Happiness in Chicago

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 03 2012

Things I wish I’d known

To all those first-year corps members struggling through Institute right now, I thought I might share a few things that I wish I’d known ahead of my first year.  Some of these are thoughts that I found myself clinging to in my lower moments over the last year.  Others are facts that I started to forget in the daily wear-and-tear of the classroom.  Maybe they will be useful to you, maybe not.  But regardless, good luck, 2012 corps members!  We’re all rooting for you.

1) There are always going to be things outside of your control — pretty much everything, in fact.  Who you work with, where you live, who you live with, who and what surrounds you every single day in your classroom.  None of these are things you’ll be able to control. Deal with it, and then, most importantly, move on.  (As a corollary, learn to move on in general, from things both outside of and within your control.  You’re bound to make mistakes; you’re a first-year teacher.  You’re no use to anyone if half an hour later you are still hung up on how you forgot to give explicit enough instructions during snacktime and five of your kids ended up in a Cheetos fight.)

2) Love your children.  Even in the hardest days, remember that they are only children.  You are the adult, and they are the children.  Despite how old and hard-headed they might seem, they did not choose this life they are in.  Even the most annoying child in your classroom is not 100% at fault for being who he is.

3) Before you try to be Superman, do no harm first.  I know everyone is throwing statistics at you about how much impact you can have.  You can close the achievement gap!  You can create transformational change!  You can single-handedly break the cycle of poverty!  If you care enough! But I would caution you to remember the harm you can do also.  Be careful and be humble, recognizing that every one of your actions will be magnified 26, or 84, or 111 times, to each of your students and each of their family members. Be mindful of your tone and your words.  You can very rarely “take back” anything that has fallen on the ears of an 11-year-old.

4) Bring your authentic and whole self to your job.  Much has been written and said already about how teaching can touch the soul.  And you probably wouldn’t even be in this job if you didn’t feel inspired to be here.  But realize that you won’t get to experience fully all of it, unless you are honest about who you are, and how that identity plays into your role in these children’s lives.  This job, this job of teaching more than anything other in the world, requires you to bring your whole self every day.  I worked in finance before this, and I certainly devoted more hours of my life to that job than to this one.  But in this job, you do more than just show up and teach. You pick children up, sit them down, make them apologize, tell them to stop hitting each other, fix their uniforms, cheer them on in plays and basketball games, pickup football games, jump rope, MAP tests and ISAT rallies.  And you can’t do that without getting over yourself first.  Not only your “biases”, which I know we love to talk about in TFA, but your personal insecurities, your worst fears about yourself that you try to keep a lid on when in front of 30 kids, all ruthlessly watching your next move.  In that moment if you can’t be your real self you’re pretty much screwing yourself into a corner.  Kids are smart, and they always know when you’re standing behind what you say and more dangerously, when you’re not.

*As a corollary, don’t ever promise anything that you don’t intend to follow through on, good or bad.  I once threatened to light a kid’s whoopie cushion on fire, and for better or worse, was glad that I had my matches at the ready.  The worst thing you can do with kids is become someone who is all talk. Not only do they see through it very quickly, but they stop trusting the things you do mean, and then you’re just all going nowhere fast.

5) If you’re struggling with how to get through to your kids, just remember that kids will always know when you are trying, and will give you credit for that alone.  The easiest way to build authentic relationships with your kids is to love them.  Love them even when you want to throttle them, even when one of them sets off a fire extinguisher in your classroom by doing exactly what you told them not to do five minutes ago.  When you feel yourself starting to lose it, step into the closet for a minute to calm down and gather yourself until you are ready to love them again.  (And in those moments, don’t beat yourself up too badly.  I’m pretty sure that it happens to everybody, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, don’t worry—it will. Brace yourselves, have your meltdown, and then move on.)

6) See your children for who they are.  Remember, again, that they are only children—and that they are also deeply special because they ARE children. They can be sweet and curious and kind to each other.  They often know the right things to say.   They can give the attention to another child that you might never have been able to give.  I once came back from a meeting to find one of my students crying in the back of the classroom, crumpled up under a lab bench.  He wouldn’t talk to me about what was wrong, but another student came up after a few minutes of my unsuccessful prodding and just said gently, “It’s okay, Ms. Geng.  I’ll sit with him.” Contrary to what you might start to believe in October or November, they can be sweet and good and kind.  They are children.

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