Sara graduated from SMU in May with degrees in financial accounting and economics. She is attending Teach for America Institute in Houston and has been assigned a teaching position in La Joya in South Texas as a Math Resource teacher.
While at SMU, Sara was one of four students who lived at SMU’s Inter-Community Experience (ICE) house in a low-income section of Dallas. The Alvin, Texas native was a tutor and mentor to neighborhood children. As an honor student, she was awarded a Richter fellowship to conduct independent study on education in The Gambia, a small country in Western Africa.
Sometimes, moments offer a glimmer of hope. It is these moments that help me to go back into my classroom the next day.
Last week, my formerly most "challenging" class period was pretty good. They finished assignments, didn't throw any large objects, and sort of listened to some of the things I said. It was an immense burden lifted off my week. This week started off with a roll of toilet paper being thrown from the back to the front of the classroom during a lesson. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? All I know now is that each day is a new day.
These students are so fickle and sensitive. The wrong look, phrase, tone of voice, and bam! They're lost for the day. I can see the change in their faces now, often instantaneously. As soon as I see it happening, I cringe inside, knowing- and dreading- what comes next. I now have a fight on my hands. Usually not literally, but a fight to get them to listen, do any work, maintain some semblance of control. This happens to me, on average, about 5 times per day. It's going down a bit from earlier weeks, but still high enough to make my life and my job difficult.
Here is the difficulty with committing yourself to an organization like TFA. The mission, purpose calls you to it (and keeps you in it), but it keeps the line between "life" and "job" quite fuzzy, so that it turns out that my job is my life. Possibly true in many other careers, though, I suppose. It's hard not to get emotionally involved in a job like mine, though, when I see — everyday — the horrendous injustices that these teenagers have suffered during their academic lives. (Note: my thoughts are not quite so noble when my classroom is filled with screaming 15-16 year olds who refuse to listen to me). In the moments when I have some perspective, though, I see the tragedy of being 16, in school for 10 or more years, and being functionally illiterate. Many of my students cannot read or write. Though the "illiteracy" rate in my classroom may be higher because of my special education setting, this is by no means unique to my situation. Many of my students were placed in special education in error many years ago and have been stuck there ever since, keeping them multiple years behind their peers. Who wouldn't get frustrated and want to give up if you were 16, illiterate, and on a 2nd grade math level, faced with material out of your reach everyday? We all want to do things we're good at; it makes us feel good about ourselves. These kids are really, really good at being bad. They've spent years and tons of energy perfecting their skills. And they practice almost everyday in my class. My response — headaches, immense frustration, and an extreme appreciation for the weekends.
Some days, I like to think I'm making progress. Then the next day indicates otherwise. Well, even if I don't do anything to get these kids on the same level as their "peers in high income areas" (TFA jargon), at least they've filled my life with lots of interesting memories and experiences.
Here's one: a few days ago, a frog made its way into my classroom, likely dropped in as a surprise from a student. Though I was oblivious for the first hour, I should've suspected it when one of my students continued to crawl all over the floor, peering under bookcases for the entire hour. When the next class came in, the frog hopped out, and it got pretty exciting. Girls were screaming (maybe some guys too). While I contemplated getting a janitor, one brave student used his exam paper that we were correcting to pick up the frog and throw him out the back door down the hall. At least they can't say that the test didn't have practical applications in their lives.
Today was my first day of teaching in my TFA placement, in La Joya, Texas, as a Math Resource teacher. I spent last week in teacher in-service, learning about policies, procedures, and meeting lots of great people. I met so many "mother hen" type teachers, those who were immediately willing to take me under their wing, give me support and advice. I'm so grateful for them!
I spent several hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the school organizing my dungeon-esque room. I covered the stark cement walls with bright paper and posters, put away all my resources and games, organized my desk...by Sunday evening, my room had a nice warm feeling to it. I was sure that it had an atmosphere that would spark creativity and inspire my students to learn.
I went in my room early this morning to make sure everything was ready. I made all my copies, wrote the day's instructions on the board, and laid everything out so there would be strong structure and order when the students came in (because I believe this is the best way to keep things calm). I was really feeling the whole "teacher" thing.
I reported for duty (teacher language for stand around and pretend to be official) in the morning, while the students were in other classrooms getting their schedules for a couple of hours. I bumped into one of my assistant principals in the hallway about 1 hour into the school day who told me, "you're in the wrong room....other classes are coming to that classroom, so you need to move." Eek. I went to find my new room, to discover that it was just that: a room. No desks, no whiteboard/chalkboard, no tables/chairs. And I had students coming to my room in 45 minutes. Eek again. Now I feel like a real teacher!! They hurriedly got me some tables and chairs (though I was left was sad cement walls), and then my first class (3rd period) came in. Wow!! I really had no idea what I was getting into until I met the boys of my 3rd period class. Yes, all boys. Yes, all receiving special education services. And yes, all of them were the most difficult group of teenagers I have ever seen. It was pretty much chaos for an hour and half. (And yes, I have them for 30 minutes longer than any other class).
I'm beginning to get a better idea of why TFA places teachers where it does. It's not that my school administration is incompetent, but there are just flaws in the system. I have to admit that I was on the brink of quitting right then and there. But I knew if I did that I would regret it for the rest of my life. (Not to mention that it's only the first day!!). Things smoothed out considerably later in the day, but this will be a day I will never forget!!
Tomorrow will be a better day.
Now that I've almost gotten my bearings in my science and math classes, I'm almost finished for the summer. (yippee!) But there have been some great things happening in my classroom in the past couple of weeks. Almost all my students are finishing their work in class now (or at least doing some of it!). This is a huge improvement for them, so I'm proud of how hard they're working. I do still have one "trouble" student. For some reason, every day is a battle with him...and unfortunately I don't always win! Today he tried to stare me down after I told him to move his desk forward 3 inches. (I did win that one, fyi). It drives me up the wall, but I'm learning how to not take blatant disrespect personally, which is helpful as a teacher.
My science students are pretty much angelic (maybe a slight exaggeration). But they are usually so eager to do what they're supposed to be doing (as long as I acknowledge them when they're doing it)! It's truly an incredible phenomenon, especially since engaging my math students in class is often similar to pulling teeth. I'm completely drained of energy after expending so much of it on these 45 students. But I suppose I'll need to get more very soon, because after I wrap things up in my classes, I'll be heading down to La Joya, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley to teach resource math.
Now that I actually see the light at the end of the crazy institute tunnel, I've been thinking a lot more about the upcoming 2 years. I'm apprehensive about teaching in a special education setting, especially because I have no experience. But I'm excited to be starting something new, something that's going to be going longer than 5 weeks! The valley is such a fabulous place: such rich culture, relaxed atmosphere, immense growth, and amazing food. So long cafeteria food.
Things are looking up, so I'm hopeful that the next few days will be extremely productive and smooth. But every day with middle schoolers is a completely new day!
I'm beginning to see some of the flaws in our system firsthand. Two teachers in my summer school program left last week (2 weeks before summer school ends), so starting after the holiday, I will also be teaching 6th grade Science in addition to 7th grade math. I feel as though I'm straying farther and farther away from subjects that I know anything about! It seems so flawed that the education of students is in my hands, especially this new class. Although I am almost certified now (at least I passed a test), I feel so unqualified. It's like putting the entire company portfolio into the hands of a new analyst and telling her/him to figure out what to do, with the caveat that the future of the company is in their hands. I suppose it will be good experience to be well "versed" in teaching multiple subjects, but right now it's more of a scramble to take on an additional load of teaching and grading and all that goes into both of those. I know it'll be valuable experience, but right now I'm kind of in shock.
I suppose I'll just have to get over it!
The halfway point
I'm now halfway through my training at teacher boot camp (err, TFA Institute). It's pretty rough. Every day gets more and more emotionally and physically draining, and it gets harder and harder to keep a positive attitude. But there are some signs of improvement in my classroom, so I'll focus on the positive for now.
1. Aaron stayed awake for all of first period today, and he actually participated the first half of the class. (Since I'm staying positive, I won't get into what happened the second half.)
2. After a week on probability, their percentage mastery went from 29% to 71%, despite having class in the cafeteria at the same time as 15 other classes for two days last week (again, since I'm staying positive, I won't get into the challenges of having class at a cafeteria table at the same time as almost 15 other classes).
3. When I showed the class their improvement, I asked if they thought they could work really hard to get that last 8% mastery to get their 80% goal, I had a couple of sincere and adamant nods (!!) in the midst of the blank stares (generally much more prevalent among 13-year-olds at 8 a.m. in the summer).
The hardest job you'll ever love
This is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. I'm engaging in more critical thinking than I ever could imagine. Not to mention learning to think on my feet, pretending to have energy after 4 hours sleep every night for a week, and being purposeful and deliberate with every word, tone, action, and reaction I have in my class. But honestly, in those low moments when part of me would rather just quit and do something corporate and aligned with my degree and near my friends, all I have to do is think about that look in Joe's eyes today that showed that, more than anything, he wanted me to validate that he was smart and could do it, and I reassure myself that I am where I need to be.
An update on poster-making skills: my saving grace – they make lined chart
Not about me
Today was my first day as a teacher. (Yesterday was supposed to be the first day, but it was postponed due to mass flooding throughout the city of Houston). Though the day went pretty smoothly, I feel that it added a new dynamic to my life. It's pretty much a paradigm shift, actually. For the first time in my life, I truly understand that it is not about me. My professional development, everything I'm doing in training, all the long (and I mean really long) hours are not about making myself look good, and it's definitely not about the money! But while it's not about me, it is all on me. All the work I'm doing to make myself more effective now has a new sense of urgency, because what Aaron and Cecilia and Kaelah and Gerardo and all my 7th grade math students learn or don't learn all depends on me.
Feeling the pressure
It's an immense load of pressure to take on; I see it on all my fellow corps member's faces. There's an adage in teaching about not smiling until Christmas, i.e. in the first 4-5 months. As I walked down the halls today, people had more (figurative) weight in their steps. Everyone is still positive and energetic but in a much different way now. And I have to admit, just for clarity, that I did not smile throughout my class, and it turns out that it sounds much worse than it actually is. Where did this alternate personality come from??
There's so much to be done and get done that I'm working harder than I've ever worked in my life just to keep up and keep my head above water. Why don't they teach poster-making in college?
Officially in the Corps
I am officially a Teach For America corps member.
I'm in my second day of TFA Institute. I've found, among other things, that Teach For America is riddled with acronyms. One of the other things I'm discovering is the energy level of all the people here, despite 5 am mornings, 14-15 hour days, and unforeseen circumstances (such as not having air conditioning at my school today). Houston is not the best place to go without a/c. But other than some sweaty brows, you wouldn't have known that we were all terribly uncomfortable. Everyone remained quite positive and upbeat. It was a memorable (though perhaps miserable) lesson in flexibility.
I'll be team teaching 7th grade math for Houston ISD summer school as part of my training. My first day of class is in one week, and conveniently on my birthday. The next few days, as today was, will be spent diligently and relentlessly (a key TFA term) learning what to do on the first day of class.
Despite conditions not quite as comfortable as college life at SMU, I feel so excited and honored to be a part of this truly dynamic organization. There's just something about being with 500 very talented and incredible people (out of a total corps of about 2400), all passionate about the same thing, all wanting to be a part of this grander thing that rejuvenates me, even in the midst of moderate sleep deprivation. There are so many things to be excited about right now that it's becoming hard to find a time that I'm not completely thrilled to be here.
I'm sure it's going to be tough, but until then, I'll keep my euphoria and naiveté.
The kids of the Heart House and the ICE House inspired me to apply to Teach for America. Every day, going from the neighborhood the ICE House is in to Highland Park and SMU, I saw such a huge and unnecessary disparity between the opportunities of the two groups of children. Literally, every single day. There are so many reasons this should not be true, so I wanted to be a part of an organization that is 100 percent committed to ending this disparity.
I went to The Gambia for my Richter Fellowship and did research on the "Economics of Education." My intentions in traveling to The Gambia (and yes, it is called The Gambia, not just Gambia) were to further investigate why there is such a significant gap in the political and economic strength and stability between developing nations and developed nations. I used The Gambia and the U.S. for a frame of reference for a very general interest. Yes, this probably did in part influence my decision. I interviewed principals in many schools in the Gambia to identify their perspective on the strengths and areas for improvement of their education system, as well as looked as various economic data available from The Gambian government. What I found was that the inability to produce and/or retain educated people (through the brain drain) in the country was in part contributing to the sustained disparity between the Gambia and other developed countries. (Hope that's not too long of an explanation, I'm very passionate about it!)
Applying to Teach
The first stage was an on-line application and essay. The next step was a day-long interview that included group discussion, responsive essays, a five- minute lesson in front of the other interviewees, a mock group problem solving situation, and a one-on-one interview.
I hope to learn what I can tangibly do throughout my career to improve the situation of children living in poverty, especially those from immigrant families.