I don’t know how much I can handle…

A first-year Teach for America teacher blogs that she’s “exhausted and can’t stop crying.”

What have I gotten myself into? I suck at this. There’s always so much to do, and I don’t feel like I’ve ever done enough. The majority of my students are failing and not just cause they don’t turn things in, but because they are straight up failing their exams and quizzes. How do you spend four days talking about natural selection to only have a hand full of students actually pass your quiz on natural selection? How much can you reteach? And are they really gonna get it the next time? What purpose do I have here really? I’m just so tired…

Maybe you veteran teachers can visit her site and offer some encouragement.

About Joanne


  1. Bill Leonard says:

    It appears this is a comparatively young person, probably a woman, who is homesick, depressed and thoroughly fed up with a no-win situation in which the kids who are failing very likely have no interest in passing.

    Maybe her best option is to quit and go home.

  2. I’ve found that when I have a problem with retention of material, it’s because what I originally tried to teach went over my student’s head. It’s a tricky thing trying to get the right challenge level. You want to stretch your student(s) but if you make the material too difficult then it just goes in one ear and right out the other.

    The solution is to back up and try again at a more basic level. Frustrating? You bet, but sometimes necessary.

  3. Wow Bill, great advice. Maybe instead veteran teachers can do what Joanne suggested instead: “go to her site and offer some encouragement.” (and even advice). No wonder education has a reputation of eating their young.

  4. FuzzyRider says:

    Is this encouraging enough?????

    “Listen- You will eventually become numb to it, which makes your second year better.

    I put up with the crap for 18 years, my advice to you, given in all sincerity, is GET OUT NOW. There is NO FUTURE in education, and no satisfaction- either personal or financial. Odds are you won’t make it 5 years, much less 25. Get a job with benefits and a future, one you can eventually retire from. If, then, you still suffer from the insane idea that you can actually change anything in public education, go for it. Do it this way and you won’t end up pissing away your most productive years tilting at windmills, just hanging on because quitting carries to high a financial price!

    If you insist on trying to teach, even after you have been warned- go for private or parochial schools where at least your talents will be noticed and possibly even appreciated!”

  5. FuzzyRider, I’m glad you finally got out of teaching before you could hurt more children. I pity anyone unfortunate enough to have had you as a teacher.

  6. Why does this have to turn into a debate? A human being is hurting here. The most basic response should be to help.

  7. Really, I don’t know why TFA lets their teachers blog. They come off as the most amazingly inept, dewey-eyed incompetents.

  8. The Amazing Quintero says:

    I agree that it’s important to bear in mind that sometimes the thing to do is to give up.

    Until we stop making public education mandatory and start allowing students to be permanently kicked out for low performance and/or chronic discipline problems, low-performing public schools (especially at the junior high and high school level) will continue to bear a striking resemblance to prisons, except that the “guards” are not protected, not given combat training, and held responsible for their inmate’s attitudes and intellectual achievements.

  9. Amy in Texas says:

    I feel her pain, and would advise giving short quiz every day until everyone gets 100.
    I teach in a big suburban-decayed high school, where many students don’t study or care. But out of the masses there are those bright ones, who devour my words and benefit from them.
    I teach as much as possible at as high a level as the students can follow. Barring that I teach self-control and discipline by example.
    TFA does seem to have some disillusioned idealists, who can’t fathom why students are so apathetic! As a troubled teen and high-school dropout myself, I understand my students on a very deep level.

  10. Amy in Texas, good advice–plus, yes, daily “process” grades will matter.

    TFA, if you end every class with, say, a five-question pop quiz (except it’s not so pop if you end it every day with a little five-question review/test like that) with the salient points covered and emphasized (“Okay, that’s something important just in case there’s a pop quiz at the end of class” times five), you’ll let the kids know what your daily expectations are. Daily expectations grow into realities when stuff like that is emphasized. You’re a teacher: train them to learn and to prove they’ve learned, even if it means backtracking to the simple stuff they didn’t learn correctly the first time. (In middle school, I’m still teaching capitalizing the kids’ own names!)

    TFA, if it’s any consolation, my first semester was just as devastating. I’m in year 23. And it’s never too late to turn this around, even this year. First of all, breathe.

    I create my own pop quiz forms, by the way–a Harry Wong (“The First Days of School”) idea, to standardize my forms–with nine five-question forms per page (so you save paper and facilitate the ease to grade these, to boot), using Word. My questions are easy because the kids are told at the beginning what’s important to know. I also give open-notes, open-book tests: to me, it’s more important that they know how to look up information than to just know it if they forget it.

    Good luck, TFA. Please try to work with your own school’s veterans for more tips. Sucking up to them and tapping their wealth of experience for help sure can solve a lot of your problems and retrieve your confidence. Be the student so you can be the teacher.

  11. I teach college – a much more hospitable situation than the TFA trenches. And most of my first year I was scared, worried, homesick, frustrated. I cried a lot. But I realized that if my department hired me, I must have SOME talent, even if I could not see it at the moment, and I soldiered on.

    I think the biggest difference in the public schools though is (a) no one to back you up (my department chair was always very supportive) and (b) a lot of the students know they can get away with disruptiveness. (If someone was seriously disruptive in my classes, I would be within rights to call security and have them removed).

    What am I saying here? I don’t know, exactly, other than even people in a good situation often feel overwhelmed in their first year or two. Eventually you get the hang of it and things settle down, unless the administration/campus is so chaotic that it’s structurally unsound. (And in that case, there’s perhaps not much a person can do but hang on and remind themselves that they’re doing what good for the students they can.)

  12. Oh, and FWIW: I never cried IN FRONT OF anyone. I waited until I got home for that. I wasn’t a total marshmallow.

  13. I was a first year teacher for about four years.

    I should have been fired.

    I wasn’t fired because the administration was too busy to observe my classroom. And they didn’t care how I was doing or how my students were doing. (And they still don’t.)

    I remember drinking a lot every day after school and taking Valium to get through the day.

    I worked very hard and corrected papers every night and all weekend.

    It took all summer to come down off the stress.

    After five years, I got better at it.

    And in some ways, I got quite good.

    After 35 years, I look back and I’m very happy I stayed with it.

    I hope I can stay healthy so I can teach another 10 years or more.

  14. Bill Leonard says:

    No, Eric, sound advice.

    In both daily newspapering (where I spent nearly 20 years) and in public relations — and I suspect in many other fields, others could offer similar anecdotes — I have been a mentor, managed internship programs and the like, and have had a number of bright young people with top grades and degrees in the field who decided, upon experiencing the business first-hand (sorry, teaching is a “profession”, right?) that it was not for them.

    To coin a phrase, if you can’t/don’t want to teach, “you are not a bad person”. You are but an honest one.

  15. Dear TFA:

    The first year I taught high school, it was hell. My wife noted that my picture in the yearbook had an expression that seemed to say, “What am I doing here?” The second year was completely different. It wasn’t hell at all, and I felt good about the progress I was making as a teacher, and the progress my students were making. The third year was fun fun fun. The fourth year I was looking forward to each day. This may or may not happen to you. I wasn’t in the same type of school you’re in, so the variables coincide very little. One of the big epiphanies for me was that if I take myself too seriously, I get stessed and demand too much from the kids, so every day on the way to school I make the conscious decision to have fun. And I do. And the kids do. I never joined the many colleagues that counted the days to Friday because I thought they were wasting their lives when they could be enjoying doing what they’re being paid to do. I’d much rather be with my students than the serious hand-wringing administrators that try to micromanage everyone’s day to raise state test scores. I don’t know if this helps. I hope it does. Attitude makes all the difference. Still, if you are in danger of bodily harm every day, I don’t think anyone could convince me to stay on. I love teaching, but I wouldn’t waste my time where there are absolutely no blessings at all, only fear and frustration.

  16. I didn’t enter teaching through TFA, and I’d subbed, etc. for years before my first year in a low performing school with my credential. I felt just like TFA. It doesn’t help when people either say it never gets better or it goes better after a year or so. But the competition between teachers at TFA’s school is probably preventing any practical help about expectations or reteaching or techniques that have worked for that crowd of students. Maybe you can help. I’m not sure in October saying “I quit” or “I drank” is any more hepful than it’ll get better in 20 years.

  17. Bill,

    Or perhaps what she needs, before being told to “just go home” is some sound encouragement, advice, and mentoring. In my 20+ years in the military, (where I was worked as a leader, trainer, supervisor, adviser, liaison officer, analyst) that’s what we tried to do with soldiers who were failing. Mentoring and rehabilitation were used before getting rid of a soldier (and trust me, getting rid of a soldier isn’t as hard as some may think). Often times the problem is not with the individual but with the leadership – or lack of leadership.

    It’s a darn good thing that many accomplished people (Einstein, Jordan, Edison) didn’t listen to those who said they wouldn’t amount to much or couldn’t do what they wanted to do.

    While I do agree with you that some people are just *not cut out to do certain jobs* the first advice one should give is not “quit and go home” in my opinion.

  18. Dear First-Year-TFA Teacher,
    As a former TFA teacher (Houston, 2002) I feel your pain. You thought you came to improve students’ lives, and you spend most of your first year thinking you’re doing all of your kids a disservice by being at the front of the classroom.

    If it’s any consolation, you are going through the two-month period (October and November) that 99% of teachers will agree was the low point of their first years – I spent my first Halloween afternoon parked in a Burger King parking lot because I was crying so hard I couldn’t drive.

    Seven years later I am still teaching, and have recently published a book to help teachers (especially new teachers) bounce back from the type of low point you are experiencing. It’s called “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” and it combines hundreds of stories and tips from teachers around the country. (PRACTICAL tips, and HONEST stories – not the type of so-called-advice that amounts to, “Well, that would never happen in MY class because I’m better than you.”)

    Feel free to check it out at my website, http://www.seemeafterclass.net. There’s also a poem for new teachers that I just posted in the resource section a couple of days ago because, as I said, this month is very, very hard on new teachers. It may not make you feel all the way better, but at least you know you are not alone. There is a good chance that if you ride this period out you will make it to the point where you will realize there is a lot to love about teaching.

    There is. I promise.


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