A couple of days ago I had a fantastic conversation with my MTLD. We were talking about myriad things: my plans for year three, the Sue Lehmann nomination I filled out for one of my fellow faculty members, and the intersection of work and play within TFA. Ultimately, I ended up expressing to him a sentiment that I have stated many times on this site, which is the idea that I’m always, always either working or feeling bad about not working. I first tweeted that statement at Institute over a year ago. In the three full semesters of teaching that followed, that feeling has never gone away. It lingered every day, through every break, and then finally faded almost a month into my summer break. Then it came back in full force this year. I’ve learned to cope with it but that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel guilty whenever I’m not working with a student individually (during school) or sitting in front of my laptop (after school).
Of course, as I started talking to him, I started to delve into what has contributed to why I think this way. Please, let me be clear when I say that no one at Teach For America, whether they be Institute staffer, regional staff, or fellow Corps Member, has ever made me feel undervalued, underappreciated, or like I wasn’t doing enough. By the same token, I have been thanked for my work by fellow teachers and by my school’s administration. No one makes me feel like anything less than a competent teacher.
So why do I still feel this way?
Because the TFA promotional packet that I keep in my room says “You have the power to change lives” and I don’t think I have.
Because while almost 100% of my class time is spent working, my kids aren’t challenged enough with the type of rigorous content that they need to master to be college ready.
Because I see kids in gangs, on drugs, without families and all I do is teach and coach them. And that should be enough, but every dinner I didn’t buy, every ride home I didn’t give, every court date I didn’t show up to weighs more heavily on my heart than every good thing I’ve done at this school.
Because my classroom is, to use TFA jargon, either compliant/on-task or interested/hardworking depending on the day, but isn’t transformational, which is a word I must’ve read a thousand times between the time I heard about TFA and the time I walked into my first classroom.
Because I don’t go on home visits. I don’t offer before school tutoring. I teach Saturday School and coach and cover classes but all I can think of is what I’m not doing.
My MTLD listened to all of this attentively and then offered some feedback. He said that yes, there absolutely is a culture within TFA, one that is not directly created by any one person but still permeates everything we do. And he agreed that that implicitly understood standard can be damaging for people.
There is an archetype of what a great TFA teacher is. You see it in videos during Institute and while talking to staff members and in promotional videos. And I wish I could fit that archetype, but I just don’t. I know that I have made and do make a difference here every single day. Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had been replaced by a long term sub (like what happened when a teacher last year went to jail for meth manufacturing) or someone who wasn’t here for the right reasons. And when I think about that, I know that this school is a much better, brighter place because of my presence.
If I’m being completely honest, I have done a lot of good things here. I’ve done a few really good things. I’m a very good teacher. Heck, I might even be a great teacher. But I’m not transformational. And whether that’s a realistic expectation or not, it burns me.