I was teaching two subjects to two middle school grade levels, and putting in 60+ hour work weeks in a portable classroom with a leaky air conditioner. Parents yelled at me for giving their children homework, administrators denied my plans to bring in guest speakers, and a student kicked a hole in my wall. I was 24 years old, and after three years of anxiety in the trenches, I wasn’t sure I could do it forever.
(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.
(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.)
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.
An unprompted exchange between two of my students last week:
“I would rate the book 6.2 stars.”
“Dude, it’s out of five!”
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.
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.
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.”
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.