A little more than two years ago I found myself trying to decide between New York City Teaching Fellows and a paralegal position at a law firm specializing in anti-trust law. They both seemed like good, albeit far different, opportunities. My ever-protective mom, a former teacher who got her start in East L.A., advised against Teaching Fellows. I myself weighed the benefits of excitement and “making a difference” against the likelihood that I would be embarking on the most difficult experience of my life. Ultimately, picturing myself numbed by boredom one month into work at my air-conditioned Manhattan office, I opted for Teaching Fellows.
Surely it would be an incredible challenge. Despite volunteer experience in high school and college as a mentor and tutor for “at-risk” youth, nothing had really prepared me to teach some of New York City’s poorest children. Still, I looked forward to the chance to gain “valuable life experience” as I saw it. In two years, I would look back at my time as a teacher with pride at what I had accomplished and the good I had done for the kids. Then, I would move on to whatever career I’d finally chosen.
Flash forward to October 2007. Things were not going well. At least three fights had already broken out in my classroom. Day to day I struggled to get through my lessons and couldn’t find the secret to commanding basic respect from my students. I doubted if I would get through the month, much less the year. One day at lunch I wondered if I could bring myself to return to the classroom that afternoon.
Somehow, I did go back that afternoon. And I managed to go back each day for the rest of the year, slowly bringing things under control and working tirelessly to turn my classroom into a functioning community of learning. When June finally came around, I did feel that sense of pride I’d imagined as a naïve, slightly arrogant college grad 12 months prior. But I also felt a deep, urgent need to do things differently, i.e. competently.
I had chosen teaching in order to help the students most in need, and as a novice teacher I felt I’d contributed more to the academic struggles of the children I’d committed to help. Still, in spite of my mixed feelings, I felt with shocking certainty that it had been the best year of my life.
Another year later, I looked back on a year that had gone right. One benefit of making countless mistakes is that each one teaches you a lesson you will never forget. With the lessons I’d learned from my first year, I approached my second year with a plan that essentially boiled down to: This Year Will Be Better.
I was leaving Staples in late June of this year. I had just stocked up on certificate paper and ink when I was hit by a surprising, but familiar revelation. The past year of teaching had been the best year of my life. When I think about the frustrations of discipline, paper work and test prep, it’s almost unbelievable. But as anyone else who’s set foot in the classroom knows, these annoyances don’t make up the sum of teaching. In fact they hardly make up 1%.
That’s the irony of the teaching profession is that we’re often treated as martyrs and saints by friends and family. And while teaching in NYC is far from easy, what most don’t fully understand are the rewards we receive every day and every year we teach. I almost feel guilty, wondering if my students could have gained nearly as much from me as I did from them.
Two years in a row I’ve experienced the best years of my life. It’s incredible. Almost as incredible as the fact that this coming year, the year in which I had planned to move on to a “real job” or whatever, I can’t wait to get back to the classroom. I never expected to be here, but after the last two years, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. I look forward to my third year of teaching, without nervousness or trepidation, and confident that it will be the best year of my life, again.
Ruben Brosbe just finished his second year teaching in the Bronx. He also blogs at Is Our Children Learning?