A Public Education: [re] Defining Success

This is the third, and final, installment of a three-part series reflecting on my experience as a first-year teacher in an inner-city public school. While each part stands alone it would be in your best interest to take a moment to read about my reality check and my thoughts on being white.

This post was supposed to go live at 5:00 AM this morning. However, I did not remember that until I received a text message this afternoon from Theocult’s devoted curator asking me if I was submitting something today. It seems fitting that a post about success would come on the flip side of slight disorganization, forgetfulness, and missed deadlines.

Tomorrow is my last day of school for this year. I began a countdown at the beginning of May with my students keep-calm-it-s-summer-vacation(judge me if you want, but sometimes that stupid paper chain gave me just enough motivation to make it through one more day). Like a marathon runner, there is little else that I am focused on at the moment aside from getting to the finish line, which happens to be the bell at 3:00 pm tomorrow. It would be safe to say that my experience during the last fourteen weeks has been a boot camp of sorts. I mean, none of my professors in college or the overpriced textbooks I bought ever told me what to do when a student calls you a “stupid ass teacher bitch” after being told to get in line (he went to the office and was sent back to class after lunch) and none of our case studies ever included the appropriate way to respond when the teacher gets injured while breaking up a fight but doesn’t have anyone to cover her class for another hour (I read a story while intermittently crying due to the throbbing in my hand). Did I mention that I teach first grade? To say that I was unprepared to step into the chaos I found myself in is an understatement. There is little about this scenario that would allow for most people to be successful. Everyday I have been asking the question: “What does it mean to be successful in this context.” For me, the answer quickly became survival.

I am a perfectionist. My therapist would say that I have “unrelenting standards.” The bar that I hold for myself far exceeds anything that anyone else could hold over me and, frankly, failure is not something I have experienced frequently in my life. That might sound arrogant and it is. My perceived success has always allowed me to hold an upper hand in my mind when I measure myself against others (which happens far more frequently than I care to admit). Although, in the end I am really not seeking to judge those around me as much as I am trying to prove to myself that I have the worth and value that I can be so quick to call into question. I thrive on the praise of men (and women), often seeking worldly success over resting in God’s favor.

not-successfulAs I stated in my first post of this series, I had grand illusions about my ability to enter into this teaching position and experience immediate success. I was not naïve enough to think that there wouldn’t be a learning curve; I just didn’t anticipate a complete nosedive. It has not been a pretty scene. I cried every single day for the first two months, often in front of my students. I felt pangs of anxiety every morning as I drove to work. I frantically submitted applications for any other job other than the one I was doing. Even the things I am generally good at, like planning and organizing, were turned upside down. What made all of this even worse was feeling like I was being “beaten” by kids (trust me, feeling powerless over a group of children is horrible). I have felt embarrassed, humiliated, and ashamed but more than anything I have felt like a failure – to God, my students, my Principal, my fellow teachers, and every person that ever believed I would be successful in life. My ego has been shattered.

Additionally, there is a lot of pressure on teachers in public schools and I feel that pressure daily. What is so heavy about the weight placed on teachers is the very small amount of control that most teachers actually have in regard to the standards they are being measured by. There are few occupations where your success is so intertwined with the success of others and you have to give 100% of yourself all day, everyday. In the realm of public education, it is easy to set up a definition of success that is based on the outcomes and expectations of others with little to no consideration for the teacher as a person or the context in which he or she may be working in.

At some point I began to gain some perspective. The Psalms helped a lot as I poured out my soul to God, finding success2the ancient words I needed but could not seem to verbalize on my own. Maybe my ego being shattered wasn’t the worst thing to happen. Maybe it was actually the best thing. I entered my classroom expecting that my goal was to see my students lives transformed when in reality it was my life that needed to be transformed. Through the crushing of my ego, God graciously and kindly allowed my definitions of success to die so that He could lead me into a greater success than something to be measured in accolades and awards – the success of walking in humble dependence upon His sustaining grace.

I don’t know much about how the military works, but it seems to me like the point of boot camp is to get a person to a breaking point so they are ready to be rebuilt into who they need to become. These last fourteen weeks were one ongoing breaking point after another. Each perceived strength I thought I possessed was called into question. Every philosophy and ideology was revisited. Every ounce of self-reliance was crushed. I was broken and I survived. That’s about as good an ending as I can imagine right now.

I have never considered survival – or even finishing – to be all that great of an accomplishment. I always lived mosaic-piecesunder the mantra of “Do It To It, Be The Best.” In my former definition, anything below the best was considered failure. This definition left me exhausted, self-righteous, and unwilling to attempt things much beyond my comfort zone. I may not be the worst teacher but I am a far cry from “Teacher of the Year.” A more accurate title might be “Teacher Who Survived Part of the Year” and I am okay with that. This year was about survival. Next year will probably be about something else and hopefully within three to five years I might find myself living, and possibly even flourishing, in the classroom. But, it will all be rooted in a definition of success that is founded upon brokenness. In the end, I have come to learn that there is nothing that enables greater success than humility and dependence on the One who gives and takes away.

In conclusion to this series, I want to return to a lingering question presented in my first post. I accepted a teaching position to have my question answered once and for all as to whether or not I made the right decision not to enter the classroom ten years ago. The answer is yes and no. Yes, I made the right decision to follow God into ten years of healing, service, and what I otherwise call “the scenic route.” But no, I was wrong when I came to the conclusion that the public school system was not the place for me. In spite of my complete failure, I feel more confident than ever that this is the realm in which God has called me to be a part of. I will be returning to a yet-to-be-determined urban classroom next school year and plan to begin coursework for my Master’s in Guidance Counseling in 2015. Thank you for sharing in this small part of my journey with me. Blessings, Vanessa

15 thoughts on “A Public Education: [re] Defining Success

  1. Having been through boot camp, I can verify that your experience absolutely qualifies as boot camp. Thank you for choosing to share this journey. God’s work in you has been awesome to hear about, and I don’t mean that in “Totally awesome, Dude” kinda way. Semper fi, Vanessa.

  2. I’m laughing, only because I’m about 2 to 3 months ahead of you in the boot camp process. I absolutely love the way you are embracing what God is doing in you. It sucks, but you will be calmer, stronger, better for it.
    God is establishing a spiritual beachhead in that place through you. Generations will live in peace because of what you’ve endured this year.

    “And having done all, to stand.”

  3. Loved this, Vanessa. So excited to see how God is working in your life and that a new path is opening up before you. Godspeed, my friend.

  4. Vanessa, thank you for your transparency & vulnerability. You ARE awesome! “And I am sure of this, that He who began a GOOD work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ!” Phil 1:6.

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