Two years ago, in about a week or so, I will be two years removed from my graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. Two years removed from the stress and rigors of an Ivy-League Education in the 21st century. Two years removed from the feeling of dread that came on as I realized I was ending a journey and parting ways with, to date, the greatest people that I know. And today I’m beginning the end of my first adult journey.
By this time next week, the restrictions and strains of a long school year will be loosened and, in many ways, lifted. My second crop of AP English Language students are taking their AP exam as we speak. My second crop of high school juniors will be taking their end-of-course exam Friday, Monday, and Tuesday. And thus, for all intents and purposes, my journey as a TFA teacher is all but complete.
In the span of these two years I’ve learned quite a lot about myself, the educational system in the struggling communities that frame my own childhood and adolescent realms of living, and far more importantly, I’ve developed a myriad and variety of bonds with the first future leaders of “Generation Z”. I’d never say that it was an easy journey, but to say that it wasn’t rewarding would be to tell a lie of Trumpian magnitude. It’s been worth it.
And yet, despite my passion, love, and desire to support my roughly 400 students over these past two years, I’ve learned something else that is weighing heavily on my now: I’m not as competent as I wish I was; even more sadly, I’m viewed as competent enough to many people. I was discussing this reality with one of my students, Lyric. She was going through the angst-fueled musings of a highly effective and ambitious student just yesterday. She noted how most people’s expectations of her fall far below her own lofty expectations for herself. She was struggling with the strings of people’s acceptance of what she would note as her above-average, not stellar work.
I’ve seen these kinds of thoughts in many other students, whether as a teacher or as a student myself. I’ve also had similar thoughts, moreso now that an ever increasing number of my students call me one of the best teachers they’ve had. As a quasi-perfectionist who made considerable efforts in middle school to “go more with the flow”, it irks me. I learned very quickly WHY many students would say this, especially at the school that I teach at.
My students give me that badge, that accolade, because I present learning as a flexible concept. Knowledge is not only fixed. Instead it is malleable, and more importantly, it is not restricted to the academic realm. Over these two years, my students have been vulnerable about things that they value. They’ve written poetry about themselves and their experiences. They’ve analyzed rap music and movies. And they’ve written A LOT. Yet, for some reason, probably very good reasons, most of my students would tell you that my class is easy (maybe not my AP students this year, but you could ask them). I joked to one of my Honors students this year that my AP class was my “[honors] class on steroids” and her response was: “we barely do any work in here”. I chuckled at the time, but her response made me again consider my competency. We didn’t AND don’t do a lot of work in my Honors class. Compared to my AP class, and even compared to my counterpart next door. Yet even with my feelings of not pushing my students enough I start to think relatively.
My student population is a tricky one. Students whose parents are wealthy nursery, landowners, and old money wealthy study with middle class kids whose parents are store managers, teachers, firefighters, and both study with a large mass of students whose parents, or themselves, are immigrants, working class, and low income. At the beginning of this school year, only 34% of the roughly 700 juniors at the school had demonstrated acceptable achievement on their state English exams. All of my junior English classes (4) are Honors, and a little more than half of them had not passed their exams.
Last year my regular students complained that when we read stories from the textbook, we didn’t listen to the audio. Most of them were still reading with their fingers. They had never really considered the value of their life experiences and their family history; they struggled to do creative projects that asked them questions about themselves. This year my Honors students complain about doing work (because why would students want to?), but we read. The teacher next door’s students listen to audio, but they answer every single question in the textbook for the selected story. I choose which questions my students answer and HOW they answer them (with a partner, independently, as a class). I extend some two sentence answers to short responses. We also share a lot about each other. We learn each others’ goals. We learn each others’ struggles. We develop a classroom relationship and culture that varies from period to period.
I’m not a perfect teacher. Yet I firmly believe that if my students build on the foundations that we’ve developed together, they WILL be OK. Systemic oppression is a mofo. It will shatter dreams, shatter lives. But if my students continue to reflect, to question, and to seek help, they’ll piece themselves back together no matter what happens. I’m confident about that in a way that many of my peers are not because I’ve seen people come up. I don’t believe that I alone will be the reason why my kids can and will be successful, but I recognize that I have impact. As the curtain falls on my final year as a TFA Corps Member, and my penultimate year of teaching (God Willing), I won’t forget that mantra that I picked up in life and that I will unpack here: “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best”. As an educator, I will continue to give students the tools they need to be their best selves through English and any other medium or subject that I am instructed to teach. The worst is oppression, mental health, trauma, family emergencies, life circumstances; the best is my students. The ones who believe fervently that they’ll be successful if they work at it AND the ones who need a few more people to keep that idea on their radar. If we spread the skills (academic and personal), and pass the knowledge on (again, academic and personal), our people will make it. Period.
That doesn’t mean that every student in the hood will be a doctor. But every “well-off” kid won’t either. It means that ONE DAY, every student in America (plus the World) will have the opportunity to maximize their potential through education. And as long as I’m a living person, I am committed to that goal.
It’s been a great two years, and I’ve got about a month to go. Excited for the my students continued excellence.