Stir Up the World

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 09 2012


TFA has a few essential qualities that they look for in prospective CMs, and I memorized them when I was interviewing (yes, I did — see my “applying?” page for how ridiculously over-prepared I was for my interview).  I don’t remember them any more, but I think that TFA should definitely add resilience to its list of essential qualities.

In the weeks since Christmas break, my own resilience has been tested.

In this job, you will get knocked on your face. No matter how prepared you are, you’re still dealing with 27 warm-blooded, wonderful little time bombs. They will drive you crazy, and the best you can do sometimes is just ride it out.  Roll with it.  The thing with TFA is that they program you (even if you resist) to ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS assume that anything that goes wrong is somehow your fault, or that you should have done something differently.

So say, for example, you have a bad day. A bad day of teaching results in a myriad of symptoms.

Physically, once the adrenaline wears off, there is the headache, mind-numbing exhaustion, and scratchy throat at bare minimum. You’re really fighting the urge to curl up under your desk and suck your thumb.

Your mind is still racing, and you’re analyzing and re-analyzing every facet of a particular class period or interaction. You’re thinking of all that you have to do that day and your car insurance that’s about to expire and how you should really start eating real food and wondering which credit card you haven’t maxed out yet and longing for summer, all of this while trying to plan for the next day.

You look haggard.

Emotionally, you’re experiencing so many things that you can’t name them all. You feel infuriated on behalf of your students and on behalf of yourself.

Some days it’s “They don’t deserve this!” and some days it’s “I don’t deserve this!”.  There are really a lot of things to be infuriated about, and when your body is in its weakened state, your mind really goes to town.

You start to think about how, despite the fact that you work three times as hard as people in other jobs, you make one third their salary.

You think about how the paper mill in your town is polluting the air and making everyone, including you, unwell.

You think about all of the ridiculous hoops teachers have to jump through that interfere with their job.

You think about how much of your own already-scarce money you have to spend on your own classroom.

You think about your kids’ families, and the systems that have put them down and kept them down.

You think about how incompetent you feel 95% of the time.

You think about how your personal life is put on the back burner, and how easy it is to neglect your own health.

You think about how some of your boys have no idea how to treat women, and how it’s because they have no male role models.

You think about how some of your girls have no idea how they should be treated either, and how hard you have to work to convince them that they have value.

After all this thinking and even more of a headache, you come to the tired realization that it’s not fair.

And maybe that’s the point.  We are choosing to leave a situation where we could be paid a salary we deserved for working reasonable hours. We’re choosing to count ourselves with those who are already being treated unfairly every day of their lives.

We’re giving up our “rights” in a lot of ways to help those who have their God-given rights stripped from them by a system that they were born into.

I’ve come to this conclusion so many times after a rough day, and it doesn’t get any easier to swallow.

After your tired realization that it’s not fair, though, you do the important thing.

You move on.

That’s where this resilience thing comes in, I think.  You work and work, and if it were a sports movie and the outcome was based on your effort, you would win the game.

But let’s face it, you’re an inexperienced, poorly-trained first-year teacher who was in college this time last year.  You have very little content knowledge of your subject area, and you live 2,000 miles away from your family and closest friends.  You’re also doing an incredibly difficult job in an incredibly difficult situation.

Of course you’re going to get knocked on your face.  The key is what you do while you’re lying there on the ground.  In my life, resilience has come to mean having the courage to just do the next thing.  Just do the next thing.  Baby steps.  Acknowledge that it’s not fair, but then move on.

What’s funny is that even when my students are ungrateful or rude to me, I can’t blame them.  I can fight for them, though. Granted, some of them do need to be taken down a peg, but for the most part they are like little puppies who just need someone to love them and push them and fight for them.

So when you’re curled up in a fetal position underneath your desk, or hitting the snooze button for the fourth time, resilience is getting over yourself for a second and thinking about them.  Resilience is also stopping to take care of yourself so that your students will have a sane, mentally healthy person who wants to be in the room with them.

I titled this blog from a phrase I read in a book about Abraham Lincoln, one of my FAVORITE PEOPLE EVER.  The book was called Lincoln’s Melancholy, and it was all about his struggle with depression and the ground-breaking way he dealt with it. The author says

What distinguished Lincoln was his willingness to cry out to the heavens in pain and despair, and then turn, humbly and determinedly, to the work that lay before him.

This is resilience to me.  Acknowledging what we’re up against, but then moving on and choosing to get back up and finish that powerpoint or grade those papers.

Because, after all is said and done, it’s not about us at all.


5 Responses

  1. bill

    Really enjoyed reading this. Truly agree with the last sentence.

    • Hi Liz,it’s hard to remember after years tenahicg college students The best thing to do is to ask your fellow teachers when you arrive and be willing to listen. They might not have come through the TFA program but they have more experience than you and most people are happy to be asked for their advice and share tips. (What grade are you going to teach, by the way?) Also, get memoirs of teachers from the library something like the Freedom Writers Diary, or Relentless Pursuit etc. I don’t think any of us at Lehigh has any real idea of what it’s like to teach in high-poverty elementary or middle schools.I’d say, students want to learn and feel they’re progressing. The biggest danger is to misjudge their abilities at the beginning of the year especially overestimating what they have learned the previous year and what they remember. Students who act out in class might be bored because they’re lost and they feel embarrassed about it so they might prefer disrupting class and play the clown. In that case, you have to get them to change their identity from class clown to something more suitable to class, by showing them they can succeed. Not sure if I’ve written that before (sorry if I’m repeating myself), but it helps if you pick a in-class persona that is slightly different from your real-life persona. For instance, I’m more bubbly /vivacious when I teach undergrads. It’s what I call my one-woman-show. Some days you’ll be very tired and you don’t want to get out of bed and yet you have to, and you’re having car trouble or you got bad news, and yet when the class begins you’ve got to be able to do your best. So it really helps if you view it as a performance. Stand-up comics and theater actors go out there and do their job even if they had a bad day. I try to use that as inspiration. Develop tricks to deal with frustration, don’t overly focus on the students who don’t get the material when 19 students get it and 1 is completely lost, we all tend to think we didn’t succeed because of that 1 student who is struggling. Most difficult aspect of being a teacher: students who try to play you (lie to your face with a sweet innocent smile). Usually you see through their game but it would create more problems than solve them if you told them you do (barely a slap on the wrist, if any disciplinary action is taken, parents protesting Junior is an angel, etc), so you get to sit there and listen to kids lying to your face, as if you were that dumb. Other related case: kids who lie about other kids to the teacher (looking like sweet little angels while they do it) for the fun of getting other kids in trouble. While many kids will respect their teacher, others might try to manipulate her. I’m not sure about child development stages so I don’t know if that is likely to happen in your classroom. Most rewarding: thinking you’ve made a difference, thinking this or that student would’ve had a much harder time if he/she hadn’t had you as a teacher. Don’t go in thinking most students you teach have to be your success stories, though keep your ego out of it. Do the best you can.In high-poverty schools, young children probably want the classroom to be a safe haven from home drama and need structure. Create a routine for them (something they can clearly identify as a routine, not just Hello students! How are you today? ) so that they can settle into the idea that the school day has begun.My 2 cents,A.

  2. YES!

    God you are fantastic. I love your perspective. I want to marry it or hang it on my wall. Please infiltrate everyone you know with this view. Please.

  3. beth

    Exactly. In every sense of the work we do. Exactly.

  4. Wonderful Words., Elsa. Your honesty is refreshing and those kids are SO blessed. Praying for you!

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February 2012
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the title

"If one desires to 'stir up the world,' it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story's end can forsake its beginning and its middle." -Joshua Wolf Shank on Abraham Lincoln