The school year is almost over. This week is reserved for underclassmen finals, and grades are due by next Monday, which means most students will stop showing up after that. Last Saturday was district-wide graduation day, so the seniors are already gone. This Saturday is Alumni Induction, which is essentially graduation for corps members (we even get certificates). I’ve had my end-of-year conversation with my MTLD, completed my final survey as a CM, and started making plans for my move to Philly in two weeks.
It’s a weird feeling. How do I begin to sum up the two most challenging and formative years of my life? What words can fully capture the experience of being a classroom teacher—the heights of joy, the depths of despair, and everything in between?
When I applied to Teach For America two and a half years ago, it was not without reservation. Though I never would have admitted it at the time, my doubts had little to do with the mission or impact of TFA, and almost everything to do with (1) whether I could “afford” to spend two years in the classroom when all my peers were heading off to industry or med/law/grad school, and (2) how difficult teaching would be for a quiet and shy introvert like me. Like many soon-to-be college grads, I felt entitled to a comfortable, maybe even moderately successful adult life, and I wanted to be sure TFA would facilitate that. Eventually, after some coaxing by my Recruitment Director regarding TFA’s corporate and grad school partnerships, I applied and got in.
Despite these seemingly disingenuous roots, I also cared about doing well by my students. In my first entry on this blog, about a month after graduation and just before Induction, I wrote “I will do everything in my power to be not just an excellent teacher for my students, but also a servant, defender, and friend”—and I meant every word. But what could I have known about being an excellent teacher, much less a servant, defender, and friend, to students I hadn’t even met yet? For students whose experiences, families, and communities had no connection to my personal vision and narrative? My naïveté would be laughable, if it weren’t for weight of the task which I had unwittingly borne the moment I clicked that accept button.
Institute was my first foray into the harsh reality of inner-city schools. I knew about the achievement gap in theory because of the pre-work assigned by TFA, but I was still shocked on day one of teaching, when I discovered that my eighth graders literally had no idea how to add and subtract integers—they would just cycle through the possible choices until they reached the correct answer. As the summer went on, I began to realize that “transformational change” was not going to be the neatly packaged result of a happy montage of teaching moments, as I had eagerly envisioned after joining TFA. Nevertheless, my overall Institute experience was positive: I connected with most of my students at a personal level, and nearly all of them met or exceeded their growth goal. At the end of the summer, I wrote them a virtual letter that was, at the time, the most emotional piece I had ever written.
My first year of teaching, in contrast, was a mess. Perhaps because of the structure of Institute, I treated teaching as a sprint rather than a marathon. My perfectionism got the better of me; I stayed at school late, barely got sleep, and beat myself up (figuratively, for what it’s worth) every time I had a less-than-ideal day of teaching. My exhaustion and stress eventually caught up to me, in the form of weight gain, frequent illness, and constant irritability. Worse, my meticulous classroom systems, which I had prided myself on at Institute, seemed to work against me during the school year, and behavior management fell apart in one of my Algebra 2 blocks. (Some of this might come as a surprise to my friends and family. I didn’t write about the darkest moments of my first year because I figured—justifiably, I think—that reflecting on the negative would only make me feel worse.)
There were bright spots too, of course. Though I often failed to measure up to my own standards, my kids told me at the moments I needed it most that I was one of the best teachers they had ever had. Through their yearbook messages, I learned that at least a few of them gained confidence in their math abilities, discovered I wasn’t as irritating as they initially thought, and—imagine—actually had fun in math class from time to time. Even though most of them didn’t end up meeting their quantitative “big goal,” I ended the year on a pretty optimistic note and even wrote an encouraging letter to the 2012 corps members that went viral within TFA’s social networks.
And why shouldn’t I have been optimistic? At the very least, second year had to be easier than first year, right? Well, yes and no. It’s true that my planning, grading, and system-building grew exponentially more efficient. I also placed a stronger emphasis on culture building at the beginning of this year, which extended the honeymoon period of teaching well into November. Unfortunately, shortly after this honeymoon period ended, I hit a wall—or, as I called it at the time, a plateau. I felt I was not developing as quickly as I should, and my students’ performance was suffering as a consequence.
In retrospect, the problem was not necessarily one of stagnation but of expectation. Having facilitated a few case studies over the summer on second-year CMs who had won the Sue Lehmann Award (TFA’s national teaching award), I entered my second year confident in my ability to effect transformational change—maybe not immediately, but certainly within a few months. By late winter, it was clear I was not going to hit that mark; and though I was in every way a more effective teacher than myself a year prior, I felt like a failure because I had fallen so short of my expectations. (Being overwhelmed by three preps also contributed to this sense of failure, though at least that was beyond my locus of control.)
I’m in a much better place now. Through personal reflection and conversations with my MTLD, fellow CMs, friends, and family, I’ve come to recognize that my moments of despondency as a teacher have not been rooted in concern for the well being of my students, but in pride—self-centered, self-reliant pride, the very kind I warned myself against at the beginning of last year, and again at the beginning of this year. In those moments, I’ve been desperate for my students to achieve greatness, but only so that I could claim to be the one who led them there. This may sound eerily familiar to those who are familiar with the Bible: Matthew 6 is full of warnings against those who “sacrifice” for personal recognition and glory. In my lows, I have been no better than the hypocrite who announces his alms-giving with trumpets.
Conversely, and more importantly, I’ve come to recognize that in my best moments of teaching, transformation has occurred—but only as a by-product of deep, genuine, selfless relationships. There are only a few kids whose life trajectories I can say with total confidence I altered for the better—R from last year; A, D, S, and T from this year—and the common thread connecting these kids is that I spent more time with them outside of class than in class, more time listening to them than speaking at them. They learned for the sake of learning, to be sure, but that was just the start; our conversations were infused with meaning, with people from their lives, with the things that mattered to them. I’ve changed too; as I’ve learn about these kids’ dreams and passions, as I’ve listened to their families’ stories and shared meals with them, I’ve been humbled and struck by what an honor it is to be their teacher. Transformational change is a two-way street, it turns out.
So what have I learned from teaching? For one, it isn’t just something to do for two years. It is a profession—one of the most difficult, but also one of the most meaningful. I’m leaving the classroom after this year, and the guilt and cognitive dissonance hit me like a stab in the gut every time a student asks why I have to go; but my next role at least allows me the privilege of supporting great teachers in very concrete ways, and for that I’m grateful.
I’ve learned that you can’t measure a teacher’s effectiveness using just numbers; as my mentor teacher told me last week, only eternity will tell the full extent of the impact I’ve made on my students’ lives. I believe that.
I’ve learned that context matters. Poverty matters. Home environment and parental support matter. Teachers can’t do everything by themselves. A kid who has to babysit two siblings because mom is gone and dad is an alcoholic is going to be a little distracted when it comes to school work, compared to a kid from an upper middle class, two-parent household in the suburbs (e.g. me). This is reality—it makes people uncomfortable, but it needs to be discussed.
I’ve learned that Teach For America has many strengths but also many glaring flaws, and that I can be grateful to the organization for introducing me to this work without condoning its questionable policies or lack of transparency. I’ve learned that the TFA network is extremely powerful and must be wielded for good.
Finally, I’ve learned a bit about what it really means to be a servant, defender, and friend to my students. Because that’s what they are now: my students. And I am their teacher. This relationship is what makes every struggle from the past two years—every late night, every doubt, every crazy class that made me want to drive home to California and never come back—totally worth it.