Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 02 2011

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

There are 14 teaching days left until testing, and I’m feeling a little queasy about fear and student achievement. From day one, I’ve genuinely wanted my students to do really well, and genuinely believed they can. But crunch time forces us to face reality, and the reality is: as good as my intentions have been, I’ve been afraid to stick my neck out for my kids.

I’m not exactly sure what evidence I would use to back up that statement. I just know I’ve privately made a lot of big plans, and followed through on only a fraction of them. I’m trying so hard not to be scared of defying odds or exceeding expectations—but navigating the terrain between good and great has never been easy for me.

There are never any absolutes when you’re holding yourself to your own standards. I can never tell whether the excuses I could make for myself are appropriate. I know I could work harder to strike a balance between work and life so I’m not bouncing from crazy-busy to crazy-lazy. I know that using the first half of this year as an excuse doesn’t do anyone any good. But at the same time… I feel like I’ve been a teacher for three months, not seven. During those first four, I was spinning my wheels in gooey darkness, and I’ve only been touching the ground since they ended.

It’s so easy to find reasons not to hold yourself to high standards. It’s too easy to justify and validate and massage wounded pride.

***

It’s funny to say this, as someone who thinks TAL and TFA are the best things since sliced bread, but I’ve never really been a backwards-planned-Big-Goals type of person. I’ve always made goals and worked backwards from them, but I don’t plan very far in advance—and all the Big things I’ve done have just sort of happened as a result of building forward, stacking little backwards-planned goals on top of one another. That is to say, I’m in the habit of accomplishing Big things, but I’m not in the habit of keeping specific, ambitious goals in mind for a long time. (shhhhh, don’t tell TFA)

As for this year’s Big Goals… they’ve proven to be pretty slippery. If times are good and the road is smooth, they stay put just sitting in my hands. If things get bumpy, I clutch and grab and squeeze so hard I lose feeling in my fingers—so hard I don’t even let myself think about whether I still believe in them or not.  When things got rough this year, I dropped my goals and settled for the realistic—then when things got better I felt guilty and snatched them back up again, hoping nobody was looking. How do you keep yourself aimed toward these terrifying goals? How do you force yourself to believe in them every single day?

Life is full of this struggle! Good and great, good and great. They are absolute opposites—mutually exclusive. It’s impossibly hard to be caught between the two, able to push yourself to take the next step, but terrified of the one after that (Funny thing: googling Jim Collins’ quote “The good is the enemy of the great,” I came across a Voltaire quote with an opposing sentiment: “The best is the enemy of the good”).

Would I have accomplished all the things I did in college if I’d set out from the beginning aiming to do them? I have it in writing that I had a goal of getting a 4.0 in college to make up for my late-blooming in high school, but definitely didn’t make that happen. If I’d started rowing with the goal to eventually triple the size of the team, would it have happened? If I’d envisioned the scope of my health care event from the beginning, would I have ever made it happen, or would I have gotten scared? If I’d aimed from the start of school or my RA job or student government to get the awards I did, would I have been able to keep those goals in mind? Sometimes I wonder whether I was successful because I “didn’t look down,” in a sense. I didn’t often zoom out and think about how far I’d come or how far I had to go—I just went as hard as I could for as long as I could, discovered I still had more in me, and went again.

Is there time left? Can I transform? Can I figure out how in time? Can I change all the things I need to change in order to make it? Can I work my best self between now and then?

I think that’s where my slithering feelings of inadequacy come from—not because of my student data or because of my first four months or because of the way my students still talk to me, but because I know, I can feel, that I’m not at my potential. I’m not scared because this is the best I can do, but because it isn’t the best I can do.

***

The last time I thought about the quote in the title was during the spring rowing season of my Junior year. I’d started to get some really good results the summer before, but wasn’t continuing to improve like I should have been. My coach told me I was being too hard on myself and beating myself up—then she proved it by flipping my monitor out of my sight during pieces so I couldn’t see how fast I was going or how much time was left. Whenever things got rough mentally during racing season, I always did better when I just closed my eyes and trusted myself to pull as hard as I could.

I’m not letting go. The only thing I can do is what I know how to do—and so my plan, from here out, is to put my head down, focus on the next step, and stop zooming out so much. I don’t need benchmark goals to tell me whether I’m going full-speed or making excuses and holding back. Ambitious and Feasible are really, really hard to see clearly from the beginning—I trust myself to build a true Ambitious and Feasible, forward, by being me and doing what I know how to do.

4 Responses

  1. Amelia1

    I think “just close your eyes and pull as hard as you can” may be my motto for the week.

    You write beautifully and I’ve been so enjoying your perspective. These TFA blogs have gotten so engrossing!

    been really liking this one too:

    http://twoyearsattheblackboard.blogspot.com/

  2. “I think that’s where my slithering feelings of inadequacy come from—not because of my student data or because of my first four months or because of the way my students still talk to me, but because I know, I can feel, that I’m not at my potential.”

    YES YES YES YES YES YES YESHEUSHFUSIEHIKF

  3. Ms. Math

    “Whenever things got rough mentally during racing season, I always did better when I just closed my eyes and trusted myself to pull as hard as I could.”

    If I had known that trying my absolute best at being an amazing algebra teacher was enough for my first year teaching, and that being my best required sleep and happiness, I think I wouldn’t have felt such overwhelming guilt. My yoga teacher is always saying to try as hard as you can in a pose and if it doesn’t work out let it go.

    “It’s so easy to find reasons not to hold yourself to high standards. It’s too easy to justify and validate and massage wounded pride.” I’m still struggling with this. When am I too hard on myself? Why am I not being great when I COULD be great? My mom has a very bad case of cancer and I keep thinking that I SHOULD be able to do so much with the time-out from work I took to take care of her. But I keep coming up tired, flat, exhausted with not much progress to show for my days except more memories with mom and more tears.

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