Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 24 2013


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.

10 Responses

  1. Shannon

    Thinking about you. Hope things are looking up. Please let us know regardless.

  2. amdipuh

    Okay, I don’t want this to sound in any way rude because I absolutely don’t mean it as such. What, exactly, did you expect? When you joined the movement and when you researched about Institute–what did you expect? I think reframing your experience might be helpful. You signed up for a challenge and for this call to action not only because you believe in the values and the goal but because something inside of you told you that you could do it. And you can. Hold on to that.

    I agree with the first comment A LOT. Behavioral Narration didn’t sustain my management style for very long but investment did. Why should your kids care about your class when they’ve been promised things in the past that were lies and they’ve experience failure so completely that they’d rather act out and blame their failure on a lack of effort than on trying their best and still coming up short.

    Back track with them. Give them an activity that they absolutely CAN do. Multiplication tables? Simple addition? Choose something and make it a race. How many simple addition problems can you do in one minute today? How much will you improve by tomorrow? and by the end of this summer session? Make it a competition for GROWTH not initial achievement. Now that they’ve started out with success, show them you are different so they can be too. Explain that everything they do is for their own success and you are so totally dedicated to them. If you’re all on the same team, the conversation moves easier. Ask them to write you a letter about what they need from summer school to be more successful next year and beyond. Then listen to them.

    The best overall tip I’ve read on these comments is to NOT engage in a argument with a student about their behavior.

    And, as far as long term learning experiences go–read Teaching with Love and Logic. It’s been super helpful to me. I’m sure someone has also suggested Teach like a Champion, too. I advocate those books because they’re real and aware of the issues we face regularly.

    And, lastly, it’s GOOD that you’re handling this now because you WILL learn so much from it that is helpful in the classroom. I had few behavioral problems during Institute and I was therefore underprepared for my hellions during my first year. You’re hitting the ground running so it’s hard, yes, but it’s all For The Kids in the long run and you’ll be better for your first year students when you get them because you allowed yourself to learn, fall, struggle and then succeed this summer.

    If you need anything, i’m sure you see the outpour of support in your region and with your staff but know that I am also willing to talk with you about any of this! I believe in you! If you didn’t care as much as you do, THEN i’d be worried.

  3. Woefully Underpaid

    First of all, I’m so sorry that you had a lousy first day. But (and I know you won’t like the sound of this right now, but just breathe), 30 students in a classroom is likely going to be low in the fall. You’ll probably have at least that many students but will likely have a good number more than that. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you’re far, far luckier than those CMs who go to institute and teach 4 or 5 or 8 students. They walk into school and face what you had to face today. This is a wonderful learning opportunity for you.

    TFA basically just teaches the BMC at Institute. That’s it. It’s a one trick pony and, quite frankly, is only somewhat effective and is certainly not sufficient. Since TFA isn’t giving you what you need, you need to be proactive and put google to good use finding strategies that will work for you.

    Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    1) Assign seats. Today you got to see who the instigators were. Separate them. Keep friends away from each other.

    2) Turn negatives into positives. Call aside your instigators and tell them that you’ve noticed that they are natural leaders. Other students listen to them and that makes them really special. Other people have to learn how to be leaders and pay money to learn what they can do naturally. Tell them that you want to help them develop their leadership skills and assign them roles in the classroom that give them responsibility and accountability.

    3) Use a countdown timer that students can see. You can project one onto the board. Try http://e.ggtimer.com/ or this one http://www.online-stopwatch.com/full-screen-stopwatch/ (neither have advertisements) Set a timer for each task. It’s amazing how much of an impact it can have when students actually SEE their time slipping away.

    4) You know that these are kids who are used to failing. As you know from today, failing sucks. Failing repeatedly sucks worse. It’s embarrassing. It’s demoralizing. Begin each day by giving them something at which they can succeed. They won’t try a Do Now that’s “hard” at first because they don’t trust you. You need to earn that trust by giving them chances to get it right (EVEN IF IT’S NOT ON GRADE LEVEL) and you need to take EVERY opportunity to truly celebrate (not gloss over) the things they do right.

    5) Never get into a battle of wills with students. Remember that even when they try to challenge your authority, YOU are in charge. By engaging with them, you give them power. Instead, do your best to remain calm and don’t raise your voice. Use humor. Use silence. Also, make sure that you’re actually issuing commands. Many new teachers struggle with this. They make requests such as, “OK, so I’d really like it if everyone could please sit down and get started on the assignment.” or “Can you please do your work now?” A request is optional. A command is not. Read this http://www.interventioncentral.org/behavioral-interventions/challenging-students/working-defiant-kids-communication-tools-teachers and http://www.interventioncentral.org/behavioral-interventions/challenging-students/school-wide-strategies-managing-defiance-non-complianc And if the whole class is out of control and you can’t get them all to listen, work in quadrants to quiet them down and get them to work. They’re used to getting into trouble. Getting into trouble is a way to get OUT of doing work. Stop the cycle.

    6) YouTube is your friend. Find SHORT videos if possible that actually illustrate the concepts. You can download the videos using an add-on on the Firefox browser (there are several). Don’t do it every day, but do it. If you can’t find anything, find a short (1-3 minute) funny or inspirational video to share.

  4. Kayla


    Steve said a lot that I agree with. During my first year, I taught 30 6th graders for the entire day in elementary school.

    1.) Know that this is one of the hardest ages – they’re hormonal, they’re getting to the stage where they are able to be a little independent but still need an adult to direct them a good amount.

    2.) They NEED a lot of time to talk. I HATED realizing this, but it is just the truth. HOWEVER that time needs to be structured and controlled by YOU. Whether that means you allow them 30 seconds right before class starts to get everything out to their neighbor, think/pair/share, whatever. Allow them time to talk, but it’s under your circumstances

    3.) The BIGGEST BIGGEST BIGGEST thing I ever learned during my time at TFA and year one was do NOT dwell or drag on a behavioral redirection. The WORST place you can put yourself in is an argument with a student. If you give them a chance to comment/argue back (or put them on front street as they would say) with a redirection you are putting them in a place of control and then the other kids will get drawn in and take the focus off of you. And never raise your voice to the extent it seem you’re screaming and out of control. It needs to be firm and quick.

    For example, let’s say J is constantly turning and talking to his neighbor while you’re teaching. You may try the “wait period” where you say, “I’ll wait.” He redirects but, then continues talking as you turn around. Then call him out by name, but it is quick, to the point and you go RIGHT back to teaching. Don’t even give him a SECOND of power or focus on him.

    Such as, “J it’s your choice whether you want to learn whether I’m teaching or not, but I need you to stop talking so you don’t take learning time from someone else. Anyways someone just told me that setting was the time and place that a story takes place. Can anyone tell me the setting in our story today?”

    Sometimes teachers (including me my first year) wait TOO long that it disengages the rest of the students. Teach what you need to teach, then give your students a second to either discuss or work independently, THEN go over and have a conversation quietly with him one-on-one. This allows a sense of trust and you haven’t embarrassed him in front of all his friends. Don’t put kids on front street – they fight back. And most of the time, you’ll lose.

    Lastly, 30 students is hard. So know that you are in an extremely tough place especially being in the afternoon. Afternoons are ALWAYS hardest. Students (and adults) are tired from lunch, feel drowsy, and are ready to leave. Take comfort in knowing that some of the factors are out of your control. The best thing you can do I would say whole group is to keep your voice FIRM. Don’t scream/yell (like I said earlier). Behavior narrate the CRAP out of every positive student. And you’re going to have to find something they all want. Whether it’s 5 minutes at the end of class to play a game, candy, a prize. SOMETHING. Tangible rewards sometimes just have to happen until you have the power in the class and can weed them off.

    Sorry if this was too long. Please feel free to reach out to me if you want encouragement and to talk to a CM who had the same age group and amount of kids you did.


  5. Shannon

    Anddd…THIS is why people are critical of TFA. I’m sorry this happened to you, and to countless others. There is so much more to why urban schools struggle than “teachers have low expectations for their students.” Behavioral management is an art. It’s something you will develop over time, and it is something that is best introduced slowly, not through baptism by fire (which is what throwing a Day One teacher in front of 30 behaviorally challenged, failing students is!) I wish I had some great trick or advice, but this is one of those situations where you just have to do the best you can to get through it.

  6. M

    It will get better. This is different from anything you are used to. Training is one thing, you don’t truly understand what they were trying to teach you until you are in front of the class. I love that you went through all the techniques trying to find the right one. It might be a mix of many techniques. You might have to figure out how these techniques work with who YOU are. Above all remain calm, don’t let them take the reigns.

    Also glad you will be doing tag team teaching today.

    I hope today is better. Let me know ok?

  7. I have to second DC Chillin/Steve. Also, can I just say big props to you for taking some time away from “TFA-land” this evening. When you need it, take it. Also, try, try, try to get whatever amount of rest you need before you have to get up in the morning. I’m a night owl, but my co-teacher at Institute always went on her evening run and went to bed at 10 p.m. I can attest that she was noticeably better for it! Take what you can from this experience, but know that it gets better!

  8. Rachel

    I was commenting a second ago and had a technical failure. If my comments show up twice, I’m sorry.

    But, I believe in you, love you, and am praying for you. If you’re like me, it’s especially difficult to so deeply believe in the work that you are doing but feel like a failure. I felt similarly during Institute and well into my second year.

    You’re not a failure. I think that teaching remains the most challenging yet rewarding work I’ve ever done, and I constantly had to remind myself that if what I faced was an easy task, the people who came before me would have solved the problems I faced.

    My literacy specialist shared an MLK quote that I read almost daily while teaching: “now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God…shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we say the struggle is too hard?…or will there be another message–of longing, of hope, of commitment to the cause, whatever the cost.” You and your students are part of this beautiful struggle. You can do it.

  9. DC Chillin

    I just wanted to add on that staying calm, confident, and in control is anything but easy, and I am still developing classroom management after two years in the classroom. But it’s what you should strive for.

  10. DC Chillin


    I just finished my two year commitment teaching sixth grade math (and I’m staying on for a third year). I’m going to give you two pieces of advice that may contradict what your CMA and TFA will tell you. 1: You need to use this as an opportunity to develop your teaching, and not worry very much at all about the students learning a ton. I say this not because your students aren’t important, but because even a miracle worker can’t teach math to 30 students in the summer who are years behind. Highly effective veteran teachers struggle to catch up class sizes of 20-25 over an entire year who start the year far behind.

    2: Don’t worry about content so much as teaching routines and procedures. Teaching content comes after. Be incredibly explicit (firm, consistent, not mean) about what you expect and explain why. Be patient. Don’t show frustration. That gives students power. This isn’t a miracle solution, but over a few days it will definitely help make a classroom more functional.

    Good luck.


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