Learning to Embrace the Unexpected
Nothing seemed to go according to plan during my first few months in the corps, but I didn’t let it crush me.
January 16, 2019
When I was preparing to join Teach For America, I began to fantasize about teaching the way people fantasize about domestic bliss. Instead of a white picket fence, I pictured having culturally relevant and hip bulletin boards. Instead of picking out a wedding dress and going to cake tastings, I’d imagine GoFundMe campaigns where I used the funds to purchase textbooks my students never had.
The problem was, I was playing myself. This oversimplified, idealized, stress-free vision made no room for the twists and turns of a first-year teacher. And I found that out—very clearly—during my first year in the classroom.
I’d already had to deal with some deep disappointments before I even step foot into my classroom: I’d been placed in my third-choice region, instead of my top choice, and was assigned to teach secondary special education after originally being told I’d be teaching Spanish. Sometimes these unexpected turns felt comical, such as when a deer hit my car when I was driving from Dallas to Connecticut, where I was moving to start my job as a teacher in the corps. I’ll never forget looking straight into the deer’s eyes and knowing that at that brief moment in Hershey, Pennsylvania, we both understood what horror meant as we gazed at each other.
When I got into the classroom, I quickly understood that teaching is not for the faint of heart. I spent a large part of my first year questioning whether I should have ever joined TFA. Being selected in a competitive organization didn’t mean I was invincible, and that was a hard truth for me to accept.
“We can do our best to carve some sort of path, but at the end of the day we’re just preparing ourselves to best cope or accept the natural but chaotic course of life.”
The rest of my story could easily be about my disappointments and setbacks that first year in the corps. But ultimately my story is not about dashed expectations, it’s about learning that those twists and turns are not detours from our path—they are our path. It’s called life.
I knew teaching would be difficult, but I couldn’t properly separate my own experience growing up in an upper-middle class educational setting from what my classroom would actually look like. I was vulnerable and felt set up to fail because my insecurity showed through and everything—from classroom management to lesson planning to balancing certification courses—tore right through me.
It was never about being placed in a different region, just as it was never about a series of mishaps. In reality, I expected TFA to be my crutch and was disappointed to see that at the end of the day, the organization didn’t stop real life from happening. TFA can provide the opportunity, and along with it, training, coaching, and a network of people, but ultimately, it’s up to me to face my challenges, and no other person or organization can solve them for me or make decisions that are my own to make.
Things really do just happen and expectations are just speculations. We can do our best to carve some sort of path, but at the end of the day we’re just preparing ourselves to best cope or accept the natural but chaotic course of life.
One of the many unhealthy ways I coped at first was by tuning out. I wasn’t living in the past, present or future. I just existed. There were a slew of times that I’d violently be dragged to the present where I’d sit and think, “What in God’s name am I doing here?”.
A few months into teaching, my supervisor summed up what I was feeling when I came into her office in tears:
“What’s difficult about TFA is that for the first time in your life you can’t pull an all-nighter and expect a perfect score. It chooses people like you where you were always good at things. Now you’re in a circumstance that requires experience and that’s a hard for you to swallow.”
It took me until the end of February to realize that expecting the unexpected is about feeling comfortable with the present. My own passivity became my biggest enemy and it caused me to be a passenger of my own life for the better part of a year.
What started to make me feel human again was to go back and do things that felt authentic to myself. I found that by making weekend trips around the Northeast and by spending time writing.
Currently, I’m much more comfortable riding the unpredictable current of life, but that doesn’t mean I’m not uneasy about it still. All I know is that I’ll be okay. The past year of my life didn’t go according to plan, but that doesn’t mean all of my experiences in the classroom were negative. I’ve discovered the good and bad in life in my first year of teaching and as I proceed through my second year I can say that I’m okay and that my students are learning.
I’m also here. I’m truly here--for my students and myself--and out of everything that has happened this year I’m grateful to know how that feels again.
Alyssa Fernandez is a born-and-raised Texan now working in Connecticut as a 2017 corps member.
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