Teach Houston

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 08 2013

on humility.

I want to word this very carefully & intentionally, because I’m feeling pretty emotional about it but I want to make sure things come out the way they’re intended to.

I also fully recognize that in and of itself, just writing this post seems counterintuitive/hypocritical. But I also think it’s a perspective that needs to be shared; as I said before, if I’m not being honest with all of this then there’s really no point.


One of TFA’s core values, the one that speaks to me the most, is respect & humility. I know they meant this in the context of working with communities/parents/unions/etc. As in, we (teachers) should be extraordinarily humble in our dealings with all who we encounter, because we are but one piece of a huge puzzle, all working for the betterment of children. I get that and I deeply respect that, but in terms of my Institute journey, humility has taken on a rather different meaning.

In my life, especially over the past four years, I’ve been bad at things. Extraordinarily bad. I used to be pre-med but could barely make it through General Chemistry (plus I realized I feel like I’m going to pass out even when doing things like putting in my own earrings or watching the gross parts of ER). I got a 62 in my Econ class after putting in 110% effort for an entire semester – I ended up putting a pass/fail on the class, but still. I’ve been bad at non-academic things too. Relationships. Jobs. Public speaking things. I am totally and completely okay with being bad at something. I always remind myself to think infinitely, to know that being bad at something now just means I have room for improvement; getting something right the first time only means you have less opportunity to dig in and find out who you really are.

In my life I’ve never been the worst at something.

I’ve been bad at things, but there was always someone else who was struggling just like I was, and I could always see a way out. For the first time I can’t see a way out and it terrifies me.


I’m okay with being vulnerable but lately it’s gotten a little out of hand. I’ve cried in front of more TFA non-corps-members adults than I could count. My classroom management is still far behind that of many other corps members. I’m giving myself a little bit of slack, as one of the people who observed me today acknowledged that I have one of the “most difficult” classroom situations at Institute this year. In a vacuum I would be more okay with this, I suppose, but TFA seems like a constant environment of comparison and judgment. There is always one more story of someone who made a huge breakthrough with their students. There’s always one more story of someone whose test scores are over-the-top high. There’s always one more story of someone who had a life-changing discussion with a poorly-behaved student. And I like hearing these stories, some of the time, because they remind me of what’s possible.

In these moments I am 70% grateful for the experience of working alongside such talented individuals, grateful for the chance to deepen my sense of humility. But the other 30% of me turns inward and starts to doubt myself. I hate that I do this, but I do, and I have a running dialogue: What am I doing here? Why was I chosen? Is there something about me that’s holding me back from succeeding the way my fellow CMs are succeding? What if they made a mistake? I fully recognize it’s all irrational but it’s hard to stop. I’m hard on myself – not for the first time things go wrong, but for the second and third and fourth time. Why is it taking me so long to fix this? Why haven’t things gotten better by now? Why are the tools they’re suggesting not actually working? Is it my fault?

There’s the short-term, in-the-moment humility – as in, don’t cry when you’re getting feedback because everything he’s saying is right and it will help you - and then there’s the long-term, gritty, day after day after day humility. I’m good at the first part but I’m struggling with the second part. For every class that goes well, there are three that don’t, and the frustrating part is that I honestly don’t see much correlation with my actions and my students’ behavior. Even if I’m having an off day, they can come in and get themselves together; the converse is also sadly true. No matter how much planning and prepping and practice I do, if my students are having an off day, I just don’t know how to pull them out of it. This lack of feedback loop is incredibly frustrating because it seems to invalidate a lot of the work I do. I will obviously put so much effort into my lesson plans, because it’s the right thing to do, but it feels less urgent when I know I won’t be able to deliver the content in a constant stream-of-thought (I have to keep stopping about twice per minute to reign in behavior).

The gritty humility happens outside of the classroom too. Though I’ve always been treated with nothing but professionalism, encouragement, and respect, it’s weird to be around adults knowing that I’m one of the most-struggling corps members. That’s not something that has been attached to my identity in the past. I wonder if it’s just for Institute or if it’ll be that way next year too. I don’t mind it, per se, but it just feels a little weird. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating cycle where I struggle, and then adults notice it, and then they help me, and I feel bad for struggling in the first place, and then I get inside my own head, and struggle more. I know I just need to grow up and accept that I’m one of the most-struggling people here and that’s okay and doesn’t mean anything about my identity as a person. But in the TFA bubble, my identity as a person (at least for now) is seemingly irrevocably intertwined with my identity as a teacher. It’s hard to continue to be part of something you know you’re pretty bad at. It’s hard to go in, day after day, knowing that you will still struggle because progress comes achingly slowly.

My first instinct when typing this is to be really uncomfortable with putting this out there, because I know there are people who will read this and just stereotype me as a classic TFA overachiever basket-case with no perspective on life. But I promised to feel my feelings, and write about them, so with that I throw this out there for the world; please treat it with care.


I’m trying my hardest to keep perspective. I want to keep my non-TFA parts of myself alive and excited about life. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own personal faith (trust the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, anyone?) and what it means to live a life not judged on a rubric. It’s hard to do this so deeply ensconced in an environment of comparison. But I’m giving it everything I have.


Three positive things:

1. I see little progresses. Before, 70% of my class was apathetic & unruly, and the other 30% was just apathetic. We’re now at 20% engagement, 50% apathy, and 30% unruly. The engaged students actually step up and try to redirect the unruly students. I’m getting better at investment. My students understand why it’s crucial to be on-track for Algebra I in 8th grade. They shout each other out each morning. They volunteer for classroom jobs. They volunteer for classroom jobs even when there’s no reward. They have, for the most part, stopped copying off each other on their exit tickets. I’m making some progress.

2. My kids think I’m 32 and are absolutely stymied as to why I don’t have a husband & kids yet.

3. I got observed/evaluated today at one of the lowest points in my lesson, when my kids were struggling to keep themselves on-task. I was prepared to get ripped apart by my evaluator. But instead, when I read the feedback, it had words like fortitude and I can tell how hard you’re working and you’re doing yeomen’s duty. People have infinite capacity to find the good in tough situations. I need to be doing more of that myself.

5 Responses

  1. I agree 110 percent with Sal. It’s incredibly difficult to go in and make a difference in four weeks. You may be struggling now, but in the fall you’ll have faced many of the big challenges already. Every group of kids is different, every year is different. They change, you change. The best thing you can do is learn from your experiences and always, always be consistent with your students!

  2. meghank

    Now that you’ve been through all this, you’ll be utterly paranoid about your classroom in the fall, and you’ll come in stronger on the first day and have a much better school year as a result.

  3. tlmerrie

    I don’t get the impression that you are the typical TFA over achiever at all. You may be in TFA, and you may be an over achiever, but you seem far more reflective and willing to consider alternative viewpoints.

  4. Sal

    I’m going to be straight with you: summer school is nothing like your fall classroom will be. Make sure you seek out mentor veteran teachers at school…you will learn so much from them. I know it’s tough to do, but don’t compare yourself to anyone else. You’ll have your own victories…embrace them. You’ll be just fine…I promise!

  5. LHP

    Don’t. Give. Up.

    Believe it or not, your kids who are giving you the most trouble now will likely be the ones that will tell you that they will miss you the most. Kids are funny like that. You’ll see.

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

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