What I Did This Summer: Preparing to Teach For America

Isral DeBruinBy Isral DeBruin— I stood there on the first day of school, a new teacher in his new classroom.

The bell would ring any minute and my fifth-grade students would arrive. This was the moment I had done so much to prepare for as a 2010 Teach For America corps member serving to close the achievement gap in Milwaukee.

But apparently I had not done quite enough — As I stood, lost in thought, I suddenly realized I had somehow forgotten to set out my classroom’s desks and chairs, which were still stacked neatly at the center of the room. I rushed to fix the problem as the first student came through the door. Flustered, I told the boy to get started on the… the… uh… I became aware I hadn’t prepared an opening activity for the day. How could I have forgotten? I began to panic. Another few students came through the door. My face blazed red with an uncomfortably warm mixture of surprise, embarrassment, shame and regret.

My eyes desperately searched the bulletin boards and chalkboards around the classroom. I had spent so much time carefully preparing them, and now they looked hastily assembled. The students were still waiting for direction. More of them arrived every moment to the as-yet-only-partly-set-up room, the desks still mostly stacked.

I snapped to attention as the last of my fifth-grade boys and girls filed into the room…

…and that’s when I woke up. I grabbed my phone to check the time and date, and gratefully realized it was June 19th, not September 1st. It was the last day of Teach For America Milwaukee’s Induction at Marquette University.

I had spent the previous several days steeped in TFA’s ideals and methods while preparing both mentally and emotionally for life as a teacher at Summer Institute in Chicago and, eventually, in Milwaukee. Through service projects, class sessions and team building activities, I gradually got to know the 50 other people who would become my colleagues for the next two years. Meeting and spending time with so many others who were so fully dedicated to the same cause – ensuring all children have access to an excellent education – was truly inspiring.

On June 20th I re-joined the Milwaukee corps at Teach For America’s Chicago Institute, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Nearly 600 soon-to-be teachers from all over the Midwest converged there to get schooled… both literally and figuratively. This five week training program can best be described as boot camp for teachers.

The typical corps member begins each Institute day with a 6 a.m. wake–up call, followed by a quick morning routine, breakfast, and then a trip through the lunch line before boarding one of a dozen yellow school buses. By 8 a.m., those buses have taken groups of teachers to schools all over Chicago’s south side.

Summer school runs from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Each classroom is collaboratively taught by four corps members, who are individually responsible for about an hour of instruction per day. A licensed Chicago Public Schools teacher provides constant supervision of the classroom, and TFA advisers and staff stop in for intermittent observation.

But when the students leave, a corps member’s day is not nearly over. The rest of the afternoon is filled by back-to-back training sessions covering topics like literacy instruction, lesson planning, behavior management and multicultural education

Even after the afternoon sessions are finished, the most challenging part of the day is still ahead. Back at the IIT campus, corps members get to work planning for the next day and writing rough draft lesson plans for the following week. This work takes most corps members several hours. So, a 3 a.m. bedtime is not uncommon, especially during the first weeks of Institute

After what amounts to hardly more than a brief nap, 6 a.m. rolls around, and it’s time to start it all again.

This daily cycle has been my life every day for the past four weeks as I teach 20 third-graders at Doolittle Elementary School. I can honestly say that I have never poured myself so wholly into any pursuit. In countless tangible ways, this investment of time and energy has paid off.  Every single one of our students has made some sort of academic gain; some have made huge gains.

And I am privileged to have grown both as a person and as a teacher.

This growth came from “ups.”  One of our students filled out a survey card that said that I and the other three corps members in her classroom are the best teachers she has ever had.

Growth also came from “downs.” Though 19 of our 20 students will advance to fourth grade in the fall, one of them will not. He came to us reading at a pre-kindergarten level and, although he benefited greatly from one-on-one reading practice, he was not even close to where he needed to be for a successful fourth grade year.

It would be silly for me to say that my summer training will make my fast-approaching school year at La Causa Charter School smooth and challenge-free. Nor can I say that over the past six weeks I’ve learned all I need to know to be a successful teacher. However, I feel confident saying that I have been given the knowledge, tools and mindset that, with lots of hard work, I can use to make significant academic gains with my students. And I can’t wait to do that.

———————–

After graduating from UW-Milwaukee in 2008, Isral DeBruin spent two years as a Milwaukee-area newspaper reporter, mainly covering education. He joined Teach For America earlier this summer and will begin graduate coursework at Marquette University’s College of Education this fall.

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