Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 16 2011

I wonder if you can overdose on Kool-Aid.

If so, I think I have.

I don’t even know how to write about the Summit. Ever since Michael Johnston finished speaking, a weird feeling has been turning over and over in me. As I ate dinner at Union Station’s “America” Saturday night and walked the National Mall with a close friend, I kept trying to boil it down to something—but it wouldn’t boil. As I flew home on Sunday, I wanted to write something to solidify what the weekend had done to me—but everything was still too mushy and hard to pin down, and I needed to plan for the next day anyway.

Still feel like I can’t do it justice, but saying nothing doesn’t do it justice, either. So I decided to recycle what I’ve written about it so far:

In an email to my ED:
“I can’t figure out how to blog about the summit. I still feel brain-fried, like I can’t sift through my thoughts quite right. I feel the weirdest combination of inspired and uncomfortable and dazed.”

On our corps’ facebook page:
“I’ve always been a big-picture thinker when it comes to TFA, maybe because I didn’t really intend to teach beyond the two years and maybe because the nature of my first semester’s experiences meant it was more bearable to think about the larger movement than about my own classroom.

I felt that conflict again this weekend, as I dived deeper and deeper into feeling like a part of the beginning of something huge–and put off planning for week 23 further and further.

Saturday was a non-typical TFA day–instead of the usual fast-paced but digestible style, with time to discuss with others and reflect on new information, it was a regular barrage of inspiring, igniting, game-changing words from passionate, articulate, game-changing people. By the time the closing plenary session came around, my brain had been turned to mush and my heart was swollen. …And then the battery continued, with optimistic Arne Duncan and reflection after reflection of amazing alumni … fried and overwhelmed, I lost it at the end of Michael Johnston’s bit–as I’m sure many of the other 11,000 did, as well.

What am I coming home with? The realization that my ED isn’t just putting on her motivational hat when she talks about The Movement. I’m coming home convinced that our responsibility isn’t just to the kids we teach, but to every single person we interact with, from now until One Day happens. We are advocates for our cause as well as for our kids, and as US education moves closer and closer to the spotlight, it’s going to be more and more crucial that we live and breathe to champion our kids and their families in every arena where they have no voice.

I went to a session called “Shifting the Prevailing Ideology,” and I’m still thinking about the advice the panelists gave–KNOW THE FACTS about the achievement gap AND why it doesn’t have to exist, so you can ADVOCATE for kids IN THE MOMENT when someone you know shows that they don’t yet feel the full impact of this injustice. We’re losing in the race for global competitiveness, kids are being shortchanged, we KNOW poor kids can achieve if they have the right person in front of them, “and yet we’re going around with LIFO. It’s ass-backwards, and that connects.” (<–Amanda Ripley, 2/12) People deserve to know what their country is doing to kids, what things are standing in the way, and what is not being done to change it.

… I’m also coming home with a bunch of faces to put to names from TFAnet and TeachForUs, a bunch of email addresses from CMs who teach exactly what I teach in a whooole bunch of different regions, and a set of actually-pretty-good lesson plans for week 23 that I finished on the plane on the way home.”

In an email to my PD:
“All I could think about was starting a Pre-K school if the district cuts Pre-K.

What cut me was listening to Amanda Ripley talk about “knowing the facts” in the “shifting the prevailing ideology” session. I don’t know enough. I mean, I know enough for me, but I don’t know enough to advocate. I want to know enough to know exactly what the next thing standing in our way is, and start planning on how to take it down. I want to feel articulate and grounded in representing my kids, but right now I’m only representing my kids to other CMs. Can we build a corps in which 100% of our members are equipped, empowered, and COMPELLED to engage fully and successfully in discussion with anyone who is misinformed or stretching the truth or speaking from ignorance?   (how do we keep everyone informed? how do we make sure CMs’ conversations, when they do have them, are productive? how do we stay angry about what’s happening nationally while still feeling a sense of possibility in our schools and district?)

But I’m still not doing enough for my own kids, which makes me feel … fake, almost, putting thought to the movement outside of my classroom. Why are none of the transformational TFA legendaries ever high school math teachers? (seriously, though. I can think of superstar stories I’ve heard in every other subject/grade level!) Why can’t I improve fast enough to be the first one? Does being on the “front lines” mean I can’t (shouldn’t?) do anything else until I am a “proof point”?”

I still feel ravaged—like I’m a battlefield after some intense and crucial good-vs.-evil fight to the death, or an empty baseball stadium after the World Series. Or the fairgrounds after the circus has packed up and moved on.

Wendy’s current line about the movement is this: “incredible progress has been made in the last 20 years, but we still haven’t moved the needle against educational inequity in an aggregate sense.” I feel the same way about my classroom. I’m SO proud of so many things—but when I step back, the things I’m proud of are nothing compared to the mountains my kids are facing. My kids are nowhere near a different life path. They still don’t even master what I teach them. I see Precious in every one of them, but I also see Maniac Magee, and it’s scary to realize that we’re still spinning our wheels after 23 weeks. After the next 14 are over, am I going to feel like I spent my first year eating soup with a fork?

8 Responses

  1. Ms. D

    Wow – your post is almost exactly like the one I am working on right now. I did not go to summit, but last night I had this realization that I eventually want to do something big. It is driving me crazy today not being able to figure out what the “big something” is, but I know it’s there. And I think the same goes for you. :) You are AMAZING. And I am really glad that it’s going a bit better for you right now. I really liked your line ” I don’t know enough. I mean, I know enough for me, but I don’t know enough to advocate.” I understand 100% except that I don’t know enough for me right now. :) If you ever want to just sit and talk about your dreams of opening up a pre-k just call me. You’ve got my number – I’m here to listen!! Good luck girl!

    • Wess

      Aaaahhh, I love you!
      I LOVE epiphany moments. I actually had a gigantic epiphany moment right as I was about to submit my TFA application, and I completely re-wrote my personal statement the next day. I realized I was going to spend my life working my tail off for low-income families trying to make things less unfair. It’s been stuck in my head ever since.

  2. Summit. Summit Summit. Seriously. I can’t believe what that did to my brain. I’ve barely been able to do school work all week. I picked a dissertation topic. Yes, of course, on TFA and mathematical knowledge for teaching.
    I can’t believe how, dare I say, transformational, that event was for me too.
    I can’t believe how many ideas I have and how much energy I’ve found!
    Keep it up. Keep in touch :)

    • Wess

      I am SO excited for you about your dissertation! Can I help? :P

  3. K

    check out gary rubinstein’s blog on here. he is an amazing hs math teacher alum (still teaching)

  4. So glad the summit lead to us at least talking on the phone. :) ONE DAY is when I come to San Antonio and see your beautiful face. Wink wink.

    Unfortunately, the sessions and people I heard did not leave me with a firey madness. I loved it, yes. I felt the national movement, yet. I really enjoyed and was surprised by the focus of the entire summit– that it’s not about teachers. It’s about changing the face of education. There is so much MORE to this organization than just putting unqualified teachers in classrooms.

    The whole thing reminds me of when I worked for Build-A-Bear. The associates are called “bear builders” and they’re the face of the organization to the outside world. So at Bearquarters (or BQ, as we call it on the inside), where I interned for the summer, I was thrilled and impressed to find that every person at BQ is first trained to be a bear builder. It gives them the true experience and intention of the organization.

    I feel that (in a kind of sad way) us teaching for two years is that. We are capable of impacting more than one classroom. Much more capable. And chances are our expertise and our talents are not going to be best fit for the classroom. Maybe we need a position at the figuratively speaking BQ of education. Maybe we need to be an advocate somewhere else. But the best way to understand what the hell is happening is by being in a classroom for these two years. To see, day-to-day, the insane problems and the brilliant breakthroughs.

    I guess the summit might have made me more excited than I thought. Or at least more capable of piecing things together in a way I understand. It was great to have a new “big picture” thrown at us, to help get our heads away from the itty bitty details that make us disappear into black holes.

    • Wess

      Yes. That’s a huge part of the weirdness I’m feeling, I think! … that my job doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. So my alumni-self was prematurely awakened and inspired, while my first-year-corps-member self was feeling a little betrayed.

      • Wess

        … not that my job doesn’t MATTER. Just… that I’m not the center of things.

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