The most surreal thing about the TFA Institute experience is the way the organization “models” the very techniques they’re teaching you to use. It’s like being a caged animal in a zoo, and at the same time having your own pets to train and take care of. Bizarre. So while they’re teaching you about investing students and classroom management, they’re using the exact same manipulations on you to keep you in line. And this is pretty much completely necessary, because morale gets pretty low when they’re asking you to sit in 90 minute workshops, 4 times a day, on 4 hours of sleep. The workshops themselves are modeled after lessons, which means for 90 minutes at a time, you get to fill out worksheets, write reflections, and be spoken to as if you were a 6th grader. This is exactly as irritating as it sounds, but the most remarkable things about it are 1) how well it works, and 2) how unaware most of the corps members here are of what’s going on. So while so many people are so resistant to what is commonly referred to as the “TFA Kool-Aid”, they don’t realize that the same strategies they don’t take seriously are what’s keeping us compliant with the ridiculous numbers of demands and deadlines the organization makes of us.
I don’t write this to bash TFA. The whole operation really is quite incredible. It’s just weird being on the inside of the machine. For such a large organization with such a complicated mission, it’s amazing how the whole thing works like clockwork. TFA tells you in December that you’re going to get your Pre-Institute reading package on March 3, and sure enough, it shows up that exact day. There’s an entire hierarchy of operations, programming, and management working nonstop to make sure that the only thing the teachers worry about is student achievement. It’s far from perfect, but two of the central tenets of TFA are data analysis and continuously increasing effectiveness, and the whole organization operates with these things in mind. As hard and frustrating as Institute can be at times, it’s amazing to hear how much it has been refined each year. And whoever runs operations and logistics does an incredible job. Information and signage appear and disappear on a daily basis, yet no one ever actually witnesses people doing any work. Corps members occasionally vanish without a trace (for just cause, I’m sure). All of the support staff we work directly with presumably work for other support staff, who work for a yet higher level of staff. And so the pyramid goes, all the way up to Wendy Kopp at the top, who most of us imagine as some sort of puppet master, surrounded by her cult of personality, controlling all the abstract details from a futuristic Minority Report-style computer console. It’s the Invisible Hand of TFA working relentlessly, with the single-minded goal of closing the achievement gap.