Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This is the end...

Tim Golden asked me a few weeks ago for my end-of-TFA thoughts. This blog has been gathering dust in the corner. You'll have to excuse me: TFA was keeping me busy in Houston all summer, and then, suddenly, things were over.

I've always struggled with endings. Last summer, I don't think I wrote about the act leaving South Dakota until I actually came back to the state again in the fall. But yesterday, feeling a little bit nostalgic for my Teach For America days, I made my way to Edison High School in North Philly to see how Institute is going in these parts; I figured that was as good an occassion as any to reflect on what happened, and what comes next.

I get the same questions repeatedly. Even the CMAs I talked to yesterday wanted to know: how did I like it? Which is open to broad interpretation, of course. Their follow-up of So you didn't go crazy? makes it a little more clear.

My practiced response--the one that garnered the question on sanity--is that I loved South Dakota, but teaching not so much. I'll certainly miss the inherent adventurousness of my lifestyle in the country, and the people that I adventured with. I won't miss writing tests, or writing lesson plans, or the pressure that came with teaching--or at least the pressure that I put on myself. And I wasn't really there to adventure; I was there to teach.

So perhaps a more important question would be did I teach? I've been indoctrinated by TFA to believe that if the results don't show learning, then there's no teaching. I believe I enumerated the results of my final exams in an earlier post; suffice to say they weren't pretty. During a professional evaluation with my school director at Institute this summer, she remarked that I was sometimes over-critical of my teaching experience. It was feedback I had anticipated, but no matter how I spin the experience, I know I'll never be satisfied with my performance. There was too much more I could have done.

Not to say that there is no positive spin. At my end-of-year conversation, my Program Director told me that despite the low performance of my students, the organization still considered me a high performing teacher. Which I found to be a bit ridiculous and a complete reversal on the message they continually project. But I think they ridiculous just how crazy my school was, and recognition of the effort I put up in front of those obstacles. I believe there was debate over whether it was even worthwhile to continue to place corps members at my school. I compared ridiculousness notes with other CMAs at Institute this summer. And while most TFA schools have their problems, ours still rank pretty high.

I was also honored in various ways by the school itself. On one of the last days of in-service, Luke and I were both given star quilts--a big honor in Lakota culture. At graduation, the salutatorian thanked the two of us in particular for the work we did for her and her classmates. That's one of the moments from my two years that I'll remember best.

I'm not done with education. Walking into Edison High School yesterday, I felt a tingle of recognition for the parts of teaching I liked: meeting students that are warm and friendly despite all the things that have been stacked against them. I'm already tutoring a girl here, who, though her family is far from struggling financially, reminds me of the same issues I experienced on the rez. She thinks she developmentally incapable of doing the math, but she's not: it's just that no one made her memorize her multiplication tables. At the very least, I'll be writing about education. A few of the teachers I met yesterday told me they would keep me posted on story tips coming out of their schools.

I'm sure there's more to say about how these two years have changed me. But again, that was never the point--and I'm still floating too much now, figuring out what I'm doing, to have a grip on how I changed. Maybe one day soon I'll have a more fitting epilogue.

Watch for a new blog soon, less constrained in topic and updated with more frequency.