My visit to Summer Institute in LA


June 25, 2013 by juicefong

Most of you reading this already know: Teach For America corps members are prepared through a five-week intensive training over the summer called “institute.” The first week of that training is mostly seminars from veteran teachers—corps members do not teach. They end up teaching the remaining four weeks, usually teaching a classroom of students for about an hour a day – so about 20 lessons.

Critics of Teach For America are often shocked that teachers can come in on day one and feel prepared to take on what is usually a high needs group of students in the fall after such a brief training. It does sound pretty crazy, and I know there are corps members who we’d wish were more prepared on day one. But most TFA corps members seem to do okay in their first year, and many go on to kick butt in their second year and beyond.

Over the last two days I had a chance to drop by a couple institute school sites in Los Angeles. I have a number of reflections coming out of those visits. Let me first recognize the hard work of everyone to make institute possible—it is a tall task to put on an institute that aims to prepare our corps members as well as we expect. Ten years ago, I was one of those corps members and I remember leaving institute thinking, “Okay. I can’t fit another thought or idea in my head anymore—institute saturated me. Now I just have to go out there and start teaching.”

Impressed by the diversity of corps members: The institute in Los Angeles is comprised of corps members headed to Sacramento, San Diego, the Bay Area, Las Vegas Valley and Los Angeles itself. I know many of these to be among the most diverse regions (racially, at least) within TFA’s network, but wow, it really was a great sight to see. It certainly felt like well over half of our new corps members were people of color. It’s probably not like this at all institutes, but it was impressive and refreshing. White people are cool, too.

Hosting institute at a pretty good school: Yesterday I visited an institute site hosted by a charter elementary school that I’d never heard of, that was also named best charter school in California in 2012, out of over 900 schools. After visiting about seven classrooms, I left that campus quite pleased—teachers on their first day of teaching were running great classrooms. They felt warm, rigorous, fun. Kids had lots to say. And this was in classroom after classroom. But then I thought to myself: I think our CMs riding on the coattails of a strong school.

I went to a different campus today, a district school that I know nothing about. There was a high school and middle school campus in the same facility. I spent time in about eight classrooms here, too. It wasn’t bad, but it definitely was not like yesterday. Today I saw classrooms that were mostly so-so, some kids with their heads down or otherwise disengaged, less rigor, lesson sequence not as tight, teachers doing too much of the talking. Nothing egregious, and frankly, what you sadly often see in schools in low-income communities. Now maybe that’s just middle school thing or that’s because it was the second day of teaching for these CMs, or something to do with the institute staff at this school or something else. Or maybe we should talk about the kinds of schools that should host institute sites.

On the one hand, having CMs going to a great school for the summer but then in the fall placing them in an environment that is not as healthy—maybe that doesn’t set them up for success because they’re unprepared for what they’ll encounter in their placement school. On the other hand, teaching over summer institute at a well-run school with so many external forces relieving pressures from you, maybe that’s just the right set of training wheels our new teachers need. Step into a healthy school culture, with kids who are already used to learning a lot and have great classroom habits and routines, who already know what the boundaries are and are used to feeling safe, welcome, supported, respected and empowered at school—that seems like a great first environment for CMs to experience to me.

Class size: I taught just 12 sixth graders when I was at institute ten years ago. TFA gets a lot of knocks for having these unrealistically small class sizes in the summer. Not the case in Los Angeles the past two days. About 20-22 kids per class in the elementary school and up to 30 per class in the middle and high school today.

The feedback cycle: I’m a believer that you can grow smart, driven teachers very quickly. Like really quickly. Definitely can do a lot in four weeks time. As I walked around classrooms today that were anywhere from solid to struggling, I wondered two things: 1) How effective is the feedback cycle here? 2) What is the quality of that feedback? If I remember correctly, corps member advisors (CMAs) have about 15 CMs that they look after. I don’t remember if I met individually with my CMA every day, but that would’ve been ideal. Get into a classroom for 15 minutes, and have at least 15 minutes to meet with each CM to talk through what you’ve seen. Even at 30 minutes apiece for 15 CMs, you’re talking about 8 hours/day on top of all the other responsibilities CMAs have. I worry that a daily meeting like that is not possible. Is the feedback loop tight enough that we’re getting the most growth for our CMs in the short four-week teaching period?

As for the quality of feedback, well, I wouldn’t know for sure because I wasn’t there to observe any feedback. I do know that we hire a lot of teachers who have just finished their second or third year of teaching to be CMAs. I’m sure there are some kick ass CMAs who have just come out of the corps, but I still worry about their ability to give the best feedback. You need great skill in knowing great pedagogy, diagnosing issues you see and how to deliver that effectively to get the optimal effect, a lot of which is new to even the best corps members. It’s hard stuff. Experience is not everything, but it does count for something. I’d like to see more CMAs with more teaching or coaching experience coming into that role, and then figure out ways to get them coming back for five or ten years straight to keep doing what is the most important work at institute.

Are we holding CMs back by making it too mechanical? When you go into the classroom, in the back is a binder full of of stuff prepared by teachers of that class (it’s usually four of them in a “collaborative”). Corps members probably spend much of their first week deliberating these questions that help them create various documents that outline goals and a vision for the four-week teaching period, a system of classroom rules, consequences and procedures, a reward system, you get the picture.

I appreciate that we’re trying to simulate the thinking process they’ll need to go through to prepare for the school year ahead. But in my experience, when you look at documents like this by the middle of the school year (or in this case, four weeks later), you often find that you did things very differently than how you outlined them at first, usually for better, because your classroom evolves.

I worry that CMs will lose sight of the big picture and instead spend too much time fussing over some of these small, relatively inconsequential details. Instead I want them to be thinking about: How do I fire up my kids about reading or math or biology? How do I make this a fun, safe, supportive classroom environment where kids are on the edge of their seats? What else do I need to be paying attention to in order to get the best for each of them? How do I present myself in an authentic way so I can build great relationships with every one of them? I fear our CMs are too worried about whether the reward system is working, and they aren’t asking these bigger questions.

To close this out, I will say that I walked away from two days at our summer institute feeling pretty good overall. I’ve been to a couple hundred schools in my time, have worked directly with principals, instructional leaders and countless teachers. I came in with a scrutinizing eye—actually four of them—these past two days and judged every new TFA teacher I saw just like I would any veteran teacher that I’d come across on any other day. And you know what? Most of these new teachers were decent, some of them pretty impressive, actually. They’ve got some good natural instincts about teaching, they’re fired up and energized to take on this challenging work and I know they’re driven to keep improving, every day.

I’m feeling optimistic about what our summer institute program is capable of doing, and am reminded of the awe I have for our summer institute staff who do miraculous work. I’ve got some hard questions about what we do at institute, but between our selection model that’s bringing in great teachers and our summer preparation program, I will rest easy tonight. Will you? Let me know in the comments.

Justin Fong (@jgfong) runs the small but mighty internal communications team at Teach For America, which doesn’t approve or edit or defame his blog posts. He goes on vacation tomorrow night, but might still be blogging away, which is kinda like vacation, right?

2 thoughts on “My visit to Summer Institute in LA

  1. Anthony says:

    I think you are spot on in many of your observations here, particularly relating to: (1) CMAs needing more (unrushed) time to spend with each CM, (2) the wisdom of allowing first-year CMs to serve as CMAs (at my NYC school site, the only special ed teacher on the school site team had taught ONE year), (3) focusing more on actually getting CMs excited about teaching and learning, rather than who is going to design the best ‘Go For the Gold Olympics 2012′ reward and discipline system. Here are 10 things — in no particular order — that TFA can do to make Institute a heck of a lot better for both CMs, staff, and, most importantly, students:

    1.) Hire CMAs that have had AT LEAST two years of teaching experience, only.
    2.) Limit CMA groups to no more than 10 corps members.
    3.) Reduce the amount of assessment that occurs. Be more purposeful. (My CMs taught four days a week in NYC; and they spent at least an entire week of their rare teaching time dealing with monstrous assessments. Yes, this was good practice, but what were they really measuring in three weeks-ish of teaching? And, it was nearly logistically impossible for CMs to execute the assessments with fidelity to the rules in the chaotic Institute environment. More stand-up teaching time would have been better use of CM and student time.)
    4.) Why are CMAs spending SIGNIFICANT time making posters every evening? Is this a good use of a professional’s time? These could be produced, laminated and distributed to CMAs before Institute as many of them are part of the standard Institute curriculum. Or, on second thought…
    5.) Why is an organization as wealthy as TFA not providing every facilitator (i.e. CMA) with a digital projector so there is no need to present with static, less-than-ideal posters? Yes, sessions suffered — to some degree — at my school site, because CMAs were presentin’ like it was 1888.
    6.) Stop the madness of ‘parallel teaching’ (which, often, by TFA design, took the form of co-teaching at Institute). Kids behave differently when there is more than one adult in the room — we ALL know this. Sometimes, at Institute (at least NYC 2011), there were 5 adults in the room at one time (CM, CM, FA, CMA, CM Observing). And, while we’re at it…
    7.) As others have suggested, guarantee that CMs will have at least double-digit numbers of students on their rosters. (And if CMs are going to be parallel teaching, they’ll need even more students, because then a roster of 15 kids, becomes an actual ‘class’ of 7 or 8.)
    8.) Engage FAs on a much deeper level to ensure they feel respected and their knowledge is tapped.
    9.) Lengthen Institute in order to make the experience less intense (hopefully, this is happening in the 7-week regions). Teaching should not feel like ‘bootcamp’ (I LOATHE this metaphor — we’re not preparing professionals to shoot to kill with cat-like reflexes in battle, we’re preparing educators.) The intensity of Institute just means half the CMs are, literally, falling asleep in the ONE and ONLY session on a given literacy skill, math skill, whatever.
    10.) Make Institute feel more professional. Some (not all, but some) CMs engage in prodigious unprofessional behavior (i.e. texting in sessions, turning in lessons late, arguing with staff, etc.). That’s fine — it’s an intense experience (see #9). But it sends the wrong message, I think, about the nature of the work at hand when Institute simultaneously feels like a high school pep rally and a serious professional enterprise at the same time. So, then, can you blame the CMs who don’t take Institute seriously enough when it feels like high school? I also think some of the ‘cute stuff’ is off-putting to the career changers, Veterans, etc. that TFA is increasingly trying to attract as CMs. In short, reconsider how to make the experience a more joyful and inspiring one (suggestions #1 through #9 would all do more to improve morale than another 1980s-themed copy room).

    Hope these are helpful!

    • juicefong says:

      Thanks for the comments, Anthony. Good food for thought. Two pieces of data I’ve picked up since publishing: CMA groups are more like 10-12 now (rather than 16 when I was a CM). Also, across all institutes this year, class sizes are up 7 additional students from last year, something are institute heads worked hard at to prevent unrealistically small class sizes.

      Thanks for reading.

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