Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 27 2013

less drowning, more land.

They say that time doesn’t change things, people change things, and I think this week is evidence that the two tend to coexist in perfect (or imperfect) harmony.


I’m not really sure quite where to start. I know I have been fundamentally changed by this week, more than I could have ever imagined, and yet it’s not a sad change. It’s not like when I was graduating college, or leaving home – the times when I felt myself changing and it was sad and scary and unknown. This kind of change feels…right, somehow. Teaching 30 hormonal sixth-graders is without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done, but it is so exhilarating and satisfying and fulfilling. I once heard a quote about something – running, maybe? – and I’be always remembered it. “It made him weary beyond reason. But it also made him free.” And that’s what this week has been for me.

The first part of the week was basically hell. I would come home and just be completely sad and overwhelmed, to the point where I was having trouble getting work done. I found it hard to bounce back from the inevitable insanity of teaching last period of the day, when students are just done with controlling themselves and done with sitting in a seat. I’m not going to lie. There were times when the thought of giving up seemed more than a little tempting. I imagined my life without the five hours of sleep, the stress, the fear of something actually very wrong breaking out in my classroom. But I’ve had a few discussions over the past few days which have really shaped the way I view myself and my purpose.

I don’t want to get into specifics because as I said, I don’t want people to talk to me to be worried their words will end up on the Internet. So I will just say that I’ve talked to many people about this and they’ve given me a lot to think about. Here are some questions I’ve come up with over the past few days:


What does it mean to believe that all students can learn? To what extent does that inhibit ability to look at background factors? Can one look at these factors and still maintain a sense of purpose and possibility? To what extent may the two may not be as mutually exclusive as some intimate?

How much should you pour into your students? Everything? Only part of yourself? How much do you save for yourself – and is that selfish?

What have previous teachers (TFA or non TFA) thought about the very students you teach?

What messages have students internalized about themselves and their potential for academic performance?

How does being labeled a behavior problem create a self-fulfilling prophecy?


Wednesday was a marginal improvement. I tried some new behavior management techniques courtesy of some amazing mentors I have within TFA. One thing my CMA told me – which I found incredibly helpful – was the idea that I shouldn’t try to solve everything at once. I should pick the one thing in my classroom that is most getting in the way of student learning. And for me that thing was talking. The incessant talking drives me crazy and creates an environment of chaos, instability, and distraction. It sends the message to my students that the classroom is basically the same as a locker room, a cafeteria, a day hanging out with friends. And for the students who ARE well-behaved and on-task, it creates an inhospitable learning environment that prevents them from doing their best. So I decided that was the issue I would tackle first.

I spent all of Wednesday just focusing on the talking. As I said to a friend of mine (and at the risk of sounding crass), I basically behavior narrated the hell out of them. I narrated everything and though it felt weird to me, it made a difference. I also started incorporated Scholar Dollars (our school’s reward system) which is a nice way of reminding students that actions are tied with consequences. Many of my students fundamentally do not understand the way their current actions influence others’ perceptions of them, and their own achievement in life. The third part of the BMC, my consequences, weren’t doing so hot though. I wasn’t enforcing them consistently and “with fidelity” (as they say here).

Today was a turning point. For me and for my classroom. I realized that my students had never internalized the importance of scoring well on exit tickets. Exit tickets are a way for them to track their progress and a way to see whether they’ve gotten a firm grasp on the material. Last night, I made an 80% Wall of Fame to shout out students for 80% mastery on the exit tickets. I was incredibly worried about it actually implementing it today though. My students had a pretty disastrous time coming back from breakfast this morning, and I knew that behavior only tends to get worse throughout the day, so I was panicked about what I’d face. I ended up running into one of the TFA adults in the school hallway, who pulled me into a room as I cried and told her how scared I was. She told me that that was just the problem – that I was scared. That I was scared of my kids, that I wasn’t confident, that in my mind I was telling myself they couldn’t be controlled so in reality they wouldn’t be able to be controlled.

She was right. 100%, absolutely right. We’ve been really trying to build student investment and positive culture to counteract the way behavior management can seem like a kind of negative incentive. I started off class confidently by shouting out the students who got 80% mastery, behaviorally narrating/offering snaps to students who came up to the board to do problems, and encouraging students to stand up when speaking so they would appear confident in their answers. I gave quick but direct consequences and made students understood that when they choose to deviate from behavioral expectations, those actions have consequences, but it’s because I care about them and I believe they can do their best.

The results blew me away earlier today and they blow me away now. For nearly the entire class, my students were organized, self-motivated, and above all else – QUIET. This has pretty much never happened. Various adults (who I’m pretty sure had heard about my behavior management problems) cycled in and out, pausing to give me a thumbs-up or a smile as they quickly slipped in and out. I gained more energy throughout the lesson and found myself genuinely enjoying teaching for the first time this week. I still feel like I’m on a “teaching high.” Who knows whether my students will behave on Monday, who knows whether my positive feelings about Instiutte will last, who knows whether this is just a fleeting thing. But even if it’s fleeting I want to seize it and capture it. Life here is really hard and I’m trying to find the positive in all the things I can. Yesterday I literally fell off the bus (yes, a school bus not a struggle bus) and spilled folders everywhere and it was a laugh-or-cry moment so I just chose to laugh.

And that brings me to the idea of bringing the joy factor. We discussed that a lot this afternoon. Respecting our students as people, building relationships with them, making class/school fun and not just a place of test taking and rules. I’d lost that. The joy factor. I’d lost that at school, I’d lost that in my personal life. Instead of obsessively lesson planning last night I walked around Rice at twilight and then headed to a local coffee shop to grade assessments. My best friend (a TFA 2012 CM) came to help me grade, and it was wonderful to just be away from all of the stress and craziness of 900 TFA CMs all clustered together. Maybe I’m not doing Institute right. Maybe I should hang out with everyone more, maybe I should be a better teacher by now, maybe I should be more into the perfectionistic poster-making that seems to consume many other people I see. But I’m feeling good about myself and my performance here for the first time in a while. And to me, that means the world.

I’ve learned it’s all about the little things. Asset-based thinking, as TFA calls it, or really just appreciating the small joys of life. It’s easy to look at my class and see dozens and dozens of years of combined societal failure. But when I look at my students, I don’t se that. I see potential. I see students at a crossroads in their life, standing on the precipice of making decisions that will impact them for the rest of their lives. I see a campus meeting at the end of the day filled with laughing CMs, happy adults, smiling people. I see bus rides home looking at the beautiful Houston skyline. I see one of my most behaviorally-challenged students responding positively to my continued (probably annoyingly repetitive) admonitions of Team and Family. Leadership. Role modeling. Respect. Living with integrity.

I see the person I am becoming and the person I want to be. I don’t know who that person is quite yet, but this week has shown me that with strength and grit, I can at least somewhat gracefully navigate the ups, downs, challenges, joys, and adventures of becoming someone who has found her place in the world.



One final note. I have been absolutely, completely blown away by the overwhelmingly kind/helpful response to my struggles earlier this week. From my best friends, to 2011 and 2012 CMs, to people I haven’t talked to in a while, to people I don’t even know but who took the time to provide some helpful words…I am extraordinarily indebted and can only hope that through my teaching & the students I may someday impact, I can adequately pay it forward.

4 Responses

  1. dcchillin

    Also, as an anecdote:

    I found a girl in my CMA group sobbing on the bus back from Institute on the second Friday of teaching. She had a class of 30 high schoolers that she absolutely could not control.

    But she stuck with it.

    Fast forward two years, she received one of three regional Philly awards for best 2nd year CM.

    Just something to keep in mind.

  2. dcchillin

    Glad to hear it’s going better. Just keep in mind that the less experienced you are, the more wildly inconsistent you will be. Although this can be maddening, try not to tie your emotional well-being to your success on a day-to-day basis. Instead, every class, (whether it was amazing or horrific), try to reflect logically and take a way one or two things that you want to stick with and one or two things you want to improve.

    Best of Luck,
    DC Chillin

  3. Kristen

    Love you. Always will. Proud BFF over here. My 10 third graders at institute kicked my behind, which makes me ultra impressed that you could keep 30 sixth graders quiet. You’re amazing.

  4. Allison

    I’m so glad your day today went better! Looking forward to hearing more about you gradually finding the joy in teaching–you are doing amazing things! And for the record, it sounds like you are doing Institute exactly right :)

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Journeys, challenges, & writings of a first-year teacher.

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