Updated: Apr 27, 2022
With one semester left of college, I didn't have plans for after graduation. I majored in telecommunications and film studies. I knew I didn't want to work my way up from camera grip to technical director at a local television station. I wasn't interested in attending graduate school right away either. I'd thought about teaching before but with a double major and a minor, there was no way I could tell my parents that I was extending my stay at Purdue University to explore child development and family studies. Teach for America (TFA) accepted me along with Chicago's Inner-City Teaching Corps. TFA offered exponentially more money and the prospect of adventure; applicants do not choose the city where they'll live or the subject they'll teach.
I landed in Philadelphia. Culture shock doesn't begin to describe how I felt those first few years. I struggled to make friends and didn’t have much of a social life. I lived alone in a bi-level basement apartment in South Philly with my cat. Sleep deprivation was my new normal. On top of working as a full-time teacher, I attended weeknight graduate classes along with once a month all-day Saturday seminars. Most days I’d leave work feeling deflated. Did I mention that I don't speak Spanish? (I was a minor for goodness sake!) TFA's best practices for classroom management failed time and time again. Often, I would lose my temper. I resented how students treated my white colleagues. The kids knew better than to cross the line with them, but with me, they’d fuss, threaten, or curse. When students did comply, it was because they liked me, or they thought I was pretty, or they enjoyed my sense of humor; not because I necessarily was good at my job.
So why stay? The truth of the matter is I’m stubborn. I spent a lot of nights reteaching myself Spanish grammar. I even traveled abroad to Peru the summer after my first year so I could work on my fluency. Despite my attempt at dictatorship-like management those first few years, I eventually relaxed and was able to connect with students. That’s what I set out to do. I didn’t have a teacher I could go to when I was in high school, someone who noticed I was feeling low out of the blue or asked me why I was feeling angry. Someone who showed up for activities that I participated in. And I definitely didn’t have a teacher who looked like me to push me academically; someone who believed that I could succeed. I wouldn’t find a person/people like this until I got to college.
While I did take time off after I completed my two-year commitment with Teach For America, unlike other corps members who went on to law school or med school, I worked at a nonprofit. Six months later I re-entered the classroom.
Teaching isn’t an easy job. I’ve often questioned my sanity. Days are long. I have to work with less and be prepared for anything. I spend my own money on supplies. I’ve taught at schools with no paper, no pencils, and limited technology. I wrote on a chalkboard when I first started teaching! (Whiteboards were fancy) Today, there’s one-to-one technology; every student is given a laptop. There are smart boards in classrooms and flat-screen televisions in the hallways. I recently visited an elementary/middle school with an emotional support dog.
Like any profession, workplace satisfaction and longevity are dependent on time, place, and the people with whom you work. There have been some schools I‘be worked at that I would never return to and others I was sad to leave. Never in a million years did I think I’d still be teaching in 2022. If asked whether or not I’d do it all again, the answer is yes, but also no. I’ve only ever done one job. I’d like to think that if I could turn back the clock and start again, I would have enrolled in an MFA writing program earlier or lived abroad. Perhaps then I'd be a professor with a few published articles or books under my belt. Maybe I would have pursued a career in media. Regardless of my hypothetical career choice, I'm certain I would have volunteered to work with a youth group in some way. Even when I was "taking a break," I worked with nonprofits geared toward twelve to seventeen-year-olds. Since I can’t go back, I choose to move forward. Yes, I’m a teacher, but I’m also a writer, a mother, and a beach lover.