In his poignant novel The Souls of Black Folk W.E.B. Du Bois described what he called a “double consciousness” amongst African-Americans. The term double-consciousness referred to the dual and yet irreconcilable realities faced by African-Americans in our society: 1) that their culture, history and daily experiences were undeniably American and 2) that they would never legally or socially be considered American in the eyes of the ruling white class; that they had been forced to live within a world but also be excluded from it. The idea of simultaneously wrestling two realities speaks to my experience in Mississippi Teacher Corp. Perhaps because of the constant observations and scrutiny, the feedback from my socially and culturally distant friends and family, and my naturally critical mind, I have come to view my own experiences in this program through two lenses: as my current self, living in the moment, and as some outsider, carefully observing my every move. I’m not sure exactly when this second personality was born, most likely sometime around Fall of my first year (although it may have taken the form of Austin Walker at that point); but at this point in my experiences, when reflection and evaluation have been forced upon me, it has become fully grown (and looks more like a distorted version of myself). As the program has progressed, these two identities have evolved and grown; their perspectives and personalities have changed; but still they remain separate in ideology and sentiment. Thus, I bring you insight into my split personality and experiences through MTC.
The First Summer
Me (live): I was anxious. I had only graduated college one week ago and suddenly I was thrust into my first real high stakes working environment. I can’t say that everything was unfamiliar. My previous summer as an intern for MTC had prepared me for what life was like in Mississippi, or at least, how it was different from life in Massachusetts. It had not prepared me for the complete lifestyle change from 16-year veteran student to first-year teacher. In the back of my mind I could hear the calm words and see the funny looks from my peers when I told them I was moving to Mississippi. Most of them were headed to New York, D.C. or my hometown, Boston for competitive jobs in finance, law school, or medical school. And here I was going to be a teacher in the rural south...how noble! I was determined not to let others opinions (good or bad) affect my experiences there. This experience would be completely mine.
Me(Observer): …(Still formulating and opinion...silent for now)
The First Year
Me (live): Damn this is hard. As a college student I had studied some pretty hard subjects. I had had late nights and moments when I felt like I really didn’t know what I was doing, but overall I was confident in my abilities. This is something else! That feeling of not knowing what I’m doing is dangerously familiar. 5 weeks in a 4-student, 4-teacher classroom did not prepare me for the 124-student load which I now deal with on a daily basis. I’m tired ALL THE TIME. Probably because there is always something to do. Between teaching, planning, grading and completing my own coursework I hardly have a moment of rest. And when I do rest, I feel guilty. Help me!
Me (observer): Yeah this is pretty bad. You definitely don’t know what you’re doing.You’d feel better if you were actually okay at this, but unfortunately, you’re not. Oh well! It doesn’t really matter since you’re not state-tested anyway. The only thing at stake is your sanity. No biggie. Just try your best and hopefully things will get better. If not, it’s just two years. And here’s one piece of advice: become a super angry, ultra-controlling person and you’ll probably have less management problems. You may not feel like yourself, but who wants that anyway.
Highlights from my First Year
- A female student, who happens to be much larger than me, continues to talk during class and threatens me when I warn her, and then ask her to move her seat.
Me (live): Write her up and send her to the office. She obviously doesn’t want to be in class, and I don’t want her here.
Me (observer): If this was real life, I would probably either walk away or tell her what I really think about her, but I’m trapped here until 3 and I don’t want to get fired, so I guess I’ll play it cool.
- Same student writes a letter to the principal criticizing how I handled the situation. The principal tells me to read it because the student (who has been written up by every one of her teachers and is consistently in trouble) “brought up some valid points”.
Me (live): Is this real life? I finally do exactly what he wants. I follow the consequence ladder until I’ve exhausted all other possibilities and now he chooses a troubled teen’s opinion over mine. I give up.
Me (observer): I told you this wasn’t real life.
- In the last week of school a number of students tell me that they’ll miss me and that they wish I could stay. I receive cards and hugs and well wishes from some of my favorite students and some of my least favorites.
Me (live): I really will miss my students. Despite all the crap I’ve had to deal with this year, I love my kids. Sometimes they make me want to pull my hair out, but ultimately they’re the reason I come to school. They’re the reason I find myself laughing behind my desk in the middle class, or stepping into the hallway to tell one of m coworkers what so-and-so just did. I’ll never forget these kids or the impression they’ve made over the last year.
Me (observer): Okay. So I’ll really miss them, but will they really miss me? Why did they like me so much? Did they think I was fun? Did they think I was cool? Did they see me as a role model Did I actually teach them something? How many of them can’t wait to see me leave? Why am I somewhat surprised by this reaction? I wonder what the true meaning is behind all of this.
My first year had some definite rough patches, the roughest being the constant questioning of myself and my situation. Even when things got better in my classroom, I still found myself questioning every move, every step, because I lacked a lot of confidence in my own abilities. In my second year, my increased confidence led to less questioning and more analysis of my teaching experiences.
My Second Year
Me (live): This isn’t so bad. There’s a lot more pressure to teach a state tested subject now, but overall, I’m a much better teacher than I was last year. I want to teach these kids everything that they need to know to be successful. There’s a LOT of information to cover, but we can get through it if both parties work hard. I teach EVERYDAY. No days off unless I’m sick. These kids are relying on me to pass their test so that they can graduate
Me (observer): I think these students rely on me a little bit too much. Most of them have never touched their issued textbooks and studying is virtually unheard of. The goals is for them to pass their test so that they can graduate high school and get a job or go to college, but how can we expect them to be successful if we hand-feed them every piece of knowledge that they acquire. Why is it so hard to foster active learning? Self-motivation is rare. I worry for their futures because looking back, high school will probably be one of the easiest things they ever experience. What will happen to them when life gets even more complicated?
Highlights from my Second Year
Student walks in to class, “Man, Ms. T, I heard you was absent today. Why you here?”
Me (live): It’s my job to be here. If you’re waiting for me to take a day off, don’t hold your breath.
Me (observer): In what world do students come to school expecting NOT to see their teachers. It’s sad the students are so accustomed to being let down and having “free days” during class time.
While my students are working quietly we hear someone rapping in the hallway, “...Everyday I’m thuggin’, I gotta work out! Workin’ out on Monday. Workin’ out on Tuesday. What you know about that? Homie you ain’t even know!”
Me (live): I shake my head and laugh silently with the rest of my class. Then proceed out into the hallway and ask the student to go back to class.
Me (observer): In an ideal environment, this type of incident would never happen. You would never have a student walking the halls during class time and calling negative attention to themselves without expecting to be punished. This situation really isn’t funny, because it’s disruptive, but this type of behavior has become so widely accepted by students and staff that it’s virtually unpunishable. At most I could yell at him for momentarily disturbing my class, but I’m not mad. He’s just doing what he’s accustomed to.
My second year has been much more successful than my first. My students have learned more and I’ve definitely grown in my teaching abilities. But I’m also still disappointed on a daily basis. I can’t get hung up on negative things because ultimately it would just make me unhappy and be a waste of time. I seemingly ignore most of the things that bother me unless they directly impact my ability to teach, but in the back of my mind I’m constantly observing and analyzing the things around me. Working with high schoolers this year has been a nice change, but it has also made me worry for the future, in a way that I didn’t with my middle school students. In just 1 year, these students will make their way into the world, and I’m not sure how many of them will be successful. Not financially successful, but morally successful and happy and engaged in their communities. I hope they all find success, but I cannot reasonably expect it, and this is where I feel education has failed them. If we spent more time teaching them how to be adults and less time worrying about tests and scores and ratings then they might all have success, but as teachers we’re forced to forgo all of that for meaningless numbers. Overall MTC has taught me a lot about myself. It’s taught me how to take criticism without thinking less of myself. It’s taught me how to filter others opinions and let my own opinions shine through. It’s taught me how to separate my outer actions from my inner thoughts and it’s taught me how to be happy, even when I feel like everything’s gone to hell. Even though teaching has felt like an outer body experience, I don’t regret it. Sometimes you have to travel outside your comfort zone to recognize what you’re really made of. MTC has definitely taught me what I’m made of.