Saturday, June 21, 2008

The soothing surety of numbers.

I awake each morning with dread in my heart and a tight, uncomfortable sensation radiating through my body. Teach for America is an organization of perfectionists, and perfectionism means you're constantly failing. Wednesday night I got 2.5 hours of sleep so that I could finish everything that was due Thursday morning, and the work I turned in was painfully sub par. Thursday I couldn't keep my class under control and didn't finish the lesson I had planned as a result. Then Thursday afternoon we all had to attend a school wide meeting about improvement plans and dismissal procedures. The big theme was that Teach for America is much, much, bigger that we are, and their movement is far too important to jeopardize by allowing less than excellent teachers to enter schools with their imprimatur. I wept on the bus ride back to the dorms.

I spent the night wondering how many more days I'd be allowed to stay and struggle before being dismissed from the program. How could I get 100% of my students to meet their growth goals for the summer when I couldn't keep order in my classroom? Some of my students know the material reasonably well but rarely bothered to come to school during the year. Some are working and learning. Some are openly defiant, brag about getting kicked out of classes, and turn in no work. One can barely read. In the eyes of TFA, if I cannot reach all of these kids in the next three weeks, I will have failed.

That night, I fantasized about simply getting in my car and driving away. I wanted, more than anything, to go home, but I couldn't return, couldn't bear the thought of my father looking at me with disappointment for the rest of my life, living with the shame of being weak-willed, a quitter. I managed to push the thoughts of the only apparent alternative way out to the back of my brain and resolved to stay until they fire me.

Things were better Friday. My direct supervisor decided our group needed to have a debriefing on the previous day's school meeting and apologized for the tone. He tried his best to reassure us that dismissal from the program is a last resort. I did a better job of maintaining discipline in my class, and my students seemed genuinely interested in our experiment. A box full of wonderful books on teaching and physics from TeawithBuzz was awaiting me when I got back to the dorm. Life in general seemed a bit more manageable.

I'm still not sure that I can do this. I want to teach, but I doubt that I'll be the educator I need to be by the end of the summer. Honestly, my getting fired might be for the greater good, however desperately I want that not to be the case. If my best effort isn't enough, then what?

I'm an obsessive worrier and hate not having a solid plan b. It's too late to reconsider declining the graduate program in education at my university and way too late to reconsider grad school in physics for the fall. The only real option would be to find a job of some sort, reboot, and start making plans for the next year. It's frightening.

This morning I was in need of a way to calm myself down so I ran the numbers to remind myself that even if I get dismissed from Teach for America and don't manage to find a job right away I won't be starving in the streets. It's a silly thing to do, but it helped me realize that I do have options.

My current net worth, not counting the few bucks of cash I have on hand, is $25,913.64. If I end up leaving or being dismissed, I'll have to pay back some fellowship money. I'm also going to have to pay for graduate tuition next month in order to teach in my region. Allowing for all that, I could still leave at the end of the summer with $23,013.64, less whatever else I spend this summer on niceties like printer ink, health insurance, and cough drops, and probably also less whatever else my Roth loses between now and then. That'd cover a lot of months of bare-bones living if I have a problem finding a job.


6 comments:

teawithbuzz said...

My first semester of teaching, I spent the first 15-20 minutes of every school day in the teacher restroom, my stomach in tense, painful knots. A couple things kept me going:
(1) no plan b whatsoever. I had no other immediate options.
(2) no money. I exited college with a BA, a teaching certificate, a crappy car my parents paid $2K for on my behalf, and $10,000 in student loan debt. I started teaching with about $20 in my checking account and extreme gratitude for the generosity of friends. If I couldn't keep the teaching job(s) (I had 2, actually), I would be a failure and a mooch.
(3) Refusal to be a failure, or a quitter. That attitude kept me going as a physics major when the going got really really hard (my struggle to understand QM, my slowness to accomplish diff eq's).

I am not a quitter. YOU are not a quitter. And they won't throw you out of TFA. They need you more than you need them. Nobody is a brilliant teacher with perfect classroom management and the curriculum that answers all needs right out of the gate. They are simply trying to get you to make your goals the highest possible. Of course they want you to make them look good. YOU WILL!

A said...

A coupe of things.

Year #1 is rough, you want everything to be perfect and nothing ever goes perfect. Sometimes the kids you love are the ones that make your life a living hell and then the next day they're back to normal.

Don't try to do all the stuff they throw at you or the cool things you find out about. A wise mentor told me once that if I could change 10% per year, I'd be on top of the profession. So many teachers change 0% (but that's another rave).

And for TFA, next time they try to beat you down; you might want to remind yourself that the organization isn't doing the teaching YOU ARE. They could be for all the world but the people in the offices and the organization exists because people like yourself are willing to do the 'dirty work.'

Mary Sue said...

Oh my God, I'm flashing back...

DO NOT TALK YOURSELF OUT OF TEACHING! This negative self-talk is bad. Knock it off. Don't make me come over there.

Also, feed your inner perfectionist to a wood chipper. Sooner rather than later. You're in, yo. You beat out hundreds of people to get here. They obviously think you can do the job.

Also also? When dealing with pubescent children, you know what's more important than lesson plans and projects and stuff? SLEEP. Being well-rested is the best weapon in your classroom management arsenal.

Repeat after me 100 times: Burnout bad. Sleep good.

Mary Sue said...

Oh my God, I'm flashing back...

DO NOT TALK YOURSELF OUT OF TEACHING! This negative self-talk is bad. Knock it off. Don't make me come over there.

Also, feed your inner perfectionist to a wood chipper. Sooner rather than later. You're in, yo. You beat out hundreds of people to get here. They obviously think you can do the job.

Also also? When dealing with pubescent children, you know what's more important than lesson plans and projects and stuff? SLEEP. Being well-rested is the best weapon in your classroom management arsenal.

Repeat after me 100 times: Burnout bad. Sleep good.

Anonymous said...

I see good advise here. Listen to it and go easy on yourself. It will be your salvation.

plonkee said...

If it's any consolation I have the same reaction to job stress - work out the worst case scenario financially and find that it's not so bad after all.

TFA goes into some of the most deprived areas in the country, right? I'm betting that those jobs aren't exactly the most fillable in the world. They (the schools) need you, and you are awesome, what's not to like.