Down to the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 23 2011

I’m Angry

(If you want to skip to why I am angry, scroll down)

It has been a long time since I have posted. Partially because I have been pretty incredibly busy since I got to Mississippi, and partially because I don’t have a lot of good words to say what I am feeling. So this will just be my best go of it.

The good things: I love the people here. I love the TFA people, and I love the locals of Cleveland, MS and the surrounding areas. Nobody has been anything but nice to me since I got here, so I have no complaints at all. People really are friendlier the farther south you go, or so it seems. I won’t go into a long list of the people here who I really like, but I will admit that it is far more than I anticipated.

The less good things: The food, but that is pretty unimportant and also expected. The workload has been killer. I am not normally someone to complain about not having to do my work, but, two weeks in, there have already been a couple of days where I have felt like I did not have enough time to do my best work. But I think that comes with the territory. The days are long, the work is copious, and the sleep is limited. I have a 50 minute ride to school every day, and it is beautiful. We go through miles and miles of fields. Today our bus even got hit by some stuff coming out of a crop duster plane. Not something I can say I had ever experienced before I got here. Decompressing on the bus on the way home has definitely been a life-saver so far.

The really bad things: So now we get to why I am angry. I am not angry because I am tired or because I have to get up at 4:50 to stand outside and get bit by crazy Delta mosquitoes that show no mercy. I am not angry because it is ridiculously hot outside and ridiculously cold outside. I am angry because of the achievement gap. Anyone who knows me will be shocked to here me say that. Things like “I want to close the achievement gap” do not often come out of my mouth. Not in those words at least. But now I will say it. I want to help close the achievement gap.

I am angry because of what the system has done to my five smart, nice, hardworking, and just plain awesome algebra 1 students this summer.

When I think about people being behind in school, I normally think that they are a little slower to pick up concepts then others. Or maybe they are ever a year behind where they should be in math or reading. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine kids who are going to be juniors and seniors in high school not being able to add negative numbers. Never did I imagine that they wouldn’t be able to spell “slope” or recognize that 4/4=1. This stuff is real. And it is scary. And it is unfair to the kids who want to graduate high school and might not. And it is an absolute injustice. And I am angry about it.

Enter TFA teachers like me. I walk into a classroom of these kids. I am supposed to get them ready for their state test in Algebra 1. They can’t do basic division. They can’t work with negative numbers. They don’t know that an ordered pair is written (x,y). So what do I do? How can I teach them algebra without basic math skills? Even if they understand the concepts, won’t they still get the questions wrong? Probably. Can I make time stop and go back and teach them the 7 or 8 years or math they seem to have somehow missed? Nope. So what do I do? Answer: I have no idea.

I left the classroom today almost in tears. It wasn’t because the kids were misbehaving (they weren’t), and it wasn’t because I messed up some of my example problems (I did). It was because I am so frustrated and angry on their behalf, and I so so so badly want to be able to help them, but I don’t know where to start or what to do or where to go. Am I trying to teach them math skills? Or am I trying to teach them to pass a test? Will one help the other? How in god’s name am I going to begin to catch these kids up? (Really, if you have any suggestions, I will take them.)

So I left the classroom upset and frustrated and confused. My emotions have been oscillating between frustration/confusion and anger/invigoration. What is happening in our schools is not ok. That has become abundantly clear in two days of teaching my amazing kids so far.

There are 3 things that I have heard since I got here that I think will stick with me, and I will leave you with these thoughts.

One of the TFA catchphrases that ACTUALLY spoke to me: The need is great; the time is short.

After I was telling my kids how I had seen things in Mississippi that I had never seen before Jake looked at me and said, “We do a lot of things different down here in Mississippi.” How true and insightful for a 17-year old.

When I was apologizing (again) to my kids for messing up some of the example problems we were doing Tavas told me, “We can still learn from it.”

I can already tell the people here are going to do amazing things for me, and I hope I can do 1/100th as much for them as they are going to do for me.

4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth

    such a beautiful entry :) good luck

    ALSO. when i send you a korean tennisracketmosquitoelectrocutiondevice, your early morning might move up to “the less good things”

  2. Heather

    You are falling into the secondary education teacher trap. Even suburban teachers do it. You focus on what the children DON’T know, how their PREVIOUS teachers did them wrong, etc. Please stop. You will not get anywhere like that. Will they be marked down for spelling on the state test? Can they use calculators? Trust me, you are not going to be the first teacher to try to explain how to add and subtract negative numbers. They’ve gotten that lesson every fall and again every summer since 5th grade. How will your lesson be magically different? Move on to the stuff they need in Algebra I. Yes, yes, I know you are saying, “But I can’t move on because they don’t know their times tables!!” Yes, you can! Better put, let me ask you this – if you do 3rd and 4th grade math with them this summer, who is going to be doing Algebra I with them? Hmmm? NOBODY. You will spend all summer reviewing elementary concepts, which they will forget by September anyway. (Again, every teacher before you has tried that route and failed.) Please don’t do that.

    I am an alum and a special education teacher of 8th grade Algebra. I have students who can’t tell you 36/4, but can solve systems of equations. In 8th grade. Because that is what my children deserve – not my lame attempts at re-teaching 3rd grade math.

  3. Chelsea

    Miriam – you’re the best! I know you will do GREAT!!

  4. Erin

    I wish i could give you some advice, but i really don’t know what you can do. However, just because you are not going to be able to completely close the achievement gap, you are giving these kids a teacher who wants to help them, who wants to teach them–that in itself will make an impact on them.

    Good luck Miriam! keep your chin up!

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