Soft Eyes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 14 2011

The Home Stretch: On Broken Air Conditioners and Empty Vessels

Today is my penultimate day at Institute, which I know is true but don’t really believe, partially because the whole Institute structure has totally distorted my sense of time. Constantly planning a few days ahead leaves me continually grasping to figure out where I am in the present; I simultaneously feel like I’ve been here for MONTHS and for only a few days. I think it will do me some good to get out in the real world, to say nothing of reuniting with my husband and cat.

We had our SUMMER READING SPECTACULAR on Tuesday, and it was really a special thing. Our faculty adviser lent us “mood lights” and we bought snacks and had ourselves a legit community event. It wasn’t perfect by ANY means: the air conditioner turned off about twenty minutes before the event started, and when we got a hold of the janitor he wasn’t able to do much for us but say “That sucks” since the system is on an auto-timer. I believe the temperature was 104 degrees that evening, but it certainly became a good deal hotter in the crowded room. Because it WAS crowded, which is totally amazing. Our kids brought their moms, their aunts, their grandmas, their cousins. Almost all of our school site staff was there, and a ton of my fellow corps members. Not just corps members that people in my collab were close to, either– just fellow new teachers who wanted to be supportive of our students, possibly because some of them could be teaching them in the fall. It gave me the TFA warm-fuzzies I think for the first time for REAL this whole summer.  These guys just care about these kids and this school; they gave up an evening of watching Netflix or planning to be there for our class, and they did it joyfully, and they loved what our kids had to say.

The kids were magnificent. They were dressed up to the nines and calm and poised and expressive. When they weren’t reading they sat up straight and paid rapt attention to their classmates, even though they’d heard these stories and poems several times before. They took it VERY seriously, and so did the audience. I wish I were more eloquent and could adequately describe what an amazing place that PTA room turned into. It was like everyone was glowing, though that may just be the heat. Back in my dorm that evening, after serving and cleaning up snacks, taking down posters, moving  chairs and buying a celebratory chocolate malt, I was up past midnight just being happy for them, unable to get back to sleep.

We had the kids write reflections yesterday morning, and it was really clear that they got out of the reading exactly what we had hoped. “I did things in front of an audience (before), but these were teachers who would notice if I made mistakes, so that was nerve-wrecking (sic?)… I think we impressed everyone there, though” said one, and another said “The thing that surprised me the most is when I got up to read I used PEP (our little acronym to teach kids how to read publicly: Projection, Enunciation and Posture) greatly, I wasn’t moving around, I didn’t have stage fright.” These kids are boss, yo.

Two of my students, sadly, didn’t show up, despite their repeated promises to do so. We’ve tried to figure out whether they had emergencies or just decided they were too cool to come; they’ve both given us several stories ranging from a family member in the hospital to going shopping for clothes. I think they walked into class yesterday feeling pretty smug about “getting away” with not attending a non-mandatory event (sigh), but the kids who DID participate were so stoked and were getting so much positive attention from OTHER teachers that they started to feel pretty bad about it. Which I would just chalk up to a learning experience and say “oh well, next time give it a shot,” but I think it’s kind of killed their investment in the class. This is not by far the first time they’ve missed stuff for the class– their attendance has been spotty (sometimes for legit reasons) and as a result they haven’t turned in final drafts of much, haven’t gotten the formal feedback from us, etc, and I think yesterday they both realized that their writing hasn’t improved as much as everyone else’s because of it. Both told me they didn’t want to submit to magazines yesterday, I think because they know they’ll get the rejection letter. What we’ve tried to stress to them is that the rejection letter is probably going to come for all of the them, that it’s not getting accepted that matters so much as it is putting yourself out there and trying again and again and getting as much feedback as you can. Today I’m going to read them the section from Stephen King’s “On Writing” about how he had to get a railroad spike to keep his rejection slips on the wall. But it’s going to be lost on L, at least, who I just found out didn’t show up today, is missing the final assessment, and as a result is failing a half-credit elective creative writing class. It sucks.

It makes me think a lot about student investment, in general, and how TFA kind of approaches it. L had a legitimate enthusiasm throughout most of the class (though not as much as some of our students, who had been writing on their own for fun long before the class started), and despite our best efforts to keep her jazzed it just fizzled, in large part because of stuff going on at home. The TFA line is that really great teachers figure out how to have more influence over their students than that stuff, somehow, and I find myself wondering what I could have done to make that happen for her in the 3.5 weeks I and the other teachers have known her.

We’ve done a lot for her– lots of phone calls home, worked with her to get those long term projects done or made-up, we brought her a birthday cake yesterday to make sure she wouldn’t skip out to celebrate, and my adviser promised her a one on one game of basketball if she showed up all week. Ultimately, my gut feeling is that different people respond differently to different challenges at different times in their lives for different reasons, and that L didn’t quite get everything she could have out of this class (she for sure did have SOME positive experiences with us, of that I am sure) isn’t a bad thing anymore than it is a good thing. It just is. But all my shiny new training has me doubting whether those are valid thoughts to have. If Wendy Kopp came and talked to me right now I think she might ask me if that was me having low expectations or giving myself an out for doing more. And I really wrestled with that last night, if I had failed this kid in some way.

Basically, TFA teaches that kids are empty vessels shaped by competing forces in their lives. Your job as a teacher is do be the dominant force, so the kid will do what you want them to do and succeed in your class and go to college. But that doesn’t give the kid enough credit. They’re people, you know? They have free will. They are just as frail and fallen as the rest of us. What they do have is time on their side, and I think the best you can do as a teacher ultimately just comes down to trying to gently influence them to make something of that time,even if “gently influencing” looks like you being the hardcore disciplinarian “I don’t play” teacher. That kid is a person, not a product, and there’s no mathematical teacher formula that’s going to change that.

TFA wants us to ask ourselves if we’ve made “transformational change” in the lives of our students this summer. For some of my colleagues teaching core subjects, the answer is clearly yes. Their kids are passing the tests that are moving them onto the next grade instead of being held back. That is fundamentally changing their life path. But for my kids, who were with me for the specific reason that their current life paths look a little clearer and more well-paved than their failing counterparts? I don’t know. This class has definitely been GOOD for them, of that I have no doubt. Is it “transformational”? It felt like maybe yes on Tuesday night, it felt like they had found something new to do with their lovely, special voices, had gained some confidence, had a better understanding of WHY people write these things and why those things are also worth studying and analyzing and wringing meaning out of. But I don’t know if that qualifies as “transformational” to TFA or myself, or just nice. Or just something they would have figured out on their own. My kids will get happy little progress reports with happy little grades on that clearly delineate “how they’ve done” this summer. I get one, too, of a sorts, that goes to my region and has all sort of little marks on a rubric to gauge what kind of teacher I am. But that paper is ultimately bull, and I’ll never get the sort of clear cut, satisfying measure that my kids will. Maybe in a couple years one of them will drop me an email from college and I can say “right the eff on,” but I’m never going to get a pie chart of what percentage of that will be from my collab’s work, the other teachers, his/her family and just his/her own awesomeness and good fortune.

I am so, so happy that things went so well for four of my kids. I am so, so bummed that we lost one in the home stretch, and that one is pretty much checked out and is just limping to the finish line because he thinks there’s a pizza party on Friday (surprise! There’s not kids. We poor). The being bummed doesn’t cancel out the being happy, it doesn’t even come close to be equal to it. They just sort of coexist in an uneasy impasse inside of me. And they both are asking me whether or not any of this will prove to be useful in making me a decent teacher in the fall. Jury’s out on that one, folks.

TLDR: Sometimes teaching is fun, sometimes it sucks. It is always hard.

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