, volunteered at local schools, and held discussions on diversity. The past few days have given me a better idea about the context of the education issue in Atlanta and in Georgia overall. I have also met some truly incredible people, and I know we are ready to hit the ground running in our classrooms. It's inspiring to be around so many intelligent, driven, passionate people with a common purpose. The past few days have been an opportunity to unpack some of my own biases that may follow me into the classroom. I didn't realize that sometimes in lower income communities, students may have never left their part of town. Perhaps they are not aware that institutes for higher learning such as Emory, Morehouse, Agnes, GSU and GA Tech are just a few miles away. It is our job as educators to make kids aware of the opportunities around them and prepare them to be competitive in college. I also know that while I can be an excellent teacher and garner rigorous levels of academic achievement, it is important to get successful members of my students' community involved in their classroom. This will allow students to see the opportunities for them in their own backyard, and be spoken to and believed in by someone who is from a more similar walk of life. Tomorrow the corps from other regions will come to Atlanta, and we will begin our 5-week teacher boot camp process called Institute. I'm trying to make the most of this time by completing my pre-work and pushing through additional readings. My transition team leader has also helped by encouraging my group to take the time to reflect on our sessions and really own our experience. TFA has tons of resources, but in order to access them we need to be able to ask for help and be self-aware enough to know what we need help with. I'm excited to start planning lessons, implementing classroom management techniques, and overcoming the challenges of teaching.
I am finally free from the school that I have been teaching at all year. After a week of awful, awful incidences and terrible happenings, I received my paycheck, packed up my classroom, and said my goodbyes. I left knowing that my babies grew so much and are definitely ready for Kindergarten. I am pretty excited looking at the end which is really a beginning for me...I am now going to be working for a school who actually supports their teachers and actually advocates for children, and that alone is beyond comforting. In 2 days I will be meeting 150 new friends who all have the same goal as me...help close the achievement gap in Oklahoma and make this place better! With all this excitement has come a lot less sleep, mostly because my brain is thinking so many things I really can't sleep properly...I have the oddest dreams, which wake me up, and often give me heartburn. BUT I started making my lists and packing today and I feel a little more comfortable about the next few weeks. I have Exercise 8 to finish and some Pre-Induction reading to do before Monday, packing to do, and I am getting my car detailed for the drive to Phoenix (because no one wants my boxers hair all over them or their belongings ;-) ) I need to buy a few last minute things on my list but I really think I am prepared and ready...I might have too many clothes, but I just decided that I can't stress over it! Induction is in 2 days and I can't wait to update on all the happenings! Until then, keep Tulsa in you're thoughts...we have had a large amount of violence and shootings in the last week and it really has me a little on edge in general!!
Sometimes I find myself drawn to the homicide reports in the LAtimes. I zoom in on the area where my school is located. It has the largest red circle of the LA metropolitan area (denoting the most homicides this year). I search the list for names I know, or deaths that are between 12 and 16 (meaning I might have taught them in my three years at the school). Then I zoom in on our block and run the mouse over the red dots to see the names of those who died near the school. I never found anything familiar until today. First, I found the report of my student's father who was shot two weeks ago. Then I saw a name of a 15 year old girl. The name looked just like that of a girl I had three years ago. I read over the article but I couldn't remember any of the words I was reading, just her face and how shy she was and praying this wasn't the same girl. I can't find any photos. I think maybe the last name was different. I can't stop searching through articles and Facebook profiles trying to find some proof that she is not my same student. As if that even matters. She is still another 15 year old girl, shot dead in our neighborhood.
I am in Gallup! I took the first of my teacher certification tests this morning (I have another one this afternoon) and as a side note it was so easy that it makes me sad that this is the benchmark for who is qualified to teach kids. Also makes me sad that the very nice man sitting next to me was obviously having a really hard time with it. I sat outside afterwards for a few minutes. It's a beautiful, sunny day with that kind of high altitude sun warmth you can feel in your bones. The air smells faintly of woodsmoke from the forest fires happening across the border in AZ. I'm sitting, looking out over the rocky hills at the hazy, desolate, beautiful land around me, and I'm thinking I could really like it here.
phew. After a LENGTHY interview yesterday, I was given a verbal offer to teach kindergarten at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle school!!! SO EXCITED. The principal was very clear that this was a verbal offer and that it would be a few weeks before it was official, so fingers crossed everything goes as planned! Thanks to everyone who responded to my last (frantic) post! As it turned out, the principal had been deliberately vague in the directions he gave me so he could see how I would respond to suggestions from his staff when I got there. Now all I have to do is find a place to live, people to live with, and finish my pre-institute work....
After a year abroad as a public school EFL teacher, the time has almost arrived for me to say "再見 Asia" and "Hola, Miami." In preparation for the 2-year roller coaster ride that I'm about to embark upon, I saved up my vacation days for a 4-day weekend and am now enjoying the sweet, sweet fruits of my labor. I've spent the past few days lounging around trying to remember how to speak and write coherent and grammatically correct English sentences. Having lived in a non-English speaking country for the past year, this has proved more difficult that I expected as I'm constantly confusing myself by mixing up Chinese and English grammar. I also recently caught myself using the phrase "no negative positives" which I'm pretty sure doesn't mean anything in either language. So apologies in advance for any incoherent sentences in these next coming weeks. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Afraid I will be doing this much more often next year"][/caption] All the goodbyes and "lasts" have got me thinking back to the beginning of the school year. Despite my unique teaching situation,* I am positive that my year in front of the classroom has been invaluable in my education as an educator (you see what I did there?). I've matured, learned an incredible amount about myself both as a person and an aspiring awesome teacher, and most importantly, learned just how much I have left to learn. I can now speak to both my weaknesses and strengths - and I have an idea of exactly how much hard work it is going to take to overcome my weaknesses before they negatively manifest in my future classroom. That being said, I'm not even a social drinker of the TFA Kool-Aid. A year in the classroom has made me increasingly skeptical of the effectiveness of TFA's teacher training preparation, and just more skeptical in general. Firstly, I can't imagine having taken on a TFA assignment last year as I had originally planned -- not to mention that I would've been teaching Special Education with no prior training or experience. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="250" caption="This doesn't have much to do with anything, I just don't like long blocks of text. But really, SqeezIts were rad"][/caption] Did I think I could achieve my definition of success as a Special Ed teacher last year when I accepted the offer? I 110% whole-heartedly really truly did. Do I think that I could now, even after a year of starting to learn the ropes? Definitely not. I'd be in way over my head and dragging my students down with me.
I honestly feel that I would have done my students a great disservice as their Special Education teacher, struggling to climb the steep learning curves of classroom management and meaningful instruction. While I don't have any personal experience with Institute (yet) I can't imagine that 4 weeks in the classroom is nearly enough to prepare inexperienced young people to become the effective, dynamic educators that they undoubtedly could be. Without going into the details of some of TFA's less-than-stellar aspects (mysterious attrition rates, rumored "favoritism" of corps members and that the organization knowingly places Delta corps members in schools that use corporal punishment) I'm openly skeptical about the organization's current role in the education debates and reforms that are happening throughout America. I'll wait to expand on these sentiments until I'm back in America.
However skeptical I am of TFA as an organization, I do agree with TFA's mission to bring educational equality to the American public schools system. I passionately believe that all children deserve access to nothing less than the best education our country can offer them -- which begins with high-quality classroom teachers. I'm incredibly thankful to be entering Institute with real, tangible classroom experience. Granted, it's only a year and boy have I got a lot to learn these next few years, but I'm hooked on teaching. I'm excited for the opportunity to have my own classroom and work hard for a cause I truly believe in, supported by a team of like-minded and highly driven individuals. I'll let you know how the Kool Aid tastes once I make it to Miami in only a few short weeks. In the meantime, I'd really be interested to hear the opinions of current corps members, alums, ex-corps members, critics, supporters and the unaffiliated in regards to anything TFA. Please feel free to leave a comment below! [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="270" caption="Just do like the monkey says."][/caption] * I'm technically an assistant to a full-time local teacher, meaning that I don't have my own classroom and am not responsible for the classroom management or academic growth of my students. My experience is similar to student teaching but sans the ongoing training or professional development. Like I said, unique. More on the differences between international education systems in a later post. It's gonna be a good one.
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