It’s no wonder that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. I thought my time in college was rigorous while I pursued three majors. But what we call Institute at Teach For America—where we learn how to be a teacher in five weeks and teach summer school to kids in Tulsa Public Schools—college did not prepare me for. It seems like an impossible feat to keep up with all that is necessary to be an excellent teacher.
This is hard. This is one of the hardest thing of this academic nature that I have ever done. And this is coming from someone who would rather do homework than go out on a Friday night (I’m one of those). This is coming from someone who has been obsessed about school since the first time I stepped a foot into pre-K at two years old.
It’s hard because you don’t just get a B for falling short of excellent. Mind you, a B was always the end of the world to me back in the day. No, here, if you’re not excellent you’re failing a kid—a child with a real LIFE. You’re failing to give her what she needs to be successful, to be able to reach those big dreams she has of becoming a famous writer, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. Our kids have those dreams. If we fail them here, we become a barrier for them to get to those dreams.
If we fail these kids now, during summer school—even in this short span of time we’re together—we potentially fail them for the rest of their lives. Because once José and Ashley and Yesmia and Brandon leave me, they’ll be inserted back to the system. And who knows what will happen to those precious children then.
Systemic racism and classism will throw punches at them as often as they have a chance to look up and see where they’re going.
So this is hard. There are deadlines to meet, skills to master in a short amount of time, knowledge to internalize all day, every day. There’s no test or quiz at the end. There’s just the classroom. We are no longer independent college students—because everything we’re doing and learning we don’t have a foundation for. It’s all fresh and it’s all new.
It’s hard, but it’s hard because I’ve hardly ever had to really work to understand something. I’ve never had to put so much thought into what I’m doing for it to come out right. It’s hard, most of all, because the stakes are lives and not grades anymore. A teacher’s work is more serious than brain surgery. We’re molding the future. And we can’t redo what we’ve done once it’s done.
It’s hard. But there are students in my class who go through this kind of challenge—on top of so many others, like poverty, racism and the threat of their parent’s deportation—every day they step into my class, or anyone’s for that matter.
Some of them are reading at a first grade level when they should be going into seventh grade next August.
Miguel* is a student in my class with the sweetest face I have ever seen, who stares at his in class assignments when I pass them out. That’s all he can do. He doesn’t raise his hand—it’s embarrassing for him. He just stares down with a furrowed brow and looks up at me as I make my way past each table of children, like he’s trying to tell me something sad and secret.
I look down at his paper every time to find no a single mark, though all the other children have at least tried to write down something. I kneel down beside Miguel and he looks at me, begging for help because I can see it in his eyes that nothing on that page makes sense.
So I read the directions to him in a whisper. Sometimes they make sense to him, but sometimes they don’t, and I have to reword the question so that he can better understand what its asking. Still his answers are simple sentences because he can’t write. Every word he needs help spelling. While the other kids are writing multiple sentences on their own, Miguel gets through one or two with my help.
If he comes to class every day, the state will push Miguel along to the seventh grade despite the fact that he is basically illiterate. If at every level he is so far behind his peers, will he stay in high school? Will he get too frustrated with himself to push through? Will he slip through the cracks of a big school serving too many kids just like Miguel—kids that don’t have the opportunities to work the system in their favor the way white middle class families can?
Miguel will not leave my class—no matter how hard I work and how hard he works—having grown six grade levels. That would be an impossible task for this short four weeks and this brand new teacher. But I’ve fallen in love with little Miguel in five short days, and he wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night planning, planning, planning how to make him learn quickly and effectively.
Still, he’ll leave me soon and I won’t know what the system will do to him—or not do to him.
While I have him and all the other beautiful children in my class, I’ll wage a brutal battle against the system that has held them back. I fight for them because they need to know that someone will. They need to know that they deserve a teacher that loves them and takes their lives and their futures seriously. They need someone to show them their potential and love them enough to push them to fulfill it.
They need someone who will give them a path to their big goals. They still believe they can reach them, and they should always believe that.
We were asked by Teach For America as corps members to write a short "Story of Self," which illustrates a moment in our lives that challenged us and yet showed us who we really are. This is mine.
We drove thirty hours in a broken down Suburban—a family of six piled in. I was fifteen and terrible, the rude product of too many years growing up in the invisible smog of White Privilege. For most of my life, I’d gone to private schools for the rich, despite the fact that we were really quite poor.
I had a paradoxical identity. I was the daughter of a white immigrant from Jamaica, who got knocked up at the age of 18 and had me. We grew up together, living above our means entirely, and feeling the strain of a low income frequently. After eloping and remaining married for a whopping month and having another daughter, my mother married a Mexican man seven years her junior and accidently had two more girls. Jaded and overprotective, I abhorred this new husband, associating his culture and his race with him and lumping them all into the same hate bundle.
He and his family were different, and I didn’t like it. Life at home was miserable for me, so I estranged myself from my family and clung to my private school friends whose wealth and privilege abounded. It was, at least superficially, a lot greener on their side. I became an elitist without the official certificate—I didn’t have the bank account to back it up, but I still believed profoundly that I was special by affiliation and (without explicitly admitting it) race.
Needless to say, my admittance to Mexico was coupled with a jarring culture shock like I’d never experienced before. As soon as we crossed the border, it was as though I’d been transplanted to another world. The disarray was overwhelming. Men latched onto our cars, asking for money in exchange for directions or assistance. People scrambled about outside, speaking loud Spanish and dragging little children by the arms. The cars were shoddy old things, blaring horns seeming to be their only fully functioning part. A mixed smell of manure, fried foods and thick pollution struck me as we drove through the cities.
I remember the Mexican flag—the biggest flag I’d ever seen. I looked up, out the window, behind the glass that kept me sealed from that world. I got the message loud and clear, but I didn’t understand it. This country—these people—had pride.
For the first part of our stay there, I could not figure out why.
Our trip was meant to be just two weeks. By some act of fate, however, the car problems we’d had on the way down ended up prolonging our stay to almost a month. It was in that month, without even realizing it as it happened, that reality slapped me out of delusion. And despite popular belief, the reality was a whole lot better than the sealed bubbled I’d been living in.
Trash littered the streets, the smells of fried food permeated the air, the pollution was thick, graffiti covered the walls of every building, the people were loud, the food was strange, the Spanish was incomprehensible, the buildings were dilapidated, hungry stray dogs roamed the roads, the bugs were rampant. I had never been outside of the manicured suburbia of America, and Mexico was diametrically different from everything I knew.
I wondered on an hourly basis during my first weeks in Mexico how anyone could live this way. It was like the chorus to my lamenting song about how much I despised everything Mexican.
In time, though, I became too distracted to notice the hum of that sad song in my mind. Something was happening to me as I was coaxed by time to take off my shoes and hang up my jacket and stay awhile. Get comfortable. Sit down. Have some tortillas and homemade salsa. Play soccer in the streets with the little boys in the neighborhood. Make friends with my cousin’s friends, taking pictures at the sites we visited. Fall in love with the precious little boys and girls that lived nearby. Succumb to the cheek-kissing and the hugging at every greeting and goodbye. Dance to the traditional music with the uncle that asks at every nightly gathering. Enjoy the fresh taquitos made by the old woman at a stand on the roadside in the mountains. Stand and look out at the splendorous pyramids made by the ancient peoples of this beautiful country.
The invitation was there every day, and without meaning to, I took it. And in the meantime, I fell deeply in love.
Though my initial journal entries don’t show it, a transformation was taking place in me after every day spent with the Mexican people of my stepfather’s family and friends. There was something authentic about them that I’d seemed to have forgotten could be a trait of humanity. They were not polished and plastic the way Americans were. They were people filled and colored by a rich cultural heritage that centered on family and community. Their hospitality and genuine kindness were warm and filling.
As I let myself become fully immersed in their world and their culture, my perception of them was renewed: they were not strange “others” anymore; rather, they became humans that I could value and appreciate and, most of all, love.
The journal in which I wrote during my stay in Mexico is filled with (sad and yet comedic) rants about how much I hated it and dreaded being there. But my last entry—written on the drive back home—reveals what a transformative experience that adventure was:
“I really wanted to go home—I really and truly did. But when the entire family lined up outside those two bright pink and bright green houses, it took too much effort not to let that ball in my throat get the best of me. God, I hate Mexico. But I’ve found that I can’t really hate Mexico if I love the people who make it up.
For all the times I hated this place, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy coming here. Some truly beautiful people live here. They don’t have to have the fancy, beautiful, expensive house. They don’t have to have the perfect looks. They don’t have to have anything but their friends and their family and the love that binds them and allows them to be truly, sincerely and genuinely happy, comfortable and content. They are family, they are together, they are love—to the realest extent.
I sit with my back to the seat that is supposed to be in front of me so I can watch it all pass by me. I can’t stop myself from crying. The horizon is empty without the mountains that seemed to play the role of a pair of giant arms, bringing everyone as a community, as a city, as a state, as a Family together as one.
I miss being there every day surrounded by that family. I miss the food, the homes, the constant warmth. I love Mexicans and look down upon myself for ever being prejudiced against them. I can call myself, shamefully, a hypocrite. Stupid, prejudiced people are my greatest pet-peeve, and yet I was just that. I don’t like who I am sometimes. There’s a person in me who is close-minded, but I swear I’ll send an army in to throw her out. I could be so much more than I am right now.”
That was the day I decided to wake up. Since that time, my world has been enriched because I have become fascinated by and appreciative of the cultures of people of color. I went to college and studied the world as one of my majors. I studied abroad in South Africa and Israel and Palestine and listened to the stories of the beautiful people that comprise those places. I developed a mission while in college to do everything I can to ensure that those narratives are not silenced by mainstream Western culture. Being a Teach For America corps member is my first step in a career dedicated to making sure that all people are perceived as and treated like the invaluable humans that they are.
This is the year that I graduate—the year that I can walk away from the university I’ve spent four year at with a diploma in my hand. With a piece of paper that will be the ticket to the gates of my dreams and goals. And then, immediately, I’ll be using it to get classfuls of other people’s children on the same track to get their tickets to their dreams. This is a big year. It will be the last time I step into a classroom as a student (at least for a while) and the first time I walked into one as a teacher.
I’ve been reading a book about leadership in the form of teaching and being a teacher. I have a lot of work to do in preparation for this role that I’ll be taking on—the role that I’ve been waiting to fulfill for years now. The trajectory of my students lives will be in my hands. No, it already is in my hands. The preparatory work is just as important as the actual time in my classroom. And that preparation begins now. Today. This moment.
That’s why, this year, my resolutions for the new year are of critical importance. They aren’t just for me—they’re for all the children I’ll be working for for the next two years of my life. My new years resolutions are to make me better for them. They are at the heart of everything now—my every action, my every daily and monthly goal. Everything comes back to those children, my children. Never have the stakes been so high, so real. The only thing I’ve been striving for have been good grades and a promising resume.
From now on, I’m striving to change the lives of actual people—directly. The challenge is daunting—terrifying, really. But it’s doable. I’m scared, but I’m eager. I’m nervous, but I’m excited. The mixture of emotions is already stressful, but it will be well worth it.
This is the list of my new years resolutions—they are ambitious but feasible, and they reflect the very kind of goals that I plan to set for my students in the coming two years. These goals are my practice and are meant to get me into the mindset of setting goals and working to achieve them and doing everything I can to ensure that I do. The art of self-motivation and perseverance are vital to being an effective teacher. If I want my students to be the kind of people that demonstrate these characteristics, I myself must be a paradigm for them to follow. This year is for them. Here are my thirteen goals for the thirteenth year of this millennium.
1. I will run in the Oklahoma City Memorial Half-Marathon on Sunday, April 28, 2013. To do this, I will begin training the first week of January, following the half-marathon training schedule I’ve created. I will make time in my daily routines to work out for the necessary time, and I will track my progress each week. By April 28, I will have trained for the sixteen weeks, and I will be ready to compete in the half-marathon race.
2. I will make sure I am physically healthy this year because it is necessary to be physically healthy to maintain mental health. Therefore, in conjunction with my workout routine, I will eat well and cut back on my sugar intake. I will cook healthful meals for myself, take vitamins for my skin and immune system, I will drink at least 16 ounces of water every day (moving to 32 ounces by the end of the year), and I will take other necessary measures to look my best and feel my best physically.
3. I will continue to see my psychologist throughout the school year and work on dealing with my depression and other issues until I can effectively cope with them and resolve them when they come up. I will help myself by practicing introspection daily by writing or meditating. I will practice gratitude by writing in my journal regularly (at least 4-5 times per week) about the positive things in my life.
4. I will work on my relationships with my family members, my friends and my boyfriend. I will work on expressing my gratitude, appreciation and love in a more tangible and consistent way. I will stop taking them for granted by having a negative attitude. And I will demonstrate acts of love by writing notes, sending cards, calling them, including them in my life more, and working through problems maturely and lovingly.
5. I will finish my novel’s first draft all the way through and make edits on at least a third of the book by setting clear and definite milestones for each week and meeting each of them on time, wasting no time in the beginning or end.
6. I will make straight As in my final semester and work to bring my GPA up to a 3.9. I will do this by investing myself into my school work, ensuring that I study enough to make As on all quizzes, exams and essays.
7. I will graduate summa cum laude in May with two degrees and three majors. I will also graduate having won at least two scholarships and having been published in an undergraduate academic journal.
8. I will make more connections with professors and strengthen the ones I already have in preparation for applying to graduate school after Teach for America.
9. I will start researching and preparing for applying for graduate school and law school by talking to administrators in Career Services, studying for the GRE, and attending Pre-Law Club meetings.
10. I will update my blog on a weekly basis about quality education and education equality as I complete my pre-work for TFA Institute. I will follow education blogs on renowned news websites and do my own outside research to present on my blog and help me prepare for teaching in August. I will also continue blogging about my experience as a teacher-in-training and as a teacher during the school year.
11. I will be financially responsible, not spending my money on things I don’t need or spending it when I can’t afford it. I will save as much as I can and update and maintain my financial spreadsheet every week so that I always know how much I have, how much I will have after bills, and how much I can afford to spend otherwise.
12. I will do twelve 30-day challenges that help me reach these goals or some specific goal. They will be thoughtful and will address my personal need or something I need to work on for that specific 30-day period.
13. I will be the best teacher I can possibly be and give my students everything I can to provide them with opportunities and give them the skills they need to make the most of them. I will work every day, knowing that I am working for them and that I can and will make a difference in their lives. I will treat them all with love and kindness and hold high expectations for each of them, doing everything I can in the meantime to ensure that they meet those expectations.