Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 10 2012

Am I Wrong For Teaching?

I had an hour-long discussion about this post tonight, with 8 other corps members, two teachers from KIPP, a TFA staff member, and the special ed executive director for our district.

Among the many reactions as to whether competition for teachers is a good thing or a bad thing, a strong voice stuck with me, saying “teaching isn’t ABOUT you.”

I identify with Ms. Mathinaz strongly on pieces of her post—I find comparison and competition motivating, and I don’t like the prevailing culture that treats teachers getting in each others’ business as taboo.

But teaching ISN’T about me. That voice said it so well tonight: “my goal when I’m teaching is that every single one of my kids meets a bar that I set for them. If all but seven of my kids hit that bar, then I fell short of my goal. And I try and improve so I can come closer to my goal next time. That’s not competitive.” And it’s true. I don’t think setting goals and holding yourself ruthlessly accountable counts as competitive. I also don’t think a teacher should hold any main goal other than some form of the one stated above.

For me, though, that conclusion is a little scary. If I start to wonder whether competition isn’t good for teaching, it forces me to look at myself and wonder not whether teaching is a good fit for me, but whether I am a good fit for teaching.

I can love an activity if I’m able to constantly improve at it. We’re good there. The CIE tattoo on my foot isn’t going anywhere. But what makes me constantly improve? What gives me the fuel to actually do it? … I’m afraid it’s competition. Comparison. Measurement. With “yardsticks.” Call me whatever you’ll call me, but I’ve seen myself at my worst and at my best, and I know this is what gets me going.

I’m here because I want to give my students the education they deserve. Am I allowed to be a teacher if, while definitely at the core of my decision to be here in the first place, that noble thought isn’t what makes my skin tingle or what makes me itch to work harder? If I’m motivated by something other, something less virtuous, than the mere thought of my students doing better?

I’ve got to either contrive imaginary competitive schemes to keep myself in Go Mode, or do some self-engineering and figure out how to change what motivates me. Or leave and find a way to contribute that puts this part of me to good use.

15 Responses

  1. I’m a little confused by the “…teaching ISN’T about me” paragraph. You’re talking about you meeting the goal you set for your students. That’s pretty much “about me” as far as I’m concerned. Is that how you meant it?

    • Wess

      Meeting the goal you set for your students’ learning is different from meeting a goal you set for your own teaching practice. It’s “I want every kid to be on a path to something great” rather than “I want to get really good at differentiation.”

      • This may come across as overly romantic, but perhaps your students and their parents have their own goals you’d be interested in helping them achieve?

        Or from the other end, perhaps your school community or administrator’s goals for you and your students are more important than yours?

  2. Cal

    Tom is correct. Your goals, as stated, have nothing to do with your kids and everything to do with you.

    For example, my goal is “I want my students to feel more competent, to feel that math is more achievable than it was before they started with me. I want them to feel they have more skills to use to solve math problems.” Or whatever (I also teach history and English, so it varies). The idea is to have them feel a genuine sense of achievement that they can move forward with.

    And that level will be different for each students. Strong students will have one standard, weaker students another. But they will all feel and be more competent than when they came in.

    But your goals are all about you. *You* will set the goals. *You* will set the standard. *You* will determine whether they succeeded.

    “I’m here because I want to give my students the education they deserve. Am I allowed to be a teacher if, while definitely at the core of my decision to be here in the first place, that noble thought isn’t what makes my skin tingle or what makes me itch to work harder? If I’m motivated by something other, something less virtuous, than the mere thought of my students doing better?”

    By my count, you mentioned yourself or your goals 6 times, students twice.

    • Wess

      Okay, then let me clarify. I’m talking about the difference between having goals for my improvement versus having goals for student improvement. Yep, I set the goal, set the standard and determine whether they succeed. Of course the goal/standard/success can be different for each student, but I think it’s absolutely within a teacher’s professional discretion to set goals for students and measure their success. I don’t think THAT makes me wrong for teaching.

      The worry I’m posting about here is about my tendency to be more quickly and consistently moved to action by goals centered on MY improvement than I am by goals solely focused on the improvement of others. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the improvement of my students–just that the mechanics of what tends to make me work hard are more focused on self-improvement.

      I’m wondering with this post whether folks with mechanics like mine should be teaching or whether we should go find fields that capitalize on that kind of motivation and squeeze more work out of us. Or whether we should just get over it and GET motivated by the improvement of others.

      • parus

        I vote for get over it.

  3. Cal

    I”m not entirely sure you should be teaching. Your attitude does explain why all your posts are about the failings of your students, who are after all constantly keeping YOU from YOUR goals.

    if you are going to teach, then yes, parus is correct–get over it. Your clarification just confirms that teaching, for you, is All About Wess.

  4. Jane

    I’m not TFA, just middle-aged teacher at an urban high school in a low-income community, but many of my (wonderful) colleagues are TFA or came from that program. And I wish to say, in response to this stream, that IT’S OKAY FOR YOUR JOB SATISFACTION TO BE “ABOUT YOU.” Because obviously you care about your students–otherwise you’d be making a gazillion dollars as an investment banker. But this attitude that if you’re not absolutely selfless you’re not a good teacher is unhealthy. It’s not sustainable. It will turn you into an angry martyr, because nobody’s actually like that. I love my students from the bottom of my heart, I really do, and I passionately believe that education is at the heart of any meaningful fight for social justice, but at the end of the day, I do my job because teaching fills me with joy. It’s fun. The kids make me laugh. That’s what will keep me in my job year after year.
    You sound like a great, caring teacher. And you deserve to be happy and satisfied in your job. You’re not a missionary (that I’m aware of); you haven’t taken some kind of vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. This is a career, something that if things go well you might do for a long, long time, getting better as you go. So for god’s sake, think of your own satisfaction, not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but don’t be afraid to think that you matter. Lighten up. Have fun. You’re a role model. Model happiness.

    • I think Jane’s point here is exactly right: ” I do my job because teaching fills me with joy. It’s fun. The kids make me laugh. That’s what will keep me in my job year after year.”

      However, if you’re going to stay on as a teacher — and I’ve lived with teachers for thirty years in addition to being one for a couple — it is because you find it to be intrinsically rewarding, not because of goal setting or external rewards. Those things won’t hold up over time.

    • Thank you, Jane. That response was inspiring, and I especially love those last few sentences!

    • DH

      Realy nicely stated. I have about 15 years experience teaching and couldn’t agree more. Thank you.

  5. At the end of the day, what matters is that your kids are getting a great education that opens doors for the rest of their lives. You are providing that for them, and working really hard to do it. That’s all the justification anyone needs to stay in teaching, and we all know that the teaching profession wants you desperately.

    In my mind, this connects well with taking personal days, or putting down the work to spend time with friends. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else, and when you’re at your best, your kids will be their best. If you need personal goals to accomplish huge things, then by all means you should set personal goals. If you need competition, then by all means you should compete (and I do think it’s possible and entirely healthy to be competitive just with yourself). If you need measurement, then by all means use yardsticks. We want you at your best, because your best is what’s best for kids. That is the only thing that should matter.

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