Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 18 2010

Concave Up

The night before the first day of school, I would describe myself as both insanely nervous and foolishly confident. I was unprepared, and I knew it. And I don’t just mean “unprepared” in the usual Institute-was-so-different-I-had-no-idea-it-was-this-hard kind of way. There was a little additional I-never-wrote-a-management-plan-or-a-unit-plan-or-even-a-first-day-lesson-plan (until Sunday night) going on, as well (for which I have all sorts of anxiety and cleverly disguised procrastination to blame). But I was also fatally sure that everything would work itself out, because it had to, because I thought I was so fantastically competent that I wouldn’t LET anything become critically awful. Ha.

I think my confidence was based on some hasty assumptions I made about  myself:
… I thought of myself as an optimist, very good at taking a realistic, healthy silver-lining perspective. I’ve always been able to smile myself into having a good day.
… I never dreamed I would even have the desire to consider quitting TFA–I mean, there would be low points, but I’d always be able to come back to why I was there, right? And I’ve never really quit anything  (honestly–I remember that question in my TFA interview, sitting in that adorable little classroom at Lewis & Clark. It was the only question I didn’t feel good about).
… I have always been a hard worker. Nose to the grindstone has always worked for me. Just DO it. Get ‘er done. I’ve never needed too much sleep or free time.
… I’ve been, generally, mentally stable.
… I’m smart. I’m good at things.

Then, the plunge. I’ve never felt so awful for so long so many times in such a short period of time. Mornings: I would wake up physically sick with dread and still crying from the night before. Midday: I would walk laps around in the hallways at lunch to keep myself from being in a place private enough to completely break down. Afternoons: I would ride the bus home, sobbing and bitter and sour and alone. Evenings: I would sit at my computer, paralyzed, and not-work with tears streaming down my face, feeling dead and  numb and a rising dread for the next day again. Nighttime: I gave up on the next day by going to bed, where I’d lie hyperventilating half-conscious until suddenly it was 5:30 am again.

My first 3.5 weeks of teaching, by the numbers (yes, I’ve been counting):
16:   Number of teaching days
2:     Number of times I did not make copies at 8am
3:     Number of times the copier fritzed and I did the day with nothing
3:     Number of mornings I did not feel like crying and throwing up before school
3:     Number of afternoons that ended not rotten
4:     Number of nights (including weekends) I made it to bed without losing control  (… yes, I am tracking my mental health more successfully than I am tracking my students…)
0:     Number of objective-driven lesson plans I wrote
0:     Number of math skills my students learned
3:     Number of times I almost started the quitting conversation with my PD.

Don’t get me wrong: there were moments. I really enjoyed teaching Malleable Intelligence to my 1st period. Even though I yelled a lot at my kids, I also laughed a lot. I went to a football game and was proud of my students on the field. I loved coming home and commiserating with my roommate. A couple times, I made big plans to “get a handle on things” over the weekend and believed in them all of Friday afternoon. But … overall, teaching was not this famed “rewarding” experience people made it out to be. It was the worst day of my life, renewed every day.

… I can only talk about how much everything sucked because things are officially on the up-swing. It started Tuesday night, in another conversation with my ED. Wednesday it gained momentum, after a debrief with my PD. Thursday, it stuck. The magic wasn’t in the “it does get better” or “you’re not alone” or “just work on one thing at a time” or “it’s probably going better than you think” or “the first year is always hard” that I’d heard seven hundred times before and had begun to despise. For some reason, what pulls me up out of the weeds is talking about how our corps is doing as a whole–100 new people in this city with no alum, no ’09 CMs, no structure set in place to fold into. It’s thinking up feedback to give our regional staff, thinking about what is going to push our CMs to unprecedented heights as first-year teachers, thinking about what we’ve learned this first time around that we can apply to Round Zero for 2011 CMs. For some reason, thinking about corps effectiveness long-term puts me into “the zone,” which gives me energy I can apply to my own work.

My classroom is no different; my kids still call me names and throw things at me, and I still forget to put the seating chart on the board which makes 7th period a management debaucle. I still screw up lesson plans and offer gap-widening explanations daily. My loudest student is still bored all the time. I’m still a pushover. My tiniest student is still being a brat, and I still haven’t really communicated with my 5th period, either.  Worse than that, I have only one student who understands angle measures, and he was absent the day I taught it. Or, didn’t teach it. I’m still a disorganized mess, and I’m still in the red with my administrators because of it. My kids still don’t know how to enter the classroom or how to do the warm-ups. None of them will shut up when I’m talking, and I just assigned my kids to seats they chose, seats that will keep them talking. Because I’m a pushover. They’re still walking all over me.

… But today, all of these things have little bits and pieces I can build on, or little threads I can pull at, or some random ideas I can throw at them. I found my “go” button, unpredictably and definitely in the nick of time. Things have officially stopped getting steadily worse. I’m venturing to say that I’ve officially rounded the first corner of my teaching career. It’s just interesting that it was learning about myself, not about teaching or my kids, that put me back together.

One Response

  1. Fill up the Jar.

    Love you. Miss you. Praying for you. Calling you today.

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“The minute you think of giving up, think of the reason you held on so long.” - John Maxwell


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