Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 02 2012

What I wish I’d Taught Myself at Institute (or, “Kool-aid and Jaded are Not The Only Options”)

My thoughts are still developing on this. Excuse the abrupt entry and consider it a follow-up from my last two posts.


I just don’t feel like it’s cool to recruit teachers by making them believe they’re going to change kids’ lives by being super-teachers, and then tell them they’re going to be super-teachers all through training, and then let them deal with the fallout themselves and just let them go ahead and think it’s because they’re not working hard enough. Anyone in our corps who learned balance (not necessarily work-life balance, or sleep/eat/work balance, but realism in expectations) learned it on their own, or from talking to other corps members who had apparently stopped “drinking the koolaid” or had become “jaded.”


I just don’t think being realistic would hurt anyone. Not kids, not corps members, not Teach For America.


Maybe it’s my own fault for being so vulnerable to culty followership (I am). Maybe I shouldn’t expect TFA to be realistic about itself, and we should expect corps members to look to outside sources to balance out the information they get from TFA. But I didn’t feel any of this cognitive dissonance at Institute that would have pushed me to look elsewhere. And even if I had made a more dedicated effort to seek out alternate viewpoints (in all the free time I had), I doubt they would have penetrated the Kool-aid force-field that was solidly constructed around me. At institute, all non-TFA sources of information on teaching look so silly in comparison to TAL and the Impact Model! Everyone else looks like they just plain aren’t willing to do “whatever it takes,” which when you’re at Institute, means they’re practically criminals. Critiques of TFA, when you’re in the middle of the Institute Synchronized Swim, look selfish or lazy or at best, misguided about the “two-pronged” mission of TFA. If only they’d heard all the composition-book success stories you had, they’d have a more accurate perception about the amazing gains most TFA teachers are making. The amazing gains you’re planning to make.


My CMA, PD, and eventually my MTLD all encouraged us to balance teaching with real life. I’m pretty sure every one of them told me I’d be a better teacher if I was a healthier person. But what came out of their mouths and what they did with their own lives were two different things. I admired their discipline, but they weren’t careful about their messaging as they encouraged us to make sure we took time for ourselves. If you obviously put in 90+ hours a week and are proud of it, preaching work-life balance sounds empty. Telling me to go to bed at 10 every night doesn’t sound genuine if you’re also inspiring me with “whatever it takes” and “if nobody’s learnin, aint nobody teachin” (I believe that! But it sounds like the opposite of balance to a new teacher).


Also, “work-life balance” is not the same thing as having balance in your outlook and expectations for your first or second year of teaching. Or balancing what you do and don’t believe of what veteran teachers tell you (“balance” here is heavy on the “DO”). Or balancing how much you absorb as YOUR FAULT with looking at that locus of control realistically. All of this we are left to learn the hard way.


The question I think I’m coming around to is this: In the end, is this organization prioritizing students when we leave corps members on their own to look at the one-sided Institute experience critically (or, more accurately, “mindset” them out of looking at it critically)? Or would it help kids more to prepare CMA, CS, SD, and MTLD alike to give a “watered down kool-aid” perspective, relying heavily on veteran teachers and sources outside of TFA? Are we afraid this will suck motivation out of our new teachers? Are we ignoring the fact that motivation-less “October” hurts kids a lot more if motivation was literally all their teacher had to hold on to?


… or is it really so simple that I was the only one too naïve to turn on my thinking cap and make these connections for myself?



5 Responses

  1. Pessimistic TFA corps member


    I don’t want to generalize, but I’ll speak for myself. You know that when I joined I was pretty skeptical of the “drastic” changes TFA was able to make. Because you and I had connected I had made the assumption that my first year was going to be hard and I thank you for that. After a year in the corps I do not agree with it’s framework at all anymore. I am so in love with my kids and while my school needs work I love my department and wouldn’t change a thing about my placement. But, without the help from my department I would not have been a successful teacher. I received almost NO support from my MTLD because she was overloaded and I figured everything out on my own. After a year I do not feel any strong connection as a TFA “corps member” and feel as if the expectations of the organization are unreasonable for most individuals. I also feel that because they make you feel bad all the time about not turning in data, or “failing your kids”, etc. that it can really hurt the self-esteem of corps members and therefore hurt the kids.

    In all, I do believe that TFA has you drink the “Kool-Aid” and am very pessimistic about the organization now. It is too political and too much of a frat/sorority party for my liking and if I had the choice to do it all over I probably wouldn’t. I would want to teach still, but not as a part of TFA. Basically, I don’t think you’re crazy and am glad you are able to voice your opinions! :)

    • Wess

      Oof, I’m not even going to TOUCH the frat/sorority party feel. I feel a little lucky that SA is maybe less prone to that, but I still could see other CMs making the argument that we’re absolutely not.

      I also feel lucky to be in SA in that my MTLD and PD were very available and well-intentioned, so I tend to forget that part of many peoples’ experience (sad face). BUT I think I made up for that by coming in especially blinded by my infatuation with TFA. You rock! And I’m so glad your skepticism helped you through this year. :D

    • The first TFA party I went to in my region, people were actually doing keg stands. I suspect there’s some kind of great cultural anthropology research that could be done on CMs.

  2. Interesting. I failed at institute… Not in a terrible way, but in a this is not sustainable, I hate lesson planning way.

    That’s part of what pushed me to look elsewhere. And, discovering NSTA, inquiry based learning, and veteran teacher blogs is what made all the difference.

    • Wess

      Right! Part of it might be that I didn’t fail at Institute (I actually realized the other day that it was probably the peak of my teaching career). But once I did start failing, I still didn’t look elsewhere… I just started hating my life and blaming myself. Maybe my depression is really at the root of all of this and I would have started acting in healthier ways if I wasn’t so sick.

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