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Making It Through Teach For America Institute: A Day In The Life

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 31 Jul 2012 05:40pm | comments
Michael Steudeman (St. Louis) plays the banjo at the end of the school day. Institute is often backed with back to back commitments, but corps members manager to steal time for creative projects. Photo by Erin Hulse.

Michael Steudeman (St. Louis) plays the banjo at the end of the school day. Institute is often packed with back to back commitments, but corps members manage to steal time for creative projects. Photo by Erin Hulse.

CLEVELAND, Miss. - Teach for America places high-achieving recent college graduates in low performing, hard to staff schools. And it's an organization that is growing rapidly, both because of increasing demand and substantial political support. In Mississippi, the TFA has quadrupled in size in the last four years and plans to double in the near future.  We travel to Teach for America Delta Institute where these new teachers get trained in rapid succession.

At dawn at Delta State University, many Teach for America teachers have already left on buses to travel to far corners of the Mississippi Delta.

TFA Delta Institute is the organization's largest training site and has a focus on training for rural schools.  Almost eight hundred apprentice teachers, called corps members, receive five weeks of coaching in schools spread out across the Delta.  Being assigned a school in town at the Cleveland School District can mean an extra hour of sleep tacked on to the precious few corps members typically get. Plus a ride with Frankie the bus driver. Frankie greets students with an enthusiastic wake up call, "It's 7:15! We on, and we are doing it! Yea, baby, yea!”

Frankie and her riders time the drive every morning.  Time isn't money, but opportunity at the Institute - a theme that extends into their service as these teachers try to chip away at educational inequity in two school years.  Today, we make it to East Side High in under five minutes and then it’s rushing to prepare for students.

Jean-Luc Adrien, a new recruit, reviews his lesson plan so he can promptly dive into the days objectives. He's outlined a discussion on character and change, using Toni Cade Bambara's short story, The Lesson, as a launching point.

"The day’s objective is to show how Sylvia is a dynamic character and to show how and why she changes throughout the text," says Adrien.  Adrien made the move to the Institute from Florida.  Just like his fellow corps members, in from all over the US, he's fresh out of college.

Teach for America is quickly multiplying its placements in the rural South. The Mississippi Delta, a placement region for the last twenty years, is now the largest in the country. Table by Teach for America.

And for these new teachers, the crash course in structuring a class looks like this: have an assignment at the door for students to pick-up as they come in and immediately get working. If you've planned right, the assignment should refresh students on yesterday's material so today's building can begin.

“We scaffold things," says Adrien. "Have questions build on one another. It sounds simple but it’s not.”

Speaking to students, Adrien asks  “How and why does Sylvia change as a dynamic character? How and why? That’s two parts of the question. You have to make sure you answer both parts.”

It's about breaking ideas into manageable, relatable parts and then guiding students through applying the new idea. Adrien says it's a job  that comes with a lot of responsibility.

“I hold the students education, up to a certain point, in my hands," says Adrien. "So I’m kind of nervous. I’ll admit to that. It’s a new situation, never been there before, so I’m very…I’m nervous.”

Adding to the pressure on the new teachers, every hour of their day is scheduled. It amounts to teaching summer school full time and while taking classes in subject-area instruction during the afternoon and evening – 18 hour days are par for the course.

It’s a college-like experience: late nights, tearful breakdowns, plus fast friends, bonded by a common goal that can feel downright campy. Take this Institute blues song written by Jordan Arce chalked full with insider references, "Woke up late this morning/feel like I got the East Side blues...Frankie, won't you slow down/Frankie, won't you slow down for me."

And the new teachers say keeping spirits up is crucial as they enter what’s for many their first full-time job – a job that may amount to one the greatest challenges of their professional lives.

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What does it really take to survive a summer with Teach for America?  Check out this slideshow created by MPB intern, Erin Hulse, about the everyday activities of corps members. 

Images

Michael Steudeman (St. Louis) plays the banjo at the end of the school day. Institute is often backed with back to back commitments, but corps members manager to steal time for creative projects. Photo by Erin Hulse.


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