It’s extraordinarily difficult to write this, mainly because it’s so real/raw/fresh/tear-inducing in my mind, but also because it’s hard to discuss without giving too many specific details.
I really don’t even know where to begin.
Today was our first day of teaching. We walked in blind – we had no class roster, no assessment scores, no idea of how many students would be in our classroom. As it turned out, there were thirty. Thirty students in one classroom. There weren’t enough desks so we had to haul in chairs from other classrooms. These thirty students were in summer school because they had failed at least one section of the state test and were at risk for being held back. I taught with two other teachers for the first part of the morning (which is a sort of flex period) and then had until 12:45 to get ready to teach my lesson. It became clear about six minutes into the first part of the morning that this class had major, major behavior issues. Between the three of us we managed to handle things okay – lots of behavior narration, lots of staying on our toes – but as soon as the other two left, the wheels came off the train.
By the time I got the students at 12:45 things were a complete disaster. The class had been learning in the same classroom for the entire day and had just gotten out of a math class, meaning they were facing their second straight hour of math sitting in the same seats. I don’t blame them for being antsy; I certainly would’ve been too. But this was more than just antsy. It was…there are literally no words. It was pretty much hell.
I didn’t really teach. I tried to teach, but I didn’t. Students didn’t do their Do Now. They didn’t do their Guided Notes. They could barely make their way through the Exit Ticket. Part of this is that the students are so far behind in math – without basic foundational knowledge, there is essentially no way I will be able to teach anything that builds off their knowledge. Their English teacher (also another 2013 CM) said that ten of the students – a full third of this sixth-grade class – cannot read. No wonder they couldn’t manage their Guided Notes.
I spent the time trying to engage them and manage their behavior, but they were just out of control. 30 students is just insane. I pulled out every trick in the book and even managed to control them a little bit, but it was just a runaway train. I remember at one point, facing the board and thinking for a second…what the hell am I doing here? I am literally the only adult in this classroom. There are thirty students yelling at my back and if I turn around, they’ll be yelling directly at me. What am I doing here.
There were a few bright spots. I’d reached out to a group of girls earlier in the day and they stepped up gracefully, encouraging their classmates to behave in the afternoon. One amazing volunteer cleaned up spilled milk in the classroom. One of the most – active, shall we say – students from the morning was incredibly on-task in the afternoon. But all in all it was an unmitigated disaster, and I was completely alone. No CMA. No Faculty Advisor. No one. Just me.
I didn’t cry in front of my class, thank God. As soon as the bell rang and I shepherded them through the dismissal process I hurried through the halls, keeping my head down, praying I wouldn’t cry til I got to my CMA group’s room. I lasted, but just barely. I started crying around 1:45 and it’s been on and off since then, nine hours later.
It’s been pretty embarrassing, to tell the truth. I’m not used to being such a complete mess in public, especially in front of people I don’t know. My CMA has been amazingly supportive and because the other two teachers had such a hard time with my students as well, we are going to team-teach in groups of two tomorrow. Hopefully that’ll let one person be the lead teacher and one person handle the one-on-one conversations with students. Every other CM who taught Block IV (starting at 12:45) had a similarly awful experience – so it’s not just me. I think we were all crying by the beginning of our post-lesson literacy session. One of the other CMAs who has been so sweet to me gave me a high-five for not crying in front of the students. haha. I cried my way through our literacy session that afternoon, because I felt like such a failure but also because I was angry. I was angry at TFA for putting me in this situation. I was angry at the literacy lesson I had to sit through, which felt absurdly irrelevant because I can’t control my class, let alone teach them literacy. I was angry at myself for not being able to handle things as gracefully as everyone else had. I was angry at my students for their disrespect, I was angry at their parents for no reason at all, I was angry at society for so completely, breathtakingly failing these children.
I don’t think I have ever felt as hopeless or useless as I did in that moment. Things have gotten generally better since then. I was still upset for the entire bus ride home but managed to pull myself together to attend a pool party with some Rice friends. I hadn’t been planning on going (since I thought I needed to practice for tomorrow) but I’m reteaching my lesson from today, since I guarantee no student learned anything from that lesson. Plus I figured it would be a good idea to get off-campus and away from TFA-land for a while.
So that’s where things stand. I have a headache from crying too much and not drinking enough water. My eyes feel weird. I have this awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, the kind you get in the midst of a bad breakup when you wake up in the morning and all of the sudden remember – with a swooping feeling – how sad life is in that moment. I am literally dreading going to school tomorrow. I haven’t eaten anything today; I was too nervous to eat before my lesson and too upset/gross-feeling to eat afterwards. My CMA promised he would help me out a little bit but I can’t even begin to explain how futile I feel in the classroom. Just remembering it makes me tear up and feel like I will never, ever be good at this.
I know that this is something all new teachers must deal with. And I was dealt a particularly rough hand: 30 students, lots of pre-diagnosed behavior problems and learning issues, end of the day, same classroom, second hour of math, behavior problems from early in the day, no adults in the room except for me, etc. But the fact remains that I have to have high expectations. I have to. I had the students take surveys at the beginning of class, telling me what they wanted to get out of class. I’m going to write up a few of their responses (anonymously of course) and hang them on posters around the room. I want to pass the sixth grade. I want to get to college. I want to do well. It infuriates me that they have such lofty dreams and yet their actions don’t match up. If I want them to get anything out of the next few weeks, it’s the understanding that actions have consequences and never occur in a vacuum.
At the end of the day, we had our all-campus meeting. I tried hard to be positive and celebrate others’ successes with building a positive classroom culture but I just lost it. again. in front of everyone. I know that tomorrow will be better, and the next day will be better, but…things just feel very overwhelming right now. Many non-TFA people have texted me to see how the day went. I don’t even know how to respond. I don’t even know how to explain it to myself. I feel like I’m in the midst of a bad dream, and yet things are so disturbingly real.
People have said Institute is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. I’m beginning to see why. I still have faith in the process – faith in myself – faith in my students – faith in their future. It’s a little shaky right now but I’m fighting to hold onto it. Without faith there really isn’t hope, and that’s a situation I refuse to accept.