Learning As Leadership

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 23 2011

Teach For America Summer Institute for Dummies: How to survive TFA boot camp

As a record number of new corps members (actually, that’s a lie, I am far too exhausted to research if there are a record number of new corps members this year) are receiving the overwhelming and thrilling news that there is a spot for them in the 2011 corps, there is also probably a record level of panic regarding Teach For America’s notorious and sometimes negatively-hyped summer training institute. 

When I was accepted to Teach For America in 2010, my first three thoughts were:  1. Yay. 2. How am I going to pay for it? 3.  How am I going to survive institute? 

Googling “how to survive institute”, “tips for institute”, and “teach for america summer institute” led to dizzying hours reading horror stories and negative propaganda that wasn’t helpful in the least. 

The small amount of resources compared with the high level of anxiety that exists for institute inspired me to write this post. In no way am I an institute expert, except for the fact that I survived institute without being sued, committing suicide, or dropping out of Teach For America. 

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you’ve already made the commitment to Teach For America, or that your son/daughter (scouring the internet so that you can give your child helpful unwanted advice is so sweet, Mom and Dad) has already committed to Teach For America. Congratulations, but, more importantly, THANK YOU. Regardless of the advice I give you here, you will make it through summer institute. How do I know this? Because you have made the commitment to do whatever it takes to succeed. You have proven your leadership skills, perseverance, and ability to overcome challenges. 

I also want to preface this post by saying this is just my opinion. Not only are there varying opinions about how to succeed at Institute, but we are all different. TFA recruits an extremely diverse corps, and we’ve all found success in our own ways. Additionally, each corps member has such a different experience at Institute. Your institute experience will be impacted by where you go to Institute, who your roommate is, what your placement is, whether or not you’ve been placed, what grade and subject you teach at Institute, who your staff is, and what else you have going on in your life, amongst other things. But the number one thing that impacts your institute experience? Your attitude. It sounds hokey, but it’s true. 

A lot of getting through Institute is common sense, attitude, and learning things the hard way (like I did). I certainly did not follow all of the advice contained in this post. Even though there may not be anything super profound in this list, I hope it will ease your apprehension about going to “teacher camp”. Think of it as a retreat, not a boot camp. I cringe when I read things on the internet relating Institute to some sort of TFA hazing. I don’t think Institute is designed to break down corps members. I truly believe that Institute is designed to give corps members the best possible level of training with limited time and budget resources. Yes, it’s hardcore, but it’s intense because it has to be. The time, space, and resources required to pull off such an extensive and amazing training is mind-blowing. And yeah, it’s demanding. But believe it or not, drill sergeants don’t wake you up at 4 AM demanding that you make hospital corners for 8 hours. Here is some no-nonsense advice not only on how to get through it, but how to make the most of it. Questions? [email protected]

1. Prepare to sweat.
I mean this literally. I lead with this because it was the biggest surprise for me at Institute. The only time I was not sweating at Institute was when I was taking a shower. Sweating when you’re wearing a suit and trying to get up in front of 8th graders for the first time teaching your first lesson is NOT fun. So plan ahead as much as you can, but just accept now that promises of air conditioning are probably misleading. Luckily, except for the genetic superfreaks that were born with hypoactive sweat glands, everyone will be sweating, which makes it slightly less horrific. 

2. Do the prework!
I know  you already talked to your friends who went to Institute last year and they told you the prework doesn’t matter. I wholeheartedly disagree with them. It is essential to your long-term success as a teacher that you not only do the prework, but absorb as much information as you can before Institute. Your focus during the prework should be absorbing the information from the reading and processing it. Don’t think of it as an assignment that you have to turn in (which you do). Instead, think of it as part of Institute and part of your training. You will get SO MUCH more out of Institute if you read Teaching As Leadership BEFORE you get there (and I don’t mean skimming it the night before you leave Induction). 

3. Don’t buy a bunch of crap before you get there.
You will probably be tempted to purchase school supplies before you get to Institute, driven by the fear that you likely won’t have a car or time to dash off to Office Depot at your disposal. Don’t stress. You won’t really know what you need until you get there and find out what grade and subject you are teaching. TFA provides tons of materials for you. Don’t waste your money now. Save it for when you will really need it. Yes, we did go buy supplies while at Institute, but most of the stuff I brought ahead of time went to waste because it wasn’t what I needed. The only supply that I can personally guarantee that you will find useful is a mini-stapler, but even that isn’t necessary. 

4. Get organized from day one.
You’re gonna be given books, handouts, and resources galore. Don’t shove them in your bag and think, oh, those will come in handy someday. That someday in October when you desperately want to find that one handout you seem to remember getting is going to be a lot less Hellish if you can actually find it. Find a way to organize your paper files AND your electronic files, including your lesson plans. Save everything. This isn’t “Hoarders”. This is TFA. Hoard. 

5. Put your oxygen mask on first.
All for one and one for all, there’s no “I’ in team, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. That’s all fine and dandy, but you aren’t going to be of any use to your team if you are sick, exhausted, or having a nervous breakdown. You absolutely need to take care of yourself before and at Institute. Which leads me to my next point… 

6. Find balance NOW.
I think a lot of us go into Institute with the mentality that hey, it’s only 5 weeks, I’ll just put EVERYTHING into it and rest later. In fact, I think that’s how a lot of us approach TFA. You know the problem with that? Burnout. If we are serious about actually being teachers, and being a part of this movement for the long haul, we can’t see everything as a temporary “I’ll get through it”. Don’t put off finding balance. Institute isn’t just a place to learn how to teach. It’s a place to learn how to be a teacher. Your ability to find balance over the next few years is going to be a crucial element to your success. Having balance in your life at Institute is not easy. I will give some more advice in the next few bullet points about how to set boundaries. Make a plan ahead of time and stick to it. 

7. Have a bedtime.
Yeah, listen to your mother. Even the best of us ended up pulling a few near-all-nighters at Institute. TOTALLY unnecessary and suckful. If you plan ahead, pace yourself, and work efficiently, this will not happen to you. Set a bedtime, and cut yourself off at that time. As a teacher, you can ALWAYS do more. But set this limit for yourself and you will be more likely to plan ahead so that you can get in bed on time and get an actual full night of rest. Sleep is so critical to functioning your best at Institute. 

8. Yeah, and get some exercise, too.
Okay, this coming from the girl who ate pizza for every meal at Institute and almost had a heart attack walking to the beach. But seriously, even a leisurely walk around campus, a morning run, or a dip in the pool can really relieve stress, help you process things mentally, and help improve the quality of your sleep. I don’t think it is necessary that you join the rec center unless  working out is already a part of your daily routine, but finding a way to slip in some small pieces of exercise can’t hurt. 

9. Love your students.
It’s amazing how scary a group of 11-year-olds can seem the first time you’re standing up in front of them as their teacher. But no matter what happens at Institute, even if you’re a high school teacher and you get assigned to first grade, just love those kids. They will be, more than likely, the first students that you ever teach. They will always hold a special place in your heart, so don’t forget to cherish the few weeks you have with them. They will end up teaching you WAY more than you will ever teach them. I feel forever indebted to that first group of students that I taught last summer, and I still keep in touch with many of them. You CAN and you WILL have an impact on them, even though the time is short, and they will change your life forever. They will make you a teacher. 

10. Don’t leave town on the weekends.
I know you miss your boyfriend. I know your parents make really good meatloaf. But don’t do it. Don’t take off for the weekend. I really believe in being immersed in the experience of Institute. Maybe because I experienced Institute 4 years after college and had a chance to miss college, I really loved living in the dorms again. I definitely think it’s good to get off campus on the weekends and explore the town you’re staying in (all a part of living life and having balance), but staying in town is an important part of committing to the experience of Institute. Leaving town, for a lot of people, meant increased emotional and physical exhaustion. If you just can’t stay away from your honeybuns, have them come visit you in sunny LA/Chicago/Wherever you are. 

11. The resource room is your best friend.
Your Institute will likely have a resource room. The resource room is basically a library full of resources, including staff members, who are there to help you out. USE IT! I think the best time to go is Friday afternoon. It is the least crowded because everyone else has already checked out for the weekend. Also, you’re more relaxed and have time to plan ahead and browse around. You know that $30 First Days of School book? Yeah. It’s there. Free. 

12. Copy early.
You know when you don’t want to be making photocopies? When you’re tired, hot, and when everybody else is making copies. Avoid the line by planning AHEAD. Get to the copy room right when they open. Use your weekend time to be a day ahead in your planning. It will save you so much time and frustration. 

13. Don’t plan all weekend. Don’t play all weekend.
Balance! In order to be successful at Institute, I believe you need to plan AND play on the weekends. Definitely take a day off to explore the amazing city you are staying in. At the same time, you certainly need to plan in some time to plan! Unfortunately, procrastination is kind of built into the Institute schedule. You start out sort of behind because your lesson plans are due for the following week at the same time your lesson plans are due for the next day that first week. Use your weekend to combat procrastination. You will enjoy Institute so much more– and get so much more out of it– if you aren’t perpetually behind. 

14. Befriend the staff.
Most of the logistics staff are former corps members. Become best friends with them. They will send you tons of resources, snag an extra tote bag for you, or give you extra encouragement on the hard days. And remember: They are getting up at 4 AM, too. 

15. Take advantage of your team.
I know you can hardly wait to have your very own classroom where you get to decide what color the bulletin boards are, but cherish this time with a team. There are so many advantages to working with a co-lab. Relax, go with the flow, and work together. Also, milk everything you can out of your CMA, FA, LS, and CS. 

16. Keep a countdown.
Keeping a countdown actually helped me get through Institute. I had my own little daily countdown for each week, and I just took it one week at a time. It made Institute very manageable for me. 

17. Things (not) to bring.
I don’t care what anybody tells you, you do not need a car at Institute. In fact, you can barely even use it. What you do need? A HUGE and sturdy backpack (I was lugging about 3 tote bags onto the bus with me every day and it sucked). A water bottle. And a couple stupid movies. Time for watching movies? Rare, but an episode of “The Office” or a little Dumb & Dumber can do wonders to reduce stress and anxiety. Oh yeah. And you need a laptop. I don’t care what anybody says. 

18. Find alone time. Find time to reflect.
Institute is such a whirlwind that you may find yourself constantly surrounded by other people. Find some way, each day, to have some alone time. Allow yourself to truly reflect on all of the things you are learning as you go. If you can’t find the time, make the time. 

19. You do not know everything.
The people I saw who wasted their Institute experience were people who went into it thinking they already knew everything and who did not listen. I’m telling you, you gotta listen. You gotta try their methods. I’m not saying you have to adopt them as your own. But at least try them. I learned this lesson the hard way, and early on. In an effort to be consistent at our school site, all of the teachers implemented the same behavioral management system. We gave students class points for good behavior. I was adamantly against it. I told everyone who would listen that middle schoolers would not care about class points. Guess who was the worst at management and who drowned their first week? Yeah. Me. And guess who was shocked as Hell to see middle schoolers work their butts off for class points? Me. Turns out this isn’t TFA’s first time on the ferris wheel. Yeah, you have to find your own style and your own way, but try TFA’s methods first. 

20. Don’t build it up too much.
By the time Institute arrived, I was vomiting several times a day. I’m not kidding. I was so incredibly stressed about starting TFA. I had so many fears, worries, anxieties. I was dreading Institute. But honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Don’t build it up too much. Easier said than done, I know. But you will make the most of it, learn so much, and meet the most amazing group of individuals you will ever meet in your entire life. 

I will update this list if I think of any other pearls of wisdom. Corps members and alumni, if you have anything to add, send it my way or add a comment. 

Good luck, 2011 Corps. You can do this! 

I’ll end with a cliché quote, which seems like just the sort of thing I would do. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Judge each day not by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” 

This summer you will be planting a lot of seeds.

27 Responses

  1. erinkay

    Thank you for this post- I know I will be coming back to it as Institute approaches!

  2. amandainthemitten

    Awesome! Thanks so much for putting tons of time and effort into this for those of us spending the summer at institute! I’m definitely bookmarking this to read again as it gets closer. =)

  3. Ms. D

    Thank you so much for posting this! :) It is now on my favorites to look at days prior to going in June. I have been getting really really stressed about the whole experience, probably because I will be in Texas and jobs are slim here, but this made it a bit more real. Thanks!!!!

  4. Word to all of this but especially #7. Sleep, sleep, sleep. There is almost nothing more important and more neglected at institute. It doesn’t make you bad-ass if you only got 30 minutes of sleep last night, it makes you a cranky, bad teacher.

  5. eatsleepeducate

    bookmarked – as a 2011 corps member i have to say that this post is by far one of the best/reassuring/awesome that i’ve read on teachforus. thanks!

  6. mrs. ohlams

    This is great. Thanks for taking the time to write this post!

  7. Victoria

    Wow, you pretty much embodied all of the wonderful tips and encouragement that I’ve been searching for online since being accepted to TFA. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate your honesty and positive words. I have a feeling I’ll be sending you an email with more questions as institute gets closer.

    Thank you again!

  8. seemaullal

    This post was seriously amazing. One of the reasons that websites like this are invaluable is advice from people who have been through this stuff before. I bookmarked this and am sure I’ll be looking back once institute get closer.

    Thank you so much! :)

  9. G

    Most definitely agree with everything mentioned here. Definitely travel light, balance yourself (make time for play and planning – no one in my group did any work on Saturdays…that was our free time. Sunday afternoon was work time), and surround yourself with supportive people. That in itself was key in getting me through Institute.

  10. Ladybug

    Oh goodness, thank you so much for posting this! It was such a great help, definitely bookmarking this!

  11. Jess

    Thank you so much for this! It’s enormously helpful and I will probably reread it a few times more in these coming weeks before Institute.

  12. Caro

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! This made me feel so much better!

  13. Kelly

    As a former CM and institute staff member I can say this is GREAT advice! Hope your year has gone well. :)

  14. Andrew

    As a 2010, I totally agree with everything, and I can’t stress enough the importance of sleep and beating that copy line. On the worst day I was stuck in that labryinth for an hour; plan ahead and you’ll be fine! Good luck to all the 2011s, and if you’re at LA institute I will see you there.

  15. hotinthedesert

    Thank you for this post! It was full of amazing advice and give me the confidence to have a great 5 weeks!

  16. Casey

    Great post! I hope it helps lots of new TFA recruits. I second #7 – SLEEEP. I hated hearing others bragging about who got less sleep – ridiculous. I thought they sounded like morons.

    Inexplicably, my placement school thermostat (set at the district office) was around 60 degrees EVERY DAY. Never broke a sweat, and had to bundle up in a heavy coat every morning. Worth it to point out that not everyone has the same experience : )

    And I didn’t need my car, but it was SO WONDERFUL to be able to get away from the TFAness on the weekend, even if I only had time for a trip to the grocery store. Not everyone would feel that way, but it improved my mental health quite a bit! A laptop, however? 100% necessary!

  17. Kristin Ryser

    I believe what I have read here is a beginning on knowing what to expect at TFA summer institute of training that so many of us wonder about.

    Thank you for sharing.

  18. simplewords

    comment on number 20–there is a good chance that actually teaching in your region could very well be worse. Don’t freak out about institute. Life goes on. It might be a shock, but enjoy it–it’s just your intro into the rest of your life for the next two years :)

  19. As a newly-minted 2012 corps member, you’ve just relieved a lot of my anxiety with T-minus 10 days to go. What great and novel advice! Thank you so much!

  20. Sue

    Thank you for this post…. I have forwarded to my son who is at TFA Institute currently! After finding the schedule and reading your suggestions, I hope he finds some solace in knowing he isn’t the only one feeling totally overwhelmed.

  21. Shah Bento

    Hi there, don’t know if this post is still alive, great advice! I have a honeybun (wife) and we want to have a visit during Institute in Phoenix. Question: Are weekdays a bad idea, are weekends best for visit? Saturday better than Sunday or can I be greedy and have a whole two days! Thanks, Shah

  22. micai

    I’m very glad to have found this. Thank you for the post.

  23. @Shah: Sorry I am just now seeing this!!!! WEEKEND definitely better— weeknights are very busy in most cases. And Saturday better than Sunday– Sunday is a workday for most corps members at Institute, at least this was my experience. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  24. Chiquita

    Do they provide room and board for family/partners?

  25. FutureTFAMember

    What is the attire for corps members during institute? Are you able to wear business casual while in the schools?

  26. I am not sure about room and board for family- my guess is no, they don’t provide this. You will have to ask at your specific institute. There should be a logistics/housing coordinator.

    Attire is business casual or business professional, usually. Wear comfy shoes! Collared shirt for sure.

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