Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 26 2011

Pre-Sophomore Teacher

Yesterday, I made a shift. If you know high school freshmen, you know that there’s some point close to the end of the year when they stop being freshmen per se and become… “pre-sophomores.” (likewise, there’s a point closer to the beginning when they actually become high-school students instead of eighth-graders plopped into a high school). I just become the “pre-second-year” first-year CM. Yesterday.

I’m struggling to be clear about this jumble of feelings of growth—but the not-clear-yet version is: in essence, I understood yesterday what it feels like to be myself AND be a teacher at the same time.

I’ve read some wise words about how you can’t go into the classroom thinking you’ll be able to “be yourself”as a first year teacher, because your self is NOT a teacher yet. However, I never fully bought into the “fake it ‘till you make it” philosophy, either. Being real and honest and truly me in everything I say and do is a huge part of who I am and what I value, and I do feel that the most honest choice is always the best choice. I do still feel that way, but acting that way with limited information during the latter half of 2010 didn’t help me figure out how to be a teacher any faster.

I’ve realized it’s not “faking it” at all—it’s just becoming fluent in a different language for a different context. Acting a certain way (a way that might feel a little foreign or a little different than I would act/react otherwise) because I know it’s going to be more effective with  my kids doesn’t mean I’m being deceitful or not being myself—it means I’m learning how to be myself in the context of a new role. I’m learning what a new part of my Self looks like, not as a college kid impossibly standing in front of a room of high schoolers, but as a real-life teacher. Of COURSE I’m not going to be able to feel truly myself in that context until I’m more fluent in teacher-dom.

The moment that made me feel, for the first time, like my teacher shoes fit comfortably:
After a really successful day of refresh & retest, where pretty much all my kids did some amount of work, five or six of my boys were in my classroom doing some last-minute makeup quizzes. Tutoring after school usually wears me out, but when more than only one or two kids come, I enjoy it a lot more.  Plus, their mastery scores were going up like nobody’s business with all the refreshing going on, so I was generally in a good mood. Then, in the space of five minutes, two things happened:

#1. I opened my gradebook online and realized that my big ol’ Teddy Bear had typed in 100s for three of his missing assignments behind my back (I wouldn’t have noticed, except the 100s were entered for 5-point assignments, so his average in the class was a 514.4%).

#2. I saw something funky out of the corner of my eye and realized that my Wired kid, with whom I’d entrusted my quiz key to grade the quizzes from the day, was mouthing the answers to my Twin (who had, mysteriously, been getting 100%s on refresher quizzes all day long).

I lost it in an instant—and then I shouted. “OUT! Everybody get OUT, now! Leave! No—NO, I said LEAVE. You lost your chance. Everyone out. OUT!” This was their last chance to make up work before the grades locked in for the quarter. Some of them laughed it off (“ha, ‘out!’ Oo, miss” and “you mad, baby?”), and some of them whined (“miss, how’m I gonna make my 70?”), and some of them booked it (I think my Twin was gone before I even stood up and pointed at the door).

Here’s the thing: the one time I actually acted genuinely mad at them, I wasn’t, really. In my head, as I played the angry-to-the-point-of-losing-control teacher, I was consciously thinking “I’m doing this so you see me make a very big deal out of academic honesty. This is a teaching moment.” Somehow, I felt honest while I was ‘faking it.’

As I thought about it last night, I realized it was the first time my initial, gut reaction had been a teacher-ish one—
“teacher-ish” here meaning donning that Pretending-On-Purpose teacher “Persona.” Inside, I was completely “I know you don’t know better and so I’m teaching you” even as my actions read “!!!!  –You should know better!”

It’s the first time I’ve really felt fluency in my teacher role (somewhat like ‘dreaming in teacher,’ as I’ve read about aon Teach For Us before). It’s the first time I’ve felt real while “faking it” consciously to get results. THAT is reason #1 that I feel I’ve graduated, in some small way, from true beginning-teacher-hood.

Reason #2 is even harder to express, but it has to do with an incredible set of TAL workshops today at our KIPP high school. Our workshop leader was presenting differentiation techniques that, for the first time, pushed my definition of that awful teacher word: “Strategies.”    Strategies, until today, have been silly little teacher-tricks: Think-Pair-Share, Chalk Talk, 3-2-1, Jigsaw, bleagh … different ways of manipulating, orchestrating, coordinating student actions/processing. But “strategy” today meant … Teacher-Tool,  for orchestrating student actions not just to serve the purposes of management or of objective mastery, but to have the TASK do more of the teacher’s job—differentiation, questioning students, monitoring progress, motivating students, pushing higher-order thinking, anything.

This was part of the realization (don’t shoot me) that teaching really IS something intellectual that you can think deep and hard about, and something that I really COULD be very satisfied doing for a long time. I finally see it as more than just a set of skills (checking for understanding, consistency, teacher voice, timing) to practice, get good at, and somehow learn to do all at the same time—that’s level 1, like the Knowledge level of Bloom’s. Levels 2 thru who-knows-how-high have something else that I can’t quite describe. It’s something more to do with designing meaningful tasks that effectively get the most thinking out of the most students in the least amount of time.

… this second realization doesn’t fully make sense yet, but the best way I can sum it up so far is that now I better understand what it is that 2nd year star CMs have to work on, even though they rock at everything from a first-year teacher’s perspective. Before, I think I thought it was just… more fine-tuning/tweaking/‘perfecting the craft.’


You know, this is where some criticisms of TFA do hit home–I realize, AFTER teaching for seven months, that good teaching is a deep intellectual task? I make it almost a full year into TFA before I value teaching as not just a really difficult skill set, but something meant for smart people? … It’s interesting (and a little sad) that so often, learning is as much UN-learning and breaking old faulty connections as it is building new ones. Debunking stereotypes, finding and picking apart biases, breaking habits, clearing up misconceptions, changing my mind about things I’ve known my whole life to be true…

“The Profession” aside, even, I think I’ve done more UN-learning than anything else in the past ten months. I wonder if Freshmen just un-learn how to be Freshmen in order to become Sophomores.

2 Responses

  1. loulou

    How great! It seems to me that this experience of feeling authentic as a teacher is kind of what your student maybe have to go through to feel authentic as students — ie to be comfortable speaking/acting in ways appropriate to an academic setting without feeling as though they’re somehow acting “fake.”

  2. I very much adore all your metaphors and analogies and bringing things together. I don’t think it’s sad it took you (us– I definitely understand and have experienced similar teacher moments for both) 7 months to realize the intellectual tasks we face. I think it’s more impressive. I definitely believe there are (perhaps even plenty of) teachers that NEVER make it to that point. That never realize what the potential of their/our job is. OR they see it but leave it to curriculum specialists, principals, books they pretend to read over summer and soak in the genius. It’s much, much easier to acknowledge than to own and work for. I like that you’ve just articulated many things I’ve been thinking.

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