4th Teach-Back’s a Charm

Day 31 | $31,450 paid | $59,267 till freedom

I arrived at SAT prep training at 5:27 PM and only three other trainees were there. I assumed the other two would be along presently, so I was surprised when Ryan announced three minutes later that we had everyone we needed, and class would start.

I understood why one of the trainees got cut, but I was shocked that the person who taught remedial math to kids for a living hadn’t been selected to continue with training. We were down to four trainees total: the two teachers, one other girl, and me.

Stuff was starting to get real. I thanked my lucky stars I had been invited back, and wondered if my background had something to do with it. Surely my “energy” and “personality” hadn’t been enough to save me? Lord knows my concept mastery, boardwork, and interaction in the teach-backs were abysmal. I’m guessing that having teachers with Harvard degrees helps with the program’s marketing efforts.

All that said, I almost self-selected out of the process and elected not to get beaten up a second night in a row. I woke up to a number of negative comments after posting last night, and if I wasn’t already personally discouraged from the beatdown I got at training, the comments from people asking me why in the world I was interested in a job that pays $25 an hour and why I wasn’t staying focused on one incremental revenue stream were almost enough to completely turn me off of the whole SAT prep thing. Serious props to Emily Marcroft for making feel like a tough SOB for sticking with it. I mean, after somebody tells you that  “you’ve got balls” to go after a challenge, it’s impossible to resist the temptation to actually prove it.

I was selected for the second teach-back of the day–my third total–and I walked the three trainees plus Ryan through a critical reading question. I was more relaxed and more engaging than my two teach-backs from yesterday, but I was nowhere near Oscar-performance, and still received a lot of critical feedback. I felt the ice underneath my skates get a half-millimeter thicker, but no more.

We moved away from the reading and writing sections of the SAT and dove into math. As part of our self-introductions yesterday, we had to tell the class our name and something about the SAT prep training that made us nervous. I admitted to the class that I am horrible at public math, and figured that this would be my weakest area. Of course, considering how poorly I did on the reading and writing sections, this probably seemed impossible to everybody now. I was the third student to get volunteered for a teach-back in the math section, and I was assigned to teach the solution to the following:

For all positive values of p, let p(smiley face) be defined by p(smiley face) = p / (p^2 +1). What is the value of 2(smiley face)?

Instead of the words “smiley face,” there was an actual smiley face symbol. Crap.

I had a minute to prepare, and I don’t know where it came from, but I immediately thought of a hook for the class that was interactive. I briefly planned the rest of my lesson, remembering Ryan’s advice from yesterday to have a clear strategy. Then I got up in front of the class and asked, “Who can tell me what we call the symbols that were drawn on the walls of pyramids in ancient Egypt?” One of the trainees raised her hand and said hieroglyphics. I replied, “That’s exactly right. And whenever I see one of these weird symbol notation problems, I think of the song “Walk Like an Egyptian” and I get ready to walk all over this problem and own it.” I thought it was pretty weak, so I was surprised that I actually got some genuine laughs from it. Feeling pretty good, I dove into the lesson, got the trainees really engaged, and closed it out.

Ryan prefaced his feedback by saying it was my best teach-back yet. I also got a couple pieces of critical feedback, but my spirits could not be dampened. At the end of the session, I met with him for one-on-one feedback, and he said that given my background, I’m probably used to thinking through more complex problems and have a completely different target audience in mind when I’m doing so, but I have to make sure to avoid lecture mode with high school students and make them feel invested in the class by getting their engagement. He went on to say that I saved myself with my fourth teach-back because my personality really shined through, I got everybody involved at the right level, and I seemed very comfortable with the material. He told me to come back for the third session.

Unfortunately, the next and final training session is not till Thursday, and I’ll be on my way to Ann Arbor at that point. The next training session will be with a whole new batch of trainees and won’t happen for another month. I’ll be in a tough spot because it will be with trainees I don’t know, whose named I haven’t memorized, and it will be that much harder to engage them. Oh, well. Ryan wants me to call him when I get back to town on Monday to see what we can work out.

I think my first three teach-backs went poorly but got consistently better because I learn by doing. I generally don’t read and learn or watch and learn–I do and learn. (And if you were to ask my parents and close friends, they’d also tell you that I do a whole lot of learning through mistakes.) I didn’t make the time to practice teaching on my own, and even if I had, how would I practice engaging an empty classroom, the area I’m weakest in? In fact, practicing might have just made it easier for me to fall into lecture mode, which I have to avoid at all costs.

I also tend to over-think things. My first three teach-backs were not difficult subjects. The first one was a strategy for reading through a critical reading passage, and the second one was simply reading through a paragraph and having the students give me the key take-away from each sentence. The third teach-back was how to answer a question on what the author was trying to convey when he wrote a certain line in the passage. Pretty simple stuff, but I thought I had to go in there and make the lesson a mind-blowing experience. I ended up getting performance anxiety and totally froze.

With the math question, I could see how some students might be confused by it because I was initially confused by it, too. So I was able to empathize with the “students,” and because I had been getting progressively more comfortable with leading a lesson, I was able to help them walk themselves through it slowly, methodically, and in an engaging manner.

For the third training session, I’m going to have to remember to not over-think any of this stuff, and to ask guided questions to lead the class down the right path. I feel confident that I can repeat this, but I know I’m far from a shoo-in.

Final Reflection
Final reflection on the overall process–remember, it’s the journey, not the destination–I’m glad I went back for Day 2. I could have come up with any number of excuses to skip–I don’t want to leave work at 4:30 to get to 5:30 training downtown because my inbox is overflowing and I really need to work till at least 6 (which was true); I don’t want to miss a second work-out at the gym because I’ve already missed one and I never miss any (which was also true); I don’t want to sit through three long hours of boring training (true); at the end of the day, $25/hr isn’t going to make a huge impact on my gap to $90k (also true).

But really, all of those excuses would have ultimately boiled down to one excuse: I don’t want to risk failure. That was very, very true. But then I would have never known some other, basic truths. Can I teach? Can I impart knowledge? Can I get in front of a classroom and effectively engage a class? When I woke up this morning, I was positive I couldn’t, and I struggled to find the motivation to head back. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I quit.

This SAT prep job has taken me out of my comfort zone, just as so many other things have taken me out of my comfort zone during the past month. Which, incidentally, might explain all of the stress I’ve been feeling lately.

  • Pulling complete strangers with a pedi-cab from bar to bar when I should have been inside those bars drinking with my friends
  • Giving two strangers a key to my house
  • Launching a landscaping business without any idea of how to make it succeed
  • Going to a modeling agency for an interview
  • Cashing in my $30k Screw You Fund and practically living paycheck-to-paycheck
  • Mixing my own drink in the bathroom of a bar with a flask I brought from home
  • Not buying the kinds of things I’d typically buy without a second thought
  • Getting porn solicitations
  • Starting a blog and being completely open about everything–from finances to failures–with complete strangers

But this isn’t the first time in my life where I’ve been outside my comfort zone, and that’s why I returned to the SAT prep training this evening. Because sometimes, you just have to numb up, believe in yourself, remember that it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, and go for it.

On that note, we’ll kick it old-school as I leave you with a blast from the past: my “optional” essay #6 from the HBS application, written five years ago in the Fall of 2006, a little less than a year before my first day of class.

6. What other information do you believe would be helpful to the Board in understanding you better and in considering your application? (400-word limit)

On the fifth day of my summer job as a carpenter, my boss told me to sheet the roof. I was terrified of heights and I had never been on a roof before, but on that day I would actually be laying down the roofing plywood—the foundation that would support me. As I climbed the ladder to the roof, the lump in my throat became steadily bigger and the roof seemed to become steeper. The first row of smooth, slippery plywood had already been nailed to the trusses at the bottom of the roof, and there was a long 2×4 nailed horizontally to the plywood inches from the edge of the roof. The only thing between me and the ground 30 feet below would be a skinny piece of wood held on by a couple of nails. Should I leave the sturdy ladder and step onto it?

Experience is the best teacher, and stepping out of my comfort zone and plunging into new experiences headfirst has repeatedly helped me grow, develop, and gain new perspectives on life. I lived in two countries, five states, and nine cities before turning 23. I moved 1400 miles away from my family and friends to a city where I didn’t know anyone. I jumped out of a plane at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Eight under-funded teammates and I lined up against million-dollar varsity rowing teams. I took on a manufacturing process improvement project to save my factory money. I started a drive from Detroit with hopes of arriving in Austin in fewer than 24 hours.

Sometimes the plunge ends in success: I love Austin, 1400 miles away from my hometown. The parachute opened. We beat Princeton,California, Navy, and Dartmouth. I saved $175K annually. I drove from Detroit to Austin in fewer than 23 hours…five times.

Sometimes the plunge ends in failure: I have crashed my motorcycle. I have lost a best friend. I have broken my nose. I have been ostracized. I have lost races by several boat lengths. I have had 20 stitches on my face and scalp. I have failed exams. I have had my heart broken.

Ultimately, I want the Board to know that I’m a person who embraces change, welcomes new experiences, and accepts successes and failures.

And I want the Board to know that I did step off that ladder and eventually sheeted 27 roofs.


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20 responses to “4th Teach-Back’s a Charm

  1. Nice essay!

    Also, this post underlines my hunch that you would be a lot more engaging one-on-one. Hence, private tutoring would be a) much more profitable and b) much easier for you teach your client and c) would make your services be of better value to your student and more importantly, the student’s parents who are concerned about his/her grades. There’s less pressure for you to have to think of the right thing at the right moment; you can back up and restate concepts when you’ve processed your thoughts. Additionally, I get the feeling that you are strong in intuition; you see a challenge and you intuitively come up with a solution. If you can apply that to people, ie understanding exactly what makes math so intimidating to certain kids, you can better present the material in a way that relates to them.

  2. That is an inspiring essay.Too many people let their failures define them. Life is a rollercoaster. I have learned not to focus on the bottom because there is another incline right in front of me. I have been unemployed and underemployed for the last 3 years and finally landed a job in my field (mortgages). It is not easy while working on finishing an MBA to be working in the lumber department at Lowe’s, taking orders from some people that don’t really know what they are doing.

    I love the blog and look forward to it in my email box everyday.

  3. The Awakened Trailblazer

    Success AND Failures make up a person. Not just one OR the other. I was glad to see your essay highlighted and the fact you are realizing that on your road to Freedom.

    Question for you… After you complete your goal, do you think you will go back to being the way you were? ( I mean the discretionary spending, the heavy partying and such). I am not saying there is nothing wrong with it (or that you won’t be able to afford it) but I think you might lose some interest in things you liked before this change because of all the lessons and people you will come across.

    • And that, madam/sir, is the $1T question. I don’t feel like I’ve changed yet…I don’t think real change can happen in one month, anyway. What do I want to change? I already feel like I’m not materialistic–or excessively so–but I am all about big experiences, so maybe if I learned how to tone it down and appreciate the little things in life, the little moments…

      • The Awakened Trailblazer

        Maybe.. but remember all changes are gradual 😉 Remember the blog post about your room-mate’s car and debt issue? Maybe being aware of another individual is the first step. The same thing can be said about the little respect you originally gave pedi-cab drivers.

        I don’t know you personally and I am NOT judging you, but a month is enough time for some change. You were alive each day during that month after all 😉

        And i am a guy btw.

  4. Nancy

    Well done! Keep up the good work. You’re doing so well! I’ve mentioned this before, but you’re a great writer (honest voice, terrific pacing) and should try to write some side articles for pay. Also, don’t let negative comments slow you down. Some people are lame. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  5. Myspace

    I am sorry I broke your heart.
    Please forgive me.

    Good blog.

  6. Cassie Olson

    I could honestly see this being turned into a book one day. Please continue to share your journey with us! I love reading these posts every day.

  7. Good for you! I’m glad it’s going well. That seems like an awfully long interview process for just $25/hr. Then again, that’s probably one of the best hourly rates you could get for a part time position.

    I would be bored out of my mind teaching to a test, but I guess if high schoolers enroll in the class, they will be somewhat interested in it. 🙂

  8. Oh wow, I go on vacation for a month and I miss a shoutout! Hard to believe my one comment spurred you on, but I’m glad it did. Now I have to catch up on a month of posts and see what happened to you in that time!

  9. Nicki

    I am new to your blog but I simply cannot stop reading it. What started as an initial search to learn more about B-school debt, has led to a read so compulsive that the blog stays up, all day at work. I felt compelled to after reading your ‘optional’ HBS essay – it killed me.

  10. Nicki

    The blog is of course hidden behind many other tabs, all of which are work related. 🙂

    I just finished the blog and feel a little sad. I found it less than two weeks ago and now the journey – your journey – is over. I am really blown away by your transparency, writing ability (esp. coming from b-school :-)), and discipline. But, I guess you are a d1 athlete so that probably follows. Anyway, while I don’t have b school or JD/MD level debt, like some of my friends, I did take out a student loan for grad. school and at the risk of sounding like every other person who has responded to your blog, that loan that still exists.

    I’m not sure if it’s because I recently visited friends from NYC in Austin, and spent $ that should have gone towards my loans at some of the very places that you used to frequent (noted from your baseline example of entertainment), or because I also had to pay for towing/infractions with carefully saved $ (and wanted to cry in frustration), but you have more inspired me to get serious about my debt pay-off plan. And, while I agree that your strategy created a sense of accountability, your intelligence and humanity was moving and not many would have shared so candidly.

    And, I almost teared-up when I read that you’re bonus far exceeded your expectations. Riveting stuff. Seriously.

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