It was October of my first year teaching when I finally cried, hard, about joining TFA. I was exhausted, my classroom management was quickly deteriorating, and my kids didn’t seem to be learning. Every day, I saw a million reasons why the kids in my classroom needed the World’s Best Teacher, and every day I saw another million examples of why that was Not Me. I was failing a group of students who could not afford to get let down, and I didn’t know how to make it better. It was October when I hit bottom, and sat in my bed and bawled because I was just so, so, so sorry. When I finally got my breath back, I called my mom. It was probably well after midnight in her time zone, but she listened as I sobbed that I loved my kids, but I wasn’t the teacher they needed. I just felt terrible.
Lucky for me, my mom didn’t try to give me unrealistic expectations. She didn’t tell me that I was doing great, and she didn’t even tell me that I’d start doing better soon. She didn’t tell me my kids were fine, and she didn’t tell me that I was what they needed. Instead, she just waited for a good moment to interrupt my whining and then said:
“Well, nothing personal, but if they could have found somebody better to hire, you wouldn’t have that job. If someone more experienced had applied, they wouldn’t take a first year teacher. You might not be what those kids need, but you’re what they have. Whether it sounds good or not, whatever you do in that room is the best thing they’re getting.”
It wasn’t a Rockstar Teacher moment, but those words got me back to work the next day and through the rest of my first year. I was never going to be perfect, but I stopped sitting around crying in guilt and started just trying to be better than I’d been the day before. While TFA was tormenting everyone else with videos of Miracle Teachers, I instead was looking at the revolving door of substitute teachers in the classroom down the hall and just reminding myself that My Best was actually all we had to work with.
I get a little sick to my stomach when I hear people say that TFA is moving into areas with no teacher shortages and taking jobs from experienced teachers. Would I have quit that October, if I’d known someone with more experience was waiting in the wings to step in and take better care of my kids than I could? I hope so. Even though I ended up having a relatively solid first year, I’m not sure I could, in good conscience, have stayed in my classroom if I’d known someone better than me was eager for my job. It would have been awful to think that my classes were losing out just so I could be a teacher.
But that wasn’t the case for me. The teacher in my job the year before me had quit and moved out of state, and there wasn’t exactly a surplus of excellent people banging down the door to replace her. I know that their school board threatens every year to end the contract with TFA, but I just heard that they still have 50+ open positions for a school year that starts in a few weeks. Someone’s going to have to fill those positions, and it’s probably going to be a lot of first-year TFAs. For the sake of their sanity, I hope someone gives them the dose of reality that I got. Unfortunately, you can’t be perfect, but your best is the only option. It’s not happy or heartwarming or inspirational, but it’s real and I think it helps to hear it.