Thursday, June 26, 2008

A victory over Teach for America insanity

The percentage of days when I walk out of class smiling instead of wanting to hide and cry is increasing even though I still start each morning sick with worry. Most of my students know a few things they didn't three weeks ago, and they're nailing the concepts even when their math and problem solving skills fall far short. My kids and I may not be anywhere close to proficiency, but we're moving in the right direction. Still, there's still a nagging little voice in the back of my mind asking if I'm really strong enough and brave enough to pull this off.

That voice went from a whisper to a shout Wednesday evening when I got my official placement. Apparently, my tentative categorization as a physics teacher meant nothing: they wanted me to teach anatomy and physiology full time. Given that I haven't had the subject since high school, purposely avoided it in college since I found it to be the only dull area of biology, and have forgotten most of the little I ever did know, I was more than a bit shaken by the idea.

Thanks in part to the assertiveness training that's part of the classroom management coursework here at Institute, I worked up the nerve to tell the person in charge of placement how I felt. She informed me that they'd figured that it would work out because they knew I could learn the material, but I still remained unconvinced. Given the lengthy list of subjects I'd told TFA I'd be eager to teach (physics, physical science, general biology, any math from algebra I to calculus, and chemistry) and the shortages of teachers with my skill set, the placement just didn't make sense. I made it clear that I found it difficult to envision spending the next two years teaching a subject in which I lack sufficient content knowledge to feel well qualified, and the placement coordinator agreed to investigate the options while still stressing that my placement was a much better fit than what many other corps members have received and managed to live through. I spent twenty-four hours fretting about whether I could reasonably hope to get through two years of trying to stay a few chapters ahead of my students with my sanity intact and what my life would be like if I couldn't.

Oddly enough, Teach for America was trying to fill a vacant 9th grade physical science position at the same high school where they'd assigned me to teach anatomy. The placement coordinator told me that it is extremely rare that they change placements as a result of corps member requests, but she agreed to let me switch. They certainly don't lose anything by allowing it, and I gain a lot.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The soothing surety of numbers.

I awake each morning with dread in my heart and a tight, uncomfortable sensation radiating through my body. Teach for America is an organization of perfectionists, and perfectionism means you're constantly failing. Wednesday night I got 2.5 hours of sleep so that I could finish everything that was due Thursday morning, and the work I turned in was painfully sub par. Thursday I couldn't keep my class under control and didn't finish the lesson I had planned as a result. Then Thursday afternoon we all had to attend a school wide meeting about improvement plans and dismissal procedures. The big theme was that Teach for America is much, much, bigger that we are, and their movement is far too important to jeopardize by allowing less than excellent teachers to enter schools with their imprimatur. I wept on the bus ride back to the dorms.

I spent the night wondering how many more days I'd be allowed to stay and struggle before being dismissed from the program. How could I get 100% of my students to meet their growth goals for the summer when I couldn't keep order in my classroom? Some of my students know the material reasonably well but rarely bothered to come to school during the year. Some are working and learning. Some are openly defiant, brag about getting kicked out of classes, and turn in no work. One can barely read. In the eyes of TFA, if I cannot reach all of these kids in the next three weeks, I will have failed.

That night, I fantasized about simply getting in my car and driving away. I wanted, more than anything, to go home, but I couldn't return, couldn't bear the thought of my father looking at me with disappointment for the rest of my life, living with the shame of being weak-willed, a quitter. I managed to push the thoughts of the only apparent alternative way out to the back of my brain and resolved to stay until they fire me.

Things were better Friday. My direct supervisor decided our group needed to have a debriefing on the previous day's school meeting and apologized for the tone. He tried his best to reassure us that dismissal from the program is a last resort. I did a better job of maintaining discipline in my class, and my students seemed genuinely interested in our experiment. A box full of wonderful books on teaching and physics from TeawithBuzz was awaiting me when I got back to the dorm. Life in general seemed a bit more manageable.

I'm still not sure that I can do this. I want to teach, but I doubt that I'll be the educator I need to be by the end of the summer. Honestly, my getting fired might be for the greater good, however desperately I want that not to be the case. If my best effort isn't enough, then what?

I'm an obsessive worrier and hate not having a solid plan b. It's too late to reconsider declining the graduate program in education at my university and way too late to reconsider grad school in physics for the fall. The only real option would be to find a job of some sort, reboot, and start making plans for the next year. It's frightening.

This morning I was in need of a way to calm myself down so I ran the numbers to remind myself that even if I get dismissed from Teach for America and don't manage to find a job right away I won't be starving in the streets. It's a silly thing to do, but it helped me realize that I do have options.

My current net worth, not counting the few bucks of cash I have on hand, is $25,913.64. If I end up leaving or being dismissed, I'll have to pay back some fellowship money. I'm also going to have to pay for graduate tuition next month in order to teach in my region. Allowing for all that, I could still leave at the end of the summer with $23,013.64, less whatever else I spend this summer on niceties like printer ink, health insurance, and cough drops, and probably also less whatever else my Roth loses between now and then. That'd cover a lot of months of bare-bones living if I have a problem finding a job.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

TFA Institute Week Two finances so far.

So far this week I've spent a mere 75 cents. Unfortunately, that's only because the insane hours call for spending on caffeinated beverages and nothing else. I managed to be an almost effective teacher on five hours of sleep a night so it was clearly time to try it on two and a half. What do you do when you're giving absolutely everything you have to give right now and it isn't enough? I'm hoping tomorrow will be a little better and then I'll have a weekend to get caught up and regroup.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Serious overspending.

I lasted until Thursday evening without spending a single penny, and it felt really good to go a full seven days carefully husbanding my resources. Then I bought a pack of gum to chew while working on my agenda for the first day of summer school. The really serious spending didn't hit until Friday and today.

We had a school social Friday after work where they bused us to a Mexican restaurant for dinner. Since we ride the buses to and from work each day there was no easy way to escape. Alas, we had to pay our own way, and the people in charge had already ordered for the group so there was no way to look for good deals, have an appetizer as an entree, or split something with a friend. The folks who organized this also couldn't say for sure what it would cost, but they estimated it at around $10 each, not including alcoholic drinks, which had to be purchased by individuals since Teach for America had policies against buying them. The food was tasty, but I somewhat resent being ordered to go out to dinner at my own expense for work.

Since I have a prepaid cell phone, buying phone cards and using a landline is a much cheaper way to call home. I burned through the last of my minutes talking to my dad Friday night and then reloaded my calling card with another 1,000 minutes. That ought to get me through a few more weeks. (Ok, actually maybe not. I miss my family.)

Then tonight I took the shuttle from the dorms to Target. Starting Monday, I'll be teaching the first semester of ninth grade physical science, and there were a lot of supplies I think I'll need that aren't provided by the school. In addition to overhead markers, colored pens for grading, index cards, and a whole slew of other supplies, I ended up using my new job as an excuse to buy toys as well. The resource room here at Institute might well have some good demos for potential and kinetic energy that I could borrow, but the Nerf gun with the visible spring was just too perfect to pass up.

All told, I'm probably out about $125 bucks this week, and that really isn't sustainable. I'd like to rationalize it and argue that it was a one-time thing; there were plenty of of big purchases that should last for a while: the phone card should have enough minutes for at least a couple more weeks unless I get really homesick, I got a five month supply of multi-vitamins, I won't be buying glow sticks and toy cars every week, it'll be quite shocking if my pens all die in the next four weeks, and I'm now stocked up on gum and semi-healthy snacks. Unfortunately, I think "abnormal" spending may become the norm. Next week, it may not be a Target run that gets me, but I'll soon have to pay for July's health insurance and refill a prescription. It's somewhat amazing how much I'm spending when housing, food, and transportation are all provided, and that doesn't bode well for the future.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Greetings from Institute!

It's day two, and we'll head to our schools in Houston for the first time today. This week we observe and lesson plan before jumping into teaching a summer school class next week. It's all very daunting, but they insist that we'll manage and be better teachers in the fall for having lived through these five weeks.

They're doing a good job of indoctrinating us into the ways of TFA teaching. I found myself wishing for a stopwatch so I could time my morning routine and work on inefficiencies and contemplating printing checklists to make sure I have everything I need in my backpack. The alphabet soup of acronyms everyone keeps throwing around keeps us all baffled, but it makes for good joke fodder.

Since my parents drove with me to Houston, I haven't spent any money since Thursday night. I'm not being particularly virtuous; there just isn't anything I want to buy on campus, and I'm too busy and sleep deprived to venture off during the week. I've been making a list for a Target run this weekend, though.

I haven't figured out quite how much this summer will end up costing. TFA houses and feeds us, and the school district buses us to and from school. However, I'm paying for my own health insurance for the first time, and opting for a high deductible plan left me paying out of pocket for medication. I don't even want to think about what gas prices will be when it's time to drive to the Delta.

Friday, June 6, 2008

On the road

In an ideal world, I'd have a whole queue of insightful, informative, and witty posts ready to go for your reading pleasure while I'm in transit these next few days. In this, which may or may not be the best of all possible worlds, I've been busy devoting way too much time to training people in the ways of argon ion lasers and biomolecules, slogging through hundreds of pages of teacher prep readings, trying to carve out a few precious hours with people I adore but won't see much after the move, packing, and trying not to cry or have panic attacks in public. I'm utterly spent. Sorry.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Preparing for the transition: banking.

Saturday I head to Houston. Yes, I'm panicking a lot, but I do hope that once I actually get to Institute I'll be too busy for worry. Much of my life is in flux right now. It's somewhat hard to plan when I still don't know where within the Delta I'll be living.

Regardless of where I am, I'm still going to need access to my money. I settled on USAA for my new primary checking account since the refunds of others' ATM fees and the deposit checks from home via scanner feature seem ideal for people who're moving around a lot, not surprising considering that USAA exists primarily to serve military families. The shiny new debit card and eight checks arrived in my mailbox last week.

I decided to put off ordering an entire box of checks until I figure out what my new address will be. However, I'm not sure I can make it through the move without writing more checks so I guess I'll keep my current local bank account open as well, at least for now. How do I close it when I'm done?

If all else fails, I can keep $400 in the checking account to avoid monthly fees, transfer everything else to online savings, and just ignore it until I visit my parents and can go to the bank to handle closing my account in person, but it seems like there should be some simpler way. We're a fairly mobile populous, and I'd imagine banks have figure out how to accommodate their customers' needs during cross country moves. Any guidance from folks who've done this type of thing before?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

So I can expect to spend from $775 to 3209.95?

I've been sitting here staring at the budgeting worksheet TFA sent me and trying to get a rough idea of a typical month's expenses will look like. There will be various costs associated with testing, certification, and getting set up in a new place that I can't do anything to control, but I'd like to know what my budget will look like once that's out of the way. TFA suggests a low, medium, and high cost for each expense category, and to get a first estimate I just added everything in the low and high columns. This methodology has several flaws, not the least is the failure to take into account expense sharing among roommates for utilities. The plan also clearly only applies to take-home pay since it doesn't include categories for taxes, insurance, or pension contributions.

I'm hoping to fall near the lower end of the range. I don't have any student loans or credit card debt so I can safely budget $0 for those categories, and although purchasing a newer car sometime during the next two years seems fairly likely, I'm not rushing out to buy a brand new car and take on a car payment right now. The suggestion of $100 per month for movies, drinks, dining out, etc. seems fairly high to me, and that's their suggestion for a minimum budget.

On the other hand, I don't want to do without internet access and trips home, items not allowed in the minimum budget. The suggestion that anyone could get by on $25 a month worth of gasoline in a region pretty much devoid of public transportation, even with carpooling, seems laughable. I also still have no idea how many roommates I'll end up with, which will definitely have an impact on my housing costs. It may be time to accept that obsessive planning won't do me any good right now and revisit the issue in a couple of months once I have more information.