Last night I was standing in a crowded bar, drink in hand, talking to a boy. Well, shouting, actually, because it’s the only way we could hear each other. We shared names, he asked how long I’d been living in DC, I asked about his gorgeous French accent. He was a friend of a friend, attractive, well-dressed, and a native of Luxembourg. I was intrigued.
There are a lot of predictable ways for this story to end. I could tell you that I went home dreaming of him. I could tell you that I went home after a healthy dance-floor make-out session with him (it was a rowdy college bar, after all). I could tell you that I went home with him. Or, at least, that he called the next day. But the truth is, after about two more lines of the above conversation, I never saw him again.
Soooo, why all this fuss over nothing, then? Well, it turns out that Nicholas – that was his name – is an incredibly perceptive Luxembourgian, even when it comes to strangers who have to repeat their sentences two or three times before he can hear a single word. By the time Nicholas and I started talking, I had already been introduced to a handful of his friends, all of whom had politely asked the routine question: “What are you doing in DC?” To each of them, I had answered, “I’m a teacher,” and that was that. But when I said it to Nicholas, he said something shocking in reply. He said: “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
I am fairly certain that my jaw dropped, though I was on drink number something and so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. What I do know is that I managed to clarify, “Oh, no, it’s just that I hate my job.” At that moment I was dragged away by a girlfriend in need of another round, so I have no idea what he thought of my reply. Most people would have been sympathetic, and asked why. But clearly, Nicholas was not most people.
Until his analysis, I had no idea that my “I’m a teacher” had implied anything negative at all. Usually when being introduced, I would wait until my new acquaintance asked what I thought of teaching before unleashing my depressing commentary. After all, no one likes being the person whose defining characteristic is her hatred of her own career choice. Especially not in this day and age, when teachers are either saints or Satan’s helpers. It’s kind of hard to be seen as one of the good ones when you walk around spewing angry stories about small human beings.
But apparently, with a strong dose of gin swimming around in my brain, I was having a hard time filtering. They say alcohol tells the truth, and in this case it was a truth I hadn’t been aware of myself: I was ashamed of my job. Yes, I hated it. That much I knew. But Nicholas had been right. It wasn’t just hatred. I was ashamed.
Why, though? Being a Teach for America teacher implied prestige – not to mention the job was temporary. Saying, “I’m a teacher” and knowing that this meant “I am a member of Teach for America” shouldn’t have been cause for embarrassment. Saying, “I’m a teacher” and meaning, “I have chosen education as my career field” could potentially have been a different story. There are plenty of parents out there who would lament such a low-paying job, but coming from a family bursting with educators, I wouldn’t have disappointed anybody even if that were the case.
Yet, there it was. I was ashamed. Shame is an ugly emotion, so I suppose it’s no wonder that I had pushed it deep into my subconscious. Now that Nicholas had forced me to confront it, though, I realized it had been there for a while. Months, if not more. What was it doing there? When had it arrived? How could I get rid of it?
Teach for America is a grand proponent of introspection, so when I woke up with a ridiculously bad hangover on the morning after my encounter with Nicholas, I decided that I would play hooky from my mandatory TFA professional development Saturday and stay home to reflect on my newfound emotions. I figured, if my Program Director (code for TFA boss) knew what I was doing instead of reporting for duty, she might want to shoot me a little bit less. Still, though, I knew that what I was doing was cowardly. I hadn’t called out sick, let alone provided advanced warning. With this single decision I would forfeit my right to claim an AmeriCorps grant of $5,000 at the end of the school year. Really, though, I hadn’t done anything brave in a long, long while. So what difference did it make?
Suddenly, as a lay perfectly still underneath the blankets waiting out my tremendous headache and praying that I wouldn’t throw up my advil, I realized I had found my answer. I wasn’t ashamed to be a teacher, per se. I was ashamed of myself as a teacher.
I should start by saying that, even if I were good at my job, hating it so much would be sufficient cause for shame. There’s something truly and deeply embarrassing about making the wrong life decisions — marrying the wrong man, choosing the wrong school, winding up in the wrong career field. When you inevitably wind up unhappy, and loathing yourself for the poor choice, you feel like an idiot. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I think twice? Why didn’t I go another way? Admitting this to the friends and family who supported your decision – and who happen to be happy with their own situations — adds a whole new dimension of humiliation. No one wants to be pitied by everyone they know.
When it comes to teaching, matters get even worse. Nobody ever says it, but you know that at least some of them are thinking: “Wait a second, you hate working with kids?” or “How can you hate being part of such a noble organization?” The smartest ones interpret, correctly, that “I hate my job” means “I’m a terrible teacher.” How else could things be so bad?
Now, this really gets to the heart of things. And admitting it is probably the first and only brave thing I’ve done since the shame first set in. I am a terrible teacher. Awful. Abysmal. Painfully inadequate. This, coming from the girl who has been teased since age five for not being bad at anything — well, besides team sports. I am a bad teacher. To put it kindly. In fact, I’m fairly certain that my failure is directly proportional to my students’ poor behavior. That is, the worse they act in my classroom, the worse I get at “managing” them. It’s a spiral that’s been out of control since mid-October.
Things did start off alright. Aside from the fact that I had 200 students. (200! 200 names to learn! 200 papers to grade, twice a week minimum! 200 parents to call! 200 human beings whose welfare was in my hands!) And aside from the fact that I had four special education classes, no (legally-mandated) help, and no “SPED” training except for a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation through which I learned the acronyms for different disabilities. Useful stuff, let me tell you. Even so, in the beginning of the year, for the most part, the kids did what I told them to do. I had my PowerPoints and my “exit slips” and a million other things that not a single one of my teachers had ever tried to put me through in a classroom, but if TFA said they would work, I had faith. And so I became a teacher.
But my students must have sensed weakness, because then they pounced. As one little boy very candidly informed me about a month ago, “You were too nice to us. So now we take advantage of you.” I wasn’t even hurt — he was absolutely right. I had been seduced by TFA’s ideas of a positive learning environment, where students learn because they are “invested”, and so they achieve. I had smiled before Christmas, and now I was screwed. Just one more item to add to the list of everything that was TFA’s fault.
Was it TFA’s fault, though? Had I been inadequately prepared for an impossible mission? Or was it just me? I had a sneaking suspicion that it had to be the latter. After all, there were plenty of TFA teachers out there mixing up fresh batches of Kool-Aid while I lay in bed hiding from my boss. Maybe they were crazy, or maybe they were just good. Maybe they were talented, and I just sucked.
Still, there were problems with this explanation. I had begun with a strong desire to succeed, and an unparallelled work ethic. I had been the college senior who did all the reading, for goodness’s sake. I could define discipline in my sleep. And until this past September, my life story had been a beautiful testament to the classic “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Only now, I was pulling my hairs out trying to determine what had gone wrong. I had the will, but where – where, in God’s name! – was the way?
All the nightmare stories about Teach for America that can be found in the blogosphere sound like minor variations on my own classroom. Truthfully, it’s a war zone. Nobody is learning — which, according to the prevailing wisdom in today’s education field, means that I must not be teaching. Pencils and rubber bands are used as weapons, with occasionally painful and potentially lawsuit-inducing consequences. I once had a student who threw a whole desk at another kid’s head while I stood in the hallway during passing time. I have broken up fistfights, screamed in students’ faces, nearly cried in class on countless occasions, and succeeded in teaching my students only that I’m easily overpowered, and really just a sad pathetic joke. I have been cursed at in multiple languages, and even been sideswiped once with a pretty hard punch. Usually, even when I yell, nobody can hear me. That’s how loud my classroom is. Nobody stays in their seats — sometimes they even chase each other. They turn in empty pieces of paper a lot of the time, after 72 minutes of “doing work.” I, in turn, give them passing grades. I have to. I can’t fail everyone.
I used to find these things discouraging to the point of emotional breakdown. And then I just gave up. I lost the energy to keep fighting, but I felt paralyzed – both financially and morally — and so I stayed. When I quit TFA (note: when, not if) I will owe more than $3,000 in “transitional funding,” or the money that TFA gave to tide me over during the four-month time span between the start of summer training and the arrival of my first paycheck. I will have thirty days to produce the lump sum. Not to mention, I’ll forever have to look back on this period in my life feeling like a quitter. Like somebody who couldn’t handle a challenge. When the going got tough, I got going — out the door, that is. And yet, all of those things seem bearable in comparison to getting up in the morning and surviving four whole periods.
I will probably never know if it was just me, or if it was my particular situation, or if it was TFA as a whole that caused things to turn out this way. I do know that even if I were a fabulous teacher, my students would still finish out the year woefully far behind. My eighth graders with children at home would still have children at home. None of them would ever make it to the Ivy League, and probably many would never make it to college. They came into my classroom confident that there was nothing in it for them, and I failed in my attempt to change their minds. Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would quit now in the hopes that somebody great would come along, and make up for the six months of harm I’ve done to them.
That’s the thing nobody tells you when you sign up, though. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. It doesn’t matter if you cry out of determination to improve your teaching, or out of desperation to escape. It doesn’t matter how guilty you feel, or how badly you want things to change. When you fail, nothing matters except that you’ve failed. And suddenly you’re this person who is ashamed all the time, and cowardly all the time, and mean all the time. Because you failed when the stakes were too high to fail. And there’s no way to make up for that.
I am strong, and courageous, and compassionate. I do the right thing and I never leave something half-finished. Everything I do, I do well. I stand up for myself and I stand up for the people around me. I am persistent as all hell and I am the most stubborn person I know. I’m a fighter with a conscience. Or, at least, I used to be all of those things. Now I don’t recognize myself. And that’s the truth about TFA, for me. For me, TFA has been a lesson in how things fall apart. How we let our society fall apart, and how the task of putting it back together again is enough to make us fall apart too. I wish I could say that there has been something redeeming in all of the bad stuff, but if there has, it will take me a few years’ worth of hindsight to identify it.
To return to the original starting point of this rambling story: lying in bed hungover, on the morning of this realization, I knew that I was being stubborn. I was pissed off at TFA for not making me a good teacher, as if that was their responsibility instead of my own. And so I was being passive-aggressive, and stubborn, and staying in bed on a one-woman teacher’s strike against ineffective workshops and useless handouts. I was wallowing at a time when I needed to get my act together and get my head in the game. But somehow this was reassuring. Being stubborn felt familiar. It felt good. It felt normal. It was one of those feelings I thought that I had lost to the job. If I could reclaim stubborn, maybe I could reclaim everything else, too. And hey, I had to start somewhere.
If you’re thinking about joining TFA, let me be your Nicholas from Luxembourg — before you make the decision, instead of in the March after you’ve already committed. We all have a right to be proud of what we do with our lives. If we’re not, we’re doing something wrong. Or, maybe we’re doing the wrong something. Before you send that email that says, “I’ll do it!” you should know that it might be something you love, but it also might be a big something that you regret. And it’s by no means assured that you’ll succeed at it, even under the most generous definitions of the word. Do I disagree with TFA’s mission? Not even the slightest bit. Do I think that TFA works, though? I can only speak from personal experience, and I have to say the heartbreaking word that none of us want to hear — the very same word that I should have said in my own fateful email last November: No.