I have a few ENC Corps Member interviews to post over the next week or so, and hopefully a few still coming in. (If you’re an ENC CM or recent alum and would like to answer some questions, please drop me a comment or an email!)
I figured that before I started posting these “interviews” with others, I would do one with me. I know this might seem cheesy, since this whole blog is basically a giant interview with me, but when I sat down to answer the questions, I realized that there are a lot of things from my first two years that I’ve never discussed directly on NMJC, so here it goes.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in San Diego, CA and went to school in Santa Barbara.
What made you choose the ENC region? Where was the region on your preference sheet?
I knew I didn’t want to stay in California; I wanted to try out something different– a new place and a new way of life. I thought a lot about the Chicago region. Both of my parents are from the Chicago-land area and I have a lot of relatives there. I really love that city and have spent enough time there that it would be familiar, but still new and exciting. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that I didn’t really want to teach in a city; I wanted a rural region. I don’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t want to go anywhere that would have a heavily Spanish speaking student population (looking back on it, that wouldn’t really have been a problem, but at the time it loomed large). In 2005, the only rural regions that weren’t in heavily Spanish-speaking areas were ENC, the Delta, South Louisiana, and the new-that-year region of South Dakota. Those were the regions I wound up placing as “highly preferred” on my preference sheet. If I remember correctly, the order was 1. ENC, 2. SLA, 3. South Dakota, 4. Delta. I think the fact that I didn’t wind up in South Dakota (which had a charter corps “class” of around 20, IIRC) shows how much they try to accommodate your preferences.
What was your original placement? What are you teaching now/ what have you taught?
I was originally accepted into TFA with a “Secondary English” placement. I had two degrees, one in History and one in Literature, and I was, I admit, disappointed to not be teaching SS, which I like more. At interview day, I interviewed with what would eventually wind up being my placement school for an English position. I fell in love with the idea of the school and then headed happily off to Institute in Houston, where I was scheduled to take the PRAXIS in Secondary English and teach 8th grade ELA. The day before the PRAXIS, one of the Program Directors called me and told me that my placement school’s needs had changed. I was upset; I wanted to stay there if I could. She told me that they might have a Social Studies opening instead and I jumped at it. I couldn’t change my PRAXIS or Institute assignment, of course. Eventually I went back and took the Social Studies PRAXIS and wound up being certified to teach both English and Social Studies. Over the years, I have taught:
Year 1 – Psychology, African-American History, U.S. History (S & H)
Year 2 – Psychology, U.S. History (S & H)
Year 3 – U.S. History (S, H, and Repeaters), Pre-American History
Year 4 – English II, English III, U.S. History S, A.P. U.S. History
Years 5 & 6 – A.P. U.S. History, English II
How did you feel about your institute experience?
I did not enjoy Institute at all (several of the earliest back-dated posts on here attest to that). I knew people who did enjoy the experience, or aspects of it anyways, but I spent the majority of Institute pissy and miserable. There was so much “group speak”; the chants were loud; I was sleeping on a bouch in Moody Towers in Houston (*shudder*); I had problems with my collaborative (teaching group); I was definitely not used to getting as little sleep as I was getting; etc., etc, etc.
BUT (a big but) I did feel like I came out of Institute extremely well prepared in some ways. I knew how to write a lesson plan; I knew how to make a pacing guide; I knew what Standard Courses of Study were and how to use them. None of those things were true for most of the non-TFA new teachers at my placement school. I never did feel like Institute managed to teach me much classroom management, but then I don’t know what could. My (now) husband went through a traditional teacher preparation program and he struggled with classroom management his first year as much as I did.
For me personally, Institute was a horrible “experience”, but a great instructor.
Describe your school.
My placement school was in the most rural part of the ENC region, very close to the Virginia border. A small school originally, it has shrunk in enrollment every year since I have been here (from about 450 students in 2005 when I started, to about 250 this year) due to the economic death of the region since the textile mills closed and a charter school opening near-by. The student population was about 98% African-American while I was there.
People say that TFA is “hard”, but that covers a lot of ground. How (in what ways) or why has TFA specifically been hard for you?
Like, I think, many CMs I was a pretty accomplished person in my pre-TFA life. I was a good student, loved school, tutored the SATs, had held several leadership roles in campus clubs — I pretty much fit the profile. I had had struggles and setbacks of course. In no way was I good at everything and I had definitely experienced failure, but it had always been a temporary thing. If I just worked hard enough I could overcome it – or I didn’t work hard enough and told myself that was why the failure happened.
Teaching though. Oh, teaching.
I was in no way prepared to fail and fail and fail in every single way possible. Large and small. Temporary and permanent. Minor failures and life altering ones. Failures I could change and failures I couldn’t. Failing my students. Failing myself. Failing TFA. Failing my school. They just seemed to keep piling up. I felt like no matter how hard I worked I couldn’t make a dent in the failure. Never before had I experienced anything even remotely like it. I had no idea how to cope with failure that frequent or of that magnitude. It was humbling, maddening, frustrating, and – often – destroying.
It still happens, too. I don’t feel it quite as deeply, six years in, but failure is still more of a regular part of my everyday life than I could have previously predicted.
What has been your worst experience in the classroom?
There are so many that come to mind. I could probably literally come up with at least one horrible story for each week of my first year (or even two!) teaching. The one that immediately comes to mind, however, is the time my students in my most frustrating class 1st semester of my 1st year, Psychology, staged a rebellion by all throwing their note sheets into the air at the same time. It sounds so trivial saying it like that, but it was at the end of the semester. I had come to the point with this group of (mostly) girls where I basically hated every single one of them with a deep and utter loathing. I loved them too, in a way, but they made my stomach knot and my teeth clench just by walking into the classroom. I had already lost the battle in that classroom- they knew it and I knew it – but I hadn’t stopped fighting and they wanted me to. I was stuck struggling my way through 90 minutes everyday of being completely and disdainfully ignored and sneered at. This was the class that found subtle (and not so subtle) ways to indicate that I smelled, that my breath stunk, that I was dirty, anything they could think of to get under my skin. All stuff designed to needle a first year teacher, most of which would hardly phase me now. So, by December, the tension in that class had built to a fever pitch (to me anyway) and they capped it off with this one spectacular display of disdain. My carefully crafted note sheets fluttering in the air in unison as they laughed and looked avidly at me to see how I would react.
I stopped talking. Walked over to my desk stony faced, but with tears trickling down my cheeks and sat down. I didn’t say another word for the short time remaining in the block (about 15 minutes as I recall) while chaos reigned in my room. They careened out of my room laughing that day.
Gah. I still have a hard time even thinking about that.
What has been your best experience in the classroom?
Again, there have been so many. Not as many as there were failures, but these shine brighter. I think my favorite was 1st semester of my 3rd year. I had a class of U.S. History repeaters, most of whom I had taught (and failed) the previous semester. I knew I couldn’t teach the same curriculum to them in the same way, so I spent a good chunk of time basically re-vamping the whole class to be structured around Layered Curriculum units and mastery quizzes and test. It took forever and the kids fought it for a long time, but I could tell it was working. When the EOC rolled around 92% of that class passed. I was so damn pleased I think I might have actually hugged my Principal. The best part was that I got to go around and tell each of my kids individually that they had passed. Oh, that moment. “Guess what? You passed!” “…naw. Really?” “Really!” “Awww, yeah!” As I walked away from one boy, one of my favorites, I heard him whisper to himself, “I didn’t think I could pass one of those.” I spent probably two or three days feeling like I had swallowed the sun. It was the best feeling in the whole world.
Why did you join TFA?
This is going to sound horrible, but I honestly don’t remember exactly. I had always been passionate about education, my experiences tutoring children of the rich and famous had made me long to work with kids who actually needed it, I had no definite plans for after graduation, I was flattered to be aggressively pursued by the organization, I was drawn to the idea of TFA. All of those and none of those in the end, I think. I just … wanted to see if I could.
If you knew what you know now, would you still apply to TFA?
Yes, I think so. If you had asked me that after my first year I think my answer would have been different, though.