TFA has just welcomed its newest members of the corps of 2012, those who applied first and second deadlines. And while I welcome you with open arms, am excited you are here, and truly believe you will do your best for your kids, you have no idea what to expect. So, not to be the downer or dream-crusher, but let me just give you a snapshot, you 2012s and prospective applicants. Because I’ve been there, I’m doing that, and you deserve to know.
As a teacher, you will work harder than you have ever worked before, because if you didn’t work hard before, you will need to now; if you were already a hard worker, you will push yourself to work even harder. You will have students who will astonish you with what they do not know, to the point that kids who are not-that-far-behind will start to look like the success stories. Until you remember that to the middle-class kids, not-that-far-behind means only 1 grade level ahead of the “national average,” rather than 3.
You will hear stories that will break your heart. Parents will cry at your conferences, kids will tell you tragic stories nonchalantly, as if they were normal, and you will never, ever be able to understand where they are coming from.
You might go home to visit your parents, back to your middle-class house with beds and heat and running water. You’ll go out for a fancy dinner and drop from your shoulders a burden that is at once enormous and so quotidian you haven’t even realized how tight your shoulder muscles have become. And when you get back on the plane to head to what is now home, part of you will long desperately to stay in that easy world where Mom takes you shopping and the only future you have to worry about is your own.
But your kids will worm their way into your heart. Even as you shop with Mom, as you wash your hair, as you drive to the grocery store, half your brain will be planning reading activities that help Isaiah and Lila decode a grade-level book, or math games that will get Oscar to finally remember the steps of long division. When you grade a test and they passed with flying colors, your smile will hurt your cheeks, it’s so big. When you explain how to find the product for the umpteenth time and their eyes light up with understanding, you’ll want to do a little happy dance right there in the classroom. As you kids lie in pairs around the classroom, engrossed in Dr. Seuss and having real discussions with their partners about setting, climax, and character traits, you will be so proud of them you’ll dig out your camera just to document this moment.
The beauty and the tragedy, you will come to understand, is that you control the show. On the one hand, everything you do and all the hard work you put in will directly impact and help your kids to grow and learn. You will see your effort and planning pay off, and two and half months in, you will look at your kids and what they can do and remember how they were in August, and think, “Hey, I had something to do with that.” And it’s beautiful.
At the same time, you have to live with the knowledge that nothing you do will ever be enough. You will never close the achievement gap for your kids. They will never get the education they deserve, no matter how good you are (and let’s face it, you’re not that good). You, as one person, cannot change the broken system they are stuck within, at least not in time for it to matter for Tyrell. And you can’t quit, because no matter how tired, inexperienced, annoyed, overwhelmed, and generally bad you are, you are all they’ve got right now. You are the only time they have a 4th grade teacher, or a 9th grade social studies class, or a 6th grade science lesson. This is real life, this is the big time, and, because they matter, you matter.
You won’t believe me now. You’ll think, like we all secretly do, that maybe you’ll be the one to be special and be good right away. Maybe your school will be supportive. Maybe your kids will be angels. You won’t. They won’t. But you’ll do it anyway, because when all is said and done, you believe it is better with you there, working your patootie off, than without you.