Mr. Parello Sensei

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 13 2012

Two ideas on how to improve the institute experience

Institute is beginning soon for 2012 corps members, and I want to wish all new CMs good luck. I’d like to offer some quick thoughts on how TFA can improve its institutes, and brief suggestions on where corps members can turn if they don’t feel like they are getting what they need out of the experience.

In my first post on this site I said that institute was the beginning of my disillusionment with TFA, and I think that reforming the way that institute is run is a key element in improving the effectiveness of first year corps members.  I know that no five week training can ever truly prepare someone to be a teacher, but institute was particularly ineffective for me.  I attended institute in 2007 and I’m not sure what improvements, if any, have been made.  Five weeks is not a long period of time, but TFA can do a much better job preparing its corps members in that time than it did at the LA institute when I attended. Based on my experiences, here are my suggestions for how TFA can make institute a more valuable experience for its corps members.  If any of these changes have been implemented, I’d be interested in hearing from 2012 CMs about how the current institute is run:

1. Corps members need to spend more time observing veteran teachers.

Every group in institute is placed in the classroom of a veteran teacher.  At my institute we never once watched her teach.  Although teaching in front of the classroom by yourself is the most crucial part of learning how to teach, many corps members in my year were starting out blind with insufficient modeling of how to conduct an effective lesson.  If anyone at institute also feels that they are not getting enough opportunities to see veterans in action, I would recommend picking up the book, “Teach Like a Champion” by Doug Lemov right before institute begins.  The book has a great collection of actionable strategies with minimal theory, and a CD with clips of teachers implementing those strategies.  Read a little bit in the evenings before bed and watch the DVD clips.  I find myself using a lot of the strategies in my English classes in Japan, and they are effective over here too.

2. Corps members need to learn how to plan using the district programs that are already in place.

The vast majority of corps members at my institute went to work at schools where they would end up using district literacy, math and English language development programs.  At my institute we were asked to plan lessons from scratch, which was good for learning how to write lesson plans but terrible for learning how to plan the kinds of lessons that we would actually be teaching at our permanent schools.  My district, the Los Angeles Unified School district, used Open Court Reading, but we had very little contact with the key elements of the program.  Any corps member who isn’t getting experience with district programs should try to research more about the particulars of the programs that their district uses.  They should also insist that their CMAs give them this information, or else they will have an even more chaotic scramble at the beginning of the school year to try and learn how to plan lessons using their districts’ literacy, math, and ELD programs.  In the five years since I attended institute, I hope that this is becoming a more common practice.

For the month that I attended institute, what frustrated me the most was that I had wasted the time of the children attending summer school where I was placed, and once I started at my permanent school, what frustrated me the most was that I was thoroughly unprepared even for basic survival.  When I attended institute I left with the impression that we had spent our time experimenting on students with very little to show for it.  It’s my hope that in the last five years TFA has already heard these suggestions from other people and made the necessary changes. If not, corps members may need to add to their already packed institute schedules and commit themselves to some independent learning.