River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 31 2012

Confidence Is Key

Perhaps the biggest challenge for incoming corps members to overcome is finding a balance between humility and self-confidence. Recognizing the limits of one’s teaching knowledge and knowing when to ask for help can make or break one’s first year. TFA recruits are generally good at what they do and have a more extensive history of successes than one of failures. That said, the school communities we enter tend to be very wary of the “know-it-all” TFA savior, which is something I was very conscious of during my first year. With that said, there is a definite balance to be struck given that having confidence in the classroom is critical to driving student achievement as the lead instructor.

“You’re Not From Here Are You?”

You’ll watch TFAnet videos of “master teachers” and see many examples of immaculate classrooms; however, you really need to use those examples to craft your own teaching style rather than try to emulate anyone in particular. During my first year, I did a poor job of controlling the narrative of myself because I was closed off. My kids considered themselves a part of the “wild, thug hall” and I basically outsourced my authority by trying to be like our Assistant Principal. Since I’m not Shaq, and not a product of the community, that didn’t really work for me.

Getting my students to go from claiming: “ you went to college to learn to be like white people,” to asking: “can you write me a letter of recommendation,” was not easy. For all the flack institute takes, I’m not sure what kind of training could have prepared me for comments like the former. For me, the best training was a rough year in the classroom that helped me understand the 130 unique perspectives of my teenagers (that doesn’t include the multiple personalities!). In my experience, the best way to find your voice as a teacher is to meet your students where they are and they’ll help pull it out of you. What does this piece of unsolicited advice actually mean? Talk to and get to know your students; TFA calls this investment. Whatever the nomenclature, building trust-based relationships for learning is important.

I became a better role model and teacher for my students when I went back and read some of middle school writing and extracurricular work. I also learned a lot from watching the interactions of the kids with veteran teachers- something you can’t really get from Institute. When you understand your kids (as much as one can understand a teen) and can authentically demonstrate your compassion, your kids will learn both FROM you and FOR you. After you attain this level of mutual understanding, all those lesson plans, exit tickets, behavior narrations, etc will feel much smoother. Moreover, don’t think relationship-building is just a female thing. I was so concerned with staying at arms length from my girls last year that I didn’t realize how distant I appeared to them. A girl who thinks you don’t like them will either ignore you or seek to make your life as miserable as possible. [DUH!] Please, for your own sake, get to know their stories and feelings. You’ll be surprised by their insights.

I had a running joke with one of my top female students who gave me the nickname: “Mr. I Went To Harvard.” She initially wanted to go to Yale, but has since changed her top choice ;)


Student: “You think you’re cool because you went to Harvard?”

Me: No, of course not. Harvard’s cool because I went to it”

I’m going to miss that.

2 Responses

  1. You’re being a baaad influence on that top female student. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4kai4FL0MQ, teehee)

    In all seriousness though, this is awesome. The “learning FOR you” piece is so key.

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

Mississippi Delta
Middle School

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