Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 29 2012

Thoughts on identity

More often than not, this blog serves as a place to record and reflect on particularly notable events in my already eventful life as a teacher. It would seem appropriate, then, to write about my first experience on staff with NYC Institute, which just concluded yesterday. However, the past six weeks have been filled with so much mandatory documenting of my life, reflecting on the outcomes of every day, reflecting on those reflections, and even reflecting on reflecting on those reflections, that I don’t have the energy or motivation to repeat the process here. Sorry.

Instead, I want to write about something that my School Director said to me during our Institute Performance Review conversation last week. Although his feedback for me was almost universally positive, he made a comment while discussing my ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance that forced me to pause: “Our team loves you for who you are, not what you do.” Those words have been ringing in my head for the past few days, and having given them some thought now that Institute is over, I think I understand why.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I think we live in a society that misguidedly values affiliations over actions, and actions over identity. I know that I’m certainly guilty of this. When I meet someone for the first time, the first questions that I ask are usually, “Where did you go to school?”, “Where are you from?”, and “Where do you work?” At a place like Institute, I’m often impressed by the answers that I receive. Harvard School of Education? That’s awesome. You’re from France? Très bien! You were in the Army AND the movie production industry? Get out of here. And, quite honestly, I’ve fallen into the trap of giving my own answers to these questions and automatically expecting people to be impressed by me.

The conversations often don’t move beyond these ready-made labels. And that’s unfortunate, because the more important thing is not where one has been, but what one did while there. It shouldn’t matter that I went to an Ivy League school; did I serve people lovingly and joyfully during those four years? Did I boldly act on my principles, or did I take the path of least resistance? Or, more pertinently: yes, I am a TFA corps member teaching in the inner city—but what am I really doing for my kids? Do I drag myself to school each day and deliver the bare minimum for what passes as a lesson, or am I putting in everything that I have to love my students, advocate on their behalf, and show them what true leadership and compassion look like? These are the questions that matter. The principal at my school site this summer would often recite the credo, “To be, not to seem.” The Apostle John puts it this way: “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). I’m ready to move past the affiliations that define us and focus on the actions that make up our day-to-day lives.

And yet, my School Director’s comment conflicts with even this sentiment. At the end of the day, even actions and their consequences should not be the determinants of one’s sense of worth; rather, this sense of worth should stem from one’s fundamental identity. This summer, I found myself working nonstop every single day in order to win the affection and praise of my colleagues and corps members, as well as to indirectly increase student achievement (hopefully more of the latter than the former). These are not necessarily bad things. However, to ground my identity in such concerns would make me no better than a dog whose sole purpose in life is to perform tricks to earn treats and tummy rubs. Who I am as a person should influence what I do, not the other way around. And who I am was determined long before I ever started this work: I am a child of God (Jn 1:12), a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20), a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).

So why are these things important? I think it’s because teaching is both inherently good and incredibly difficult. The goodness of teaching can lead corps members to substitute their identities with their roles as teachers, and with the work that they are doing in those roles. When this happens, however well-intentioned it may be, the difficulty of teaching almost guarantees an emotionally and mentally tumultuous first year (and beyond), which is ultimately not what’s best for self or students. So here’s a reminder to myself and all the other teachers out there, especially those just finishing up Institute: your students and colleagues will love you for who you are, not what you do. Ground your identity in something solid and stable (for me that’s faith, but it can be a lot of different things for a lot of different people), and the work that you do as a teacher will become much more rewarding and enjoyable.


I guess this sort of became a reflection on Institute after all. Oh well.

One Response

  1. Christian

    Beautiful. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this reflection. It was really meaningful, heartfelt, and definitely something a lot of us needed to hear. (Including me!)

Post a comment

About this Blog

New city, same vision

Rhode Island
High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)