Anxiety (subtitled: Lessons in TFA)

I have learned a lot of adaptive skills and lessons during my almost two years in Teach For America.

First, there was the lesson that you can’t trust everyone. Sadly, there are people out there seeking only their own happiness.  There are also those who for whatever reason, have stopped helping others because they are too busy protecting themselves.  This is what a lot of teachers are like (not all, of course).  They are selfish, angry people who hate their students and gossip about their colleagues.  And they do this because for 20 years they have made very little money, worked themselves to the bone, received no praise, only ridicule from their superiors, and have had 1,000 children cuss them out while they were trying to help them.

These teachers become pessimistic, angry, gossips.  And the children they teach?  They have been through poverty and neglect, violence and despair, and it has turned them into violent, angry people, who say anything they can to hurt you.  It’s not really the teachers’ fault.  And it’s not the child’s.  It’s not even the parents’ fault, who messed the child up in the first place.  It’s not their parents’ or their parents’ or theirs.

It’s anger, violence, and poverty’s fault–the evil in the world that causes selfishness.  And because people are selfish, a person cannot go through life innocently trusting everyone.  Such a mindset will lead to people taking advantage of you.

Before I joined TFA, I honestly didn’t interact up close with that many people.  There were people in my classes, people I passed on the street, people I spoke to briefly at my job.  But TFA brings you in real contact with hundreds of people, both adults and children, all of them experiencing some level of suffering.  Instead of sitting on a park bench watching people pass and imagining what they are like (and believing them to be wonderful deep down) experiencing so much suffering in others has tested my ability to see the good in people, because when you get down and dirty with them, most of the time they will break your heart.

The second lesson I learned in Teach For America is to not take too much time focused on something.  I remember when I was in college stage managing, I would stay at the theater until 1, 2 in the morning and catch the last bus home, just so I could finish formatting a spreadsheet.  Well, that much attention to detail in this profession will literally kill you.  In order to be a teacher, you have to stop proofreading your emails.  You have to slap something together 20 minutes before presenting it, and you have to go up there and teach without taking an hour to visualize it before hand.  When you grade a paper, you can’t go over it to make sure you wrote everything you wanted to say.  You have to put it back in the pile and go on to the next paper, or you will work 24/7.

Part of that same lesson, the lesson of time management, is that people often demand things of you that you just cannot do.  Sometimes there is no time to complete that last survey, and other times you have to say no just because if you do one more thing you will just explode.  You have to protect yourself from the will of others and make sure you are taking care of yourself first.

Third and finally, the big lesson/skill I have acquired is the ability to assert myself in a difficult situation.  I used to be much more of an awkward people watcher, rather than the person who spoke up when they were disgruntled in a meeting.  And to be a teacher, particularly in a “low-income” school, you need to be able to master not only speaking up for yourself, you need to be able to wrestle 150 angry, broken middle schoolers into submitting to your will.  And you need to be able to do this not once, but every day, 180 days of every year.

You need to spend a lot of your free time, too, thinking about how you will be able to do it again and again.  And when the kids say, “When is this class over?” “I hate this class?” or “Shut up, b*tch,” you need to be able to calmly and forcefully remove that obstacle and regain control of the situation.

Each one of these lessons has been, individually, the greatest struggle I have maybe ever had, the greatest obstacle I have ever had to overcome.  It was especially hard learning that cardinal rule of low-income teaching, that you are only an authority to these children when you are asserting your authority, and the second you stop, it all ends.

There is one thing, however, that people have been suggesting I learn for almost two years now that I cannot seem to master.  I have heard it from friends and colleagues at least two hundred times: to not take things personally.  When a student tells me he hates me, or when a lesson plan flops, or when some rogue child in the hallway opens the door mid-class to shout in that you are a whore, and the whole class (who you thought was on your side) laughs at you instead of getting angry–those things still upset me.

My department chair is a wise man whom I have come to respect greatly, and I tried taking his advice for a while–learning to not take the things we encounter in teaching personally is tremendously difficult, and it takes time and a great amount of practice.

But things have come to a head in recent weeks, as all the second year Corps Members have been trying to figure out what to do next year, armed with shiny new teaching degrees, as well as obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.

And I realize–maybe learning to not take things personally is not something I should be teaching myself how to do in the first place.  Maybe taking things personally is what makes me a compassionate, introspective, empathetic, intuitive, and loving person.  I see how others feel.  I feel how others feel.  This is why I feel bad when others do not feel the way I had hoped they would.  And the day I learn to not take things personally–to not feel and think the emotions of others–is the day I stop being me.

Realizing this has also made me reevaluate the benefits of the three lessons I have learned in teaching: to not trust everyone, to not be a perfectionist, and to assert myself.  See, the truth is that instead of learning to not trust everyone, I have actually learned to not trust anyone.  I am angry at every new person I see.  I can no longer connect to people’s feelings and read their intentions.  Everyone is some new person who is going to hurt me.

And instead of learning to not be a perfectionist, I have learned to not really give two shits about what I am doing.  Instead of throwing myself whole heartedly into everything, I now throw two or three things together and call it a day and go home and sleep.

And as for being a person who asserts her authority in every second of the situation?  I have not learned to stand up for myself and restore peace and order as much as I have learned how to dominate others and force them to do what I want.  Despite what you may be thinking, my classroom is a relatively productive, safe, and orderly place.  But the more I force my classroom to be orderly, the more I lose any sort of peace and order inside myself.

I do not want to be the type of person in the future who does any of these things.

I have always been the type of person who sees the world as something to learn from. Up until I became a teacher, I always felt connected to growing closer to others and to the experience of living.  From my travels and my reading I learned to trust and believe in other people.  From my friends I learned how to appreciate little things.  From my teachers and my parents, I learned how to do one thing, do it well, and only move on only once it was something worth doing in the first place.  I learned to do things that no one asked me to do just for the joy of doing them.  And I learned that helping others needs to start with feeling peace inside oneself.

I have lost touch with every one of the skills and lessons life has taught me.  Everything that made me, me has been replaced by anxiety.

That is not to say that teaching was for nothing.  In the end, I know I will look back and be happy about what I did, what I learned, and of course who I met while I was teaching (the wedding is in June if you didn’t already know it).  And I am grateful, especially that our relationship has flourished despite all that has been happening.

But after this year, I am finished with teaching.  At least for now.  At least with low income children.  I am going to focus on the path of trust, of appreciation, and of understanding.  I know that I want to continue living a life that benefits others and makes the world a batter place to be in, but I learned long ago that when you feel like I do, when you are having panic attacks for no reason, crying all the time, and depressed beyond reason, you are no help to the world at all.  I need to leave teaching behind, at least until I find a way to be a teacher without giving up everything I think makes life worth living.

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~ by Rachael on February 23, 2013.

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