Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 04 2011

Making It Happen

I can’t even begin to figure out a way to tie this post together or make it interesting or profound, and so I’ve been putting off posting it. But I can’t leave it too long, or this blog wouldn’t be the honest chronicle I want it to be. So at the risk of not quite changing your life or rocking your world, I’m going to post anyway.

My break was supposed to be relaxing and wonderful, but significantly productive. I had a beastly to-do list that involved, you know, a dramatic makeover for my classroom and my teaching. Instead, I went home and did nothing. Surprise surprise, right?

I was at home, which meant things were supposed to feel better. I wasn’t teaching, so my life was supposed to improve. But instead of decompressing and feeling good about getting time to reflect, I just kept feeling the same things.

Since starting Teach For America, I have spoken to no less than six mental health professionals, trying to figure out why on earth I’m not myself. Of these, four of them have essentially told me, on the first visit, that TFA is what is making me depressed. I tell them what TFA is, and I tell them what my job involves; of the stress and the misbehavior and the high expectations and the responsibility I have to every student. They tell me, in reply, that of course I’m feeling depressed and anxious and not myself; I’m holding myself to an impossible standard! You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. And these kids… they’re different. Their families don’t value education, and when there’s no support from home, you can’t be expected to get them very far. When I tell them I am personally responsible for my kids’ success in math, they tell me I’m wrong and that I’m hurting myself with that kind of mindset. One of them literally said to me, “those kids who do these horrible things to you… do you think they’ll ever amount to anything? Just remember they’ll probably end up in jail anyway.” Over break, I spoke to another one, who told me my job was to teach 10th grade Geometry, not to catch kids up to grade level, and that I shouldn’t rate my success or failure based on my kids’ ability to learn. … that’s why I don’t end up going back.

So my break was just more of the same deadness and lack of motivation. I did buy almost a whole new wardrobe, and I did hang out with friends a couple times, but for the most part, I wandered around trying to make myself go to the gym or pull out my computer and start the piles of work I was already behind on.

At 8:30 in the morning of December 29th, 2010, I met my “that teacher” at Starbucks on the corner of 37th and Grand (there’s a Starbucks there now). We spoke of The First Year like it was the Plague, and of Education like it was the Holy Grail, and of Love  and Grit and also Geometry. This man is a god among men, and every student who was in my 5th and 6th grade class will attest to it. But he told me something I’d never known before—get this—He was fired in the middle of his first year of teaching. Fired!

He told me a story about swordsmiths—how they used to make swords out of iron, which made them heavy and dull quickly. Somehow, they discovered that if they pissed on the swords while they were heating, the chemical reaction of the nitrates in the urine with the iron in the sword would turn the iron into steel. To become sharp and harder than hard, the sword had to go through not only an intense heating and battery from the hammer, but then the completely unforgiveable humiliation of dirty swordsmiths pissing on it.

Not sure how historically accurate it is, but it’s a really satisfying analogy and it makes suffering feel purposeful. But I still went to bed feeling worthless—the next day was my flight back to San Antonio, and I’d gotten nothing done in my week at home.

Wednesday morning, I woke up and, after a couple hours, I realized something felt different. I didn’t feel miserable. Huh. Then a couple hours later, as I was packing my bag, I thought “am I … looking forward to getting back to San Antonio and working my butt off?” And I was.

And two days later, after the most productive and happy days I’ve had in probably something like a year, I thought, “am I … excited to get back into my classroom?” And I was.

Two days later, I went to school and taught—and felt good at the same time! I finished the day and went straight to work—organizing, calling a bunch of parents, inputting grades from the day…

And today. Today was B day—B is for Bad Kids, except for fifth period. Heh. But guess who gave consistent consequences? And guess who stayed in control? Today was a GOOD day. A good DAY. Not just one good fifth period once in a blue moon—an entire DAY of productive work getting done. You can see it on my clipboard seating charts: on the chart for first period, I wrote “working! They’re working!” On third period’s, I wrote “working!” Fifth period?  “they’re doing their work!” … etc.

I have special ed co-teachers in 5th and 7th periods who show up about once a month. But when they are out and they call in substitutes, the subs always come. They don’t know better. So I had a set of extra hands to help, which rocked. We chatted after fifth period, and here’s a sampling of what this man, who has an ed degree and works for Region 20, said to me:

“You know, I was sitting there watching the kids, and not one kid pulled out his cell phone for the entire 90 minutes!”
“ What a great lesson! …and you did all this without an ed degree?”
“ they can smell fear… you sound so confident.”
“you looked quite content. I can tell you love teaching.”
“you have a great lecture style.”
“they’re so well-behaved; I thought this was some advanced class.”

The one they call Dirty, the despairing kid I identified so much with here , came back today–the last time I’d seen him was when we took our benchmark exams on December 8th. He started the day by walking into first period, saying “I don’t feel like being here” and walking out again. But he came to fifth, and after saying “I don’t want to be here,” he sat there for a while until he realized we were doing something kind of fun and decided to stick around. AND do all his work. Perfectly.


Here’s the thing—this is pretty much inexplicable. The changes I worked on during the four days between Wednesday and Sunday were nothing new… they were just the same stuff I’d been trying to make myself do since OPERATION: INSTITUTE started at week 9. Only now, I could actually make it happen.

And I had no breakthrough or sudden “come to Jesus” moment or magic golden epiphany… I literally just woke up Wednesday morning feeling like I could make something happen, and I did. I’m just … happy.

My secret? … in truth, it might not be as inexplicable as I’ve made it out to be. My doctor said the Effexor she prescribed me could take from two to six weeks to take effect, and Wednesday the 29th was two weeks to the day from when I started. Never heard of antidepressants working so suddenly, but I sure ain’t complaining. It’s the only thing that changed. I was certainly less stressed over break; I was sleeping more and doing things non-teaching-related, and spending time with family and friends… but I’d think those things would make a difference sometime before my last day at home. And it doesn’t explain looking forward to coming back to Texas.

I want to write about TFA and mental health. I want to write about corps culture and why it’s so dangerous to blindly tell people what they’re feeling is normal. What I was feeling was not normal. Hearing that it’s just the first year of teaching and that everyone around you feels the same way just makes you look around and wonder why everyone else can apparently work through these feelings and teach, while you waste away sitting somewhere not-lesson-planning. I want to write about how stuck, how lost you can be as a corps member–between counselors and therapists who don’t share TFA’s beliefs about the responsibility and potential of a good teacher on one side and TFA staff and CMs on the other, who a) don’t know about mental health and b) assume too quickly that you’re probably just another over-achiever who’s probably a much better teacher than she says she is. I want to write about this hard-core martyr dreading-Monday-but-we-do-it-for-the-kids first-year teacher complex we all have, and how it probably causes a lot of real issues to go unnoticed and undiagnosed for longer than they should be. It’s like crying wolf–no, it’s like kids pulling the fire alarm when there’s no fire–eventually, people stop believing corps members when they say they’re really bad teachers, and the “not a drill,” really-suffering teachers get told, “it’s probably going better than you realize. Keep your chin up.”    Eventually, maybe I’ll write about these things.

It all comes down to breaking the cycle. It is SO much easier to get work done when you’re not in anguish. In fact, it becomes FUN! I had fun staying up until 4am on Saturday, planning lessons for the week. I made lots of checklists and checked lots of boxes, and my work fueled more work, and my success fueled more success…

Long story short, 2010 is OVER. It’s a new year, and this kid is gonna TEACH like her hair’s on fire.

5 Responses

  1. Danielle

    All I can say is – You go girl! :)

  2. Ryan

    awesome post. i like when the TFA bloggers are honest and open about how it is and what is going on. it is a great insight into tfa, teaching, the dreaded first year, etc. thanks so much for writing this!

  3. That is great news. Best wishes for 2011 and I hope you finally get to enjoy all the work you put in during 2010.

  4. Winnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!!!

  5. Julaine

    Wow! Thanks for writing this brave and honest post. I’m in my 15th year of teaching and I’m still going through ups and downs like this!

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