Mississippi Teacher Corps

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My MTC experience

“I laughed, I cried, I lost 15 pounds” –Steven Colbert

How should I sum up my two years down in the Delta? I guess I’ll start with the beginning. I came down here just a few days after I graduated from college. I wanted to fight for social justice and give underserved children a chance for the future. I wanted to become a good teacher. I wanted to become a stronger, braver, more resilient person. At the end of May, I’ll leave my school for good. I’m worn out and tired of not getting the respect I want. But have I met the goals that originally drove me to come down here? Yes.

When I relive my first week of teaching in my memory, I literally get a knot in my stomach. I had only a few days to move down here before school started, and when the former owners of my house did not move out by the agreed-upon date, I was left with no home to move into for the first week of school. A second-year MTC teacher in town was kind enough to take me in, give me sleeping space, and take care of me during that time. Even so, not having my own living space during that very stressful week messed me up, and every time I needed something, I had to think about whether it was at my friend’s house, in storage at my landlord’s house, in the trunk of my car, or in my classroom. After the first week of school, I flew out of town for the weekend to see a friend who was living out of the country and only back in the US for a brief period of time, which meant that I was sleep-deprived and didn’t get to recuperate from the week. Before the kids showed up, we had a few teacher work days. Let’s say that I received less than a warm welcome from most of my new co-workers. I will always have a special place in my heart for my janitors, who were two of the very few people that were friendly to me from the beginning. During our first teacher work day, I went to lunch with many of the other teachers. As soon as I’d picked up my food, the teacher sitting next to me started grilling me on my discipline policy and asked what I planned to use as punishments. As I went through my list (warnings, writing assignments, phone calls, detentions, office referrals, etc.), she kept barking at me, “What else?” and then proceeded to lecture me on how the kids were “monsters” who wouldn’t do anything I told them to do unless I paddled them very hard. Other teachers chimed in their agreement, and after a meeting in the library, another teacher pulled me aside to give me more or less the same speech. When the principal started talking about corporal punishment, and I asked whether corporal punishment at the school was limited to paddling or included things like push-ups, the entire staff started laughing at me, and people I hadn’t even met spent the next few days teasing me and asking if I’d made any kids do push-ups. That day, I also received “helpful” advice from many of the teachers: the new seventh grade class was the worst class EVER to come through the school district. I went home that night and was so anxious I couldn’t sleep at all. For the first week and a half of school, I woke up with so much dread that I couldn’t even eat breakfast, meaning that I was weak and shaking from the time the kids showed up until I calmed down enough to have a snack. The more I think about those days, the more amazed I am that I survived all that. I would not go through those first days again for any amount of money.

During my first few months of school, I hadn’t even realized that we had overhead projectors, and I would furiously scribble notes on the board, then erase them, every single period! I spent a good part of my first year just learning about basic things to do and not do at school.

I am unspeakably glad that I’ll be done this stint in a month and a half. My first year, I gave out consequences like no other and had a horrible time with classroom management. My second year, I gave fewer consequences and spent more time talking to the kids about their behavior. It made things better, but I still don’t feel like I’m taken seriously as an authority figure. I’m sick of being disrespected and ignored, and I’m sick of living in a crazy place where a parent’s worth is measured by whether or not they buy their children new clothes, not by the way their children treat others. At least once a week, something happens at school that makes me come home angry. It’s not healthy for me to spend so much of my time being angry, and when I’m not angry about a specific incident, I’m angry about the state of my school in general. I’m sick of the crazy behavior, in kids and adults, that I see going on at school every day, and I feel that my talents would be better used somewhere else. As my guidance counselor said to me today, “You are extremely intelligent, and the kids here don’t appreciate that. Kids somewhere else will.”

That being said, I’m glad I did this. I spent so much of the past two years just trying to get kids in order that it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized how much I enjoy teaching. This realization came when our school went on a crazy test-prep schedule that involves putting 40+ kids in a classroom with one teacher who is actually teaching, and a second teacher who is just a classroom manager. With a 300 pound black male teacher in my room, I could finally teach instead of worrying that if I turn my head for two seconds, someone would throw something (not an exaggeration). It’s been great. It made me realize that if I go to a school where the kids are reasonably behaved because they’ve been taught manners, I’ll really enjoy my job.

During TEAM, I remember one of the veteran teachers telling me that I’m one of the 10% or so of teachers that are natural born teachers. Even so, I had a lot to learn about teaching. I am now fully confident in my abilities to come up with and teach an interesting and coherent lesson, and I feel that I’ve grown into a very good teacher during my time here. Last week, I had two student teachers observe me, and they both commented on how refreshing it was to meet someone with so much passion and energy, and that they could tell I liked teaching just by watching me teach. I’m in my element teaching.

Perhaps the most important thing that this experience has done for me is to give me confidence in myself. After two years, I still don’t stand where I want to in my classroom, and I’ve been knocked around so much that sometimes I wonder how I convinced myself to stay here at all. During the past two years, I have, at times, become very sick, felt useless, become depressed, felt alone, felt homesick, and just wanted to leave this crazy place behind. But, I can say something that many of the local teachers at my school who quit mid-year can’t: I stuck it out and survived. Shortly before I came here, I met a girl at my college who was from southern Mississippi, and when I told her that I was thinking of teaching in the Delta, she looked at me like I’d said I was thinking of jumping in a tiger cage at the zoo. Being too unfamiliar with the south to understand the difference between the Coast and the Delta, I responded, “But you’re FROM Mississippi.” She corrected me, “I’m from southern Mississippi. It’s different there. The Delta is crazy. If you can survive teaching there, you can do anything!” After my two years, I think she was right to look at me like I was crazy when I said I was coming here to teach. But when I look back on all the struggles I’ve been through and overcome, sometimes without anyone to support me through the tough times, I feel proud of myself. I feel that this experience has opened up a lot more opportunities for my future, because after surviving these two years, I’m not afraid or intimidated to do big things any more. I survived the Delta. Whatever other things I do in life will be easy after this.

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