emily.garvey@gmail.com'

About Emily Garvey

A Houston 2010 corps member with three years teaching middle school social studies under her belt. Currently on a self-proclaimed "sabbatical" backpacking solo around the world and (hopefully) discovering the meaning of life.

Fear Is A Lie

fear

 

“For this year, I fear nothing, fear is a lie.”

I get this from one of my eighth graders on the first day of school while they are doing an activity that requires them to write down their hopes and fears.

I wasn’t exactly scared about coming back home and starting this new school year—I wasn’t even as nervous as I thought I should be as I set up my classroom and finally greeted my students for the first time—but fear still stops me in my tracks. In all its forms—anxiety, terror, worry, panic—fear stayed with me through most of my three years teaching, and ultimately, drove me to take my hiatus from the classroom.

This past year, despite having rappelled down waterfalls, taken questionable motorcycle taxi rides, and shown up in multiple foreign countries alone, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing is scarier than standing up in front of a vaguely organized mob of hormone-driven teenagers and trying to shove knowledge into their brains.

Because retrospect tends to do a great job of packaging up personal bad experiences into neat, unassuming anecdotes—the unexpected charity from strangers on the night my purse got stolen in Laos, the deep well of strength I found when I crashed my motorcycle in Vietnam, the contagiously optimistic attitude during the crummy packaged tour I overpaid for—but retrospect is never that generous to teachers. Kids will always remember their favorite teacher, but they will also always remember the teachers who failed them. The ones who tried too hard to be chummy with the varsity jocks and neglected the rest of the class, the ones who spent day after day sitting behind their desks while a textbook or a movie delivered the lesson, the ones who are labeled as “jokes” because they never seem to fully understand their own content area.

Even abroad, my biggest fear was that I am one of those teachers: a failure because no matter how hard I try, I can never push my students far enough. (One night in Thailand last winter, I had a nightmare about classroom management.)

I don’t think that fear will ever completely go away, but my student’s response reminded me that now, on this first day of the new school year, fear is not what drives me anymore—hope does.

I don’t know what my student wrote as her hope for the year, but I think she already figured out the hard part anyway. If fear is a lie, I think we can find truth in hope.

So for this year—for my students—I hope to be better.

And I have 179 days left to prove it.

Back To Being Ms. Garvey

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(Photo credit: Vero Villa)

Just about this time last year, I was hiking over the Pyrenees, starting a 500-mile walking pilgrimage across Spain. Eight months ago I was dancing on the beaches of Thailand with thousands of strangers under the full moon. Five months ago I was taking shots of snake blood and motorbiking down the coast of Vietnam a la Top Gear. Three months ago I was watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon over the fairy-chimney-shaped rocks of Turkey.

No job, no responsibilities, no deadlines.

And yet for some reason, in April I signed away that life of travel and freedom so I could spend last week in a meeting room in hot and humid Houston, attending sessions on the planning and execution of middle school history objectives.

People told me I was crazy when I left the classroom at the end of the 2013-2014 school year to backpack solo around the world…and an equal number of people told me I was crazy when I decided to come back.

But the children were waiting, the job offer was there, and here I am.

At my KIPP onboarding (terrifyingly called KIPPnotizing—but that’s another story), Mike Feinberg referenced Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken to symbolize the difficult choice our students make when they choose the long hours and high expectations of attending a KIPP public charter school.

While I believe in Mike’s interpretation, I think it’s just as important for us to remind our kids that not all decisions are as binary. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—as a 2010 corps member and a world traveler; as a new-to-the-classroom Big KIPPster and an experienced teacher with three years under my belt; as a Connecticut Yankee and a lover of all things Texas—I’ve been taking both roads my entire life.

I went on an incredible adventure last year, but that doesn’t mean this year will be any less incredible. I am back to being Ms. Garvey, and I can’t wait to share this year’s adventure with you.

Welcome Corps Members! #2

Howdy, y’all!

(I’m kidding. A Texas placement DOES NOT mean that you’ll end up sounding like that … though I do own a pretty sweet pair of cowboy boots.)

My name is Emily and I was a 2010 Houston corps member, originally from Connecticut. As a two-year Institute veteran (once as a corps member, once as a Resource Room Specialist), the best piece of advice I can give you as you embark on your TFA adventure: stay flexible. I like to think of it as trusting “TFA Fate” that whatever surprises teaching might throw at you, everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. (Really.)

And if that doesn’t do it for you, here’s the most memorable comment given to me before I entered Institute. I was visiting Houston for Preview Weekend, and a corps member one year older than me said, “Think about it: your students are already out there somewhere, just waiting for you to change their lives.”

Welcome to Teach For America!

- Emily

(This is one of a series of letters to incoming corps members from current corps members and alumni. If you’d like to write a letter to incoming corps members, please email us.)

The Hardest Thing About Institute

tissues

(Photo: juditk, flickr)

For me, the hardest part of Institute—harder than packing up and moving to a brand new city, harder than learning new kids and new content, harder than the long days and late nights—was the feedback.

Let’s just say I’m not the most graceful at accepting criticism.

It’s not like I thought I’d get to Institute and immediately know exactly what I was doing in the classroom … I guess I just didn’t think I’d get to Institute and immediately feel so bad at it.

In retrospect, I was not a terrible teacher. But, like probably every single incoming corps member, “not terrible” was not exactly what I was going for. Transformational … that’s what I wanted, and I wanted it fast. One Day? Psh. Let’s do this TODAY.

Why Every Teacher Should Embrace the Read Aloud

Galveston's Summer of the Storm

A sample “book report” that my students completed after our read-aloud.

An unprompted exchange between two of my students last week:

“I would rate the book 6.2 stars.”

“Dude, it’s out of five!”

“I know.”

One of the key lessons that stuck with me from my Institute experience three years ago: Every teacher is a literacy teacher.

It doesn’t take much time in the classroom to see how true this really is. The biggest issue my students have with the social studies standardized test is not content, but vocabulary. So setting aside all test prep and curriculum guides, I embarked on the journey of an ELA teacher this past month … and read a novel with my kids. Out loud. During class.

Whatever your content area, whatever your grade level, and whatever your class materials, this is something I’d definitely recommend for every classroom.

Here’s why:

Fighting Guilt to Take a Time-Out from Teaching

empty classroom #1 - Quincy College

(Photo credit: jenlight)

On the last day of Saturday tutorials, my absolute favorite seventh grade student stopped me in the hallway to give me the biggest hug.

“I’m going to have Ms. Garvey again next year for eighth grade,” she stated confidently, and my heart broke into a million pieces.

Yes, she was supposed to be in my class again next year… if I hadn’t already turned in my Early Notification Letter and told my principal that instead of closing the Gap next year, I will be solo backpacking around the world.

Yes, seriously.

I feel overwhelmingly selfish. I am leaving my kids for a cliche of a reason. And really: I am a teacher for low-income students–how much more meaning can I possibly need to be satisfied? But as my third year in the classroom comes to a close, I still feel as though there is something missing. And so, I am setting off into the world to see what I can find.

Here’s the thing: I think I might want to be a teacher forever. Maybe. On good days. And sometimes, actually, even on bad days. In all seriousness, I love my job. And more than anything, I don’t want to be a statistic—yet another TFA corps member quitting the classroom after only a few years—leaving was never in “The Plan” for me.

In The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau writes, “The time to leave the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it.” And after approximately 10,000 hours of working over the course of my three years, I’m teetering on the edge of exhaustion.

Luckily, those 10,000 hours never left me with much time for expensive dinners, fancy drinks out, or even shopping. Slowly, my painful first years of teaching transformed into a sizable savings account. And then I read The Alchemist. And devoured this documentary about backpacking. And watched this TED Talk about the sabbatical. And I was sold.

So before I turn 26-years-old and commit myself to a career as “Ms. Garvey,” I’ve decided to give myself one last year as “Emily.”

How Open-Ended Tests Revolutionized My Teaching

pink pencil break

(Photo credit: Adam Foster | Codefor)

Call me crazy, but I love unit testing my seventh graders. On those days, there are no mandated number two pencils, no process-of-elimination strategies, and definitely no bubbles to fill in—just lots (and lots) of blank lines and the sweet scratching sound of writing utensil on paper.

It started at the end of my second year teaching. The year was winding down and my kids were at the end of their testing limit. After at least 10 mandated state tests, the last thing I wanted to do was slam them with the TFA-created End of Year exam–especially because the main reason for the test was to complete a tracker as a way to provide TFA with a reflection of me, probably the least student-centric reason to make my kids work through a 90-minute exam.

I called my MTLD, and fought hard against giving ANY kind of EOY… until she convinced me otherwise. (Even if the state didn’t care, didn’t my kids deserve to see the progress they made that year? And looking forward, wouldn’t this feedback help me adjust my teaching for the upcoming year–for my kids who were looping with me, and for my new kids?) And so, a compromise landed with me creating a series of short, open-ended “quizzes” that would still work with my tracker, but better assess the skills they had learned throughout the year.

The Forgotten Teacher: Perks of Teaching Untested Subjects

empty classroom #1 - Quincy College

(Photo credit: jenlight)

It’s testing season and the clock is ticking. High-pressure countdowns, elaborate review games, new investment plans–every classroom is in overdrive right now.

…unless, like me, you happen to be one of the unmentionables: The teachers of untested subjects.

Last year, there was an entire month when I did not teach three-quarters of my students. At all. Yes, for the month of April, no seventh grader in my entire school learned social studies.

(Full disclosure: I also teach a tested subject to the other one-quarter of my students…and that month was spent double-blocked with them. I have seen both sides.)

At times it’s frustrating, getting tossed aside for the sake of the subjects considered “more important” in the eyes of the administration and the state of Texas, but it can also be a blessing.