Eigen is the Chief Academic Officer at Mastery Charter Schools and will be leading a session on shifting culture and school performance at Teach For America’s inaugural Alumni Awards and Educators Conference in Detroit on July 18, 2013. The conference gathers alumni teachers, school leaders and school systems leaders from across the country fora day of networking and professional development. Travel stipends are available. Alumni educators: register today.
I threw the teacher’s edition on the floor and screamed, “I give up.” My class of 24 high school students looked at me surprised—three gasped, 21 started laughing.
“Great! We don’t like you anyway and this class is boooorrrinnng!”
“Miss, you are turning kind of red.”
“Do we finally get a real teacher?”
I gritted my teeth, turned around, and wrote on the board. . .page 27 (1-35). “Do it if you want,” I said. The three gasping students opened their books and started working. The rest swiveled in their seats and talked to friends or went to sleep.
I walked to my desk, biting my lip not to cry. What was I doing here? The kids would rather anyone (or no one) be in the room, parents yelled at me as I fumbled through IEP meetings, the administration had spoken to me about my excessive office referrals, and I hated every minute of the day. I made it a habit of counting them down. At the beginning of the day, 250 minutes felt endless. After lunch, I was thrilled to be down to 150. But when the school day was over I still left feeling dread and failure.
Some days I couldn’t remember how I got to this South Texas classroom. People told me this would be rewarding. People said it wasn’t that rough. They said I could make a difference. But standing in my classroom, none of that seemed true. Still, I stayed.
When I tell share this story, everyone asks the same question: WHY? Why did you stay?
I tell them the truth:
- I really believed it could be done. As students swore at me, I recalled the inspiring speeches at institute from successful corps members. I didn’t really know how, but if they could do it, I could do it. If their kids could do it, my kids could definitely do it. I couldn’t give up on my kids or myself.
- Commitment. I signed up for this. I labored over my application and was thrilled to open the acceptance letter. That initial passion and commitment was still somewhere.
- Social change isn’t easy. I reminded myself that my frustrating day was nothing compared to what civil rights workers experienced or even to the daily struggles of my students. People had sacrificed so much to make the world right. I couldn’t walk away because I wasn’t having fun. What if everyone had done that?
- The glimmers. Once a day a student did well on a test or raised their hand to participate. If II increased the glimmers from one-a-day to two and two-a-day to four, eventually the whole day would be solid.
- I stayed for Andrew, Luis, Mariana, Andrew, Ruben, and Samir. Kids who had the power to make me angry, frustrated, shocked, scared, and, ultimately, proud.
Yet even these reasons weren’t enough. I had to make the final leap. I had to tell myself there was no other option. I couldn’t think about walking away. I couldn’t talk to my roommate about leaving. Instead I would occupy my mind with more purposeful things: how can I get better for my students?
So, what happened when I stayed? Did I win teacher of the year? No.
Did I change the lives of children? Did I watch students graduate who were once on a path to dropping out? Did I learn there is nothing I would rather dedicate my life to than ensuring children have choices? Yes, yes, and yes.
Eigen is Chief Academic Officer at Mastery Charter Schools and currently training her new blogging protege, Zoe Eigen-Elder, who, at 7 weeks old, can already get every student in a classroom to silently finish their Do Now activity in 3 minutes or less.