Confessions of a Teacher

From 8am to 4pm, I’m a special education teacher. I’ve been a teacher for three years now, and I have a lot of feelings about it. Some days, it’s really flipping hard – usually emotionally, sometimes physically. I’ve also had really easy days. I’ve had days where I’ve left work feeling inspired about what I do, and days where I’m left thinking “What’s the point?”

Some days look like the photo above – messy and chaotic. My first two years, I would cry before, during and after work. Those first two years were spent at a school that I did not feel valued at. I worked in a classroom with students with moderate to severe disabilities, ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. I had no experience with teaching before (my degree was in exercise science), and had come to teaching through Teach for America. I would come in early, stay late and work my butt off on weekends to prepare things for the room that would inevitably be ruined. I can’t blame the kids for that – it was, for many of them, their first experience outside of their parent’s homes. Many had experienced more trauma than most adults experience throughout their lives. Most of them just yearned for attention from somebody, anybody.

How my room looked when it was actually clean

Those first two years I felt more like a babysitter than an educator. A good day was one in which I didn’t have to file an incident report about a student being hurt. A good day was not having a piece of wood furniture thrown at me. A great day was getting through lessons – it didn’t matter how well or how thoroughly. I was working full time and going to school. I hated it, but I stuck through because I had made a commitment and I knew damn well that if I left, those kids would be left without a teacher for the rest of the year. My little sister has been in a similar classroom her whole life, and I knew the impact her teachers had made on her. Regardless of how I felt day to day, I knew my impact on these kids could be powerful.

My sister, who inspired me daily to continue to teach

After those two years, I switched from elementary to high school. I now teach students with similar disabilities, but in grades 9, 10 and 11. The difference is astounding. I leave work with energy now.

I equate teaching elementary school to teaching little humans how to navigate social settings for the first time. “Don’t lick your friends!” “You cannot eat out of the garbage bin!” “Chairs are for sitting, not kicking!”  Teaching high school is more about preparing these students, who are accustomed to the school setting of following preset rules, how to function in the real world. We take trips to grocery stores to compare prices on cereal. We practice calling Best Buy for more information on their sales. We use the computer to search for tickets to basketball games. I rarely raise my voice, and the kids respect me and understand that I am there to help them.

My work now feels more meaningful, not that my work in the past wasn’t. In order to take these field trips and to practice these real world skills, my students had to master how to attend to school. Their elementary and middle school teachers instilled those skills in them, and I recognize and understand how difficult that job was. I’m not sure if teaching is something that I can do in the long term. It drains me, to think about every kid, every day and then do what’s best for all of them. I get emotional when I hear what my students have gone through. Experiencing what it’s like to work in one of the largest school districts has made me aware of problems (that have solutions), which are harming our future generations. Maybe one day, I will be a person who has the solutions to make the system work. For now though, I will continue to be the teacher that my students need. I will continue to advocate for them, listen to them and educate them. Fingers crossed that today is a good day. How can it not be, when I received the note below on Friday?

Head + Heart = Hustle

Head + Heart = Hustle

After college, I went into Teach for America as a corps member. I was placed in Chicago, and taught for two years while going to graduate school to become a licensed teacher. It was the hardest two years of my life, by far. For most people who go into TFA, academics had been easy for them. Many came from top tier schools and had impressive resumes. None of us expected to be challenged the way that we were those two years.

A photo from summer training my first year. See all those charts in the back? I’m pretty proud of them.

During our two years, TFA held countless professional developments and learning opportunities. In all honesty, I was not in the appropriate mental state at the time to take advantage of those. “You want me to think more?” I would say to myself every time I saw a flyer for a meeting. Those two years in the corps were, for the most part, just me trying to keep my head above water. I couldn’t think about the future when I was struggling to get through my day.

Up close and personal with one of those charts I stayed up all night drawing

Fast forward to today: I left my placement school and work at a great school now. I have time to think and process my experiences now. I have time for friends and family, and for myself. I cry far less. I no longer have to consider if crashing my car in the morning drive in would be worth the potential week off I could get. Kidding (sort of). I am finally in a place where I can think about the future.

I saw a flyer in an alumni e-mail a few months ago. It was for a fellowship that they called the “Work on Purpose Fellowship.”

Do you want to figure out what your purpose in life is? Are you considering a move out of the classroom but have no clue what to do/where to go? COME ON OUT!

My answer to all the questions on the flyer was yes. I applied to the fellowship and got accepted. Yesterday was our first meeting, and I’m excited to dive into it. I am finally at a place in life where I can develop myself, and I am grateful to have opportunities like this – opportunities that I scoffed at months ago.

I walked into the room yesterday. There were binders, tote bags and pens on each of the chairs. I promptly texted a picture of the pens to some friends who had decided against the fellowship and had a seat (teachers are suckers for quality writing utensils). Upon going through the binder, I realized I was the youngest person there, which came as a relief to me. As ridiculous as it sounds, it made me feel better that people who are older and wiser and had more experience on this planet also had the same wonderings about their career path. Maybe I’m not the only person who hasn’t found their true calling yet! (No duh, Jeanette)

Last night was an introduction. We met all the other fellows, who came from all over the country and had all types of experiences, but who all realized that they weren’t quite sure of their purpose. We talked about what we were going to get out of the experience. We discussed the messed up educational landscape of our city and state.

The fellowship will be utilizing a curriculum developed by Echoing Green, which is an organization that promotes thought and idea amongst social entrepreneurs. Head + Heart = Hustle is at the core of the curriculum. This is what I hope to get out of the next few months. Heart: I know what I care about, which is special education reform. Head: I’m not quite sure what skills I have (does the teacher stare count?). My hopes are that when I figure out my skills, I can match it to my heart and its passion, and find work that is fulfilling, impactful and meaningful to me. So here it goes guys! Time to hustle!