If asked what TFA is like, almost every person doing it who I spoke to during my senior year (mostly alumni of UChicago and first year corps members) said “It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done” and then said it was worth it. At the time I thought, “try having major personal commitments stretching across several states, working full time, and going to a top ten school”. But they were totally right. TFA and teaching in general is immensely harder than anything I’ve ever even considered doing.
But I’m not going anywhere because I have absolutely fallen in love with my kids. All of them, bright ones, troublesome ones, annoying ones, ones that go out of their way not to be noticed. Today a boy and girl in my first hour were batting a paper ball back and forth to each other and I called them into the hallway, a tack I rarely take even though I have always found it very effective because I spend so much time actively teaching that I don’t want to leave the other 32 alone. But today I brought these two kids out in the hall and after a minute heard this commotion from inside the room. It sounded like the entire space had been turned into a giant rain stick.
I walked back inside expecting to find chaos. Instead, I found every single kid engaged in a clapping exercise being led by one of my most affectionate (if constantly vocal) homeroom students. And then they began cheering for me. Just because they could and it would be nice. I burst out laughing. “Have you ever had kids like us?” she asked.
“No,” I admitted. “Not in all my years of teaching.”
“Don’t you love us?” she asked proudly.
“God help me, I do,” I said. “Every one of you.”
Most of the kids shrugged it off and laughed, but my classes and I are slowly starting to get each other. More and more kids smile in a way that reaches their eyes when I say good morning. More of them hug me in the halls or after class instead of during when they sense me getting stymied. We have fewer conversations about how I’m “too nice” or “just need to yell” (I get that a lot from students, staff, parents… but I have never yelled in anger at a class and I never intend to). They know who I am and I know who they are.
At Institute, each day was so dramatic – a Breakthrough Moment in my relationship with my students. Teaching is nothing like that. Teaching is a slow adjustment, a process of feeling each other out and learning to work with each other day by day.
My school brings in a character education speaker twice a month. It’s always the same guy, and they’ve been meeting with this guy twice a month for years. He talks with them about his life, about their lives, and about how they need to act in the adult world in order to have lives like they want. He always finishes his talks with “In case no one has told you this today, I love you.” The first time I heard it, it seemed a bit strange and corny. Now I tell my students I love them every moment I can. Some of them are hearing me, and some of them aren’t yet.
Someday, I’ll tell them that I mean it. I’ll tell them that every time an adult does “real talk” and pretends to threaten one of my kids, I have to fight from physically putting myself in between the speaker and the child. I’ll tell them that I mean every word I say, and I say every word I mean. Until then, I’ll keep training them that the correct response to me saying “What am I going to do with you guys?” is “love us”. And my response is “I do.”