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About Christina Torres

Teach For America alumna (LA'09)-turned-staff (Hawai'i), Writer, Runner, Reader, Aerial Enthusiast, Adventurer, Actress, Dancer. Proud alumna of USC (Fight On!) and LMU (Go Lions).

Coming Home

torres


It is a cool afternoon in September. My stomach aches, my hands are sweaty, and I’m standing at the whiteboard of a local school, apparently to help prep them for PSATs. I shouldn’t be so nervous—I did something like this for two years under more emotionally taxing circumstances. Still, I haven’t been in front of a classroom for nearly the same amount of time, and every fear I had about myself as a teacher starts racing through my head:

What if I can’t do this?

What if I’m horrible again?

What if the kids are so bored they walk out?

I write “Ms. Torres” on the board.

***

When I last wrote about my time as a teacher, I shared my reflections on why I had chosen to leave the classroom, as well as revealed a perhaps eternal truth: there are some choices in life that will consistently leave you asking, “What if?” What if I had stayed? What if I had continued teaching, following my once-dream job?

I still believe I made the right choice. That said, remembering the fire in my belly about becoming a teacher, recalling how passionate I was to go to work most days, it ached a little to revisit.  Any time I thought about the classroom, I thought about a line I had written when applying to Teach For America:

There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas next week…There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.

My most recent role at Teach For America was community listening. I heard a lot of the stories people share about their classroom. Each time, I left feeling inspired, but also a twinge of… what was it? Jealousy? Regret? Remorse?

I thought I had left the dream of teaching behind to pursue a “larger impact.” Wasn’t that what I was doing?

***

Students began to file in, a little meekly at first. Were they nervous? Scared of this random twentysomething in an awkwardly fitting dress at the front of the room?

Don’t worry, guys. You can’t be half as terrified as I am right now.

“Hi there! Find a seat anywhere. I’m Ms. Torres. I’m your teacher today.”

***

I hadn’t been looking for a new job—that’s what I told everyone, including myself. I had only gotten my California credential transferred to Hawaii so I could get better part-time gigs as a tutor or maybe an afterschool specialist to be around students again. I was fine at my new job on staff with TFA. I mean, I liked it, I loved the people I worked with, and I appreciated an opportunity to be on social media as part of my job. That was great.

Sometimes, though, as the afternoon would wind down, and some of our MTLDs would go visit classrooms, or I would see what corps members were posting about their students, I would be left looking at the blue glow of the computer screen, wondering, “Is this what my career is?”

Let me clarify: I absolutely do not mean to say that the dedicated people who work in front of computer screens every day—at TFA or otherwise—aren’t amazing, devoted, or doing worthwhile work. They often are. But, I was left with a few glaring facts about myself:

  1. I missed working with students.
  2. I liked teaching, and didn’t know if two years had given me an adequate perspective on if I was any good at it.
  3. The more I worked, the more I realized that meaningful change did not mean leveraging my voice or the organization’s voice, but those of communities we were serving.
  4. Teach For America (and its donors) and I (and my student loans) had put time and effort into making me into a good teacher, and I didn’t know if I had adequately used that gift.
  5. I missed working with students.

***

The lesson goes better than I expected. I am nervous, especially about teaching math to kids who probably were more advanced in algebraic ability than I am at this point. Still, the kids talk to each other, engage in some discussion about the “why” of certain techniques, and even laugh a little. They file out of the room, a few saying, “Thanks! See you on Thursday!” as they do.

I breathe a sigh of relief when they leave. The knot in my stomach unwinds, and I start to think about what I would do differently in the next lesson.

***

My hands were shaking. It was late afternoon on a Friday, and I was sitting on a bench at the beach. I was watching the waves beat against the stones, never more unsure of what I was doing with my whole life.

A little over a week before, in my search for tutoring jobs, I had stumbled across a school a few of my friends taught at that was seeking an English teacher. I liked the school a lot—a focus on tech and near where I lived. On a whim, I decided to apply. I figured that half the state would be applying, so I thought nothing of it.

Three days later, they invited me in for an interview. I thought it went well.

Three days after that, I was sitting there, waiting for the call that would tell me what came next.

Throughout the entire process, I was leapfrogging over my own internal sense of conflict. Was this what I wanted? I had only been at Teach For America as a staff member for a little over two years (what is it with us and two years?!). I hadn’t thought about going back into the classroom for at least another year, maybe not until I had kids of my own.

Throughout the entire process, I had pushed forward, thinking, Well, if they offer me the job, I don’t have to take it. I could say no. I could stay away from the classroom for all the reasons I remembered—the long hours, the occasionally demoralizing look at test scores, the sometimes rowdy students. I could keep doing what I do now.

Another thought came: But is what you’re doing really the most you can be doing? Is this the job that makes you the most happy? Are you making the “larger impact” that you wanted? Or is there another group of kids whose voice you want to help find?A wave came up, lapped the shore, churned the water, pulled it back.

The phone rang.

***

A few days after that first prep class, my manager emails me. “I thought you might want to see an evals from one student on your first lesson. :)”

“She is very good at teaching.“

I laugh. Six words make my day.

***

Yes, it’s perhaps an eternal truth that some choices will leave you wondering, “What If?” There’s no way to know the future and to look down the path you ultimately didn’t take.

I think it’s possible, though, to be granted another shot, the optimism to realize that you not only could have been great, but still have the opportunity to do something great. Then, it’s not a question of can, but a question of choice: will you choose to do more? Or will you stay on the path you know pretty well already?

It was important for me to take a step back at the end of my TFA commitment and reassess who I was and what I needed. Now, it is essential to realize that where I needed to be and who I need to be standing with was there all along, waiting to welcome me back.

Students need teachers who not only want to teach, but want to provide them the platform. What kind of future would I choose to build? One for myself, or one for them, too?

So, for all the whiteboards I come into contact with in the future, for all the classrooms I hope to learn in and help lead: I hope you’re ready.

Ms. Torres is back.

 

What’s Next? Thoughts on TFA’s Challenges and Opportunities

WN5itisnotfine“What’s next?” is one of my favorite phrases. It’s the name of my blog, and it’s the catchphrase for a few seasons of “The West Wing,” one of my favorite shows.

So, when I heard that tonight’s speech was titled “What’s Next at Teach For America,” my heart leapt, then sunk, then leapt again. As someone who has been (impatiently) waiting to see the results of the listening tour undertaken by Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s co-CEOs, I was excited to see what was coming next at the organization. But then, of course, came the doubts and the jaded nature you can get when you’re part of an organization for five years. Would there really be anything new? While I’ve seen TFA change throughout my tenure—I came in as a corps member, and now am part of the social-media team—I wasn’t sure where the event’s message was headed.

An Alum’s “Inside Scoop” on the Teach For America Agenda

(Photo credit: Poet Warriors Project)

(Photo credit: Poet Warriors Project)

If you don’t know me, I joined Teach for America’s social media team about two months ago. Before that, I worked at Teach for America Hawai’i. Before that, I was a 2009 L.A. alumna who left the classroom for a number of reasons (two-word summary: panic attacks).

I’m not bringing this up because I need you to have my bio, but because I’m about to speak mostly from that experience. I want to be completely upfront about what this piece is: this piece is another personal experience (like Chad’s) to provide, perhaps, some counterpoint for discussion. I’m not your numbers and facts go-to, like our super-smart Raegan Miller has shown here and here. When I mentioned to Chad I was writing this, he said something I really appreciated. So, I just want to tell you some stories. Oh, then ask a question.

During my two years in the classroom, I was placed early in a pretty large  charter management organization in Los Angeles. My time there was fine, but admittedly not perfect. This piece is also not a champion of the charter movement, because I have a lot of complex feelings on charter schools and their role. Instead, here are three reasons why I struggled with Chad’s piece based on my own experience:

What To Expect When Joining The Private Sector

briefcase

(Photo credit: postbear)

When I came to the difficult decision to leave my students, I wasn’t sure WHAT was next in my career path. My interests were still primarily in education. Yes, I could get a job on Teach For America’s staff (which is how my story eventually ends), but after two years of being completely steeped in education reform, part of me needed a breather.

So, when a private materials distribution company came knocking, I listened. I interviewed, and I eventually took a job there— but not without some reservations.

It’s easy to feel guilty about “going private” (as one friend put it). Just because you left the education world doesn’t mean you’ve lost the experiences and lessons you learned from your time as a corps member. There are a ton of ways you can stay an active member of our alumni movement while in the private sector.

After I made my peace with taking a job in the private sector, it was still an adjustment. Looking back, here are some things I wish I had realized when I made the leap from the non-profit world to a corporation:

Making It Work: Advice on dating another corps member

Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

What if you’ve already fallen head-over-heels for this person? NOW WHAT?!

I had the unique experience of interviewing someone who  married someone in his corps (they now have 2 adorable kids). Here’s what I took away about making it work:

  • Have boundaries for what you discuss, and be willing to talk about it. Like I said, venting can spiral into something much deeper if you’re not careful. Be proactive, and discuss how much time you’re willing to devote to that. I once heard of a couple who, if they vented for more than 5 minutes, had to put $1 into a date night jar. Cute!
  • Do things that are not teacher-based. It’s okay to have a conversation that has absolutely nothing to do with education, students, your school, education policy, your MTLD, or anything else education or Teach For America related In fact, it’s highly recommended. You should push each other to grow personally and professionally beyond your work, not get stuck in the same rut.
  • Be proactive about how much of your relationship should go public, especially if you work at the same school. Keeping things from your superiors never goes over well, and you want to be on the same page when it comes to students. Every couple does it differently, just makes sure you’re on the same page.
  • Try not to take things out on each other. When you’re frustrated with your students, it’s easy for that frustration to permeate into other parts of your life. Don’t be afraid to say, “hey, can you give me a few hours?” and take some space, or tell the other person that you’re in a weird head space.  This leads to the most important part of, frankly, any relationship:
  • Be honest and communicate your feelings and needs as much as possible. I seriously can’t stress this enough. The biggest thing I learned from my relationship while I was in the corps was that people can’t read your mind. There was no way he could know that I didn’t want him to try and fix my problem with Marco graffiti-ing all over my walls (nor was he able to), but that  I just needed him to listen and tell me it was going to be okay. You have to tell your partner what you need from them, or else how can you expect them to give it to you?
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Valentine’s Day: Pros and Cons of Dating Fellow Corps Members

Herzäpfel

(Photo credit: rearechelon)

Sometimes, love comes from where we least expect it. That means that love (or at least attraction) can punch us in the face in the middle of a content collaboration session during lesson planning.

Dating in the workplace isn’t normally recommended, but when “your workplace” also means “everyone you know in the region,” it’s absolutely possible that the next handsome gentleman or lovely lady who catches your eye also teaches down the hall.

And that makes sense.  At Teach for America, we’ve gathered a group of people together who, while bringing myriad experience to our work, have fairly similar work ethics and values, as well as the ability to build good relationships. Odds are there’s going to be lots of chemistry. LOTS of it.

(It also doesn’t hurt that Teach For America people tend to be fairly good looking. I have no science to prove that, but when I look at the corps I was in, the people I work with, and the people on the sidebar who write for TeacherPop,  I think “Ya, I buy that.”)

There’s a lot of dissenting opinions on finding love in the corps. I’ve had friends totally against corps dating. I’ve almost met quite a few people who have found their soulmate in the corps].   From my 3 years with Teach For America, here’s a look at the pros, cons, and how to make it work if you make the deep dive into Teach For America love.

To Stay Or Go: One Alum’s Struggle To Teach Beyond Two

English: A fork in the road Which way should i go?

Which way to go? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas or milk next week, I don’t even know how much I’ll have to pay to finish school next semester …There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.”

That was the opening statement of my letter of intent in September 2008, when I was applying for Teach For America. I wasn’t being facetious either. I had been planning on teaching high school English since I was 16. When I was placed at a charter school teaching high school English. I figured I was in this for life.

Life has a funny way of working, though, and a year and a half later, I found myself weighing the options of either staying and seeing my students (many of whom would be seniors) graduate, or combing the TFANet JOB board (which is amazing, by the way) for a new position after finishing my second year.

It was a difficult pill to swallow. Admitting that maybe, just maybe, my once-dream job was not really what I was meant to do was really humbling and terrifying.

Anxiety in the Classroom: Storm Clouds Approaching

Thunderstorm

(Photo credit: Jonathan Gill)

When it happened, the first thing I would notice were their eyes. It was never a flash of realization, but rather a wave. I might stutter, start to sweat, lose my train of thought, and would start to realize this was more than just a brain hiccup. I’d notice that they were all looking at me. As the wave washed over the room, my heart would start hammering, like thunder rolling in during a storm. An imaginary hand pushed down on my chest, and I would feel an intense desire to hide or run outside– anything to not be looked at. It felt like all I could see were 35 pairs of teenage eyes watching me, and eagerly anticipating my next move.

Of course they were watching me, though — I was their teacher.

I’ve been dealing with panic attacks for most of my adult life. They don’t happen often. What’s more frustrating is that, like many who deal with anxiety, there’s no specific trigger that sets them off. High-stress jobs or situations don’t tend to spark them. I’ve fallen down a cliff (seriously), and I’ve worked pretty high-stress jobs without panic rearing its ugly head. In fact, the first big attack I had in college occurred after a particularly annoying apartment move. In addition to all the chest tightness and flight instinct, anxiety also likes to play tricks with the mind. During that move I began to irrationally fear my own death. At two in the morning, I called my mom sobbing, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die that night.

By the time I was accepted into Teach For America, though, anxiety attacks were pretty rare. Therapy had given me the tools to deal with panic as soon as it felt out of hand. Somehow, I even managed to get through my first year of teaching without experiencing an abnormal level of anxiety. Sure, I still had the normal, “Oh crap, what am I going to DO with them right now/tomorrow/next week?” that most of us experience. For the most part, though, I found myself going through the typical emotional first-year-teacher cycle.

During my second year, however, I noticed that being in front of my students had become more mentally taxing than I realized. Nothing had changed: I was still exercising as much as I had my first year, and the classes I taught were arguably less stressful. The only that had changed was the way my mind reacted to being in front of 35 kids in rotation for 8 hours a day.