Today after school I was sitting in my classroom doing a little bit of work. It was the last day of the nine weeks today, so a lot of kids have been worried about what grade is going to be on their report card. Unfortunately, some of the kids who need to be worried aren’t, but that’s another issue. So as I am sitting there, one of my students, D, walks in. “Ms. Kaplan, what can I improve on and how did I do this nine weeks?”
First of all, a kid asking what they can improve on instead of “how can I bring my grade up” is a miracle. I had the pleasure of telling her she made a 79.9 for the nine weeks which, at my school, is a B. I don’t think I have seen a kid that happy since I high fived a student last semester who made a C in my class, the first time he had ever made about a D in a math class. Ever. The other great thing about getting to tell “D” that she had made a B (even though just barely) for the nine weeks was that I HAVE seen her working harder in class. And it has paid off.
I can say without a doubt right now that the kids who are working hard are doing well and the kids who aren’t working hard are not doing well. And I don’t know what to do with the kids who just do not care. They will not work. They do not care. And I am unable to figure out a way to make them care.
I have a million negative things I could say right now (just ask my roommates), and I always get annoyed at one of my roommates (Mr. G) for posting positive stuff on his blog all the time because I don’t want anyone to get a false sense of what we go through. I have had some BAD moments in class recently. B-A-D. So very many. From kids refusing to do work to yelling at each other to refusing to sit down to simply not knowing any math. I could tell 1000 stories of the bad stuff. And I talk about the negative stuff so much because I find it so overwhelming. But today I started thinking about what positive things have happened to me recently. And what kids I feel like I am actually getting through to even just a tiny little bit. It is hard to feel like any of that matters when I think about how little math I feel like my kids have learned this year. Or how many kids have such a negative attitude in class. Or how many times I have almost completely lost it in my classroom this week.
I would never say that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, because I might very well trade it for a lot of other things. And I would certainly never say that I love my job. Because I don’t. I will say, however, that I have learned so much. And I will say that there are things that happen every day or every couple of days that remind me that even if none of my kids are getting anything from me, I am getting something from them.
It really is the small things that keep you going when you hate your job like I do or when you feel like a total failure most of the time like I do. It is when a kid who spent most of first semester with his head down walks into your room and says “Let me work a problem on the board! I feel like doing MATH today!” It is when a student who is failing your class gives you a hug because one little gesture made them feel special. It is when a kid you have been struggling with the whole year says “I’m gonna take David’s place today as the kid who gives effort. I want to fill that role.”
But amidst everything else that happens in the day, which today included: one of my students calling a principal a racist midget, a student putting his sweatshirt over his head the entire class and refusing to say anything, a student telling you he told the principal he would be back because he knows you will kick him out, a student responding to one of your questions during class with “No. I am not doing it.”, having to send in grades that included about 10 kids failing and many many Ds, sending three students out for cheating during a quiz, and so many more things…it is hard to remember the few good things.
So, to anyone who just got an offer to TFA and is trying to figure out what life is really like, I say this: this is the hardest job you could choose to do. On a day to day basis, I do not feel like an education reformer or a member of this generation’s civil rights movement. I feel like an extraordinarily mediocre teacher who could be doing a lot of other things at age 22 than living in a place with enormous racial tension and attempting to teach kids who mostly would rather you let them do nothing than actually teach them. I feel hated and undervalued. I feel bad at my job and upset that my kids are so far behind and that I don’t know what to do to help them. I feel bitter that my friends are enjoying being 22. I feel disheartened and like I am fighting a beast that is much bigger than I am. And, more than anything, I feel like a failure. I am letting so many kids get by without actually learning anything because I am unable to connect with them in the way that would be necessary to help them succeed.
But tomorrow back to school I go. This is my job. I am here. I am all these kids have got and, believe it or not, in this part of the country and at this school, I might very well be the best option there is for a teacher for them. I am not taking the place of someone else who wanted this job and could be doing it better. At the end of the day, I am the only geometry teacher they have, and I owe it to them to be the best one I can be. So here’s to CIE (one of the many TFA acronyms that annoys me). Continuously Increasing Effectiveness.