My Other Writing

Memoir in a Blog...

The fact that I am a writer interested in publishing my books is often in conflict with the fact that I rarely finish writing said books. I have dozens of ideas on the proverbial back burner, all due to the fact that the piece of fiction that has been my heart and soul for the last five years remains unfinished. Part of this is due to an extremely busy life, but part of this is also due to the fact that when I do write, it's often on my blog or elsewhere on the Internet. Hence, I've made the decision to create one of my newest projects -- a memoir about my experience as a Teach For America corps member -- as a blog. This is something that I would eventually like to publish, but approaching it this way might mean that I work on it more (at least more than if it were a secret project on my laptop, like my fiction novel), and I'll at least be able to get it "out there."

With that said, I don't know exactly how often I'll be working on this or how well readers will respond to it -- the former likely has much to do with the latter. There has been, however, much recent discussion and controversy over the Teach For America program, so I do want an opportunity to get my own experience (and views on this program, both positive and negative) out there in the midst of it. I realize that much of what I have to say will be colored by my experiences and prior worldviews, and that I do not speak for every corps member out there, but I am going to at least shoot for a chance to offer up my perspectives.

In 2013, the year I began my two-year stint with Teach For America, former corps member Olivia Blanchard released a short piece entitled I Quit Teach For America, and it created waves within the TFA community. I remember so many of my corps member friends and leaders speaking out about how disappointed they were in Blanchard's story, and sharing Tre Tennyson (who happened to work right alongside Olivia Blanchard)'s own retort, Remember the 'I Quit Teach For America' Essay? Here's the Counterpoint. I Stayed. Both accounts detailed the infamously difficult lives that TFA corps members can lead, but explained the differences in perception and the final paths each of these individuals took. Most of what I remember about the release of these pieces, though, has to do with the responses that came from TFA itself -- why, for example, Tennyson's story was admired, while Blanchard's was criticized (there were others who didn't take these stances, but they were by far the most prevalent).

I'm not here to say what is "right" or "wrong" about either perspective or choice. I, like Tennyson, stayed in Teach For America ... but, like Blanchard, I have much to say about the actual experience, and its impact on both the adults who enter the program and the students they try to serve. My purpose here isn't to blast Teach For America, nor to praise it. My desire is to provide a detailed, poignant, and hopefully illuminating look not only into my own life, but what it's like to work with this prestigious organization (or, as some see it, formerly prestigious organization) in one of America's most difficult districts to teach in. I want to provide a behind-the-scenes look at our nation's fractured education system, what really goes on in schools and classrooms, and what it's like to be teacher in this day and age, when you're rarely viewed or treated as a professional. I want to be honest, open, and personal. I want to add to this conversation.

Because the book I was going to write about this was going to be a memoir, I'm going to stick to that format while writing this blog. Each new post will serve as a chapter in my memoir, and perhaps when I'm done I will have been able to offer a piece of productive discourse.

Chapter 1: Journey to TFA

First confession: Whenever Teach For America asked me why I chose to apply to the program and why I accepted the position, my answer always lacked 100% honesty.

"I have a huge passion for civil rights and want to play a role in ending educational inequity." This was my typical TFA-approved spiel, one that I repeated on many occasions over the course of my time as a corps member. This is what I said when I interviewed for the position. It's what I said whenever, down the road, I faced some kind of monumental hurdle and considered quitting, and my leaders would inevitably ask me, "Why are you here? Why did you join Teach For America?"

The response was never entirely untrue -- I do have a huge passion for civil rights, and I do want to play a role in ending any type of social inequity -- but to say that these are the reasons I applied for Teach For America would be disingenuous, at best. The truth of the matter is that I didn't know much about Teach For America, or what it stood for, when I first applied. What I did know is that they recruited people with mere bachelor's degrees -- people without teaching licenses or certifications -- to be full-time, fully paid classroom teachers. Even though I found, down the road, that my values did align with TFA's (supposed) values, the real reason I applied was because I saw them as a bridge to a career that otherwise seemed unattainable -- an end to the steep hill of dire career and financial situations that I had begun to plummet down.

I would only understand later that this is one of the biggest criticisms people have of TFA -- that those who don't really want to be educators use their time with TFA to gain access to a professional field, or as a two-year resume booster, or as a stepping stone to careers in law or politics. All of the above is notoriously true of some TFA corps members ... I just didn't realize that I was becoming a statistic in the "using the education system" game until I was already neck-deep.

Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp probably had good intentions when she launched the program back in 1989. Her undergraduate thesis from Princeton discussed a possible revolution in education if only there could be a stream of highly intelligent, highly motivated college graduates recruited to teach. She wanted to see graduates of prestigious universities go into teaching for the sole purpose of making a real difference in the world. (Never mind what this says about educators who don't happen to fall into this "prestigious" category, or what Kopp assumed their motivations were. That would be a criticism to hit her program down the road.) She launched Teach For America as a corps similar to the Peace Corps, with young, bright-eyed college graduates recruited to make sure that, as is commonly spoken within TFA even today, "one day, all children will have access to an excellent education."

Teach For America, then, selectively chooses college graduates to teach for two years in some of America's toughest school districts. Corps members commonly teach in areas plagued with poverty, violence, and other typical barriers to quality education. The idea is that corps members will enthusiastically teach in places most other teachers either don't want to, or "won't," teach in, and provide an off-the-charts education for all children involved. This is the story, anyway ... the story I heard many, many times before taking over my own classroom in 2013.

But I digress. I knew none of these things when I applied. Again, all I knew was that this program could give me the opportunity to teach even though I had no license or certificate to do so. And, in the quagmire of low wages and long hours I'd found myself in at that point in my life, that seemed incredibly appealing.

I divorced in 2008 and spent the next three years completing first a bachelor's degree, and then a master's degree, as a single parent. My undergraduate and graduate degrees (both in literature and writing), once I'd acquired them, armed me with an arsenal of reading and writing skills, analytical debate skills, and a fair amount of academic prowess with which to face the world. I dreamed of a career in writing and academics, where I could create lives and stories on paper and make a living sharing them, or affect politics and actual legislature through philosophizing, debating, and passionate writing. I've always been a perfectionist dead set on coming out on top in my chosen field.

It didn't take long for reality to set in -- and by "reality," I mean the realization that a graduate degree in English literature and writing does jack shit for most people out in the "real" world. Some of my classmates went on to doctorate programs in the field, with the hopes of becoming professors and publishing their academic work (with the unfortunate knowledge that such positions in humanities continue to be cut every year). Others became adjunct teachers at the community college level. A small handful began the process of adulting with the same hopes of becoming a professional writer as I did. I do think, though, that all of us found ourselves mulling over the same question at one point or another: "What the hell is this degree, and why did I spend so much time and money investing in it?"

Don't get me wrong -- I've always known that my degrees in lit have served me well, not necessarily because of career prospects, but because of how they've helped me grow as a person. Learning to analyze literature as a window to humanity, and learning how to write in the most creative and beautiful ways you can, are both life-changing events that have assisted me personally, mentally, and emotionally. And my time spent in these programs truly boosted my self-esteem, because I was good at school. Whatever I'd been mediocre, or downright bad, at growing up I made up for in college. I struggled with my self-esteem for years, for a number of reasons, but realizing that I was smart, and had skills in writing, debate, analysis, and communication had a sincerely profound effect on me. I left college and grad school a much different person than I had been going in (a good thing, in my opinion).

I did get frustrated, though, once I found myself armed with academic skills in a world that, I found out, seemed to care very little about whether or not I had said academic skills. I dumped those academic skills onto job application after job application after job application. Nobody seemed interested in my schooling ... they wanted experience (sometimes, it seemed, half a life's worth of experience).

I applied for writing positions, but lacked experience. I applied for editing positions, but lacked experience. I applied for online teaching positions, and, although I didn't lack experience in this area, still found no employment. What was missing from my resume, it seemed, was any kind of internship (you know, that time in many undergraduate students' lives when they essentially work for free, just to gain the experience that will allow them to land a real job later).

Again, I digress. I began applying for jobs outside my field -- jobs that would not utilize my skill sets, but would still bring in a paycheck. And, having relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area to try and make my career dreams come true, a paycheck is no small thing. So I found myself, before long, living in an apartment with my son while I sold makeup at a department store. At that job, I earned $11 an hour, plus commission. After a year or so, I moved jobs and became a bank teller, where I made $12 an hour (plus a form of commission that the bank called a "solution," which essentially meant I'd be rewarded with extra money if I could get a customer to sit down with a banker to discuss credit cards, loans, or other types of financial sales). At both jobs, my commission money was practically nonexistent -- I am not a salesperson (and I can totally admit that). I'm terrible at it, and the degrading methods that these companies used to incentivize us to push people into buying products or opening up credit cards (much of which, admittedly, I wasn't personally "sold" on) weighed on me and did not motivate me to want to do better. Some of the colorful posters used to track employees' sales or "solutions" were, at times, something akin to a Kindergarten reading tracker.

I wasn't happy in these jobs, and I saw no future for myself in them, but the biggest issue was that I could not make ends meet. $11 or $12 an hour in the San Francisco Bay Area doesn't even come close to covering all expenses (particularly when you're living on your own with no roommates and taking care of a dependent). I felt like I'd waded up the proverbial "shit creek" without so much as a boat, let alone a paddle. I honestly didn't know what I was going to do, save for continue to send job application after job application and hope for a better break.

I thought about going back to grad school to get my doctorate. But it seemed like a ridiculous solution to not being able to find a decent job, so I began looking in other areas of employment. I analyzed my skill sets and experience. I knew that I could teach, and I'd had plenty of experience teaching introductory-level classes at the college level. The problem was, I'd applied for some college-level teaching positions, and had not landed an interview for any of them.

So I thought about other teaching positions. High school, perhaps. There was only one problem -- I was not licensed or credentialed. And thanks to the deprofessionalization of teaching as a career (read about that here, here, and here), I mused, like many other Americans, "Why on earth do I need a credential? I've been to college. I have a motherfucking master's degree in English -- of course I can teach English to teenagers!" And this mentality, unfortunately, caused me to begin feeling resentful that I was essentially barred from what I considered to be a viable career path. I looked into nearby colleges, thinking that I could just go back and get credentialed to teach in public schools, but I quickly learned that there was no possible way I could work full time and pursue a teaching credential (at least not where I lived). I'd be required to attend classes on a pretty rigorous daytime schedule, and then be required to student teach (unpaid work!) on top of it.

Now, mind you, there's no way in hell that I'd ever expect to walk into a career as a lawyer without proper training and expect to be taken seriously. I wouldn't expect to do that as a doctor either, or a scientist, or an architect, or any other damn profession out there. But teaching, as I mentioned before, has been so deprofessionalized that many Americans -- myself, at the time, included -- assume that it's an easy job that anybody can perform. It's part of the reason why people feel justified in teachers being underpaid, and why they assert that teachers barely work (even though, in reality, many teachers work 50+ hour weeks, and work through weekends and holidays, too). It's a problem within the mentality of America, and I admit that I'd fallen victim to it.

As a result of this mentality, I made it my goal to figure out how to become a classroom teacher without having to go through the expensive and time-consuming ordeal of certification and licensing (and yes, I do realize now just how privileged and entitled that sounds when speaking of a career path -- bear with me). Most states have programs that help people attain teaching licenses while they teach -- meaning that a non-credentialed, non-licensed person can teach in a classroom while in the process of getting their license. These programs, sponsoring a sort of a learn-as-you-go technique, are called alternate route to licensing programs (or ARL for short). Lots of teachers go through ARL programs these days to become teachers which has, in turn, led to fewer people that enter traditional teacher training programs ("Hey, I can always fall back on teaching no matter what I do, so why would I go into that to begin with?") and has called into question the very value of traditional teacher preparation programs.

I don't know if you'd ever visit a lawyer who went through an "alternate route" to licensing (i.e. not law school), or a doctor who was in the process of learning and attaining her medical license while treating you, but in this day and age, plenty of children enter classrooms with teachers who do just that.

Yes, I was one of them. I did look into California's alternate route to licensing program, but at the time there were so many credentialed, licensed teachers out of work (California laid off quite a few teachers from around 2008-2012) that most schools weren't overly interested in hiring anyone from an ARL program. ARL programs can be tricky, too, as many of them require you to be hired in a teaching position before you can officially join the ARL program while, at the same time, schools are reluctant to hire you if you don't have evidence that you're going to be in the program. It's one of those catch-22s that some people pull themselves through, and some people don't. Personally, I found it to be rather difficult (again, mostly because of California's overabundance of teachers who had been laid off).

I spent many evenings online, looking into different ARL routes that I might be able to take and researching various private and charter schools that might hire me without a credential or license. After putting in plenty of applications, I managed to land an interview for a high school English position in downtown Oakland, but after two interviews I never heard from them again (and all inquiries from my end resulted in a dishonest, "We'll have so-and-so call you back later" -- no one ever called me back). Once I gave up on hearing back from them, my crushed self returned to writing and editing applications. And when nothing came of those, I returned my broke ass to the computer to look, once again, for a teaching position that I might be able to talk my way into attaining.

This -- the endless hours on the Internet searching for anyone who sought a non-credentialed person to take a stab at teaching -- resulted, ultimately, in my discovery of Teach For America. When I first came upon their website, on an early evening in October, I assumed that this program, whatever it was, only hired credentialed teachers. But further investigation proved me wrong, and I realized that TFA did not require that their applicants have any training in teaching whatsoever. The only thing, it turned out, required of all applicants was a bachelor's degree, and I definitely had one of those. So, without thinking any more about it -- and without further researching the program -- I applied.

My initial application involved a submission of my CV/resume, a cover letter detailing why I wanted to join Teach For America (and also any hardships or experiences I'd ever faced that would make me a good candidate), and information about leadership positions I'd held in the past. I submitted all of this the very same day I learned that Teach For America even existed.

Only after I'd applied did I do any real research on the program, but I did learn a few interesting things about it, such as their main goal of providing an excellent education to underprivileged children in America, and the fact that TFA is highly selective of those it chooses to do so (with annual acceptance rates typically below 15%). I became more excited the more I read, because getting to work with an organization dedicated to social justice and moving into a career at the same time sounded right up my alley.

But applying for the program because, first and foremost, I wanted to play a part in ending educational inequity? No. This is not something I ever admitted to anyone involved in TFA with me, but, at the end of the day, however taken I was with TFA's mission and goals, I was still broke as shit and ultimately desperate for a career break -- and that is what drove me to apply.

Chapter 2: The Interviews that Changed My Life

Second confession: I interview well not because I'm every company's dream employee, but because I know exactly what most companies want to hear, and I'm quite good at communicating those things regardless of if I agree with them or actually utilize them. In the past, employers have told me that I am an excellent interviewer -- and I know exactly why.

I didn't think much about my Teach For America application once I'd sent it, mostly because I was busy working and figuring out where else I could apply to. But a week or so after I'd applied, I received an e-mail letting me know that I'd moved on to the next phase of the application process -- the telephone interview.

I've heard it through the grapevine that some applicants get to skip the phone interview and go straight into a final interview, but I'm not entirely sure how this works. Some people have told me that if an applicant belonged to specific leadership groups or organizations, they'd get to skip the phone interview; others have told me that applicants with extremely strong initial applications are invited straight to the final interview, and that the phone interview means TFA is interested in you, but not quite "sold" on you for a final interview. I don't really know what's true regarding this -- all I know is that I was invited to sign up for a phone interview.

I scheduled my phone interview for a November date that I knew I had off of work, and immediately began looking into what Teach For America wanted to hear during this interview. I read articles and blogs written by those who were employed by TFA, by people who had conducted interviews in the past, by people who were accepted into the program, and by people who were not accepted into the program. I found a few sites that offered supposed real questions that had been used during this phone interview. According to my online research, the interviewer would apparently be asking me about a few key qualities: leadership and organization (both of which TFA believes helps to create strong teachers). I began to formulate responses that I typed up into paragraphs and bullet points on Microsoft Word, each response carefully organized into specific categories (organization, leadership, schooling, etc.) that I could easily get to during any point in the interview. My plan was to keep all of my well thought-out responses right there in front of me as I interviewed, to help keep me on point and prevent me from forgetting anything important. If I drew a blank, I could always just read directly from these paragraphs (as a writer and an actor, it's not difficult for me to read prose in a way that makes it sound like I'm speaking, not reading -- especially when I'm on the phone and not speaking with someone face-to-face).

On the day of the interview, I made sure I was well rested and that I'd eaten before the scheduled time, even though I wasn't overly nervous about it (at this point, remember, I was still in the dark about just how selective TFA actually is). I got my son off to school and then, upon arriving home, pulled up my Word document and awaited the phone call. (Phone interviews are always nerve wracking because of things completely outside of one's control -- if the interview was scheduled at 11:00, if 11:01 arrives with no phone call, you tend to start wondering what happened, if you got the date and time correct, if the interviewer can't get through for some reason, and, if so, just what you should do to ensure your interview eventually happens. Do you call someone? Do you e-mail? Do you wait?)

Luckily, my interview wasn't overly late (one or two minutes, at most). The woman on the other line began with pleasantries, and told me that the TFA staff who had looked over my application had been very taken with my statement of purpose. "It's really good," she told me (thank you, graduate degree in writing!), and then explained that they wanted to know a few more things about me.

True to what I'd read, organization was the first thing she wanted to talk about. How did I stay organized? What organizational tools or strategies did I utilize in my life? Truth be told, I'm not an overly organized person, but I was able to scroll through my Word document and begin discussing the categorizing and time management skills that I used every so often in my life (though I made it sound like I used them at least every day). Organization, I explained, was very important to me. This, as I explained before, is what makes me "excellent" at interviewing. I struggle with staying organized in my day to day life, but there was no way that Teach For America would know that during the interview.

This only accounted for part of the phone interview, though; the other part consisted mostly of discussing prior hardship and determination, and my responses in this area couldn't have been more sincere and heartfelt. I talked about being a single mother and finishing not only an undergraduate degree, but a graduate one too. I talked about being a Type 1 diabetic in a world that treats medical care like a privilege, not a right. And I talked about my son, who had struggled with behavior and academic issues in the past, and how we had used his prior labeling (by teachers among others) as fuel to propel him into advanced academics and exemplary behavior (my son, despite his early struggles, went on to become a GATE student, excelled in chess club, and was recently accepted into an accelerated magnet program for middle school students). I told my interviewer how often I'd turned "impossible" into "possible," and how hardship gave me motivation to succeed in the face of monumental odds.

I felt like I'd done a decent job in the interview, and found out a couple of weeks later that Teach For America thought I had, too.

Now, with most companies, a final interview consists of speaking with management in person so that they can decide if you're a good fit. At Teach For America, the final interview is a bit more involved (and mine turned out to be more complicated than most). Prior to the final interview, I had to watch a series of videos that featured a principal and a young teacher who had a monumental disagreement about something (I can't even remember what it was), and then I had to comment about who I thought was "right," how I would have handled the situation, and what I thought about basic professionalism and workplace conduct. Then, I needed to answer some questions involving some graphs (to prove that I had at least some skill in regards to data analysis, I guess). Then, I was able to set up my final interview.

I found out at this point just what would be required of me during this final interview. Apparently, it was going to be an all-day event with 6-7 other candidates, made of up three parts: First, I'd have to teach a lesson; second, I would read, analyze, and discuss an educational article with others in my interview group; and third, I'd interview one-on-one with a TFA representative. Needless to say, I began to research all three aspects of this interview so that I could be as prepared as possible, and then went to the Applicant Portal page to sign up for an interview.

Living in the Bay Area, I could sign up for a final interview in San Francisco, Oakland, or even San Jose (which would have been a bit far, but it was still accessible to me). I chose to interview in Oakland on a Wednesday morning in December.

There was one tricky element to this whole process, though -- I didn't know what my work schedule would be during the week of the interview, and so I was unable to schedule it in tandem with a day off. I went ahead and scheduled the Wednesday, though (as I had been instructed to sign up for my desired time and location quickly, lest it become full before I did), as I assumed that I'd be able to request the day off. I worked for a bank by this time, and management there tended to be pretty reasonable when it came to requesting days off, so long as I gave them enough advanced warning. As the schedule hadn't been written yet for that week, I thought that advanced warning wouldn't be an issue for this specific date.

As luck would have it, there were huge problems with that date. The very next day at work, I asked my manager about the date, and she immediately informed me that it would be impossible for me to take that day off (others, who had been working at that branch much longer than I had, had already requested that day off for various reasons). Too many people had planned to be out on that day, so I would definitely need to plan on being there. I thought briefly about simply calling in sick on that day, but decided against it because, at the end of the day, I didn't want to be unprofessional or leave my branch in an unfortunate situation. Besides that, I also didn't want to find myself unemployed when I still had no idea if Teach For America would wind up hiring me or not.

I rushed home that day intent on changing my interview date to a day that I could get off of work. I logged in and began browsing other times in Oakland ... only to realize that everything else had been booked already. My heart sank and I felt the first pangs of panic begin to set in.

It's all right, I told myself. I can interview in San Francisco. It's not that far.

I left the sign-up page for Oakland and began looking at times for San Francisco. Unfortunately, every interview time that I'd be able to attend there was also booked. With the panic inside me growing more abundant, I began searching for available times in San Jose, but found that it, too, had been fully booked already. I furiously began clicking through every available time in the state of California, determined to find one that would mesh with my work schedule ... and found one in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles. Clear on the other side of the state. It had one available slot on the one day I knew I'd have off.

I thought about this for all of two seconds, and immediately signed up for it. On some level, it seemed so impractical that I'd somehow buy an airplane ticket when I was already too broke to eat on a consistent basis just for an interview. But I knew that this interview could change my entire life, and it could lead to the career breakthrough I'd been waiting for. When would I get another chance like this? I'd come so far with it already. So I made a quick decision to attend a final interview with Teach For America in Los Angeles, almost four hundred miles away from home.

On the day of the interview, my friends Shirlee and Kathy (who had helped me out and bailed me out on more than one occasion since I'd arrived in California) kept Brendan overnight for me and offered to get him to school and back so that I could make it to my interview. I woke up at 3:30 to put myself together and make it to the airport for my 6:00am flight. I put on the most professional skirt suit I owned, complete with nylons and stylish wedge heels, pulled my hair up into a sock bun, and spent extra time on my makeup. I made it to the airport and boarded my flight on time, armed with two cups of coffee so that I could appear "bright-eyed" and "eager" despite my lack of sleep and rushed morning.

Upon arriving in LA, I needed to figure out the best way to get to the downtown interview location, so I asked around. There were a few options -- a taxi (stupidly expensive), a bus that would drop me off nearby (moderately cheaper), or a smaller, less conventional bus that would take all passengers to specific locations (much, much cheaper). I opted for the last choice, so that I could save money and be taken right to my location. This resulted, however, in me becoming wildly anxious that I was going to miss my interview, or otherwise be late (huge no-no). The driver seemed to drive us all over LA, stopping here, there, and everywhere for everyone else on the bus. My interview was at 9:00, and at 8:40 there was no sign that we were anywhere near to stopping at my location. Huge amounts of panic set in at that point.

I thought about speaking to the driver, but just as I was about to he stopped in front of a building and announced it as my location. It was about 8:50, so I quickly paid the driver and leaped off of that bus as quickly as I could in my skirt and heels. Then, with a deep breath, I entered the building and made my way to the suite where I'd be interviewing.

Two Teach For America representatives conducted the interview, both of whom had been corps members in previous years. They called me and seven other applicants into a conference-style room, and we all took a seat in comfortable chairs surrounding an oval-shaped table. The two interviewers -- a woman and a man -- took some time to talk to us about TFA and its mission, and what to expect should we be chosen for the corps. It was during this moment that I first began to learn about Institute, the five-week training session that all incoming TFA corps members must attend. The interviewers told us that it would be the most rigorous and, likely, difficult five weeks of our lives, but that it would be worth it because Institute was so effective. They told us how lots and lots of traditional teacher training programs were looking into using the Institute model because it was just so effective. They told us about how we'd be up before dawn and still up after midnight because Institute was so much work, but how we'd get first-hand teaching experience right off the bat. And did they mention that it was extremely effective?

The two interviewers didn't bring any kind of research or data to back up what they were saying, but I was sold on it anyway. From what they told us, it sounded like Institute through TFA was even better at preparing teachers than traditional programs were (because how could 4-5 years of intense training ever replace 5 weeks of intense training, amirite?). But anyway...

The interviewers announced that they'd begin the interview by watching us perform the lessons we'd prepared. "Does anyone," one of them asked, "want to go first?"

I knew how this was likely to go. All of us interviewing that day, being ambitious, ridiculously competitive "Type A" personalities (as most Teach For America corps members are), would sit around the table knowing it would be in our best interests to go first, but we wouldn't want to seem over-eager either, and so in the span of one second that would feel like one hour, each of us would wait for exactly the right moment until one of us enthusiastically shrugged and offered to be the first. And the rest of us would inwardly beat ourselves up, silently lamenting, Shit! Why didn't I just raise my hand?

Not me. Not today. I knew I wanted to go first, and I wasn't about to let someone take that opportunity away from me. I was determined that day to set a high standard, not live up to another standard that someone else set before me. So I immediately shot my hand into the air and announced clearly, "I'll go first."

I like to think that the interviewers were impressed that not even a microsecond passed by before I volunteered, but who knows?

I'd prepared a high school creative writing lesson for the interview. All of my research on this part of the interview led me to believe that it didn't matter as much what you taught, but how you taught it, and that you followed the very specific direction to keep it around 5 minutes long (which means that you're shooting yourself in the foot if your lesson is 3 minutes long, or 7 minutes long). I prepared a shorter lesson, knowing that, as a performer, I could convincingly drag it out if I needed to. My lesson covered descriptive language in creative writing, so I began by reading a bland statement ("I was sad") and asking my "students" to compare it with a more descriptive analysis ("My shoulders slumped forward and began to shake once I realized that I could no longer hold back the tears that stung the backs of my eyes" -- you get the idea). I then told the "students" that I'd be teaching them how to create more descriptive language in their writing. I did this by asking a volunteer to choose an emotion word -- happy, sad, scared, surprised, etc. I wrote that word on the board and then asked volunteers to throw out every synonym they could think of for that word (for the word sad, they'd call out upset, dismal, melancholy, sorrowful, and other such words). I wrote all of these words on the board, and I then instructed that, using paper that I'd passed out, each "student" would need to write a sentence describing that emotion -- but they couldn't use any of the words I'd just written on the board. They would do this, I explained, by thinking about what that emotion truly felt like, and communicating that through their writing. I then had each "student" share their sentence.

I think everyone had a good time with this, and enjoyed showing off their creative writing prowess. The male interviewer, though, tried to throw me a wrench by reading out a sentence that went something like, "I was really sad and upset when I found out my show was cancelled," essentially using more than one of the forbidden words on the board. I guess he was assessing how well I handled students who didn't follow, or else didn't understand, the directions. Having taught introductory writing courses in the past, though, I immediately responded, "That's a great start! I know you're feeling sad. But remember that the direction was that we can't use any of these words on the board -- it's hard, isn't it? Think you could try again?" Or something like that. He made a note on my response and we moved on.

I sat through the rest of the lessons (most of which were well prepared, but a few of which went too long or were missing key elements) relieved that I'd already completed mine. It made that section of the interview easier to get through, as I could participate in others' lessons without worrying about my own.

After a brief break, the interviewers introduced us to the next part of the interview. We would be divided into two groups, we were told, and given an article to read. As a group, we would need to discuss the article and possible solutions to the problems that it presented. My research on this part of the interview led me to believe that they wanted to see people able to engage intelligently and respectfully on an issue, while not dominating the conversation. So I did exactly that. In my group of 4, overlooked by the male interviewer, I contributed thoughtful ideas and suggestions and responded to some other people's suggestions, all the while being sure to not speak so much that others didn't get a chance to. Analysis and communication are areas that I take pride in being good at, so I felt pretty confident after walking away from that part of the interview.

We were released for lunch at that point, and told that when we came back we would be doing the final part of the interview -- the one-on-one conversation. I knew I'd be interviewing with the male interviewer, and he'd given each of us a reading to become familiar with over lunch. My reading had to do with a teacher who wanted to take her literature class to a Shakespeare production, but wasn't able to because the principal didn't think they had the funds to justify such a trip.

The first part of this one-on-one interview, interestingly, was a role play regarding the reading. I had to pretend to be the teacher, and my interviewer the principal. I needed to try to convince him that the Shakespeare trip was a good idea. This was actually kind of fun, and I enjoyed the back-and-forth reasoning between the two of us during this time. After this, though, he also asked me about the videos I'd viewed a while back (regarding the young teacher having a spat with his principal), and wanted me to elaborate on my answers regarding that situation. Lastly, he asked me questions about myself and why I thought Teach For America was a good fit for me.

One of the most important questions -- and answers -- I think, involved commitment. He asked me what, if anything, would cause me to leave the corps if I was hired. Again, because I know what people want to hear, my response was that nothing could cause me to quit. Once I'd committed to the corps, I explained, it would become a priority in my life. I think this is part of the reason I was hired. For anyone interested, it's important to note that (something I learned later on), one of the key elements that TFA looks for in candidates is grit -- or, in other words, a person's ability to persevere through extremely difficult and demanding situations. Those who run TFA know that they're throwing naive young adults into rough situations that they're not entirely prepared to handle, and so they want to make sure that each candidate they hire is -- or at least appears to be -- tough as nails, and not about to quit once things do (and they inevitably will) get really, really difficult. Anyone who is serious about joining TFA needs to know that.

But that, essentially, comprised the entirety of my final interview. It did last most of the day, but it was still light out when I made my way back to the airport. I was actually earlier than I expected, so I was able to arrange a switch to an earlier flight, and arrived home while the sun still shone in the sky.

I returned to my job at the bank as though nothing had happened. I warned myself to not get my hopes up. I even began applying for other jobs, back in the cycle I'd become so used to. But I knew the exact date in January when I would receive, by e-mail, TFA's final decision about my application, and I kept it in the back of my mind. When that date arrived, I spent my morning shift preoccupied and distractedly biting my fingernails as I tried to sell "solutions" to my customers.

The e-mail is probably there by now. What if I didn't get in? What if I did get in? I spent my entire morning navigating these thoughts and the emotions that accompanied them. And then (as these were the days before I began checking my e-mail on an iPhone), I rushed home during my hour-long lunch break to check and see. With bated breath, I opened my e-mail and began scanning the new messages, searching for one from Teach For America.

And then, there it was. Before I even opened it, I was able to read the subject title: Congratulations and welcome to the 2013 corps!

I wept. I wept because I had done it, and for the first time it seemed as though I'd come across a light at the end of the dead-end-job-and-low-wages tunnel I'd been lost in for so long. I had been accepted into a program which, as the New York Times once put it, harder to get into than "the nation's top law schools and grad programs." Not only did I have a career, but I was among the "best and the brightest" -- and this was not only relieving, but intrinsically validating.

Chapter 3: Placement

The process of deciding where a corps member will be placed begins before an applicant is even accepted into the program. A few weeks before someone is scheduled for a final interview, she or he must log into their Applicant Portal and answer questions that will identify not only where they are likely to go, but also what they are likely to teach if chosen. For me, it was an exciting and fun prospect that really got me thinking about my future and not only what it might look like, but what I wanted it to look like. Once I placed myself in the position of telling Teach For America what I wanted my corps experience to look like, the thought of not being accepted became almost unthinkable. But I know that this does happen to some applicants, which I can only imagine is a difficult situation.

When I logged on to the Applicant Portal to complete my location and teaching preferences -- just in case, I reminded myself, I was actually accepted into the corps -- I was greeted initially with a large map of the United States. The map detailed all of the areas that Teach For America recruits people to work in, and my job involved perusing these areas and choosing 10 that I would be interested in moving to.

I'll reiterate here that Teach For America's purpose, so they say, is to only place corps members in "high need" regions -- that is, areas where there are severe teaching shortages or are otherwise facing educational crises. Teach For America claims that their purpose is to step into those regions and play a part in mending whatever happens to be broken. (And yes -- part of the training that Teach For America offers its corps members really does leave many of them believing that deeply systemic educational crises can be overcome with young, idealistic teachers who promote the power of high expectations.) All of this means that a Teach For America corps member cannot simply teach at any school, in any part of the nation, that she or he wishes to. Each corps member is sent to one of these "high needs" regions, which includes high-profile areas such as the inner cities of Chicago and Los Angeles, but also other areas including New Orleans, a few areas of Texas, and the rural towns of the Mississippi Delta.

Again, I had to choose 10 that I'd be willing to live and teach in, and I knew that I could be assigned to any of those 10 regions, depending on a number of factors. Because I didn't want to leave my current living situation in the Bay Area, I put that region as my #1 choice (which meant that, if assigned there, I could wind up teaching in either San Francisco, Oakland, Richland, or San Jose). I knew, through online inquiries, that getting assigned a position anywhere in California was particularly difficult, because who doesn't want to live in California? (I know, I know -- many people don't, but the fact is that many, many, many people do, and that leads quite a few TFA applicants to put the California regions as their #1 priority regions, too.)

Because my mom and sister (and her husband and children) lived in Las Vegas, and I'd lived there before, I chose that as my #2 spot. (I learned later on that if you put certain areas near the top of your list, you are almost guaranteed to be sent there. The Mississippi Delta was one of those areas, and Las Vegas was another.) New York was also on my list, as that would place me close to my dad (who lived in Toronto), and so was Dallas (where my at-the-time love interest resided) and New Orleans (which featured cultural aspects I was extremely interested in). There were other places, of course, that I listed, but I wasn't as concerned about them because Teach For America stated that they always try to place people in regions as close to the top of their list as possible. When I submitted my preferences, I honestly had no idea what to expect, though. I knew, at the time, that my first priority was getting accepted, and after that accepting my placement would be, as they say, "cake."

After submitting my region preferences, I was also asked to weigh what I would and wouldn't want to teach. During this session, I ranked various grade levels and subjects, such elementary education, high school science, and special education, among others, on a three-tiered scale: I marked that I was either excited about the prospect of teaching that subject, or that I would, simply, teach that subject, or that the prospect of teaching that subject would deter me from accepting a place in the corps. I marked that I would teach just about everything on the list, which was true with a couple of exceptions: I did mark that I would be excited to teach high school English, because my experience teaching college-level English and my graduate degree in that area led me to believe that I'd be better at it than other areas. I also marked that special education would deter me from joining the corps, because I felt wholly unqualified, and therefore overwhelmed, to enter that area. Other than those two things, though, I remained very open in terms of what I would, simply, teach.

Fast forward through the final interview process and my acceptance into the corps, and I realized that I would soon find out exactly where (and what) I'd be assigned to teach. After I was accepted, my Applicant Portal stated that I would find out my region and teaching assignment within 24 hours, so I returned to my job at the bank with nothing on my mind except for what I was likely to find out after my shift. I didn't mention my new job to those at the bank -- I did, after all, have four months of work with them until I'd be leaving to become a teacher. I was, though, noticeably happy and relieved, I think. My demeanor must have been much changed during the second half of my shift from what it was during the first half.

Once I arrived home, my placement was available for viewing: I would be sent to Las Vegas to teach elementary education.

For the first time since reading about my acceptance, I felt a pang of disappointment, my balloon of ecstasy deflating a bit. I hadn't realized until that moment just how much I'd wanted to stay in the Bay Area, and just how much I wanted to teach high school English. I was moving, it seemed, to Las Vegas, and I'd be teaching elementary school. As excited as I was about being accepted to the corps, I was, admittedly, wholly disappointed about my placement.

I called my mom, and she was absolutely ecstatic about the fact that I'd be coming to Las Vegas. And I'd be just fine, she said, teaching elementary school. My mom had a mantra that "everything will work out," despite not having any tools or ideas as to how things would work out, but she was happy at that moment that my son and I would be joining her and my sister in Vegas.

Truth be told, though, my placement actually caused me to reconsider accepting my offer from Teach For America. I received phone calls from my eventual MTLD (manager of teaching and learning -- essentially, the closest thing to a boss I'd experience in TFA), Christy (not her real name), to discuss my decision-making process. I told her that I would much rather be placed in the Bay Area, and I may have mentioned my classroom preferences too, but she reminded me that my commitment was to students, and that I needed to keep that in mind as I navigated my choice. I even went so far as to apply to other jobs -- editing and writing jobs, as well as college teaching jobs -- before finally accepting my offer from Teach For America. After everything, I'd actually considered not accepting.

In the end, though, I did accept my offer and my placement, and began the process of planning a move to Las Vegas. I remained firm in my decision to not tell my current employer, the bank, about this new job until closer to the time I'd be leaving -- perhaps a bad decision, but ultimately something I found to be important. I knew that I would need to be in Las Vegas in late May for Induction, and in Los Angeles directly after that for Insitute, and then back in Vegas for Kick-Off and the start of the school year. At the time, all of this sounded extremely overwhelming, but I assured myself that TFA would adequately prepare me for all that was to come in the near future.

Chapter 4: Hello, Las Vegas

Third confession: I got myself the (preferable) Los Angeles, California Institute assignment (rather than the alternate Phoenix, Arizona Institute assignment) by insisting that I couldn't pull my son out of school early, and then proceeded to pull him out of school early anyway.

Back in 2013, when I joined the corps, those assigned to the Las Vegas Valley were given two options regarding where they'd attend Institute (Teach For America's 5-week training program): Phoenix (where the majority of Las Vegas corps members went), and Los Angeles (where a very few Las Vegas corps members went). Most corps members who attended Institute in Los Angeles had been placed in California -- either in Los Angeles, San Diego, or the Bay Area -- but some Las Vegas corps members managed to get there, too, through extenuating circumstances. The Phoenix Institute, you see, began in May, which meant that if a corps member hadn't graduated college yet (yes, this was a thing) or had family commitments, they'd have to attend Institute in Los Angeles instead, which began in June. Personally, I knew that I'd rather be in Los Angeles than in Phoenix, and, lo and behold, I had an excuse to do so: my third grader wouldn't be finished with school until after Institute in Phoenix had already begun.

I was very adamant about this. I could not pull my son out of school before the year ended. I was about to uproot him to not only a new school, but a whole new state, and so the least I could do for him was make sure that he got to finish out the year. This was, of course, a good enough reason to allow me to attend Institute in Los Angeles.

So, as I said, I pulled my son out of school early anyway.

The reason I left earlier than planned was so that I could make it to Induction (a week-long introduction to Teach For America and my placement city). This event was to be held in downtown Las Vegas, and I would share a hotel room with another new corps member, despite the fact that I had family in town that I could have stayed with. For this venture, I packed up essentials for my son and I and we drove down to Las Vegas. The plan, at the time, was to attend Induction, find a new place to live, and then go back to the Bay Area after Induction to finish packing and moving. There was, therefore, quite a bit happening in a short span of time, but that didn't stop me from entering Induction bright-eyed and smiling.

Yes, my smile usually masked carefully hidden anxiety about the move and my new job, but I continually told myself to relax -- after all, I was in Teach For America now. I'd learn everything there was to know about being an effective, life-changing teacher within the next few months, and everything in my life would be a-okay. After all, Teach For America wouldn't send me into a classroom full of students unless I was wholly prepared to take on the role of their teacher, right? (My inner pep talks didn't sound quite this unjaded, but they may as well have.)

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, I dropped my son, my two cats, and some of my other belongings, off with my mom and sister (who'd agreed to babysit my little family through the Induction and Institute process), who then drove me down to the hotel where I'd attend Induction. I don't actually remember what I expected Induction to be like, but most of it consisted of equal parts "TFA triablism" (as I call it), where we would learn about the importance and influence of TFA in education (complete with high-energy music and well-placed motivational speaking), and team building activities that were supposed to simultaneously build us up as an elite corps and make us ponder our privileged place in the world of educational inequity.

We heard from "guest speakers" -- young students who, though their TFA teachers, had reached new heights and were there to tell us what an important role we were about to play. We were told that, out of roughly 60,000 applicants, we were among the lucky (and talented, we were told) 5,000 to be chosen to join the corps. We stared at (and pretended to analyze) educational data from our region. We played games that assigned our personalities to shapes (I'm a triangle, if you're interested) and asked us to draw our life stories on a single sheet of white paper. We attempted to build marshmallow-holding towers out of dry spaghetti.

Oh, and during this process I also found out what grade level I'd be teaching, and at what school. This was a huge deal, as I'd spent most of Induction feeling envious of the young twenty-somethings who had been assigned to teach middle or high school English, many of whom had majored in business or accounting or something else that had nothing to do with literature or English. Why, I continually asked myself. Why did these kids get to teach English when I, as someone who had majored in and actually taught English before, did not? (Spoiler alert -- that was a question that was never actually answered, though I suspect that other corps members may have been more vocal about their preferences for older students than I was.)

Being assigned my grade level, however, transformed that sting into a mere throb. Once I arrived in Las Vegas, I needed to apply to the district and specify grade level preferences. (The Clark County School District, at least in 2013, was so desperate for teachers that they actually did listen to us as to where we wanted to be placed -- they needed each and every one of us.) As disappointed as I was at being assigned to teach elementary school, I made sure that I marked 5th grade as my highest preference (as 5th grade was the highest elementary grade in CCSD). As I had to choose two other grade levels as second and third preferences, I chose 4th and, lastly, 3rd.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I found out that I would be teaching 5th grade in the fall. I'd actually been assigned my number one preference. And it was no small thing -- I didn't get to teach high school English, but at least I wasn't teaching Kindergarten. (And let me point out here that I mean no disrespect to Kindergarten teachers, or any primary teacher for that matter. I know -- believe me, do I know -- how important your work is, and how much you do. I don't, personally, communicate well with very small children, and knew that such an assignment would be an uphill battle for me. My experience was in teaching young adults, and for the sake of my own comfort, I wanted to be as close to that as possible.)

I also met Amy (not her real name), who would be teaching 4th grade at the same school I would be teaching at, as well as my future MTLD, Christy (also not her real name). (For inquiring minds, MTLD stands for Manager of Teacher Leadership Development, which means that Christy was, essentially, my TFA "boss," responsible for my test data growth and development as a teacher while I was with TFA.)

Honestly, though, my biggest concern was understanding curriculum expectations for my region, and, specifically, my school. What, exactly, was I supposed to teach, and how was I to teach it? Further, what were the Common Core State Standards, and how did the state expect them to be implemented? Here I was, three months from acquiring my own classroom, with virtually no clue as to any of the above. As Induction neared its end, however, I repeated what I'd continually told myself since accepting my offer with TFA: Institute would teach me everything I needed to know about teaching, and my current anxieties were unfounded. After all, literally every single corps member story we'd been introduced to while at Induction had been inspiring success stories woven with the fabric of blood, sweat, and high expectations. Surely, that would be me, too.

Surely.

Induction ended with a visit from UNLV representatives -- that is, people from the education department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who wanted to answer any questions we had about the transition to not only teaching, but full-time graduate school. They introduced us to the master's classes we'd take while we were navigating our first year of teaching, the deadlines we had to meet, and the paperwork that needed to be completed before we took our next breaths. Yes, just in case I didn't mention it before, Teach For America corps members teach for two years while simultaneously earning a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction. (Remember that "grit" factor I mentioned before, that TFA looks for in candidates? That comes in handy when you're managing a full-time career and a full-time graduate student load at the same time. If you happen to have other commitments, such as single parenting and a chronic illness, like myself, this workload can get super fun.) As I'd already completed one graduate degree, though, I was certain that I could handle all of this with the grace and prowess of Athena on the hunt.

Despite my obvious foreshadowing of the less-than-super-fun future I was about to take on, I left Induction feeling inspired and "pumped." I felt not just ready, but distinctly ready for Institute in a week, and, eventually, my own classroom full of 5th graders. (I didn't actually feel ready at that point to take on a classroom full of 5th graders -- it's just that three months can feel like an eternity when a 5-week training session is still standing in the way.)

But before Institute, I had some time to relax. I spent much of this time with my sister, her children, and my mother, whom I had not seen much of in recent years. My sister, Holly, and I would stay out late drinking and bar hopping all over Vegas; later, I would still get up early with my mom and sip coffee on her porch while talking about life. My mom, a strict "carbatarian" (meaning that she ate nothing except for carbs and fat, no lie), began complaining of numbness in her legs, and so I started offering healthier foods, such as hummus and vegetable wraps, in place of her usual macaroni and cheese or rice drenched in salad dressing and cheese. We watched horror movies and the first season of the Bates Motel TV series (which she loved -- she told me she couldn't wait for the second season, due out in the spring).

As much as I wanted to continue to relax, however, the huge elephant in the room that I didn't want to address was the fact that I still had to move. In roughly one week of time, I still needed to pack up my apartment, move everything into storage, and find a new place to live almost 600 miles from where I'd begun.

I won't lie -- I hate moving. I despise it. This is probably because I've done it so often. Growing up, I moved all over the place -- northern and southern California, New Mexico, Nevada, Montreal, and Toronto (and, after I was grown, Washington state, Idaho, and Utah were added to that list). Moving is a huge pain the ass. But, with that being said, when you're used to the world being your home, it's difficult to establish roots anywhere, and I admittedly get an itch to move myself once I've been more than two years in a single place. But I digress.

Holly, my sister already residing in Las Vegas, agreed to help me pack up and move, so she drove with me back up to the Bay Area (a long road trip made fun by sisterly antics). We had the best of intentions upon arriving at my Bay Area apartment, and spent a shitload of money on boxes and tape. Somehow, we wound up devoting the evening to movie musicals (Les Miserables and The 10 Commandments the Musical, starring Val Kilmer as Moses, which is a real thing) and drinking wine. As we fell asleep, we vowed that the next day we'd get lots and lots of packing done.

So the next day, we drove into San Francisco and saw some good friends of mine and went to the beach. Again, we honestly had good intentions, but the second day of "packing" was about as productive as the first. When we returned from the city, we each packed a couple of boxes and called it a day.

Had it been left to the two of us, I don't know that any real progress would have been made, ever. But two people -- my good friend, Kathy, and other friend, Lora -- stepped in before I could crash and burn.

When Kathy came over to help, Holly and I assured her that we'd already done loads of work. Thus, I honestly should not have been surprised when she stepped inside the apartment, took a quick look around, and abruptly announced, "You need to hire movers."

So I did. Kathy knows things, and I wasn't about to contest that I needed professional help at that point. So, despite the fact that the movers I hired were teenagers who kept asking me for alcohol and a chance to sneak out and smoke pot on the porch, we did wind up with a moving truck full of boxes and my furniture, as well as an empty apartment. And my friend Lora, who had helped pack as well, stayed late to help clean. Honestly, she was still scrubbing the inside of the fridge when Holly and I were ready to collapse with exhaustion. Kathy drove the moving truck to a storage unit, the place where my things would reside until after Institute.

And Institute was right around the corner now. Holly and I drove back to Vegas and I began to prepare to endure the training session that I'd continually heard was nothing less than emotionally, physically, and mentally draining.

Deep down, I was ready -- I knew I could handle Institute. I'd been through a lot already. I could take their version of "intense," their rendition of "trying." I could.

I could.

Chapter 5: Institute (Part 1)

With the contents of my apartment safely in storage and Institute closing in on me, I decided to visit my new school and meet my principal. Teaching in Vegas awarded me the privilege (as I thought of it at the time) of being assigned a teaching location without having to further interview. Other regions (including the ones in California, at least at the time) required all TFA teachers to interview with principals and be hired by them in order to secure positions for themselves. In Las Vegas, however (I suspect partly because the region was so desperate for teachers nearly everywhere), TFA teachers were simply placed in schools that expressed interest in having them. I did not meet or interview with my principal prior to being placed at her school. Therefore, I thought that visiting the school and meeting my principal before the start of the year would be a good thing. It would show "initiative," after all, and give me a heads up as to what my school and principal would be like. So I sent an e-mail to this new principal, asking for a convenient day and time prior to Institute wherein I could visit.

Though I didn't know it at the time, this new principal, Lilian Lawrence (not her real name), absolutely loved TFA teachers. Since taking over leadership of the school two years prior to the year I began, she had hired two of them and was supposedly quite enthusiastic about adding more of us to her staff. Based on what I knew about TFA, including my experience at Induction, I could only surmise that this woman loved Teach For America so much because it provided her with eager, high-achieving teachers who would deliver quality education right from the start. It wasn't until later that I began to suspect her love of TFA stemmed less from the organization's magical powers to produce great teachers, and more from the fact that TFA teachers tend to be young, inexperienced in the field, and much more willing to jump on board with high-stakes test centered "curricula" than an experienced teacher might be.

Despite the enthusiasm that Mrs. Lawrence's reply e-mail had relayed in regards to meeting me, she seemed stressed (almost frenzied, really) and rather supercilious when I met her for the first time. Granted, this happened during the last few weeks of school. There was likely much going on at the time. But she didn't meet my eyes when she greeted me. In fact, she barely looked at me at all during the tour of the school, which consisted of her leading me briskly, always a few paces ahead, through the four "pods" (4 wings of the building that housed classrooms) and introducing me briefly to two TFA teachers who had begun employment at the school that year. Ruby Walsh and Jordan Cunningham (nope, not their real names either) taught 2nd and 3rd grade, respectively, and Mrs. Lawrence had only wonderful things to say about both of them as she introduced us.

Overall, the tour was quick and not entirely memorable, save for one aspect. I remember Mrs. Lawrence stopping by a series of bulletin boards which were covered in graphs, numbers, and teachers' names.

"These are our data boards," she explained, with such emphasis as to impart that these boards were one of the most important components of the school. "We track all of our data."
She then looked at me expectantly, and I realized that, as she was looking for some kind of response, I had two options: 1) I could be completely honest and admit that I had no idea what school data boards were, what this particular data even referred to, or, therefore, how to interpret this data, or 2) I could stay silent and nod importantly, as though the data on the boards made perfect sense and I couldn't wait to start tracking my own.

In the span of about one second, I opted for the latter. Weighed down by the self-consciousness of not being a real teacher yet drove this response from me; once again, though, I assured myself that once I had completed Institute, the idea of data boards would make perfect sense and my recognition of them would no longer be laced with dishonesty.

Satisfied, Mrs. Lawrence led me away and I found myself leaving the school very shortly after I'd shown up. I left with a smile and my head held high, telling myself that I was excited to get started at this new school, but the truth was that I felt more than a slight twinge of anxiety -- anxiety over my teaching abilities, my lack of knowledge, my new school and its leadership, and just what I was about to dive head-first into. Again, though, all of this anxiety was fairly easy to push to the back burner since I still had a summer's worth of training ahead of me.

Still, I took some of that back-burnered trepidation on the road with me as I drove five hours from Las Vegas to the Los Angeles coast. Long drives give a person plenty of time to think, and although I tried to keep my thoughts focused on the bright future ahead of me, I couldn't help but ponder what I would do if I didn't leave Institute filled with preparation for my upcoming teaching assignment. Believe me, I became very good at pushing these fears aside as irrational and willing myself to trust the Institute experience.

Institute base was at Loyola Marymount University, located on the coast of downtown Los Angeles. Because of my status as a single parent, I was granted a family dorm -- meaning that, while nearly everyone else stayed in a one-room dorm they shared with a roommate, I got my own two-bedroom flat, complete with a kitchen, living area, and its own bathroom. Although Brendan was to spend the majority of my time at Institute with his grandmother or father, I did plan to have him stay with me on some weekends. Arriving on my own, though, the privacy and space were very nice. I bought some food for the kitchen area (in case I didn't want to go down to the cafeteria for meals or snacks), as well as some wine, and set my laptop computer up in the living room near a window with a clear view of the ocean.

So far, Institute wasn't so bad.

At check-in, I received some readings and a flash drive with work to prepare over the weekend. I also learned that a young woman named Michaela (not her real name) would be my CMA (which stands for corps member adviser) -- or, in other words, she was the seasoned TFA veteran who would guide me through Institute and teach me valuable things about education. Seven other new corps members and I made up her cohort, and she held some level of responsibility for us and our growth during Institute. She would help us develop a vision for our classrooms, assist us in lesson planning, and watch us teach so that she could offer feedback.

See, the big thing about Institute is that, after a week of learning all about planning and behavior management, corps members are thrown right into classrooms to begin getting first hand experience teaching. It's sort of a "learn as you go" approach, but it's also pretty watered down because each corps member only teaches for about one hour per day in a summer school environment (meaning that class sizes are generally pretty small). Corps members are assigned to a "collab," a group of roughly four people altogether, and then each person is given a subject to teach (such as math, reading, or writing). Then, corps members plan for that subject and deliver an hour (or so) long lesson each day. (When a corps member isn't teaching, other members of her or his collab are teaching, so the entire collab is responsible for a shared class.) All of this is done under the guidance of the CMA, and also a veteran teacher who sits in on each teaching session to assist with feedback and advice.

So, of course, I met my collab quite early on during the first week of Institute. I found out on the first day that I would be teaching summer school at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School (which many of us came to refer to as "Flo-Jo") in the neighborhood of Watts. On the second day of Institute, all of us loaded ourselves onto school buses and were driven to our schools so that we could do planning and training there, and this is when Michaela divided her cohort of eight corps members into two collabs of four people each.

My collab consisted of me, Athena (an older woman with lots of experience teaching, and yes, I used her real name!), Grant (a young man of Greek descent who had just completed an education-related, neuro-something-or-other, graduate degree at Harvard, and no, that's not his real name), and Desiree (a young woman fresh out of college -- not her real name). Athena and Desiree were both assigned teaching positions in California's Bay Area, and Grant would be teaching in Los Angeles. All things considered, we were quite the diverse group of incoming teachers -- the one thing that we did have in common, though, was that we would all be teaching upper elementary school (grades 3-5) in the Fall, and thus we would be sharing a 5th grade classroom over the course of Institute.

I'll note here that I was actually pretty lucky to be assigned a 5th grade classroom at Institute when I was going to be teaching 5th grade in the Fall. It makes sense to allow corps members the opportunity to practice teaching in a classroom similar to the one they'll be taking on for the school year, but this doesn't happen in a surprisingly high number of cases. I've talked to other corps members who were assigned to teach pre-K at Institute even though they would be middle school teachers come Fall, or corps members assigned to a high school science classroom at Institute even though they would be English teachers in the Fall. I happened to get very lucky that I was assigned to the exact same grade level/subject for both.

From what I remember, most of my collab were also going to be 5th grade teachers. Grant would be teaching science to a combination of 5th and 6th graders at a KIPP school (more on that later), and I think that Desiree was going to teach a general ed 5th grade classroom (like me). Athena, having had experience in education, would be a part-time teacher and a part-time assistant principal (yeah, I'm not sure how that one was supposed to work, either). All in all, though, as a group we had pretty similar goals in terms of learning outcomes, so we made a good team. Over the course of five weeks that followed after meeting my collab, I would become quite close with both Grant and Athena (Desiree never did become a willing member of our little Institute "family," though).

That first day at Flo-Jo, Michaela's entire cohort spent a good deal of time getting to know one another. We took a form of the Briggs Myers personality test (I think I was an INTP type, if you're interested), as Michaela thought that understanding each others' personality types would help us better understand each others' drives and motivations, and therefore help us create a stronger bond and develop a stronger team. We also took turns sharing our personal stories and backgrounds regarding why we joined TFA, and why educational equity was important to us. This certainly wasn't the first time that I wasn't entirely honest about my reasons for joining (see Chapter 1), but I enjoyed getting to be honest about my personal struggles. We sat outside at a lunch table as everyone shared stories that day, and I think we honestly did feel a bit closer after we'd finished. Despite all of our differences, the nine of us -- Michaela and her cohort -- could relate to the fact that we'd all experienced some form of hardship, and that hardship was part of what led us all to the same place at that table.

The first days of Institute wasn't entirely about building relationships and exploring ourselves, though -- we also spent quite a bit of time planning for the summer school classrooms that we were all about to teach. We went to lesson planning clinics, where we learned the basics of "I Do, We Do, You Do" (or, the importance of modeling a lesson and gradually releasing responsibility for it to the students). We learned about the importance of a classroom vision and tangible goals that students could work toward. In fact, Michaela required both of her collabs to create classroom visions that she then wanted to see come to life as we taught.

So Grant, Athena, Desiree, and I found ourselves wondering just what our "classroom vision" was. What was our vision, exactly, for our students? Aside from "learn things," none of us really had a clear idea.

What I would come to find out was that establishing a classroom vision (beyond "I want my students to learn things") is a huge part of teaching for Teach For America. TFA wants its corps members to come up with a vision that speaks to them, represents their passions and ideals, and contributes to student achievement, and then wants to see those visions happening when they enter classrooms. This is a beautiful idea, but not entirely easy to do when the ideas of what a classroom vision is and what one looks like in practice are vague, to say the least.

My collab and I were given copies of exemplar classroom visions -- ones that successful corps members had produced in previous years -- but we still found it difficult to come up with a unified vision and communicate it on paper. This was partly due to the fact that the vision was supposed to be partly about the classroom culture and partly about academic achievement. For example, we were supposed to make such declarations as, "By the end of summer school, students will meet ________ benchmark for _______ subject." The problems, however, were that 1) we had no idea exactly where 5th graders were supposed to be in any subject, 2) how 5th graders were assessed in these subjects, and 3) what the benchmarks were, how they were measured, or even where our upcoming students were at in terms of where they were supposed to be. When you don't know about these things but are expected to still, somehow, know them, it can feel pretty overwhelming. We turned to Michaela for clarification, but by the time we churned out a rough classroom vision, we (at least I) still felt very confused about many aspects of it. (I wouldn't actually understand and develop a strong classroom vision until my second year of teaching.)

As the first week at Institute proceeded, we were assigned a subject to teach (two of us would teach reading, one would teach math, and one would teach writing, and then we would switch it up halfway through the summer school session). I was assigned to teach reading, which, having had copious amounts of education in literature, I was absolutely fine with (I had yet to learn that teaching reading to disadvantaged grammar school children is very different than teaching literature to already educated adults). After this assignment, most of us were up well into the night developing and refining lesson plans that we would take with us the following week when summer school started. We were taught how to identify a learning objective for our students (using phrasing such as "We can..." or "Students will be able to..." or the ever-popular acronym for that, "SWBAT..."). We were taught how to focus our lessons around the objective, how to gradually release students into the work, and how to assess the work. We had to come up with most of the lesson materials, however (readings, worksheets, assessments, manipulatives, and other such things) on our own (which usually either involved hours on the Internet or hours navigating the supply lab provided for us at the university). Once again, when you're new to a field and presented with a bunch of ideas, practices, norms, and things that you're expected to know, but do not know, figuring everything out can be a long and frustrating process.

We struggled through, though, and came to a place at the end of the week that somewhat resembled minor preparation for our upcoming week of teaching. We'd take what we learned and use it, take what we kind of learned and try to use it, and try to forget about what we didn't learn. All in all, it felt like a huge exercise in, "We'll see what happens."

The weekend, though, was our time off, which gave us an opportunity to explore Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. There were beach parties and surfing; bonfires and S'mores; excursions to Disneyland and various clubs and bars. Athena, Grant, and I, did a bit of studying, planning, and eating together during the course of that first weekend, but in all honesty I spent most of it trying to relax while drinking wine and binge watching The Walking Dead on my laptop (this was one of those times when having my own room certainly showed benefits).

The end of the weekend, though, marked the start of the second week of Institute -- the week when we were to begin teaching.

This involved waking up before the sun, showering and putting myself together, and heading down to the main hall of the university where I could pick up my lunch and then eat breakfast (which was usually very nice, consisting of choices ranging from cold cereal, hot eggs, bacon and sausage, warm muffins, an assortment of juices and, of course, coffee). We would then need to be out front (usually right around the time when the sun was rising) in order to catch our school buses so that we could make it to our school sites on time. LMU happened to be rather close to Watts, so it never took long to arrive at the school site. The previous week, my collab and I had haphazardly (meaning, as best we could) set up our classroom. We'd moved desks around, set up boards, and put up as many posters as we could get our hands on, while at the same time doing our best to be conservative. At the end of Institute, we'd have to put the room back exactly as it had been (as is only respectful toward the teacher who used it during the regular school year), and so we didn't want to create a huge amount of work where that was concerned. Still, we had the beginnings of a working classroom that first morning of teaching.

All of the Flo-Jo teachers and their CMAs (and there were quite a few of us) met in a common room at the start of the day for morning inspiration, and then we parted to do last-minute preparations for our students. My collab and I wrote our daily objectives on the board and then paused for a quick photo of the four of us, in our classroom, ready to teach for the first time.

All of us went out to the playground to meet our students, nervous but bright smiles lining our likely overly optimistic faces. My collab had about eight students that day -- nowhere comparable to an actual general education classroom, but a good start, I suppose, for practice.

I'll digress here for a moment to point out that this happens to be another huge criticism of Teach For America (and particularly, its Institute training model). The students that TFA teachers serve are typically from underrepresented and underprivileged communities (all of my collab's students were from either Watts or neighboring Compton). Further, these students attending summer school to be taught by Institute teachers are struggling students (students don't usually attend summer school if they're doing well academically). These students typically need to catch up quite a bit before the new school year -- some of them, even, risk being held back if they're not caught up at least some. So, in other words, the students who come to summer school to be taught by Institute teachers are some of the nation's highest-needs children. They are the students most in need of a high-quality, experienced teacher who can understand and meet their needs. What they get, however, is a wholly inexperienced teacher who essentially uses them to practice being a teacher before being handed a classroom of their own. I'm not saying that all TFA teachers are ineffective at Institute -- that would be a wholly fallacious assumption on my part -- but I do think that there is some merit to criticizing the model presented.

Ask yourself this: If your own child was struggling to such an extent as to need summer school intervention, would you be happy if they spent their time all summer being taught by someone with no background in education (most TFA teachers don't have such a background, though some do), basically playing trial and error in your child's classroom while learning how to teach? It's worth considering.

Anyway, though, my first two days of teaching at Institute felt like a combination of performance (standing in front of an expectant group of people usually does, I think), crisis management, babysitting, a fair dose of "fake it 'till you make it" mentality ... and trial and error. The reading lesson I taught involved the book The Empty Pot, and we were to study various aspects of story elements throughout the week. A few of the students did very well and participated in my lesson, while others didn't seem to grasp the ideas I tried to relay (and, unfortunately, I didn't yet understand the concept of differentiation, or of finding new ways to teach the same thing). One student rolled her eyes at nearly everything I said. Another attempted to leave class in the middle of instruction. And another refused to do anything I asked -- she refused to read, refused to write, refused to speak, refused to move, refused to stand up. She stared at me defiantly until I pleaded with the presiding veteran teacher to intervene.

I was adequately prepared for none of this. Though I only taught one hour out of the day, and attended development sessions for the rest of the day, I returned to LMU feeling both physically and mentally drained. I believed that I had what it took to eventually be a good teacher -- I just didn't know what that would look like, or what it would take. So many things, from data keeping to behavior management strategies, still seemed so abstract.

On the first day back from teaching, veteran TFA corps members lined the LMU sidewalk to give us all high-fives and cheer loudly for us. We'd done it. We'd completed our first day of teaching.
On the second day back, I barely noticed that the sidewalk was absent of a cheer squad. Stepping off the bus, I was making tentative dinner plans with Grant when I turned my phone on (after a long day of, naturally, having it turned off) and noticed that I'd missed about half a dozen calls and at least a dozen texts.

All of those texts had the same ominous undertone. "Call me," they said. "Are you all right?" "I need to talk to you." "Where are you?"

Frowning, I told Grant I'd catch him later and hurried away to a quiet spot where I could listen to my voicemail. There was one from my dad that urgently requested that I call him as soon as possible. But the one that caused a deep sense of panic to rise within me was from my brother in law.

"Kate," it said, his voice breaking, "it's an emergency. You gotta ... you gotta call us as soon as you get this, okay? It's ... it's bad. It's really bad. ... Just ... just call me or Holly. Okay?"

I found an empty auditorium and entered it, my heart nearly beating out of my chest. A million possibilities ran though my head, but most of them centered around Brendan. The darkest corners of my subconsciousness knew -- just knew -- that something had happened to him. Was he okay, though? Hurt? In the hospital? Or was he dead? Had he run out into the street? Wandered off and gotten lost? Was there an accident in the house? Whatever had happened, it was obviously serious ... "really bad," as my brother in law had put it.

My fingers shook as I dialed my sister.

"Kate?" came her shaky, slightly anxious response.

"What happened?" I demanded. "What's going on?"

"Kate ... I have really, really, really bad news." I could tell she was fighting tears.

"What's going on?" I demanded again, sinking almost unwillingly into one of the soft theater-style seats.

"Are you alone?" she asked. "Are you sitting down?"

"Tell me it's not Brendan," I pleaded. "Just please tell me it's not Brendan."

There was a short pause.

"It's not Brendan," she assured me. "Brendan's fine."

It was as I released a huge sigh of relief, as nine hundred thousand of my million fears instantly dissipated, that she revealed, "It's Mom. Mom passed away last night."

Chapter 6: Institute (Part 2)

I don't remember much at that point, save for a tsunami of emotions divided into two parts: 1) Disbelief and 2) Relief.

Surely, I had misheard. My mom couldn't be dead. Perhaps she was in the hospital, or maybe she'd had an accident. But she couldn't be dead. My sister had to be exaggerating, or at least mistaken, about that.

Aside from those confusing feelings, however -- knowing that I'd just heard about the death of my mom, but not immediately able to render the news as valid and true -- another, dominating emotion swept through my mind and body. The news was bad, certainly ... probably one of the worst pieces of news I could have received. But it wasn't Brendan. Nothing had happened to my son, as I'd initially feared.

And for that, I felt relieved.

And for that, I felt guilty.

It wasn't for any of these emotions, in particular, that I cried. But I cried. I hung up the phone and, thinking I was alone in the small theater-like room I'd retreated into, lowered my head into my hands so that I could at least try to release the overwhelming emotions that had overcome me.

From behind me, a voice asked, "Are you okay?"

Of course I wasn't okay. I'm not sure that anyone crying by themselves is necessarily okay, but obviously someone cared enough to at least inquire. I stood up and turned around to see a young woman -- a fellow Teach For America recruit -- standing near the doorway. I told her what had happened, and she asked if there was anything she could do to help. Right around then, Grant also showed up. I'm not sure what caused him to come back looking for me, but there he was. And the two of them -- Grant and this unknown girl -- stayed with me while I tried to figure out what to do next.
Grant walked me to Michaela's Institute apartment, and I shared my tragedy with her. She made a few phone calls for me, and I found out that I had two options: 1) I could either take three days off of Institute to go be with family and process my mom's death, or 2) I could defer my placement for a year and return to Institute in 2014.

I didn't want to defer my teaching placement (not that I could if I even wanted to -- if I had, I'd be looking down the barrel of an entire year either unemployed or in another, short-term, low-paying job, and I couldn't do that to myself or to my son). So, instead, I agreed to take the three days off and arranged with my dad to fly out to Las Vegas that night. He (who had been divorced from my mom for years now), too, would be flying to Vegas that evening to help my sister and I make necessary arrangements and such.

I arrived in Las Vegas right around the same time as my dad, and he picked me up at the airport. He had gotten himself a room at the Trump hotel, and invited me to stay with him. Then we went to see my sister, her husband, their children, and, of course, my son who had been staying with them.
I found out during this time that it was the children who had discovered my mom on Tuesday morning, though they hadn't known she was dead. They'd apparently tried, unsuccessfully, to wake her up, and had reported to my sister that she wouldn't get out of bed. At first, my sister thought nothing of this and proceeded to make breakfast. It was only when she noticed that it was after ten in the morning, and my mom still wasn't up (when she was known to get up around sunrise every day) that she thought something might be wrong. She went to check on my mom, and could tell, before even calling for help, that something was, indeed, very wrong.

I can't imagine what that must have been like, and I'm glad it wasn't me that had to endure it.
My son, from what I was told, didn't immediately show emotion; rather, he put on a strong front to help comfort the younger children. But once I arrived, and he and I entered my mom's room to each choose a memento to take with us, he fell apart ... and so did I.

A part of me wanted to stay behind, even after the three of us -- my dad, my sister, and I -- had arranged the cremation and what seemed like a million other things, to help out and work through the complicated emotions I was dealing with. But another, larger, part of me wanted, instead, to return as quickly as possible to Institute and bury myself in my work.

And that's exactly what I did. Right or wrong, it's what I did.

For a brief time, the multitude of family drama that had long since been occurring in my family came to an end as we tried to come together and realize, in the wake of such an unexpected death, that nobody has all the time in the world to be alive. When you realize that everyone has only limited time in this world, becoming involved in silly drama seems ridiculous. (Still, that being said, I mentioned that these issues were only briefly solved because it wasn't long before some of those same family members decided to disown me yet again for whatever reasons they decided were proper -- I really can't keep track anymore. But I digress.)

With Institute already being so infamously difficult, it would be logical to assume that completing it would have been a huge hurdle for me after the death of my mom. In all actuality, however, I found finishing Institute to be much easier than I'd anticipated. I fell into a schedule and I think I was happy for the workload. I got up early every day, got myself ready, and walked down to the student center to get my box lunch. I'd then hop on the bus (or, more regularly, drive with Grant in his car) to Watts, teach a lesson, and return to LMU. I'd write lesson plans, revise lesson plans, and attend classes. And I spent lots of time, with Grant in particular, roaming Los Angeles and trying to keep my mind on positive things.

One weekend, I brought Brendan out to be with me. I didn't like the idea of him being alone in the apartment all day, hence the reason I opted to have him stay with my sister or his dad during the week (which I was privileged to be able to do), but on one slow weekend I had him come down and share my family-sized apartment with me. After all, he was the reason I had a family apartment to begin with, so it only made sense to include him some of the time. I took him to meals with me, showed him around LMU, and also took him to Universal Studios, where we stayed until closing and had a blast. Once the week was ready to begin again, I drove him back to the family member he'd be staying with.

My cohort and I, for the most part, stayed on the same page and taught our lessons at least somewhat efficiently, but there was at least one area in which we struggled at first: Discipline. We were not at all on the same page where discipline was concerned, and this resulted, predictably, in a lack of control in our classroom. We had major discipline issues among our seven (or so) students, including students who would get up and leave class arbitrarily, students who would talk back, students who refused to do work, and students who literally "shut down," refusing to look at us or speak to us at all. It was frustrating, to say the least. When I envisioned myself as a teacher, it was certainly not as a teacher with such a lack of control over her classroom.

All four of us knew we had to do something.

Athena, being a veteran teacher, suggested that we use a "stoplight" type of system. That is, all students would have a clip that started on a green board. If they broke a rule, their clip would move down to a yellow board and there would be a consequence. If they continued breaking rules, their clip would move down to a red board, and there would be a bigger consequence. Grant and I thought this was a good start, but Desiree was completely against the idea. She said that her teachers, when she was growing up, used something similar and she claimed it had done nothing but cause humiliation and resentment. Unable to come up with anything better, though, she eventually agreed to try it.

Despite her concerns about the stoplight, it worked very well. Once we established clear rules and followed through on consequences for breaking them, the behavior in our classroom improved tremendously. It was by no means perfect, but it wasn't the shit show that it had started out as.
Michaela noticed the improvement, too, though it didn't seem as though she was overly impressed with how we were doing in general. She relayed stories to us about her first year teaching, and how she'd been praised for her test scores. And we were subsequently expected to show how effective we were by coming up with assessments for our students and judging their progress based on them.

"What will your students learn," she asked, "and how will you know that they've learned it?" In developing our goals -- a huge aspect of being a TFA corps member -- we needed to understand our classroom expectations in terms of both qualitative and quantitative goals. At the time, I felt utterly confused and overwhelmed by this. The idea seems pretty straightforward, but I felt absolutely lost. I really didn't know what, exactly, 5th graders were supposed to know in the state of California, nor what our particular students were lacking in relation to that. I knew where they struggled in terms of the lessons I'd prepared, but not in terms of how they measured up to state standards (or, again, even what the state standards were). Thus, I struggled whenever I was asked to come up with metric goals or measurements. I know I could have found some way to look these things up, but I really didn't even know where to begin, and I was hoping this information would be given to me through the organization that was trying to help me become a teacher.

It wasn't. Without this information, though, I often felt like my lessons were a random shot in the dark, and my assessments, therefore, may or may not have been assessing necessary information. But they were still treated as wholly important.

Until this point, I didn't know just how dedicated Teach For America was to "the test." Creating data, analyzing data, and tracking data, however, would all prove to be some of the biggest factors in TFA leaders deciding how effective we were as teachers. I got my first taste of this during Institute when, after discussing tests and data with Michaela, we all had to spend a sizeable chunk of time entering whatever data we could produce into a database (that would never be looked at or used again after the summer, as far as I could tell). At the time, I didn't realize that this requirement (rather than being mostly an effective tool used to track our students, as we thought it was supposed to be) was really more of a primer for what would be expected of us once we had our own classrooms in a few months. So I did my best to create quality assessments, create quality rubrics to go along with them, grade these numerous assessments, enter data into the database, and pretend that I fully understood why this was all so necessary for summer school kids trying to get on track with basic skills.

I will admit here that, as a teacher, once you realize that you, the educator, are the one who will be judged on this data -- not the students themselves, regardless of the situations involved -- it becomes very difficult to grade assessments objectively. And when you're a new teacher without formal training, terrified of being judged unworthy to continue, you definitely don't want to enter low scores if you suspect that other teachers in your cohort might be producing higher scores. Assessments and data, then, become taxing and anxiety-filled endeavors that, at best, leave some teachers feeling like they are highly effective based on test data alone, and, at worst, leave other teachers feeling like they are the worst teachers that ever walked school hallways based on test data alone.

Aside from test data, though, Teach For America also used the TAL Impact Model to assess how we were doing as teachers. TAL stands for Teaching As Leadership, and the model assesses three things: 1) student outcomes, 2) student actions and habits, and 3) teacher actions.

In terms of student outcomes, the primary question was, "To what extent will students emerge from this classroom on a path of expanded opportunities due to major academic and personal growth?" In other words ... has the teacher significantly changed the trajectory of a student's life during the nine months they've been acquainted? Teachers were judged in one of five possible categories: 1) "No or limited growth; gap will widen," 2) "Typical growth; gap will not change," 3) "More than typical growth; gap will narrow," 4) "Dramatic academic growth," or 5) "Path changing and likely enduring academic growth."

In terms of student actions and habits, the primary question featured two parts -- the "Culture of Achievement" and "Engagement With Rigorous Content." For the former, the question was, "To what extent are students 'on a mission' toward a destination that matters to them," and teachers were judged, again, in one of five possible categories: Students were either considered 1) "Destructive," 2) "Apathetic or Unruly," 3) "Compliant and On-Task," 4) "Interested and/or Hard-working," or 5) "Passionate/Urgent/Joyful/Caring." For the latter part of this element, the question was, "To what extent are students engaged deeply with content and skills needed for success in this course and beyond," and the classroom was judged as either 1) "Not challenged; no learning," 2) "Passive or confused," 3) "Factual recall/procedural," 4) "Analysis/application/explaining," or 5) "Evaluation/synthesis/creation."

In terms of teacher actions, the question was, "To what extent is this teacher 'on a mission' toward a clear vision and constantly striving to operate as an effective leader?" Teachers were primarily judged on their ability to 1) "Set big goals," 2) "Invest in students and their families," 3) "Plan purposefully," 4) "Execute effectively," 5) "Continually increase effectiveness," and 6) "Work relentlessly."
During Institute, corps members sat down with their CMAs and discussed where they fell on the TAL Impact Model every few weeks or so. Teachers were asked to analyze their own practices and classrooms and judge themselves in terms of where they fell, and to justify their answers with piles of -- you guessed it -- data. How could you, for example, claim to be even a somewhat effective teacher when your assessment data doesn't back that claim up? Explain that assessment data. Explain these behaviors. Explain these parent comments. And so on, usually until the corps member finally came to terms with the fact that, under the TAL Impact Model, they were likely ineffective teachers producing little to no growth (I cannot, of course, speak for everyone, but this was certainly my experience).

And, quite honestly, seeing as how corps members step into inner-city classrooms with virtually no training in education or child development (other than what is provided throughout Institute, of course), it really is a bit unreasonable to expect that any of us would produce "life changing" results in five weeks. But this is the expectation that Teach For America laid out before us, and we knew that if we didn't achieve this goal at Institute, would would certainly need to achieve it once we had our own classrooms -- and all of us, I think, believed we could. Still, I did feel pretty bad that I was not deemed a "highly effective" teacher during Institute. It hit me pretty hard that I was not yet changing life trajectories in the classroom. My initial thought was not that it was unlikely for teachers at Institute to produce such results, or even that, perhaps, many TFA teachers simply didn't live up to the high standard set before them. My initial thought, rather, was that all of the other teachers at Institute with me were probably producing these amazing results, and I was one of the few who wasn't.

I know this now to be false. However, the only examples ever shown to us in terms of prior TFA teachers were the ones who did produce outstanding results as first-year teachers. We heard story after story about how effective TFA was, and how amazing TFA teachers were, and it honestly led us (at least me) to believe that life-changing, extraordinary results in the classroom was typical -- the norm -- for TFA teachers. Thus, even at Institute, being told that I was not, in fact, a life-changing teacher at that point was kind of soul-crushing, and my first real wake-up call.

Institute wasn't all about academics and data tracking, though. There was also a fair amount of discussion involving social justice and the issues impacting educational inequity. As I identified -- and still do -- as a liberal, an atheist, a feminist, and a definite "social justice warrior," I found these discussions to be important. I definitely wanted to learn more about the experiences of marginalized groups, especially within the context of education, so that I could take that information and hopefully use it to make me a better teacher.

In many ways, we collaborated and discussed lots of important issues. There were, however, frustrating aspects about these discussions in that there were times when I was left out of conversations, or my questions and contributions were otherwise ignored and brushed off. It didn't take long for me to feel like my voice was not at all valued at this particular table, or at least not as valued as other voices there. What I noticed over the course of a few weeks was that there were others who felt this way, too, and all of us were women. Now, I'm not saying that female voices were definitely more ignored than others during our social justice conversations, but it did seem to be a trend (at least, as I said, with myself and some other women at "Flo-Jo"). It's well documented that this kind of thing does happen to women in a variety of situations, and this piece from the New York Times reports that, in many professional and academic settings, the percentage of women in a discussion usually needs to be 60-80% before women are allowed equal time to speak (and also, men tend to perceive that women talk way more than they actually do).

What's interesting, and also frustrating, is that Teach For America is supposed to be an open environment dedicated to social justice in all areas. But this is a great example as to how, even when people and societies and cultures are willing to recognize racism and socio-economic inequality, many people still resist recognizing sexism.

I finally brought it up when, during one of our last days at "Flo-Jo," we were divided into two large groups and asked to comment about our experiences with these discussions. I was open and honest about feeling ignored and unimportant in a movement that we were all supposed to be collectively working together in. Though the other women who felt the same way I did nodded emphatically, and looked thankful that I had chosen to speak up, my words, in general, were brushed aside as fully as anything else I'd said in these group settings. (Let me point out that I didn't always feel alienated, and it wasn't everyone who resisted my inclusion, but it was enough to be very noticeable.)

The fact, which I had already known and better understood that day, was that there are times when speaking up about one's feelings of alienation only results in further alienation. That's what I felt happened on that day, and cried later, privately, to Michaela about how I wished I'd never said anything (which was hard, as I don't like to ignore my feelings either). She assured me that I was a very self-reflective person and should have spoken up, and that I shouldn't feel bad about having done so.

Still. As anyone who has ever experienced marginalization -- people of color, gay and lesbian people, transgender people, poor people, fat people, and on and on and on -- sometimes these things go straight to our core.

This issue, however, didn't mar my enjoyment of the last few days of Institute. Toward the end of the week, Michaela and some of the other CMAs from "Flo-Jo" organized a party in one of the CMA apartments, which featured plenty of conversation, drinking, and games.

On our last day at our school we had a fun day playing games with the students. We played basketball, jumped rope, played hop scotch, and created murals on the playground pavement. We said our goodbyes to our students. Each member of my cohort received a personal white board that had been signed by each of our students in permanent marker. Some of our students also wrote us notes, and one told me she wished that I could be her real 5th grade teacher in the Fall. And during this time, I began to wonder -- with all of my doubts about my instruction, academics, and assessments -- whether I had truly been ineffective in changing these children's lives. Perhaps I had done something for them, in some way, shape, or form.

Everyone at Institute -- the corps members, the CMAs, and everyone else involved -- celebrated when, after six long weeks, it finally ended. We had a huge rally outside LMU, complete with music, food, and congratulatory attitudes all around. After the celebration, Grant and I went for Mexican food and margaritas, and played a Family Guy drinking game well into the early hours of the morning. The next morning, I woke up early to move out of the family apartment that had become my home for the last few weeks, and load my car with all of the things I'd be taking from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I helped Grant move out of his shared dorm, too, and we then went to lunch before parting ways -- he to a KIPP (Knowledge is Power) school in the heart of LA, and me, of course, to Las Vegas.

Institute was officially behind me. In all honesty, it felt like a professional version of a crash diet or a cram session. I'd entered Institute expecting to learn all the ins and outs of lesson planning, teaching, managing students, developing plans and goals, and understanding academic standards. I left Institute kinda knowing how to lesson plan, sorta knowing how to teach, with some solid ideas as to how to manage students, feeling completely lost in terms of goals, and still not knowing the first thing about 5th grade standards nationwide or in the state of Nevada. Even though I was beginning to feel very nervous about my level of preparation, I still held on to a quiet hope that TFA would still develop me into the stellar TFA star that I wanted to be before the school year began.

Despite the "Hell on Earth" reputation that TFA's Institute carries, my most difficult and trying days were definitely ... definitely ... yet to come.