Teach For America

If at first you do not succeed… maybe you were not meant to.

I don’t know about you, but this past week didn’t feel like a short week at all! Even though I got an extra day off on Labor Day weekend because of Hurricane Hermine last Friday, I still feel restless and exhausted.

I just wrapped up my first month of teaching and I’m halfway through the first nine weeks of school. Honestly, though, it feels like I’ve been doing this for a lot longer. I’ve experienced a lot of growth in the short four weeks that I’ve been in the classroom on my own, and most of that growth happened this week in particular.

Some background: I teach 8th grade science, which is considered a “high accountability” position, as my students have to take a state end-of-course exam. The exam covers materials from 6th-8th grade, so after I finish teaching 8th grade material in the fall (Earth & Space Science, my favorite!), I spend most of the spring semester reviewing 6th and 7th grade standards and preparing my students for the test. The exam is scored similar to an AP exam – a score of 3-5 (out of 5) means passing. A passing score guarantees my students to be on the college-readiness track in high school because they will be eligible to take all the lab sciences needed for college admissions. A not passing score jeopardizes this chance.

Because I’m in a high accountability position, my administrators and coaches always keep a watchful eye. There isn’t a week that goes by without at least two administrators (both from my school and the district) popping into my classes, and for a good reason. They’re there to support me and make me a better teacher. I also have to attend a number of training sessions a month and Professional Development classes I’m required to go to both for the district and for TFA.

Long story short – I’m under a lot of pressure in my first year of teaching. I’d be the first to acknowledge that there have been days when I’ve gone into my classroom thinking, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!!!” and I don’t hide this from my administrators and coaches. I have a growth mindset that is feedback-driven. So I tell them areas where I would need their support, and these areas are always connected to the faces of students whom I need to support.

But sometimes I crack under the pressure. I also realized that there is a way to receive feedback that I respond to best. But sometimes life doesn’t give you what you want or what works best for you; in fact, most times, life gives you what it can give you.

This past week, my district specialist came into my classroom on what I thought was a stellar day. It was the first day of a new lesson on Earth’s tides. We debriefed during my planning period in the middle of the day, and I soon learned that I did most things wrong. I understood that the district specialist was on a strict schedule and probably had somewhere else to go after her visit. But I ended up feeling emotional, incredibly overwhelmed, and wanting to fix everything all at once. I projected my insecurities and frustrated my students in the process, and in the end, I scrapped my entire plans for the day and just let them get on the computers and do their make-up work… when my principal and assistant principal walked into my classroom. It was a Category 5 disaster.

At the end of the day, I called 3 people in my life who put me back on my feet. When you’re going through a rough day, make sure to have these 3 people on your speed dial:

  • Call someone who will humble you. This person was my dad. He told me that this is how life works. Life is tough, and as difficult as it may be right now, believe me, there are others who are going through tougher times. No, it doesn’t invalidate your struggles. But it does put it into perspective. Life is tough, but you’re tougher. You will grow from this and become a better person for it.
  • Call someone who will remind you. This person was my TFA coach. He, too, served in the classroom in the same capacity as I did. He told me that while he wishes he could say that these difficult things could go away, they won’t. But that’s why TFA chose me – and why I chose to teach for America. More than emotional support, he also gave me practical ways to move forward. He made me talk about my 2 “wins” on my otherwise bad day to keep myself positive, and 2 things that I will focus on changing by the end of the week. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but in one day, I could make at least one change. And so I did.
  • Call someone who will commiserate with you, and that could mean anything. After crying my eyes out to my dad and my coach, it was time for me to let out my frustration and annoyance. I called a fellow 2016 Corps Member who’s in the same boat as me and have become my best friend in this journey. I complained, wallowed in pessimism, angrily sighed, and basically let out all of my negative energy to him until I realized how ludicrous I sounded. We made a pact to make it to Friday, and that was enough.

I didn’t have any emotions left after those phone calls, so I was able to be productive. I took the feedback from the district specialist and made changes to my lesson plans for the next day. I determined that I was going to have a good day no matter what, so if it means “playing the part” until I make it to Friday, then so be it.

Surprisingly, things started to turn around. I played the part of the teacher I’ve always wanted to be. I channeled my inner, no-nonsense badass (for me, it’s Viola Davis playing Amanda Waller on Suicide Squad) while adding gifs and silly jokes to my PowerPoint for the lesson. None of my students laughed… but at least, for the first time in my classroom, I felt comfortable in my own skin while simultaneously playing the part. And it worked.

I had a student visit me for my first “Lunch & Learn.” Our first test is next week, and my students are looking for ways to bring up their grades and get extra help. I told them that I’m available after school and before school, but knowing that most of them ride the bus to and from school, I came up with the idea of having tutoring sessions during lunch.

My students loved the idea, and after one came, the others started coming. They came to do make-up work, fix their Exit Tickets, catch up on notes, and to help their classmates during the tutoring session. It really warmed my heart. The best part of it is that I get to spend extra time with them in smaller groups. I don’t have to deal with behavior issues because they aren’t trying to impress anyone in class – they’re there for them.

I’ve still got miles ahead before I could consider myself a good teacher, and that’s okay. I learned this week that sometimes you need to convince yourself that you are good at teaching to help build yourself up to eventually become a good teacher. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that just because I didn’t succeed the first time doesn’t mean I failed. It’s my first year teaching, so I’m bound to make mistakes. In fact, I’m supposed to make mistakes. But it’s what you do with those mistakes that count.

For me, those mistakes helped me to find the three people in my life who both keep me grounded and lift me up.

For me, those mistakes helped me to “play the part” of the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.

For me, those mistakes will help me succeed next time.