Adding It All Up

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 08 2009

Day 35: A startling realization

Those of you who’ve been following closely may have picked up on the fact that I am less that satisfied with my life right now. No surprise here, of course, as a first year teacher knee-deep in the mid-November blues. But the question that’s been bugging me is, why?

Why is it that even though I’m at a “good” school with lots of resources and a dedicated faculty and kids who are obnoxious in the classroom but generally well-intentioned, not malicious gentlemen, and I’m only teaching one class five periods a day that I find myself so tired and so upset all the time?

My somewhat eye-opening revelation is that perhaps I don’t actually enjoy teaching, and wouldn’t enjoy it regardless of where I was.

Up until this point, I’ve been under the impression that I do actually like teaching, but it’s the other stuff, the planning, the grading, the organizing, the managing of classroom behavior, and all that other teacher crap that I don’t like. I’ve said to my friends, if only I could be a private tutor, then I’d like my job.

Recently, however, there have been signs that some of my kids are actually learning. They did fairly well on my test on Friday, at least relative to their performance on the first unit exam, and many of them actually retained a little bit of what I’ve shown them. I’ve also gotten a few compliments from some of the kids about how they’re starting to get some of the math, and that I really broke it down in a way that helped them understand. “Oh, I get it, Mr. W.” “Mr. W., this is my favorite class.” “I’m startin’ to get this, thanks! You’re better than [another teacher at my school] with showing us this stuff.” (Disclaimer: Now before we start handing out pats on the back, know that these comments are far and few in between. I am NOT, by any means, a master teacher, and that’s not my point here at all. In fact, I’m quite the opposite, I feel like, and these are just examples of the small victories that I’m supposed to cling to during my first year of teaching.)

My reaction to these comments? I certainly feel a little bit of pride, and on my most darkest of days, a little smug that someone thinks I’m a better teacher than a more experienced co-worker. And I’m certainly happy for my students that they’re getting it, and I share their joys and empathize with them.

But these are, like I said, the small victories I’m supposed to hang on to, to put up on a pedestal as my trophy teaching tale, to be recounted over the holidays with family and shared at future TFA gatherings to serve as inspirational fodder for teacher conversation. And despite these small victories, I don’t feel fulfilled at all. Not in a personal, I’m-proud-of-what-I-do-and-my life-is-meaningful kind of way. And I feel guilty that I hear these comments and I’m almost untouched by them, because it makes me feel cold and heartless.

It’s why every Sunday evening I dread going to school the next day, and I hate thinking about lesson planning, and I’m quickly starting to lose my motivation. Even in the face of people telling me positive things, I don’t feel fulfilled. I think I’m supposed to love these moments, and they’re supposed to bring a tear to my eye and make these two (or more…?) years worth it. But so far, not so much.

I came to the conclusion that it’s because teaching is an odd profession where there’s no physical product that I can call my own. There’s nothing that I can point to and say, I made that, because at the end of the day, the student’s learning is still his own more than mine (or at least I feel that way, even if I did play a large role in that development). I think the lack of a physical, tangible resulting product is why I’m so unhappy all the time. Tonight I realized this fact about myself:

I am fulfilled when I create things.

I like seeing what I’ve made. I like being able to touch it, to visualize it, to admire it, to show it off to someone else. The things I like to do reflect this very fact about myself:

  • I was an architecture major, and I loved making models and drawing.
  • I like doing puzzles, and finishing them.
  • Some of my best Friday nights have been the ones where I’ve stayed in to work on my website, because I’m a self-taught web designer and I love geeky, tech-y things like that.
  • I like hands on crafts like carving wood or folding origami. It gives me a sense of accomplishment to make them.

It’s that last bit, that sense of accomplishment, that I’m missing right now. And it worries me, because I’ve got over a year and a half of this to go, and I want to feel that sense of accomplishment and fulfillment once I’m done. One of my readings for Penn class said something about teaching that I found to be a very interesting interpretation of our profession. It was an article about child development and how teachers play such a big role in defining children’s identities of themselves and how they fit into the world. This is, of course, a rather obvious statement, given that adolescents spend the majority of their time in school, and the constant feedback cycle of testing, interpreting teachers’ reactions, and testing and reinterpreting again helps them shape how they feel about themselves. And the end of the article, though, it said something rather profound to me: that in the same way our children’s identities are shaped by us, our very own identities as teachers are shaped by our children’s reactions and the feedback we get from them. That is, teachers are vulnerable to a lot of ups and downs because how we feel about ourselves and our ability to perform our livelihood, that is, teaching, is put into the hands of adolescents who have no clue about how they make us feel. And that is so true, because by what other metric do we have to measure our success?

There is, as I’ve found, no end product to judge our worth as teachers and as functioning, contributing members of society other than the feedback we get from students either clicking with us and our lesson or misbehaving and completely not learning. Teachers inevitably internalize that as, “Man, I’m good at my job,” or, “Wow, I suck as a teacher,” because there is nothing tangible to look at and be able to say, “I’m good at what I do for a living.” All we have to go by is how well our kids responded to us on any given day, and also, eventually, a bunch of scores from tests that my students will take in 5 months. That’s what it’s reduced to, it seems. Test data and an immeasurable quality called “impact”. And it’s really tough to feel great about something so ephemeral and ellusive.

At this point, I’d rather show someone my architecture portfolio.

3 Responses

  1. Gary

    Hang in there… It is easy for me to say I have been teaching for 36 years and I know the frustration. But for me it has been a great career. The only way I survived was to get involved with clubs and with my professional organization.

    I get ask the question that kids must be different than when I started? My answer is not really. I personally have found that if a student can tell you care and you are honest and firm with them they will usually do any thing you ask them too. Finally, try to laugh and have fun each day.

    Gary Wynn

  2. Will

    Thanks for the comment, Gary. I’m hoping to come to a point when I can truly appreciate the little things. Even on the good days, when I feel like I’ve made a positive impact on my students’ lives, I don’t yet feel like I’ve made a positive impact on my own life, and that’s what I’m hoping (praying?) will come once I get into the swing of things.

  3. LaQuana

    If you dread getting up each morning to go to work you’re unhappy. I think that’s a sure fire sign more than anything else. I’d rather you walk away now and go do something that makes you happy than to “stick with it” just so you don’t feel like a quitter. What if you do stick around and stay until your TFA tenure is over and you still realize after 2 years your thoughts haven’t changed? You’ll feel like you wasted 2 years of your life. You don’t want to feel that way. Overall, I hope it works out for you no matter which path you decide to take.

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tales of a Philly math teacher

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