Today we share a personal memoir from a teacher in the public education system:

“I can finally make a difference.”

That was my initial thought when I opened the email with my acceptance into Teach for America (TFA). I honestly never really wanted to be a teacher; I just wanted education equity for everyone. So when I got accepted, I thought, “Okay, I just have to do my best.”

New TFA corps members start their training at summer institute. I taught summer school for the first time in the deadly 120ᵒ Arizona heat. Everyone hated it. We had to wake up before sunrise to prepare and sleep late to finish lesson plans every single day. I didn’t connect with anyone at first and kept to myself. As crazy as it sounds, I kind of loved it. I loved waking up at 4:00am in the morning to get ready for my students. It was amazing to hear them call me “Miss Phan,” and to hear their stories and opinions. On top of all that, I was getting evaluated as a distinguished teacher on every lesson. I thought I really wanted to be a teacher. I felt like Hilary Swank’s character from the Freedom Writers’ film; I was making a difference.

When I landed a teaching job at my first full-time school, I was ecstatic. I thought I was ready. I was going to make a profound and revolutionary impact on these students. Reality hit me in the face though. Being a general education English teacher for the summer was nothing compared to being a special education teacher at my current school. My best is sometimes not enough.

I hate the struggles that come with working as a teacher in an urban school. We are underfunded, bogged by bureaucracy, and lack human capital. To make matters worse, my students do not always see the value of what I do. The hours of planning do not always turn into stellar lessons. The hours spent filling out Individualized Education Program (IEP) forms do very little for the kids. The kids I teach have teenage issues, horrible home lives, and on top of all that, learning disabilities. As their teacher, I am expected to make them forget all of that and learn. My kids are not stupid; they know where they come from and what that means. Then, to put the cherry on top, my phone was stolen at school during my birthday. My experiences do not reflect what I thought teaching entailed. The pressure definitely gets to me and I long ago started to dislike certain aspects of it. All I saw was how I was failing, not the impact that I should be making.

Every now and then, however, I run into other moments.

The kid who stole my phone wants to go to college. He wants to go to college not for money but because he wants to help youth living in the ghetto. His words I will never forget: “I will always remember you as the teacher who is on my ass for everything and who I stole the phone from.” The boy who is deemed “a loss cause” by many adults wants to be a mechanical engineer. He turns a conversation from about smoking weed to about solving trigonometry equations. When I give them 10 minutes of kindness and love, they give me double the amount of affection and compassion in return.

I realized that I love and crave the little successes that this job gives me. When I am at my lowest low, I finally see the little moments that make me love working with these kids. It’s amazing to see my students get excited and battle for the right answer on the board. I enjoy seeing students feel accomplished after a long fight with a difficult question. The random hallway handshakes and stories make my day. Their curiosity for knowledge, desire for intelligence, and passion for their futures make me feel happy. Most of all, I cherish the conversations about their dreams and goals, especially with my exceptional students. It makes me delighted when I know that I am helping my students see their potential regardless of their negative environment.

Initially, I thought I was an inauthentic and insincere teacher for seeking self-gratification in this field. Society has taught me that this job is about the students, not the teachers. However, I believe that all passions stem from personal desires. Without wanting results and feeling good about what you do, the drive to ignite the passion will not be there. I start this journey because of my dying desire for educational equity. However, I continue to wake up every morning at 5:00 a.m. and put in a 110% percent effort because this job makes me tired, frustrated, and most of all, ridiculously happy. 🙂

Ava Love,

Ms. Ngoc Phan

Written by Jade

A Vietnamese American educator and activist who advocates for the voices of the unheard towards a transformative change in education.

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