Karega Bailey (D.C. Corps ’09) shares the story of his toughest moment in the classroom. The twist? His toughest moment later led to one of his most rewarding moments as a teacher.
My first two weeks of teaching went smoothly. I heard stories of students misbehaving, and I saw teachers come out of their classrooms looking shaken. Until Monday, none of that happened in our classroom. But Monday was rough. Instead of leaving the classroom energized and enthused, I felt drained. Tuesday was even worse. Throughout the two-hour class, I looked at the clock every few minutes and wondered why time had slowed down. The students complained about free-reading time and most of our questions were met with dead silence. I found myself doubting my energy and ability.
Our whole collab knew we had to do something to turn the momentum around, but we weren’t sure what that was. We meant to have a better day on Tuesday. We never intended to have a bad day on Monday. Just wanting class to be better wasn’t enough. My collab partner and I brainstormed things that afternoon that we could do to make class more active and fun, but I lacked conviction that these things would work.
Shina handed me the notebook on her last day.
“Do you want this, Ms. Freeman?”
I nodded yes. It was a composition notebook, filled with her bubbly writing in multicolored pens. Shina was my first favorite student, and she was gone months before the year ended.
The notebook never made it out of my car, and even now, when I go to clean it, I make no move to take it out. It sits, covered in dust above the back windshield, and I remember Shina.
She was in my second block class with a thick long weave braided into her hair. She was nine at the beginning of the year, but she seemed to be the oldest child in the fifth grade.
We got to know each other because I did not have duty-free lunch. So every day at 12:20, I would sit down at the head of the third long table. Shina would place her tray right beside me and glare at anyone who tried to take her spot.
It was Shina who made the disgusting meal of the day, mixing all of her unwanted food together into her own creative dish. I would watch as she squeezed ketchup onto the bread she never ate, piling it high with the mustard greens that resembled sludge.
It was Shina who told me that I needed to get on Christian Mingle and find a man.
It was Shina who worked the hardest. Got angry the quickest. Made the rudest comments. Overtook my classroom when I lost control.
One of the choruses I heard from almost every TFA staff member as we geared up to start training was to take time for what I love. One second-year corps member put it this way: “Take time to do what makes you you.” Since we had the 4th of July off this weekend, I took to opportunity to do just that. I rode the train to visit family friends in a suburb of Chicago. We lounged in the backyard, played Trivial Pursuit, and barbecued massive quantities of meat.
While I treasured the chance to get away from the dorms and the omnipresent acronyms, I noticed a pattern in my conversations. Somehow, it always came back to teaching. To be fair, two of the four people I was visiting work in education, so I didn’t have to twist anyone’s arm to get a conversation started about education. But there’s more to this pattern. As soon as I started talking about teaching—whether the subject was the class I’m teaching right now or all my visions for my class in September—I started talking louder, faster, and with a lot more gesticulations. I get excited. Really excited.
Teaching is a big part of what makes me me. That’s why I am here, and that’s why I connect with all the other corps members who care so much about the best way to teach kids. That’s why I am so excited about the logistics of setting up a classroom. It also means that a careful balancing act is required.
There are a few things about teaching during summer training that make it very different than I imagine it will be in September. For instance, there are four teachers in my class, and a grand total of nine students. I overheard a boy in the cafeteria quipping that we should re-name the experience “Tutor For America.” Juggling the voices and pacing of four different teachers is challenging, but it makes classroom management pretty smooth—none of the students feel like they can fly under the radar when the ratio is 2:1. And the students are one aspect of this that I very much hope will be the same when I start teaching in my placement school.
The students are brilliant. A well-meaning school staff member warned us that summer-school students are the ones who have a hard time following the rules, but just one day in the classroom with our kiddos had me second-guessing this. Admittedly, on the first day they all stared around at each other and us with wide eyes and spoke very little. But even on Friday, when one girl tipped over her desk trying to reach something on the floor and I had to use my teacher look to silence a pair talking during my instruction, this truth remains: the students are wonderful.
Even though staff mentioned throughout Induction in Washington that the Institute experience planned for us in Chicago was “totally revamped” and “a pilot program,” I didn’t realize until I got here how extensive those changes are. Which means that all of the warnings and advice I got about Institute and all those TeacherPop posts with the five keys to a successful Institute may not actually hold the right keys!
It’s a good lesson for me: no matter how much I prepare for what I think is coming, flexibility is key. It’s hard for me to identify the major differences, as I didn’t participate in Institute before the changes, but I will say this: so far I’ve gotten seven to eight hours of sleep every night! We’ll see if that trend continues into Week Two, when the students arrive.
The big challenges of this week haven’t been about lack of sleep or time, but about how much is happening all at once. Some of the staff call it drinking from a fire hose, which sounds about right. And even though all of us are thirsty for information and experience about teaching, it’s hard to balance soaking everything up with reflective and critical thinking. My peers have been so much help on this front. “What do you think of this?” “How would I implement this with students learning English?” “Why do we do it this way?”
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Induction—it’s an intimidating name that brought to mind images of chanting pledges with hands over our hearts. Despite foggy expectations, I dragged myself out of bed on Monday morning at 2:30am and headed for Seattle. (To be fair, everything is pretty foggy to me at 2:30 in the morning.)
A TFA staff member with an infectious smile shuttled me from the SEA-TAC airport to the hotel where I met my fellow corps members. With a muffin and hot tea in my belly, I felt better about my chances of staying coherent for the next few hours. After all, I’m a recent college graduate. If there’s one thing I’m trained to do, it’s stay awake and appear interested even when sleep is in short supply.
As the day went on, I found that faking interest was not on the menu. I thought I’d have to push myself to live up to the group expectation of staying engaged, but I found the opposite to be true.
On the last day of the school year, a Teach For America teacher spends her time on selfies and self-reflection.