In my Teach For America application, I was asked a series of short questions. I really liked the questions and my responses to them, so I’m sharing them here for my blog post this week!
At the end of your first year of teaching, how will you know that your students have been successful?
I have two answers. The first is that I will consider my students to have been successful if they leave the classroom feeling more comfortable with their ability to think and learn independently. The amount of crystallized knowledge is important, sure, but more important is the ability to learn on your own—and being empowered to do that. The second answer is actually a challenge to the question…this question assumes that only my definition of success is important. As a teacher I want each student to reach their own goals and achieve their own personally created vision of success. I don’t know what those will be, but I want to help students achieve their goals in any way I can.
Some corps members say that teaching is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. There are moments when plans don’t work out perfectly and where, despite having worked extremely hard, you might not feel good at your job. What concerns do you have about taking on this experience?
Well, what this question said: what if I’m not good at the job? Thankfully I’ve been in teaching roles before (teaching music to people my age) and have been able to adjust when my teaching style didn’t work well. But what if I can’t adjust in TFA? It seems unlikely, but I can imagine certain days being very difficult because I simply wasn’t able to accomplish what I had planned.
As you know, our corps members teach in predominantly low-income communities. What experiences (in life, work, volunteering, etc.) have you had that could inform your success teaching in low-income communities?
In all honesty I don’t have much experience with low-income communities. I do understand though that focusing on schoolwork can oftentimes become secondary for the students if they’re experiencing legitimate problems at home. And I can’t blame them for that. Another teacher I know has said that the most important part of teaching is establishing a relationship with your students, and I think that makes a lot of sense. If I can get to know them and understand them, I can begin to see their struggles and how it affects their educational careers.
Describe your most meaningful accomplishment within the past 4-5 years. What did you accomplish? How would you measure your success? Why was this accomplishment particularly important to you? What were the greatest challenges or roadblocks you faced? To what do you attribute your success?
I think in many ways my greatest accomplishment has been my YouTube channel. Every now and then I’ll get a comment on a video saying something like “I didn’t get this at all when I was in class, but now I understand it! Thanks!” This makes me feel amazing. My intent with my videos was simply to learn and talk about things I find interesting—I never envisioned they would help others learn things or be assigned to watch as homework or serve as a primary source material that would eventually be cited in a class project! One student even told me that a video I created helped convince his school to un-ban YouTube (to allow educational content). Helping other people learn things was an unintended consequence of me doing what I love. That is amazing to me.
Yesterday, Kennedy was having a hard time focusing in your class. She was not paying attention, would not complete her work, and when you call on her to answer a question she even stated, “I don’t even want to be here today.” Later that day you attempted to call Kennedy’s parents, however the number was disconnected. Kennedy comes into your class today with the same demeanor. At the end class you pull Kennedy aside and ask her if there is something she would like to talk about. Kennedy responds, “I don’t feel comfortable talking to you because I’m sure you wouldn’t understand.” 1. What does this make you think? Why do you think that? 2. How would you approach this situation?
1. It makes me think that there is some problem going on at her home. Maybe it’s abuse, maybe it’s poverty, but something is going on. I think this because the phone is disconnected and she is having trouble focusing and she doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it. 2. I think I would say to her something like “You know Kennedy, I might not understand exactly but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to you. If you ever want to talk about something or want help with anything, just let me know.” And then I’d wait to see what she says. If she gives me something then we can go from there, but if not then she can go (and that’s fine). I would maybe wait a day or two to see if the behavior changes, and if it doesn’t I think I would try talking to Kennedy’s other teachers to see if they’re experiencing the problem, too. If they are and the behavior continues…I’m not sure what I’d do at that point. Probably take advice from a more experienced teacher.
It is the end of a long day of teaching and you receive a phone call from the front desk that you have a parent in the office who would like to speak to you. When you make it to the office you see Mrs. Walker, Drew’s mom, and she is not very happy. You invite Mrs. Walker to your classroom. She shares that she is upset that Drew is failing your class. She explains that Drew and his siblings stay with their grandmother on the other side of town when she works over time and that he takes his siblings to school and then takes the city bus to and from school; therefore, he has a hard time getting his homework done in the evenings. You know that homework is a critical part of fully developing the skills in your class, and Drew is already in jeopardy of failing. 1. What is your impression of Mrs. Walker? Why do you think that? 2. How would you approach this situation?
1. I bet she is a nice (or at least reasonable?) person in most contexts, but she is understandably frustrated because her son is failing. 2. I think I would try to find a way where he could do homework in a different context. Maybe he could do something differently in class, or perhaps he could do all his homework during the weekend and I could collect it on Monday and not subtract late points. However in all honesty I as the teacher should have become aware of this before a parent came storming in. If a student is failing, I want to understand why so we can figure out some way to fix it before resorting to “extreme” measures. So I hope that in teaching I would be more pre-emptive than this example suggests I am.