Tag Archives: TFA

The “Tripod” of the Public Education System

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Happy Teacher Appreciation Week 🙂 Thank a teacher who supported you!

Now on to a less happy topic…

There’s this lovely “tripod” that’s supposed to be a thing in the teaching field: the students, the parents, and the teachers/administration. I remember sitting in grad school, listening to this tripod explanation, and thinking Yup, I got it, that makes sense, if we all just work together, we’ll have the perfect system!

I was teaching 7th grade English at the time, in Aiea, Hawaii, and I was struggling. The added stress of my masters program, my Teach For America responsibilities, and the craziness of uprooting from Texas was definitely weighing on me. I kept thinking Well, my end of the tripod is steady, for sure. I figured my kids’ third of the creation was probably sturdy as well. So I mostly blamed parents. Why don’t they check grades online? Why don’t they check their kids’ backpacks, planners, folders? Why don’t they show up to meetings or buy their kids supplies or make their kids read at night? Why aren’t they like MY parents, or like ME? It’s easy to blame.

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But as the years went on, and I moved back to Texas, I realized a much bigger problem: WHY is the teacher end of the tripod combined with admin? Shouldn’t they be on their own, a fourth leg? There’s a disconnect between educators and their bosses–a gap that’s growing and growing. To casually throw a backslash in between teachers and admin is ridiculous. Teachers/admin. As if we’re the same, as if we have the same job, make the same salary, deal with the same daily ups and downs…HA!

I’ve tried hopelessly to get to the bottom of why this disconnect exists and how it started. The only conclusion that really makes sense is lack of respect. We don’t feel trusted by our principals or assistant principals or curriculum specialists or whoever we’re “reporting to” on any given day…and I don’t think they feel trusted by us either. Respect, open communication, team building…all of those buzzwords that are major duhs in well-run companies are merely pipe dreams in the public education system.

We are told that it’s our fault if kids fail–by people who, five years ago, were (shockingly) teachers themselves, dealing with failure rates themselves. It’s kind of insane.

We ask for behavior help, classroom resources, parent or community relationship assistance–until eventually we stop asking. Because that’s usually what people do after so long of asking and not receiving–they stop asking entirely.

We fill out all the required busy work and attend all the unhelpful, mandatory trainings and simultaneously sew our lips together.

I’m only in my fourth year of teaching and I’m guilty of this. I start off the year strong, passionate. I begin fizzling and fading fast. So much time and effort…for what seems like nothing most of the time. I care about my students as if they are my own flesh and blood–I pour my heart into this job–and the “tripod” still topples. Every year.

Admin seem to blame teachers, teachers blame parents and admin, students blame no one because usually they don’t even see the real problem…

I think it’s pretty clear that this “tripod” is wobbly on EVERY end. There’s no 100% strong, healthy leg of the public education system. It’s not one group’s fault. I don’t even think one group is a little more to blame than another. Everyone knows we have a flawed system. Large strides are needed–from everyone.

But I do think that the first step in solving this massive nationwide issue is to close that disconnect between teachers and admin, so that maybe we CAN one day be teachers/admin.

I mean, if we can’t receive the support that we deserve from our superiors…how are we supposed to function effectively in the trickle-down of disrespect?

How to Be “Pleasantly Surprised By Everything”

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I’ve officially learned the hard way how true a good friend’s words were recently:

“Never get excited about anything, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by everything” (or something like that).

HOW TRUE IS THAT?! How sad, but true is that? When she first said it, I thought it was hilarious of course, as are most things that come out of her mouth, but I didn’t take it seriously. After all, getting excited about things is…well, fun. Getting excited means smiling and laughing and butterflies and anticipation. How boring would life be without excitement?

But then again…the quote is 100% true. Our lives would be simpler and easier if we never allowed ourselves to get excited about anything. Think about it. You’d never have ANY expectations, no unrealistic fantasies, zero delusions about experiences that family or friends or media have hammered into your minds since birth…

Let’s take a few examples from my life:

1.       Life After College. Oh my lord, I thought immediately after I was handed that diploma that my life would basically start exploding into fireworks of adventure, fortune, and happiness. I built up life after college SO much—not only in the four years at Texas State, but also in high school, and probably before that too. This is the supreme example of how getting excited about something screwed me over. I realized pretty quickly that Oh, wait…I didn’t find the perfect husband in college. Oh, wait…I don’t have a fabulous dream job lined up. Oh wait, I’m still living in a shitty apartment selling clothes for a horrendous hourly wage? If I hadn’t been so excited, maybe this time in my life would’ve been seen as relaxing and full of possibilities instead of hopeless and a huge, huge disappointment.

2.       Moving To Hawaii. Yes, Hawaii was my first choice when I applied for TFA. The rest of my top ten cities were big and bustling, most of which I had never even been to. Why? Because this was going to be THE BEST TWO YEARS OF MY LIFE! This experience was going to be LEGEN-wait for it-DARY! Oh, I got my first choice city? Of course I did, because these two years were going to be filled with getting a tan, travelling between islands, being a kickass teacher, finishing grad school like a boss, and meeting  beautiful surfers (one of whom would become my boyfriend, of course). It’s a little ridiculous how excited I was about moving here. And c’mon, I had great reason—this is paradise, this is one of the top honeymoon spots, this place has no real winter! BUT (there’s always a but when you get too excited), this has of course been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. This is the most I’ve ever complained, stressed, lacked sleep, had migraines that are out of this world…and I can’t help but wonder…would it be this challenging if I hadn’t built it up so much in my head, convincing myself that it was going to be PERFECTION?

3.       Relationships. If you haven’t read my blog “Dating on an Island,” go read it…If you’ve read it, then I really don’t need to say anything else right now. You get it. Dating sucks, people suck, having high expectations sucks, getting disappointed time after time sucks. But hey, if I don’t like it, I should just stop getting excited about relationships, right? Cutting out this aspect leaves us heartbreak free. If we don’t get excited, we therefore won’t get crushed. Plus, no matter what sleazy or slimy or downright disturbing words or actions someone directs toward you, you won’t be fazed! Because you weren’t excited anyway! Ahh, the liberation.

The problem is, none of this is actually possible. We’re wired a little differently than that, unfortunately. No matter how much my friend can say “Never get excited about anything, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by everything,” she’ll never actually, truly be able to live by it, nor will I or you or anyone.

We’re programmed to get excited, to get our hopes up, to anticipate the best, and to be severely disappointed when again, something is, instead, the worst.

But who the hell cares. I’m one of those idiots who gets excited about EVERYTHING and everyone. And you know what? I’ve had plenty of pleasant surprises in my life, thank you very much! Then again, have I had more disappointments because of my over-eagerness? Shit, probably. Point moot. Whatever, dream big or go home.

The Big Complaint

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     I complain about teaching a lot, I realize this. I complain about the cocky 13 year-old who flexes in the middle of our figurative language lesson and shouts out, “Is there a vet in here because these pythons are sick!”

I complain about my students telling me I should wear my hair down, wear contacts, and wear more dresses and makeup (Why, you ask? To get a husband of course!).

I complain about the missing homework, the failures, the tardies, the absences, the laziness, the lack of organization, the disrespectful words and looks, the dress code violations, and the desk vandalism.

I complain about the “IDKs” and even worse, the “IDCs”. I complain about the “As long as I’m passing, Miss” and the “Oh no, we weren’t talking, I was asking for help!”

I complain about the stolen pencils, the sleepers, the creepers, and the girl who looks me up and down, scowling, and asks, “Why do you dress like a Filipino?”

I complain about the ones who could and should be doing better, the ones who could and should EASILY be making A’s, and the ones who should have been held back.

I complain about the awkwardness, the inappropriateness, and the uncomfortable questions like, while writing love poems, “What does a tingle feel like? Is it good, to feel tingly?”

I complain about the sarcasm (the use of it AND the lack of understanding it, which is hypocritical, I know), the smart asses—like when I told a should-be-leader, “You need to step up to the plate” and he answered, “But Miss, I can’t even see the plate! I don’t even know where the plate is!” The “You should really be more strict” to the “You’re the meanest teacher ever!”

I complain about the headaches, the stress, and the strain on my social life (which the kids thinks means no mall cruising or McDonald’s hangouts).

I complain about them making me feel old as dirt. Like “They’re not called HEADphones anymore Ms. Mendez, there’s nothing on our HEADS. They’re called EARphones now” or “What’s a cassette? What’s a Polaroid?” Kill me.

I complain about all the complaining. I guess for the amount of times I say, “I can’t treat you like a 7th grader if you’re not acting like one,” you could probably double the times it’d be appropriate for you to tell me, “Act your age, not your shoe size.” Gimme a break though, I’m in that weird (read: awesome), early twenties phase where my weekends, clothes, and tan are still more important than mailing postcards, my 401K, or sensible undergarments.

I complain about the fact that they notice literally everything, from my chipping toenail polish to the bags under my eyes to “You wear those shoes every single day. Don’t you have other ones?”

I complain about the sweatiness and stinkiness and coughs and sneezes and pink eyes. I complain about the shrimp in 3rd period who sits cross-legged, scratches his balls, and then sniffs his fingers with a damn smile on his face.

I complain about the in-my-bubble, breathing down my neck, over-the-top-curiosity of “Do you have a boyfriend? Do you drink beer? You’re a Mexican?!”

I complain about the poor grammar, the slang (“She’s being so irrez.” Ugh, you’re being irrez by saying irrez, just say irritating!), the cussing, and the PDA. I complain about the rumors (I’m dating their math teacher, I’m 18 years old, I’m divorced).

But mostly, daily actually, in my mind, I complain about the fact that I just love them too, too much. I complain that I’d go crazy without them (yes, crazier than I’m going with them). I complain that I’m only a first year teacher, why am I so attached? Maybe because I am a first year teacher. I complain that they make me laugh harder than I’ve ever laughed. I complain that I’ve become a proud mama bear, swelling with over-protective, near-psychotic emotions that could probably cause my head and heart to explode simultaneously. I complain that on random occasions, quite frequently, they make me want to be a teacher forever, just from one high-five after mastering a test or one giggle while immersed, reading a short story.

I complain that they’re about to be in 8th grade, they’re leaving me, they’ll forget me! I need more time! I wanted to do a Hunger Games unit! I’m this close to making a writer out of him, a reader out of her, learners out of them. I complain; this was not part of the plan.

Faith in Failure

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I had never been inside the gates of government housing, much less into an actual apartment. But I had to meet DJ’s parents. DJ, or Danu, who had just spent a whole hour after school with me, perfecting his essay while humming rap songs, picking at the scrapes on his arms, and drumming on his desk. He had jumped at the chance to get a ride home, but begged me not to come up into building seven. Too bad, so sad. I was going to light some kind of fire, I was so confident. This was step one in my naïve  plan. The parents would see how invested I was and they would therefore also become super involved in DJ’s English skills. It was going to work like magic. I was smiling as I climbed rusted steps, lined with “slippahs”.

DJ walked through the open door and shot upstairs, jerking a thumb towards me before he disappeared. I tiptoed in quietly, not sure if I should wait outside. I looked in the direction that his thumb had jutted toward. I saw a glimpse of two brown faces and four brown eyes. “Hi! I’m Alysha, I’m DJ’s English teacher!”  The open windows washed a breeze over everything. Flies floated around the furniture. I tried to direct my gaze only on his parents, not the large pile of dirty laundry next to the stove or the molded dishes in the sink.

No one said a word. There was a sound from both of them, I guess an acknowledgement of my presence. But I couldn’t discern if it was a grunt, a dismissal, or a standard greeting used for all. Dad pulled his shirt down, still not covering a huge, hairy belly. Mom got up off the couch reluctantly, leading me back out through the front door. A little girl appeared, her innocent smile reminding me of that same feeling of childhood excitement I see in DJ sometimes. “Ooh, look, a teacher!” Her pony tail bounced and her eyes popped. DJ’s eyes. I wanted to scoop her up and hug her tight and whisper in her tiny ear to never give up, because I already believed in her and her seashell earrings.

Mom still hadn’t said a word. DJ had finally joined us, peeking from behind the doorframe as I started an uncomfortable spiel. Her son was great. Her son had shown such, such incredible improvement. Her son was so smart, had such potential. I could see a sly grin appearing and disappearing from inside.

She gave that same grumble, almost inaudible, with a nod this time. She never looked into my eyes. In fact, she looked pissed, like I had just ranted about the complete opposite. I briefly wondered if my words could’ve somehow been misinterpreted. But no, I had been crystal clear; your son rocks. My whole body was burning, not because of the midday Hawaiian heat. I wanted to send spit flying at her neck tattoo and gold chain, I wanted to scream at all 300 pounds of her, “BE PROUD OF HIM! LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT HIM! BE PROUD OF HIM YOU STUPID COW!” Because I sure as hell am. And I shouldn’t have to be the only one.

I said my goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous and plastered on a fake smile, waving to DJ and his little sister as I made my way back to my car, completely dejected. I wanted to break down. I wanted to sob in fury and disappointment. But I couldn’t. I wanted even more to be like DJ; strong in the face of a situation in which I should be my weakest.

The next day, he cussed in class, daydreamed through half of the notes, and tried to hide in the closet after the bell rang. The usual drill. But he passed that freakin’ essay, the highest grade he’s ever made on any writing. I pulled him aside and told him how proud I was. He shrugged me off and sauntered away, but not before I saw that same giddy grin lined with dimples. He was proud of himself too. And you know what I realized? Two people having that kind of faith in an almost-failing 12-year old student is better than none. And if there aren’t more now, there will be. And that’s something.