“Hi, what is this job?”
“Ok, here’s what we need you to do. We need you to make children KNOW math.”
“Wow. Do they want to know math?”
“No, they don’t want to know it. You have to make them know it against their will….”
“Who are these children?”
“Just whatever kids live near the building.”
“How much do I get paid?”
“About $10 every four years.”
“What if I get really good at it? What happens?”
“Nothing. Nothing happens. Nobody notices….”
“OK, I’ll try it for 25 years.”
The script above was paraphrased from famed comic Louis C.K.’s recent special, Louis C.K. 2017. I confess, it’s not as good on the page as it is when C.K. performs it. As a lover of comedy and a math teacher, I love this bit.
PART I – Pre-teaching
I never wanted to be a teacher. Long hours. Meager pay. You have to get people do things they don’t want to do and your job performance is based on said people. Sounded like an awful gig to me. I have a vivid memory of 1st Grade Me standing with my friends on the playground. We asked each other what we wanted to be when we grew up and a few said, “teacher.” I looked at them quizzically and asked myself, “Why?” Teacher’s jobs are easy — they just do worksheets & activities with kids. What’s so impressive about that? Surely, any minimally trained human could do that. Haven’t you heard about astronauts? Now, THAT’s a job!
No one in my family was directly involved in education so I never thought about it as a career. My family respected teachers just like they respected any other person and profession, but it simply wasn’t addressed. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
In my K-12 education I had many solid teachers, a few unique ones and some I truly enjoyed and respected. My schools were based on the traditional “Sage on the Stage” model where the teacher was all-knowing and we students were supposed to sit still, follow rules, pay attention, write things down and take tests. Pretty standard. Pretty boring. (Until the cat dissection in my high school Anatomy class—Ms. Kitty was pregnant?!”) But I didn’t blame the teachers. It was just the Game of School. And I was pretty good at the game.
My university spiced it up with more projects and internships but I’m not sure what could have truly prepared me for what came next: 27 months of Peace Corps service in Panama. The ups and downs of my service were unremarkable. As a Community Economic Development Volunteer in Panama I worked with the local cooperative and with any other organization that would have me. The adults in the co-op were kind and welcoming, but my learning curve was steep. I spent a lot of time observing daily operations and slowly learning how things worked. It was frustrating to not immediately understand what I could do to help the co-op, but there was one thing I did understand: school.
I started to spend more time at the local K-6 school than at the co-op. Since kindergartners scared me, the teachers at Escuela San Vicente allowed me to work with the older students. I don’t remember what my first lesson was on, but I do know that I felt like I could finally contribute something because I knew how the whole teacher-class thing worked. And hey! These small people actually responded to the Spanish I was speaking (I knew I could speak it!) and did the things I asked them to do! Success!
I found life at the school familiar yet at times, completely foreign. Why is the school day only 4 hours long? What do you mean there are no substitute teachers? So, when a teacher can’t be at school class is just cancelled? Kids just go home? They don’t learn anything that day? Why is every 1st grader’s grass colored green, bird colored red and school colored yellow during free-drawing time? Where is the creativity? Isn’t there any room for more than rote memorization and conformity? No music class? No P.E.? No field trips? No science experiments? Why is the 2nd and 3rd grade teacher also the principal? When she does her principal duties, who is teaching her students? No one. Why is there so much yelling?
I was furious at the state of education at my school and felt deep sadness when I learned that my community’s school was not unique. All across rural Panama students were experiencing the same, or a worse, education. I started devoting more and more time to the school doing various classes until it became my primary project.
As I came to the end of my service, I knew I wanted to pursue education in the U.S. because I could not stand by while students were getting such terrible educations. But how? I had a business degree not an education one. Enter, Teach for America (TFA) whose vision is “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” TFA is not just an organization that prepares teachers, but it does so through the lens of social justice. I joined the 2011 TFA – Phoenix corps and was assigned to teach math and science to middle school students in August that year. I was equal parts excited and terrified. I reassured myself thinking, “I know how to play the Game of School. I can do this.”
The June & July before TFA Corps Members start teaching is the cautiously regarded and infamous TFA Institute, a.k.a. Teacher Boot Camp, where they mold people into teachers. I can not say enough good things about how impressive 1) TFA is 2) TFA Institute is and 3) anyone employed by TFA is. We start off pre-Institute by talking about how one teacher can make a huge impact on students, not only academically, socially and emotionally, but also economically. We read various articles that talk about how one great teacher can put a student on a completely different, hopefully positive, path in life.
Institute is exhausting: 2-3 hours a day teaching 4th graders who graciously put up with your sub-par teaching, 3-4 hours a day of learning how to be a transformative teacher from several incredibly patient, helpful and intimidatingly transformative teachers, 2-4 hours trying to create a transformative lesson plan for tomorrow because today’s lesson plan didn’t transform much of anything, learning how to make a strong Class Vision & Mission, a 5-step lesson plan with strong Key Points and Sub-Objectives and for heaven’s sake, don’t forget the Closure! Sprinkle in regular check-ins with your Teacher Coach, sessions on Diversity and Inclusion, hours in the copy room making enough copies for tomorrow, time in the library elbowing people out of the way to snag a set of books that will interest your students more than your voice currently does, an hour or so in the evening with your Curriculum and Literacy Specialists to learn how to transform yourself into a semi-passable educator because you don’t even know what reading level 4th graders are on (Do they understand the word “clause?” The answer is “not usually.” And it would be best if you didn’t use it again.) Then you go to bed around midnight (on a good night), wake up at 5:00am and do it all again. As the end of Institute neared, we looked forward to the conclusion of our 5-week marathon only for our Teacher Coach to say, “Now the hard part begins. You won’t have all of this support at your fingertips once you get to your placement school.” “You mean it gets HARDER?!”
Yes, Naïve Me. It does.
PART II – 1st year of teaching: 7th & 8th grade Math and 7th grade Science
The day after TFA Institute ends I start a 2-week training for my position with a traditional public Title I district school in a city west of Phoenix. While the sessions are less intense than Institute, my future co-workers and I spend hours getting our classrooms ready and getting to know our new schools all in preparation for this year’s students–the lives of whom we are expected to transform for the better.
First day of school: I arrive at 6:00am because that’s when the maintenance man opens the gate to the parking lot. My copies are ready, my PowerPoint slides have animations in them and I go through every moment of the day over and over again in order to help feel prepared. This barely helps. I feel nauseous.
7:55am: The bell rings for my 7th graders to enter and the pit in my stomach grows. They file into my classroom and take their seats according to the seating chart I have skillfully crafted and projected onto the board.
8:00am: The final bell rings. We stand to pledge allegiance to the flag and then they sit down. “Why are they all looking at me? OH GOD. I AM THE ONLY ADULT IN THE ROOM. I AM THE TEACHER. SAY SOMETHING. No time to have a personal meltdown–the PowerPoint! Click the slide, click the slide!” I click and talk and repeat until 2:45pm. I have never stood for so many hours or talked for so long in my entire life. I am so exhausted that I curl up at my desk and put my head down. I get up and go over tomorrow’s lesson—analyzing and re-analyzing it like a bad break-up except in reverse: “What am I going to do imperfectly tomorrow and how can I correct it now?” I adjust, re-adjust and change and change back because it was better the first time. I am obsessed with being prepared because I am Type A and this is how we relax. “It must be perfect for them. It must be transformative. How can I make it better? They will know if I’m not perfect. I must be perfect. I must transform their lives. I must be better than Escuela San Vicente.” When I am too tired to type any more, I go to leave and I see that mine is the last car in the parking lot.
This continues all school year. Once I arrived at school at 6:15am instead of 6:00am and the friendly maintenance man jokingly told me I was late. I’m never late. I hate being late. I feel nauseous.
I have three different lessons to provide every day. Every other teacher in the middle school only has two. I have 37 students in my last period because they put advanced 6th and 7th graders in my 8th grade math class. No other teacher has this many students. Each cohort of 7th and 8th graders is tracked into three different classes: “High Achieving” “Medium Achieving” and “Low Achieving.” The students know exactly what category they fall into and it reinforces how they view themselves. It’s horrendous for the Low students. The veteran teachers around me say, “In our college education classes they said not to classify students this way!” Why in the world did my school choose to do it? It’s not good for them. This eats at me. I feel nauseous.
And then there are extra duties: “Oh, did you know you have to stay until 8:30pm next Tuesday for Reading night? We know you don’t teach Reading, but have a “Make and Take” activity ready for ages 5-13.” “You mean there will be kindergarteners at Reading Night?? AND I have to be crafty? Do you know I am not at all crafty? Did you know 8:30pm is my bedtime??” “Just do it. Bye!”
Also, there are extra meetings and forms to fill out: a form to fill out for the Special Education teacher on the Special Education students for their Individualized Education Plans. “Oh, and are you doing the things their legally-binding plans say you must do?” Another form for the Gifted Students: “How are you pushing them in their areas of gifted-ness? Is it enough? Never. What more could you be doing as an educator?” I spend hours tweaking lessons to make sure I am differentiating for my Special Education and Gifted students.
As if this wasn’t enough, in September I start my Masters of Education degree at Arizona State University. Classes are from 4:00-9:00pm on Mondays. I do my Masters homework on Saturdays and my lesson planning on Sundays. I yearn for Fall Break in October.
I am not sleeping well. I frequently awake between 2:30-3:00am, heart-racing and beating out of my chest because I’m thinking about how poorly Diego did on his recent math test, or how Tina is being bullied by those mean girls because her family’s water is shut off and she is dirty, or how I am totally failing my students with Special Education needs because they got a 2 out of 5 on the end-of-lesson assessment yesterday, or how Ricky’s dad is in jail and that’s why he has been acting out lately and won’t do his work, or how I have to craft something for Science Night next week—when will the crafts end?? I read an article that likens teaching to having approximately 4,278 internet browser tabs open at the same time and trying to manage them all. I agree with this metaphor. I get a new Teacher Coach from TFA. I call her crying once because my Low Achieving 8th grade students did horribly on a quiz. She reassures me, rearranges her schedule to come into my classroom the next day and gives helpful advice. She is wonderful. I call her more. I yearn for Winter Break in December.
January arrives and it’s an all-out sprint to prepare for the state test in April…wait, April? That’s like 3.5 months away. Why hurry? BECAUSE THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TEST OF THEIR 7TH & 8TH GRADE MATH LIVES AND OUR SCHOOL’S REPUTATION DEPENDS ON IT. I feel nauseous. As if I didn’t already have anxiety about everything in my job, now my efficacy will be determined by a single test taken over the course of three days. I feel sick. I don’t take a single sick day. No one notices.
We review, review and review some more. I try to keep it interesting: Jeopardy! Review in groups! Class competition! “Miss, didn’t we do this problem already?” Dang it, they’re smart. “Yes, let’s make one number different and try it again!” The students do it, because they know we are playing the Game of School. This is not the first time they have been prepped for an important statewide exam.
It’s April. They take the statewide exam. “We won’t have our scores back until July.” “What?! I have to freak out until July now??”
July comes. My 7th graders have raised their statewide exam scores from an average of 39% to 84%. My 8th graders have made a 60% year over year increase. We did it—kinda. It’s not perfect, but we played the game and we did OK. Was it transformational?
The next year comes and I do it all over again. I create new lesson plans too because the state changed the education standards. I have all of the 7th graders this year and I love them. We bond. I work hard. My students work harder. We earn the highest statewide math scores in the district. We get a trophy. Are their lives transformed?
I teach a third year and request to have all the same 7th graders again, except now they are 8th graders. They are amazing. We work our butts off. I love them more. We get the highest scores again. We get another trophy. I feel less nauseous. I think they have been transformed a bit. I know I have.
I have been completely transformed by my students and my experience as an educator. I have learned what kind of educator I want be each day. I have learned that my students are the focus, not the test. My students are why I have stayed in this profession for as long as I have. They continue to impress me when their dedication and perseverance through not only tough math concepts, but their personal situations as well. My 1st grade self was a complete idiot when she thought that teaching was easy. She only thought that because her teachers MADE it look easy. That’s how impressive they truly were.
Lydia Shelly has recently finished her sixth year teaching math in a traditional public Title I school district west of Phoenix, AZ. She followed her beloved 7th graders to the high school half a mile from her original school and she sees them regularly. She owes an enormous debt of gratitude to every person at TFA and her shool districts for the hours of support and also to Pepto Bismol.