Middle School Hero

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 19 2013

Breaking up with Sue Lehmann

Disclaimer: I feel like I by and large write two kinds of posts for this site. I write a lot of posts simply about what it’s like to teach at a Title I school because I think it’s important for people to know what things are truly like in the trenches.

That being said, sometimes I write about myself. It’s cathartic, it helps my close friends and family keep up with me, and I do it for me because I know I’ll want to go back and see how exactly it felt to be here, doing what I’ve been doing.

With that in mind, I don’t want anyone to read any sort of political subtext in to this. I’m not commenting on my school, district, or TFA at all when I say that early this year, I broke up with Sue Lehmann.

It was another long night at school, the kind that ends up with me getting Taco Bell for dinner at 10 pm. I was spending my time working on myriad tasks, working on my classroom, writing notes to students, setting up the binder with all my IEPs (modifications for students in the special education program), and typing up the next day’s powerpoint. Sue was with me every step of the way, looking around my room, quietly judging everything. I could tell she disapproved of my trackers. She thought my rigor was too low. She wanted to know why I hadn’t spent more time calling parents. Finally, when she made a sly remark about a lesson plan, I sat her down.

“Listen Sue. We’ve been together for about a year now. In that time, I’ve learned so much from you. You’re a sweet person and you’ve always pushed me to be better. Believe me when I say that I put a lot into this relationship. You know that we’ve spent a lot of time together. But I just can’t do this anymore. We’re done.”

She ran out of the classroom crying and I haven’t seen her since.


Now, to the uninitiated, the Sue Lehmann Award is an award given to the 2nd year corps members who most exemplify the ideal of transformational teaching the Teach For America strives for. Videos of great teaching that incoming corps members watch during Institute oftentimes include footage of Sue Lehmann finalists and TFA examines their visions, goals, and daily work in order to find ways to better support other CMs. All in all, it’s a noble process that I entirely support: reward the very best teachers while figure out what makes them so effective.

The only downside is, it ruined my life last year.

During Institute, I tweeted, “I’m either working or feeling bad about not working.” No one ever told me to work harder but the specter of ‘more, more, more’ hung over everything. I wasn’t satisfied with anything. There were always more parents to call, more PD books to read, better lessons to plan, resources to acquire, data to track, standards to research, on and on and on.

There wasn’t a single day last year where I went home feeling like I had done all I could. At the beginning of the year, I would show up early in the morning, teach all day, run with the cross country team right after school, coach a softball game, drive students home (I know, I know; it can be a liability concern. I did anyways.), then plan for the next day, finally crashing into bed well after midnight only to wake up a few hours later to do it again. Still, it never felt good enough.

Those who know me will tell you that I’m an insanely competitive person. I wanted to be the very best teacher in our corps. All throughout my senior year of college, people told me I would make a great teacher. They knew about my passion for Teach For America’s mission and they thought that my leadership qualities made for a perfect fit.

But I didn’t just want to be the best teacher. I wanted to be the best coach. I wanted to be the social leader within my corps. I also wanted to run marathons faster than the fellow CM that I ran with and I wanted to win at trivia night and write really great poems for the weekly slams I started to compete in and I wanted to win every single indoor soccer game.

I look back over that paragraph and I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Each one of those things is something that, individually, I love. I love running and poetry and sports and hanging out. But put together, it all began to consume me. I started to lose focus of what I loved and began to think too much about my place in the world.

It was all too much.

I’m going to be honest, I spent a lot of last year miserable and stressed out. As someone who truly values and gains strength from relationships, it took me a long time before I felt like I really fit in simply because I got in my own way.

At school, that competitive spirit was just as destructive. I wanted to be that transformational teacher and I wanted to be the best so I would get upset and frustrated when that wasn’t the case. For example, I’m not a naturally organized person. My strengths lie in relationship building and communication, not in creating data walls or getting lesson plans turned in early. Thus, I spent a lot of time frustrated by my own shortcomings. It wasn’t healthy for my students to have a teacher who didn’t enjoy teaching because of all the paperwork and beuaracracy. In hindsight, I should have focused exclusively on what was best for my students (obvious in hindsight, more difficult to pull off in the moment).

Being a first year teacher at the types of schools that we so find ourselves in leaves little room for priorities. You’ve got to have it all figured out because there aren’t minutes to waste, in the classroom and out and about. Last year, I did a terrible job of managing that and I suffered for it. When I suffered, my kids suffered. No more.

I’ve given up on the ideal. I don’t want or need to be the best teacher in the world and I don’t need to take on the entire education system. Instead, this year I’m focusing on developing a personal relationship with every single one of my students. I’m providing them with all the information an 8th grader needs to understand the path to college. I’m determined to deliver a well-planned, concise lesson each and every day. Without any ideas of heroism in my head, I am 10 times the teacher I was last year.


In addition to the problems I individually have with good ole Sue, I think the award creates an unrealistic playing field for all teachers.

First, let me say that I feel very close to my corps. I talk to many of the people here in Oklahoma City and have a fairly large group that I spend my weekends and nights with, be it through playing sports, planning together, or hanging out. I’ve got my ear pretty close to the ground and I understand what’s going on in classrooms, so I hear things. So-and-so is a really great teacher or this person is struggling. But what’s interesting is that I’ve never watched another corps member teach. And none of them have ever seen me teach. We really don’t know. So all we know is heresy that comes through the grapevine.

So why should I feel like I’m competing against other CMs?

There are so many other mitigating factors. Some teachers don’t have classrooms. Last year, none of my students were native English speakers. One of my good friends taught 4 different classes. We all had different circumstances that prevented us from focusing solely on our classrooms and some people’s situations were better than others’. Yet it still felt like a competition. It still felt like the specter of Sue Lehmann hung over every conversation and meeting. I’m not saying that TFA promoted this culture or that anyone else besides me felt it, but it was a real struggle for me.

This year, though, things are so much better. And it’s funny, because as soon as I stopped competing, I started to be much more successful. I don’t know if anyone else can relate to this, but if so, my message is simple: focus on you. Take care of yourself and your classroom. Everything else will take care of itself.

4 Responses

  1. Meg Barnett

    D, I’m happy you posted this. I’m happy that you said all of these things, because goodness knows, we’ve all felt them at one point or another. Thank you for typing the words that have lived in our heartbeats over the past year — and for reminding us that there is another way of being/teaching.

    I’m also extraordinarily happy that you are happier & healthier this year. You deserve to just do Dalton, and I can’t wait to see what extraordinary things happen when you stop focusing on the extraordinary.

    Love, you, boo. :)

  2. Arielle

    Thank you for writing this! Exactly what I needed to hear going into my first year :)

  3. Dalton, thanks for the candor of this post. Just based on what you write here, I’d guess you may well have the Gallup Theme of “Competitive” and perhaps the Values in Action (VIA) strength of “Zest”. Your post captures the “shadow side” of those strengths in action – and looks like you’ve found a good way to balance that by focusing on relationships. I hope the year goes well for you!

  4. katb

    Hallelujah and bless your heart. I became a much better teacher my first year when I decided to get a life for myself that had nothing to do with twelve year olds. You know, just occasionally.

    Happy human, happy teacher, happy kids!

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Chronicling teaching middle school English in OKC

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