Over My Head

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(Photo credit: Bermi Ferrer)

Here I am, safely nestled in a three-day-weekend after the whirlwind of the first two days of school. After chronicling my journey since induction, it’s amazing to think that first day of school has already come and gone.

Everyone I’ve talked to since then wants to know the same thing: “How did your first day go?” I find myself stumbling over my words in an attempt to answer in a way that’s positive, honest, and actually encapsulates everything that the first two days were.

I adore the ocean. I grew up in Eastern Washington, and I took every chance I had to get to the coast and put my feet into the Pacific. If you’ve ever stood in the ocean, you understand the feeling of waves coming in and lifting you up. Sometimes when the waves recede, your feet are still under you, braced against the sand for another wave. But more often than not the sand has shifted, or you are no longer exactly where you were standing, and you aren’t standing anymore.

That’s what the first days felt like to me. I came to the ocean prepared to get wet, ready and excited for the power of the waves, but that didn’t stop me from occasionally feeling fear. I already adore my students, and I think I came to the classroom prepared for the hard work it would take to harness their energy, but there were moments I lost my footing.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, my students are so powerful. The main difference I’ve felt between the classes I have now and the groups of students I’ve worked with in the past is that these classes are bigger. All these students together have a lot of force. As a teacher, I think part of my job is to ride the waves and laugh when I get sprayed with a faceful of water. But I have a greater responsibility to these students than that: I owe them a productive direction for their combined energy and a lens through which they can see how powerful they truly are.

It’s not going to be easy. On Thursday I could barely keep my feet under me, and I know I missed opportunities to connect with every child on the first day of class. That frustrates me because I don’t have time to waste with my students. They deserve to have an exceptional teacher all year long.

On Tuesday I want to do a better job than I did this week, but I don’t think that grounding my feet more firmly is the way to do it. After all, trying to stand up against the waves is futile; the best way to navigate the power of the ocean is to accept that you’re bound to be in over your head and swim.

By |September 10th, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Grit vs. Resilience: A Buzz Word for 2014

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(Photo credit:  The U.S. Army)

After my first year of teaching I have revisited many of the words I wrote down in my leather bound Teach For America journal during my time at Houston Institute. At Institute we used buzz words. Lots of them. As much as I resisted using common language, I found myself evoking our buzz-word-language out of a desire to operate from a shared archetype. And as I sat down to revisit the words, I back-filled my journal with the meaning of my own experiences and the experiences of my students. In doing so, I’ve created new words that fit the reality of what I think my students need, now that my consciousness has been awakened. There is, however, still one word that lingers with me, and that I think it is important to examine. And that word is the Houston Institute Buzz Word of 2013: grit.

In its purest connotation, grit is an embodiment of tenacity, fight, and determination. The word conjures images of a crass, spunky John Wayne in True Grit or of a clenched-jaw athlete during a drive at the ten yard line during a tied game. Grit is certainly something I like to think that I have; and judging from the number of fellow corps members who included the word in almost every spoken and written reflection, most everyone saw it as essential.

Certainly, grit is positive. It’s about digging deep and giving it your all; but, the word also misses the boat with its images of gutsy cowboys and grass-stained offensive linemen. The connotations of grit missed what our students really need, which is to consider circumstance, lean into their feelings, and adapt after failure or in the midst of difficulty. I think our students would be better off if they learned to embody consciousness, feeling, and adaptation. In short, when they think about grit, I think our students would be better served to embody the idea of resilience rather than the idea of fighting back.

In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown, a researcher and social worker focusing on resilience as tool for overcoming shame and living a whole-hearted life, writes about the importance and inherent connection between resilience and hope.[1] Brown discusses the increasing cultural belief that “everything should be fun, fast, and easy.” This cultural ideology has produced disastrous self-talk during difficult encounters, experiences, and tasks. Self-talk like, “This is supposed to be easy, it’s not worth the effort” or “This should be easier: it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it.”

Although I can’t be in the minds of my students, I know them well enough to know this negative self-talk is likely how they talk to themselves when I hand them a text a few levels above their diagnostic level or when I give them an assignment that takes longer than usual. They lack resilience. They lack hope.

Brown describes a lack of resilience and hope as a sense of entitlement and hopelessness, a sense of “I deserve this just because I want it,” not “I know I can do this.” As a result, that hopelessness leads to a feeling of powerlessness, which is something far greater than educational efficacy; it is political and social efficacy that limits communities’ voices in the most important public discourse. In other words, our students who don’t have resilience are sitting in a pressure cooker that creates another vicious cycle of self-doubt, powerlessness, and ultimately silence.

Resilience and hope, on the other hand, give tolerance to disappointment, adaptation as a response to frustration, and a firm belief in what the self is capable of–not what one can’t accomplish. When my students are faced with this parasitic self-talk, I want their response to be “It’s okay if this is hard. It’s okay if I find this challenging. I am capable and I am enough.” I want them to understand how they feel, understand that it’s okay if they fail, and believe that their success in one endeavor is not indicative of their success in many others.

So how is resilience different than grit? Why should we be weary of solely focusing on images of digging deep and fighting for success? Because these images don’t account for how our students may feel during a challenge. There are certainly moments for grit—when they want to give up mid-stream, or when they don’t think they can do one more annotation—but these are moments, not a mental framework. Grit asks that they dig in and fight back, not lean in, re-frame, and positively evaluate their self-worth. Our students need to understand that things aren’t always going to be easy and that if they aren’t successful in an endeavor, they shouldn’t always hunker down and fight through it. Rather, they need to feel, adapt, and remain hopeful in their abilities.

And, so, as I revisit my journals and think about the buzz words we all use, I have decided that I want my students to have a buzz word that accounts for their feelings just as much as it accounts for their agency. I want a buzz word that takes them as a whole person. Here, I suppose, begins my campaign, “Buzz Word of 2014: Resilience”

 

[1] Brown, Brene. “Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.” In The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2010.

7 Things I Wasn’t Prepared For

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(Photo credit: Niklas Morberg)

I’m officially counting down the days to my first day of class and waiting with bated breath. I have a (mostly) completed classroom library, my “writer’s corner” is starting to come together, and I’ve managed to staple a lot of things over my head. I figured out the set-up of my room and planned my first couple of lessons. But during the past week, I’ve also encountered a lot of surprises, and a lot of things I wasn’t prepared to field.

  1. Health insurance. This is a part of being employed and a fully-grown adult, but I wasn’t prepared to decide which of eight different plans I should commit to.
  2. Retirement plan. Same idea—somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I would have to think about a retirement plan as part of the employment process, but it wasn’t until I got the choices in front of me that I started to panic. Not about making the choice this time. No, I started to panic about the brevity of human life. Classic job orientation stuff.
  3. Classroom Financials. In all the conversations we had about finding resources for our students, I didn’t realize how many steps there are to any fundraiser, grant, or donation solicitation. Summer school didn’t include a tutorial on filling out purchasing forms.
  4. The time it takes to organize a classroom. I am pretty sure I spent 90% of my time on Thursday finding the die cut at my school and punching out letters. On the bright side, the other 10% of my time went to meeting a couple of parents of 6th grade students.
  5. Stapling things higher than my shoulders. I end up stapling a lot of things crooked when I’m reaching up to staple them. This is a skill I hope to grow in during the coming year.
  6. The surges of doubt. Throughout summer school, I didn’t experience a moment of uncertainty that I was doing the right thing. In the past week, though, I’ve experienced a couple of surges of doubt. Am I ready for the year to start? Did I pick the right career path? Ultimately I know this is exactly where I’m meant to be, but as I get closer to the first day, moments of questioning work their way in.
  7. The support of my fellow teachers. On Friday we had our first literacy PD. By the end of the afternoon, my brain was melting out through my ears, but I was blown away by the support from the other teachers. People offered me phone numbers where I could call them to ask questions, promised to email me templates and schedules, and reassured me. It’s overwhelming, they agreed, but you can do it.

With the support of my fellow teachers and help from some older and wiser sources like my family members, I’ll figure out the details and ride out the pre-teaching jitters. I’m sure there are more surprises to come, but I’m so grateful that there will be happy surprises mixed in with the tough ones.

By |September 3rd, 2014|Corps Stories|0 Comments|

Fear Is A Lie

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“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.

Lily’s Victory

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(Photo credit:  Simply CVR)

“But today, as I moped and wished and regretted and hoped, I remembered Lily. The way she always works hard, even if it is not appreciated and even if her classmates are causing chaos. The way she smiled at me and promised to work harder. The way she didn’t let a disappointing grade crush her spirit. Individual EOG data has not been released, so I don’t know Lily’s final score. I do know, though, that she will eventually overcome her struggles. And I hold onto the same hope for myself.”
-
From Lessons from Lily

The floor in the school was shiny, freshly waxed with barely a footprint to mar it.

“You ready for kids to come back?” I asked Mr. Stanly, the custodian who is always looking for a snack and some soda.

“Yeah, Ms. Freeman, I am. It’s too quiet in here.”

I’m coming to ask my new principal a question about pacing for the school year. I’ve spent the last week and a half making a curriculum for social studies and science.

“Hey, Ms. Freeman, I’m so glad to see you today!”

I took a seat in the maroon chair across from his desk. We discussed pacing, I made my request, and we discussed students and the coming school year. As the conversation naturally rolled to a close, I thought to make a second ask:

“Could I see the broken down data for test scores?”

‘Sure Ms. Freeman!” he said, pulling out a bright yellow folder, “it wasn’t what I hoped for, but we’ll work on it.”

I nod as he hands me a folder with my information. I’m shaking as he hands me the list – I already knew my average wasn’t what I hoped – but looking through the list I’m struck with the scores attached to the names. Students like Devon and Robert grew. Others stayed low, and I want a do-over of the year.

And then I saw her name: Lily.

At the end of last year, I saw my overall EOG data, and I was devastated. Less than half my students were on grade level in science. I had never worked harder and I felt that I deserved more than scraping by. I stress ate while some of my roommates friends’ eyed me, noting that I was “going to town on that popcorn.”

But last year, I stopped pitying myself when I remembered my student Lily.

She worked hard in the midst of disappointment and never gave up, even when over and over again the results weren’t favorable.

And so, as I scanned the list, the name I was looking for was hers. When I saw Lily’s score, my heart turned up like a gospel choir.

Level IV: Students performing at this level consistently perform in a superior manner clearly beyond that required to be proficient at grade-level work.

And suddenly it didn’t matter so much that my students had not done well as a whole. Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a crushing defeat. And I don’t say that to absolve myself of responsibility or insinuate that they are unimportant. But when a student like Lily does well, a student that has experienced barrier after barrier after barrier, that has been projected to fail and still works hard and overcomes all of that … that makes the struggle of last year seem very small.

———————————-

If you want to help out in my classroom, check out my Donors Choose project. Every time I attend professional development, I start daydreaming about chart paper, post it notes, dry erase boards, and laminators. Enter the code INSPIRE when you donate, and Donors Choose will match your gift dollar for dollar.

The Fear of a Blank Classroom

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(Photo Credit: Erin Schulz)

In college, I double-majored in education and creative writing, so I’m familiar with the fear of a blank page. For me, facing a blank page is difficult not because I don’t have any idea about what to write, but because I have so many ideas that I care about. And until I start writing, they’re perfect. Once I put my fingers to the keyboard, things get a lot messier.

I was struck by that same feeling on Thursday, when I went to check out my classroom. I have tons of ideas about what I want and need in my classroom. Thanks to this post I have a thousand books to move into my new class. I have a whole list of procedural posters to create, not to mention tracking systems. I’m not an interior decorator! I can’t even keep my bedroom in an organized state of chaos.

I created a Pinterest board a few weeks ago, solely to pin classroom organization and decoration posts. I’m not sure if this was a good idea. I’ve got lots of inspiration now, but also a fair dose of intimidation. Where do people find all of these boxes? Or these ideas? My handwriting does not automatically look like an artsy Microsoft font, and I’m sure some of my students will be better at cutting straight lines then I am. I could spend days on Pinterest, staring at the creative work of other teachers. It’s only helpful until it turns into blatant procrastination.

The empty classroom terrifies me for the same reasons as a blank page: I have so many ideas and I’m paralyzed by my inner editor. The inner editor, a concept I was introduced to by Chris Baty’s book No Plot No Problem, is the voice that critiques my best creative efforts. The inner editor expects perfection immediately. And that’s a problem, because first drafts are never pretty. Instead of making me a better writer, the inner editor stops me from writing at all.

I’m headed into my classroom in a few minutes to start assembling bookshelves and wrangling tables, and I’m not taking my inner editor with me. I’ll bring her later, when I have a rough-draft of the room laid out. I’m sure it won’t start off perfect, but one thing I learned from being a creative writing major is that it’s easier to make something great when you have something to start with.

Wish me luck, and feel free to reply with advice, pictures, or links about how you create your perfect classroom!

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.

Coming Home

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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.