Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 29 2011

Words from FailedTeacherLand (and a Little Bit of Manifesto)

We knew this day was coming. The day when we would give our final exam (that would be Earth Science Regents Exam questions) and then have to grade them and see exactly how much our kids don’t know. We tried our best to make it easier on them. We divided the final exam into two parts (lovingly dubbed “content we taught” and “content we never got to teach but are required to test them on anyway”). I pulled out all of our most troublesome students and put them in a separate room two floors away so their chaos wouldn’t prevent the rest of the class from doing well. Evidently this worked like a charm – students were on task, the room was quiet, and life was good – for the first time all term!

Unfortunately, one good testing day does not undo a month of chaos punctuated by occasional teaching. Only one of my students passed (with a 66%) the exam on the lessons we had taught. A few others came close. I was, to say the least, a bit devastated. Watching a hurricane doesn’t make it rip your home off its foundation with any less force. I cried in a stairwell because my kids are in no way ready for high school science. It doesn’t help that the kids in the other, more maverick, 8th grade class MET their readiness goals.

And so I walked into our closing ceremonies (even though I still teach tomorrow, the ceremonies were held tonight to accommodate people who must leave Friday afternoon). I blamed myself for not being a good enough teacher (“explainer”, my kids would correct), manager, or investor of students. I hated that I still blamed my students a little bit for their utter unwillingness to listen to, respect, or even give a honeymoon period to me or my co-teachers.  I hated that other teachers hadn’t had the problems we had, had smaller class sizes, or had overcome those problems and volumes to make it work. I couldn’t help scoffing whenever someone talked about how a student had scored “only a 43″ on their diagnostic (the highest on mine was a 25, the average was 12) or someone despaired that a child wasn’t “quite at” their growth goals.

Even so, I cheered loudly for the staff and CMs who have worked so hard for and with me. It doesn’t hurt that cheers are a really good excuse to scream. The Institute Director got up to speak, and I mentally began marking statements with a big fat “N/A”. “You all have made such a difference for your kids”. N/A. “The growth you have made in your areas has made a transformational impact on your classes.” N/A. No such difference, growth, impact, etc.

And then they had corps members get up to tell their stories. They told their stories, clearly written in response to questions about each stage of the institute experience, in a sort of round. The speakers were deeply compelling and engaging, and some were absolutely phenomenal (way to represent the Detroit corps!!!). I was stunned and comforted to find myself absorbing the sense of purpose and drive that the evening was clearly meant to instill. The CM speakers were engaging, articulate, and clearly brilliant. And in the middle of a story about a math lesson, I was struck by the memory that “Oh yeah, we’re all smart. We’re talented and we know how to be great at things.” It was something I’d forgotten in the pressure to get students to achieve and write lesson plans and only sleep three hours a night.

The opening speaker said that “This isn’t about you” and pointed out that despite the whole this is our lives thing, it’s really about the kids. Tonight, I finally remembered that the correct response to that is “Like hell it is!” Like it or not, one of the points of TFA is who’s in it. That’s not to be elitist or disparage people who chose other organizations/paths/careers. But for me, the core of TFA is to say “You, person of worth, go forth and be an inspiration and defender for your kids, during and after the classroom”.  Somewhere in the grind, I had forgotten to be inspired by the people around me. I’m glad to go back to my region reenergized that I will figure this out, not because it’s the right thing to do or because some ideal of equality demands it, but because I do things well and the people like me who have come before, during, and after are going to do it well and like hell will I be the person who lets down our histories and futures of success. Selfish and egocentric, almost definitely. But I feel more alive than I have since college, so I’m going to run with it.

8 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Your WORDS say “not to disparage people who choose other paths,” but your message says “this is the best thing even though it doesn’t make a difference.”

    • Hannah

      Hahaha. This is so not the best thing ever (or even in teaching, or my life). But it DOES make a difference, even if I haven’t yet.

  2. Leah

    Hannah, I think you are being a little hard on yourself. How long did you teach these students in a single summer? I remember my CMA telling us to be realistic; it’s highly unlikely that all of your students, or even some of them, will master 30 plus objectives in five weeks (well, that’s what I had anyway!). That’s simply not enough time for most students to get used to the material and become acclimated to applying the information. It feels rushed.

    In a normal school year you will have weeks to plot that many objectives into a cohesive unit, to reteach and reteach and reteach. And yet you may still have students that don’t pass. Even ‘maverick’ will, I guarantee it. It’s your FIRST year of teaching. Do all you can, but don’t beat yourself up about it.

  3. Bekah

    Hannah, be proud of your students for the growth that they did make!!! Going from 25 to 66 is very impressive for the short amount of time you worked with them. Just imagine the great things you can do with students when you have a whe year. I know it is hard when others around you had students pass, but please remember to look at the growth of the students. Keep up the hard work in Detroit!!! Remember I am here if you need to teacher vent, I am sure I have had the same feelings on some occasion.

  4. Kurt (Community Manager)

    Congratulations! For the second week in a row, one of your posts has been selected to be featured on the Teach For Us homepage slider.

  5. Hannah, you’re still an awesome teacher. We believe in you! I’m sending love from the other side of the world (and you will receive an aerogram soon too).

  6. Sharon

    Hannah, I’m glad that you’ve reminded yourself that you’re awesome and always will be. *hug* It’s really disappointing that your kids didn’t score well, but remember, you’ve had barely any time with them. When I read this post, I thought, “Wait, it’s the end of summer already?!”

  7. TBarz

    Darling, this post is why I love you and am glad TFA picked you.

    I respect you and your educational goals quite a lot, and am very skeptical about the role of TFA as a whole. I look forward to learning more about it from your insider’s perspective!

    Also, I failed miserably quite a few times during my case management internships. 6 months later I realize all the wrong things that I said and all the ways I could have been better and all the reasons my clients didn’t get jobs because of me. So I’ll be better next time. And so will you.

    But again — a single summer cannot override a lifetime of difficult circumstances. One of the things I dislike about TFA is the air of “well we WILL work miracles because we’re competent, won’t we?” Not that easy — even Moses screwed up by hitting that rock. God loved him anyway. ;)

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