My Own Vision of “Transformative Teaching”

•March 11, 2012 • 6 Comments

One thing Teach For America is really good at is making you feel guilty all the time.

I’m sure that’s not the real intention of the organization, but that’s what happens.  It is easy to feel like crap if you are not working twenty-four hours a day.  The poor and minority children are getting a substandard education, and that translates into another generation of poor, powerless minorities living day to day in the United States of America.  So if you’re not working yourself to the bone at all times, are you really committed to the cause?  Some days it seems like that is the question.

When I joined this organization, I thought that continuous work was what was going to be required of me.  But it wouldn’t be “work” it would be… life.  I thought I would end up in the Mississippi Delta or a reservation somewhere, and literally every second of my existence would be dedicated to educational reform in our struggling country.   I thought I was joining a movement, implying forward motion, or at least the domestic Peace Corps.  I would be a simple gear or sprocket in the fast-moving reform machine. I thought I would be surrounded by people who had spirit and drive and I would be connected to them and to some greater mission.  And we would be in the textbooks someday.

But when the dust settles on Teach For America, pretty much what it is is an important, well-intentioned corporate job.  I don’t think they expect 24/7 effort, but I also don’t think they have any answers.  They certainly don’t know what to do with outliers like me, who want very badly to do something “great” but don’t want to go through corporate channels to get there.  They are a corporation who thinks they are a movement.  Full of good intentions, and certainly doing many wonderful things, but still… largely disappointing.  And not a good fit for me.

Those first few months of teaching went by like a blur.  I thought I was “part of something” and so I worked all the time to keep my membership card.  Soon enough however I realized I was miserable, I was inefficient, and I was constantly getting shat on by the very people I wanted so very much to help.  Those kids were evil, and they could tell I wasn’t very good at teaching them.  I worked every day, all day, until I was ready to drop and I slowly got better and better.  I thought that my entire life was required of me.  Every drop of blood for the cause.  I completely lost sight of my purpose as a teacher-for-life, and I felt alone and unsupported and not at all a part of “Tulsa”.  I definitely did not feel like I was part of a “movement” to end racial inequality in my country.  I put in months of devastatingly hard work only to feel alone.  And frustrated.

This experience has led me to the conclusion that the “educational reform movement” is not, for first year corps members like me, a movement at all, or at least not the kind of movement I was expecting to be part of.  There are no marches.  There is no figurehead like Susan B. Anthony or Harvey Milk or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  There is no buzzing network of volunteers carrying signs and transforming communities.  There are only kids who go to school every day even though they hate it, even though they don’t understand it or want it.  And there are the teachers who attempt to teach them.  And I am one of them.  And we are many.  And we are invisible.  This is what educational reform is really.

As long as this country devalues the lives and the potential of black and hispanic children, nothing I can do in the classroom can turn the tide.  But I can make a difference in the lives of a few children.  And I can keep my eyes and ears open for something that fits me.  Maybe I could even help to start it.  I want Teach For America to step up, to dig into the community, to be vocal and visual and to make everyone accountable.  I want Tulsa to take care of its own.  I want TFA to be more than a bunch of hard-working young teachers, I want them to be activists and organizers on a much larger scale.  But TFA is what it is.  It’s a wonderful thing.  But it’s not me.

I’m reminded of high school.  When I was 17 I pretty much dropped out of religion, and all my born again friends were very disappointed in me.  They knew that telling me I was wrong outright was never going to re-convert me, so they asked me a lot of questions, hoping that I would come to “the truth” eventually.  The biggest question was always, “How do you expect to live a moral life if you are not led by the Church?”  They had a definition of what morality looked like, but that definition was never me.

Well it’s been eight years, and I think I am doing fine when it comes to moral living.  I feel like a humble, flawed, good-intentioned person that no longer feels compelled to adhere to the hypocritical evangelical idea of what makes a good human being.  I’m grateful for the Lutheran upbringing I received, but I’m also glad I decided to go my own way eventually.  It feels much more authentic to me.

I have to trust that three years from now, having passed up my chance to become a TFA superstar, I will feel grateful for my TFA upbringing but also content with my decision to do things my way.  To teach indefinitely, though maybe not indefinitely at such a difficult school, but to spend a lifetime making small gains for my community in some capacity.  I guess that’s my version of “transformative teaching.”

I have to admit, TFA probably doesn’t think much of me.  I don’t participate in seminars and leadership opportunities.  Honestly, I don’t work as hard as other TFA teachers I know and know of.  I work from 7am to 5pm most weekdays, with an occasional 8 or 9pm night.  Weekends, I maybe put in two or three hours max.  And to a TFA eye, that might make me look like a slacker or somehow uncommitted.  I read books.  I watch Parks and Rec on weeknights.  I go for walks and play with my rabbit.  I crochet and stitch.  Hell, it’s 6pm on a Sunday and I’m blogging.  Unbelievable. I cook, I write in my journal, I phone friends.  I try very hard not to talk about work with my boyfriend after 8pm.  And you know what?  I think it makes me a better teacher.  A better person!

I can’t speak for anyone else.  There are “transformative” teachers in our corps, I’m sure, who work continuously and live for their children.  They will do great things in their two years, and then they will go on to the business world or graduate school or something else I just want no part of.  Part of me still wishes I could  fit into that mold.  But I’m no suit, no “thought-partner”.  I don’t want to go back to school.  I don’t want to become the Secretary of Education.  I want to teach forever, and to start a family, and to own some land, and to work hands-on to support my community for the remainder of my simple life.

Whatever I do, it’s not going to start at a conference or in a board room or via satellite conference call.  It’ll probably start on my couch or over coffee with someone wearing a sweater they knitted themselves.  Because that’s my style.  And it won’t be one big idea that comes to me.  It’ll be a series of little ideas and actions made humbly over a lifetime of opportunities to do the right thing.  And I guess the judge-y part of me thinks that this corporate leadership style that TFA has mastered is the same style that keeps our kids down in the first place.  Competition and leadership.  Capitalism.  The race to the top.  I mean, not really.  It’s not like TFA is some evil machine.  But still… not me.

We can’t all be “leaders.”  Some of us have to be content with anonymity and grassroots planning and quiet, long-term activity that involves literally getting your hands dirty.  And wearing skirts and blue jeans.  Or maybe that is leadership, just not the type that TFA can give me.

So I guess what I’m saying is spring is here, and I’m forgiving Teach For America and moving on.  I’m going to try something else.  Or maybe I’ll stick with it and do something with TFA… but I’m done waiting for this organization to become what I’m looking of its own accord.  Whatever that means.  I’m done competing and I’m done feeling angry, those are the big things.  TFA has given me everything–a job, a purpose, a reason for living really.  It’s taught me how to “vision plan” for a better community.  But I’m 17 year old Rachael all over again.  I have to be confident that I will live a purposeful life even if I am not part of the corporation.

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An infinite series of minute tasks…

•February 15, 2012 • 3 Comments

(Me–center, and boyfriend Dan to my right, along with a few other wonderful new Oklahoma teacher friends.)

It’s been almost a year since my last blog post.  Teaching has eaten me alive.  I used to write all the time, and I used to write about philosophy and monasticism and random medieval tidbits.  Now I write never, unless we’re talking about comments in the margins of student essays–“Good work!”  “Where’s your thesis?” and so forth.  Literature.

What in the… what the heck?  Who am I?  What have I become?  A teacher, obviously.  I used to google “medieval monasticism” at least twice a week.  Now, my google preferences honestly include both “gang symbols” and “Arkansas vacations.”  My thoughts are not deep.  Not eternal or sage.  They are as transitory as thoughts can get “I have to grade this paper.”  “I have to write this email.”  I have to.  I have to.  I have to.

Up until very recently I was not only comfortable with this shift, I was proud of it.  The contemplation I miss in my life, and the writing I produced because of it, happened during a very difficult, very lonely period in my life: the post-college year.  The year of both identity and financial crisis so many young grads are facing these days.  I went from acing advanced history courses and living with a wild pack of roommates to working at a two star hotel and coming home to a quiet house.  For a year, all I did was sit, think, and write in between guest complaints.  Leaving that lonely existence, however firm and contemplative, was a welcome change.

Honestly, thinking about who I was last year and who I have become since I became a Teach For America teacher makes me feel so full I want to sing an aria while baking a chocolate cake.  I went from writing about the monastic life at my dead-end desk job to making a difference in the lives of one hundred and fifty young people every day.  In the official competition, I would say the latter definitely leaves one feeling more spiritually fulfilled.

So why am I feeling so off?  Is it February?  Why have I started idealizing what was one of the most miserable times in my life?  I have a fantastic boyfriend (going on four months!)  and wonderful new friends.  My students both give me ulcers and change me for the better every single day.  I live in a new city, in a new state that is far better than its reputation would have you believe.  And yet, all I can think is “I miss being a monk.”  Everything seems to be flying by me, and I can grasp onto nothing. I can’t sit still.  I can’t not be “productive.”  I seem to think that life is nothing but an infinite series of minute tasks.

But how do I settle down in contemplation and focus on the so-called “bigger picture” when I have Markieonne’s evil, dimpled, fifteen year old face smiling up at me in the back of my mind at all times?  Markieonne is fifteen and he is illiterate–entirely left behind.  He makes up beats in class to combat his frustration and boredom.  Charletha is also fifteen and unable to write a complete sentence.  Every second of peace and quiet I have is spent either thinking of ways to do more for them… or detoxing at our favorite bar, trying to take a break from the despair that tends to creep in.  And the terrible sense of injustice.  This world was made for them.

“When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation…” — The Rule of St. Benedict

I Got The Love-And-Hate-Institute Blues

•July 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Institute has been hard.  Like, three hours of sleep a night hard.  Like, verge of tears at all times hard.  Like, shaving years off of your life hard. I am only alive to tell the tale for three very distinct reasons:

1. I have a CMA who shouts me out in the dining hall.  Who tells me I’m awesome at every opportunity.  Who emails me to tell me how much he supports me… and not because he’s paid to do it.  Who embarrasses me in front of my CMA group by telling me “I can do no wrong in his eyes.”  Who legitimately believes in me.

I would be dead without Zach.

2. I have the world’s most ridiculous co-teacher. For every minute of institute I spend swinging low, I spend another ten laughing until I think I will die.  I had to stop wearing eye makeup during the day because I have tears rolling down my face fifteen times a day thanks to him–quite possibly the most positive person I have ever met.

I would be dead without Ramon.

(Honestly, I’d be dead without my entire colab (collaborative… the three other teachers I teach with every day).  They are the most passionate, hilarious people I have ever met.  My loyalty to them is unbelievable.  They are my war buddies.  Don’t f*** with them.)

3.  They let us play with play-dough to stay awake during session.  That’s right–play dough.  We make little animals and log houses and hotdogs and hamburgers as we learn about diversity and behavior management.  If there is no play dough, it’s pipe cleaners.  Or squishy balls.  Or little toys.  They trust us so much here to be responsible adults that they in fact let us get away with acting like children.

I would be dead without play time.

These are all new realizations, however.  Hell, as of last week I was so busy trying to teach and to survive, I didn’t have time to think about these things so damn constructively .  There was no time for reflecting on why I felt so safe and supported and cared for here, of all places, even at the height of debilitating stress.  I was just happy, in the moment, trying not to die, making sure my team didn’t die, not paying attention to the lack of  light at the end of any dark tunnels.   I thrive on near-death-experiences.

But something clicked this week, and that something is that Institute–well hell, it’s almost over.  Shit’s about to get REAL my friends.  I’m going to be in North Tulsa soon, facing some SERIOUS educational inequality.  No more playtime.  No more colab.  No more partner in crime who always has your back.  The lofty ideals I carry with me about educational equality in my country are about to be up in my face like I wouldn’t believe.  And this realization has turned me into, as we say, a hot, freaking, mess.

And now I have the guilt.  The guilt that I am failing my students.  The guilt that I have spent so much time on my own development and on trying to support my fellow corps members that I have in fact neglected to support my children.

I am, I now realize, actually afraid of them.

I had a very tight group of friends in high school.  I knew who I was, I knew what I wanted, and I always thought that people who didn’t like me for who I was could go freaking freak themselves for all I cared.   I assumed–and still do assume–that everyone I meet will initially hate me, until I convert them.

But I’m a teacher now.  The people I am afraid will hate me are in fact my own students.  I stick to my colab because I am trying to protect myself from a group of children.  It’s a messed up situation.  I have been defending myself subconsciously from a group of innocent ninth graders, and I have succeeded in alienating myself from them in the process.  I can care about them all I want deep down, but my actions reveal contempt.

And in the meantime, I have accidentally locked myself into a homework battle.  They just won’t do it, and no amount of anger or pleading or threats is going to help me help them.   Not in a week at least.  I can’t just fail 8 out of 10 of them, and of course they know that.

I am stuck, and being the perfectionist I am, my instinct is to just run.  Run away.  Keep your head down and start fresh in Tulsa.

But no!  No freaking way!  These kids, my kids, who think I am lame and probably hate them, god they’re so smart.  What can I do to help them?  How do I fix this impasse?  How do I swallow my pride and my fear and actually connect to them?

I have about 17 hours to figure out the answer.  Shit.

Turkey Mountain

•June 10, 2011 • 1 Comment

Word on the street is that there is a mountain Tulsa.  It is called Turkey Mountain and it looks like this:

File:Turkey mountain.JPG

Turkey Mountain, courtesy of Wikipedia, courtesy of Nathaniel Ball

Not much of a mountain, I know.  Not even close really.  Still it reminds me of a really bad metaphor.  Since I am going to be an English teacher in practically no time, I feel it is my life’s work to evangelize metaphors.  Metaphors and puns, for ever and ever, Amen.

I feel like I’m climbing Turkey Mountain every afternoon around lunchtime, when I feel like I just can’t shake another hand.  I can’t smile again, can’t remember someone’s name again, can’t say anything intelligent.  I forget my paperwork.  I can barely speak in English.  I long for the comfort of doing such things as sitting at Willaby’s eating vegan pancakes at 4am with the same old crew.  Life was simpler then.

Making friends, finding roommates, and the like seems WAY harder than closing the achievement gap these days.   Helping to save our nation’s children I can do, but remember one more name I cannot.  This whole acting professionally, not responding like a smart-ass at every turn is totally wack.  I feel like I’m climbing straight uphill and falling behind fast.

Then I step back and look at it in perspective and begin realizing that my own little Turkey Mountain is really just a blip on the radar.  So many other, more important things are going on around me, and I will get through the introduction process sooner or later.

This morning, we participated in a fabulous panel discussion on diversity.  A local actress performed, first, for us, telling us the story of Mrs. Ada Lois Supuel Fisher, a brave woman who in the late 1940s fought for the right to attend law school in Oklahoma under Jim Crow.  Her case was a precursor to the famous Brown vs. The Board of Education, and hearing the discrimination she faced was both devastating and inspiring.  All I could think throughout was what could lead people to hate so much?

The afternoon was rough, I admit.  We did our paperwork processing for Tulsa Public Schools, and it was very confusing and disorienting.  Also, we peed in cups.  After a week of trying to appear professional at every turn, it was kind of like whaa?

Tonight the Tulsa Corps had dinner at the Full Moon Cafe on Cherry St., which is the neighborhood where they have the farmers’ market and some cute shops.  I drove around for a while with some girls looking at apartments and neighborhoods, and I have to admit adjusting to the suburban sprawl is going to be difficult.  Still, I feel I can get used to anything.  Hopefully we will be signing a lease tomorrow.

The low point of the day? Walking into the processing room and learning I was completely unprepared.

The high point of the day?  Sitting next to my fellow Madison, Wisconsin buddy at the foot of the stage at the Full Moon, listing bewildered as the entire restaurant sang “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” during karaoke.  It’s still stuck in my head, and I was one of two who didn’t know the words :)

Induction, Day 2: Spirits Rise

•June 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

So I’m feeling a lot better about TFA today, even though parts of the day today were kind of a drag.  Yesterday I was so sleep deprived I could barely think, but today I could put in the effort, and it paid off.  Every time I felt like all I wanted to do was go lay down and read my book, I would force myself to re-re-re-re-engage.  It sucked for an introvert like me, but I’m pretty proud of myself even so.

Today everyone’s spirits seem to be much higher, with more dumb jokes and the like, and that had a lot to do with my own energy.  We talked about a number of things… leadership in the morning, diversity in the afternoon…  There is a little bit of impatience when it comes to getting down to the practical application of the model, but I am more grateful that we are collectively talking, in a stress-free atmosphere, about all these “corps beliefs and values” that we have been reading about in all our pre-institute stuff, working with what it means to us personally.  Again, I am just blown away by how open and interesting everybody has been.

Still, even though this is still kind of the “transition” stage, I want to say we are putting our practical pants on.  Nothing is said without being put into context.  All the cheesy “leadership” quotes and discussions, you know, about being the change you want to see in the world, are completely relevant and true.  Nothing rings false whatsoever because TFA knows its goals, knows how to work constructively toward them, acknowledges everything head-on in an effort to be most effective, wants to continually improve, and hot damn no one freaking gives up.  No one is alone.  One leader today told me that yes, he worked with a girl who went home last year.  But he also knew thirty others in his group who had their lives completely altered.  Here I am sitting in a room with over a hundred young adults talking practically about changing the world.  Not “changing the world” but really changing the world.  We have a plan, and we are getting on it.  It’s not idealism, it’s next week’s agenda.

It’s the reason I feel I fit in even when I don’t.  Even though some times today I felt lame and awkward, I have so much respect for everyone–it makes reevaluation and not being too defensive so much easier.

It got a little rough during the afternoon though.  We had a long scavenger hunt all over the city, and while I liked meeting people and liked seeing the city, I have to be honest: it was the hardest I’ve ever tried to look like I cared about something I honestly just didn’t give a crap about.  I appreciated the teamwork and the idea behind it, but honestly, I just wanted to freaking get out.

That said, we did finish and it was good.  The city is just vacant looking all the time, with a real spread-out, industrial feel, but tucked into nooks and crannies are really hip, interesting clubs and cafes and places I want to be.  Like a Mexican restaurant that sources locally and has Mexican wrestling, what up.  So I like Tulsa so far.  Coming from a state that doesn’t really have a good rep in the nation myself, I think I am more than ready to get my pride on for Oklahoma.

After the hunt I pretty much wanted to read my book and sit still and be quiet for a while, but  for some reason the voice of Allie Movrich kept playing in my head.  I’m Rachael… blah blah blah.  We’ve been talking a lot about taking “me time” around here, so I had to ask myself whether I really needed it, and for once the answer was no, actually you do have the energy to go out.

So, I went bowling.

I’m glad I did, because I had a few great conversations there.  First there is Ryan, who is going to be one of the former CMs in charge of high school English next year.  We talked about teachers unions (pros and cons!) and about our favorite books, and it made me really fired up about not just “closing the achievement gap” or being a teacher but about being a high school English teacher.  It was like I had finally found a fellow nerd in the group.

Another leader… they all have acronyms, but I don’t know them yet… told us all today that she is an introvert and had a hard time talking to new folks, but that she adjusted and fits in fine with her corps.  I talked to her a bit about her experience, and I don’t know, now I feel a little bit safer.  Like, it’s okay to be kind of awkward and quiet, just as long as you are positive, open, and excited about teaching.

In dramatic conclusion, induction is going pretty well.  I’m a little overwhelmed with all the loud noise and enthusiasm and small talk, but it is vastly outweighed by the positive, intelligent, open minded, and diverse people who just happen to be the noisemakers.  Or rather, my fellow noisemakers.  It’s pretty swell.  I guess I’ll just stick to my nerdly guns and hope that all goes well :)

Two more days of induction and then I’m road tripping it to Phoenix, AZ!

I’m alive. Barely.

•June 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Teach For America Induction, Day 1:

i am too tired to capitalize.  too tired to make witticisms.  too tired to spell check witticisms to see if i spelled it right. and it’s only day 1.

Yesterday I had a mild flight disaster that involved American Airlines playing bait and switch THREE TIMES, causing my travel partner and I to miss our connecting flight.  After schmoozing with the booking agent, I convinced her to put us on a flight nine hours later for a fee of $50 instead of $150.  It was a bad sitch that caused us to miss our welcome dinner, but whatever.  Water… bridge.

Now I’m in Tulsa!  Tulsa.  Things I’ve learned about Tulsa: it looks kind of like Wisconsin in that things are green and there are buildings and there are hills.  There is a Hyatt in the downtown area where I sit.  Yep. That’s pretty much all I’ve learned geographically speaking.

When it comes to teaching, however, I feel I’ve already begun to learn loads.  We spent ALL DAY in meetings today just kind of hashing out ideologies.  There was lots of talk, some tasty sandwiches, and a lot of introductions.

What seems to be wearing me out is all the self-reflection.  I feel so freaking excited about being in an environment where everyone cares passionately about educational reform and everyone has their own story of why they are here.  It’s refreshing and exciting, and I love how you can’t assume you know anyone.  So many come from interesting backgrounds, or poor backgrounds, or have overcome crazy challenges, but we are the ones who were lucky enough to get an education–so you never know.

Still, it’s a little daunting, realizing that my life is a product of things like white privilege, my zip code, and a few bouts of good luck.  There is a lot of “seeing it from my perspective.”  Let’s be honest, as of a few months ago, all I thought about was dead, white Europeans.  Now I’m up to my eyeballs in real-time injustice.  And this isn’t medieval Europe.  It’s my own country.

I feel very naive and very non-constructively idealistic, and that is exhausting, as is talking to loads of strangers.  Still, the fact that I’m here–in the place where change occurs… well hell, it’s brilliant.  For once I’m not the weirdo who won’t shut up.  I’m one of many weirdos.  Hurrah!

Well, I hope that made sense, because I don’t have the energy to proofread it.  Consider this my first official TFA post.  Things are stressful and kind of vague and I’m going to have a hard time adjusting to this new sleep schedule, but holy dude man, this is worth it.

Shoot for the Moon, and Even If You Miss, You’ll Land in Oklahoma

•June 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I feel like I’m living in an alternate reality.

A reality where all those lame yearbook quotes are no longer clichéd.

A land where “Reach for the moon, and even if you miss you land among the stars” is a  completely acceptable phrase.

No, wait.  Not really.  I hate that freaking quote.

Do you see the little girl in the plaid, rocking the headband?  That was me in the first grade, *counts on fingers*, 17 years ago.

And tomorrow, that girl is leaving on a jet-plane for Tulsa, to teach high school English with Teach For America! Life is crazy.  This is crazy.  I am crazy.

I have nothing more to say other than… dude, what CAN one say on the night before the first day of the rest of one’s life?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with… me turning off my laptop.

To be the change I want to see in the world… I really need to go to bed.

More content-specific blog posts to come, I promise, but in the meantime I just wanted to say, holy buckets this is really happening!