In a speech sometime this summer, someone said something like “It’s not about you, but it’s all about you.” What I think he meant was that this achievement-gap-closing-teaching-working-hard-never-sleeping work isn’t FOR me. It’s not for my benefit or glory or vanity. But at the same time, more and more the research is showing that the single most important element in the classroom (as far as student achievement is concerned) is the teacher. More than technology, textbooks, facilities, or prior knowledge, it is the teacher who does or does not make good learning happen.
My original Teach for America placement was high school English, but as anyone will tell you, placements are fluid, and I’m actually teaching sixth grade. I had envisioned myself teaching in a conventional public school where most of the teachers and students are burned out or apathetic, but I’m actually teaching at a charter school where the teachers all extremely focused and energetic, and the students are desperately seeking ways to put themselves on college-bound trajectories. I thought I’d be doing ELA or some combination of reading and writing/composition–it’s actually JUST reading. I thought I’d be writing curriculum (it’s mostly written). I thought I’d be the only teacher in my room (I’m co-teaching). I thought I’d be struggling to maintain high expectations of my students. In reality, I’ll be struggling to meet the high expectations of my school.
Needless to say, I’m not getting the Teach for America experience I thought I would be. As some of you might know, in my former life I’d get really upset when plans changed. I like to know what’s coming. I like to visualize the future. I like to plan. I dislike anything that prevents me from doing those things.
The thing I realized about two months ago is that that attitude just won’t work anymore. Plans change, period. My commitment to TFA was not contingent on what school I’d be in or what subject or grade I’d be teaching. My commitment was to work really hard to help students who are born into low SES neighborhoods change or improve their options. Ultimately this isn’t about the quality of my experience at all. It’s not about me at all.
So, those plans that changed, that’s okay. I was on the fence about teaching at a charter school for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest was this feeling I had that they just don’t really need me. The culture of this school is so strong and the expectations so high and the support system so good that I really believe any teacher who was placed there who was willing to do the work could help these students make the gains they need to make. I had envisioned being THE teacher who made THE difference in the lives of students in a down and out school. But I realized that attitude was completely vain. My school didn’t hire me to be a light-in-the-darkness for students. They hired me to work really hard alongside a bunch of other people who are working really hard. I may or may not be THE teacher who makes THE difference, but my students will be better readers for having been in my class.