Shake the Dust

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 17 2013


Most of the corps members in my town are sick. There are 11 of us all down and out with colds, the stomach flu, tonsillitis, strep, sinus infections, allergies, and plain old exhaustion. We are a falling army, the bright smiles and never quit attitudes slowly fading into crumpled teachers passing out anywhere there’s space. I can’t say that I’m surprised it’s happening although I don’t think any of us expected the burnout to hit so quickly.

One month in and we’re out.

I look back over the past few weeks and can’t really see where I developed the certainty that sleeping 5 hours a night was sustainable or that a 14 hour day at school was too short to feel prepared. Maybe it was the fire inside of me determined to be a better teacher for my Arkansas kids than I was for my Mississippi nuggets this summer… or maybe it was the fear of letting myself stop long enough to realize how hopeless life in the Delta can feel if you let it.

In the midst of things it really is hard to pin down what the cause of our mutual aching, sleep deprived, brokenness might be. But, if I had to guess what’s really the root cause it wouldn’t be behavior problems, perfectionism, broken homes, unimaginable poverty, or ambition but, surprisingly, the undeniable feeling that things will get better. That pursuit of the reality that things will get better because and in spite of us being here. The knowingness that they’ll get better because things just do. The desire to see and experience the time when things really have gotten better for our kids. That recognition of better arriving because of how amazing our kids are, the value of our communities, and Delta life being so inevitably committed to moving forward.

Because deep down inside each of us this hopeful better survives, we’ve forged an unspoken bond to keep going until better gets here. There just isn’t any other thing to blame for our exhaustion and any other thing to do but accept that it’s plain and simple Arkansas grown hope that’s caused this total lack of sleep and wellness. We’re committed to whatever it takes because we believe in better even beyond the point of exhaustion. But now that we’re all out, operating on an empty tank, tired and overwhelmed, I’ve wondered if this better has been getting lost in the pursuit of that elusive sham called best.

Best is out of our first year grasp. Best is utopian, in a dream, driving us mad. Best does not exist here.

However, our dear, comfortable, but too obvious to be elitist friend better can be found if you’d like to find it, I think.

Better is hazy, waiting in the slow Southern rhythms to be pursued over the flat Delta land. Better is here for all of us in this tiny nothing of a town: Better education. Better mindsets. Better sleep. Better futures. Better planning. Better opportunity. Better eating. Better leadership. Better decisions. Better relationships. Better accountability. Better outlooks. Better communication. Better teaching.

Finally feeling better. Finally being better. Better we could have if we’d just give up that fraud that is best.

In realizing these betters await, that they’ve been here all along among the cotton for taking, I finally took two sick days this week. Two sick days to be able to answer truthfully, “Yes, ma’am. I’m better today.” To stop my friends and family from commenting on my scratchy voice and my grandma from worrying over how tired my eyes seem. I’ve transitioned from being tired of exclaiming, “This is just how I look now!” to being tired of making excuses for how terrible and off balance my life has been in the pursuit of being the best for my kids.

Better won me from the grasp of best after I responded to a third grader tattling by yelling at her “I don’t care! NO ONE CARES!”

She cried a little I think. I’ve hated myself for that ever since it happened.

I let trying to be the best for my kids hurt them. In the pursuit of being the best teacher out there I lost sight of what better could mean.

I already knew my kids deserved the best but it took an exhausted, frustrated, crazy person screaming at a child the worst possible words, the hateful you are alone, you are not worth my attention, you are not worth anything at all “I don’t care” for me to see that I was far from giving them the best. My best, the best me I can be, I’m beginning to see, will only come gradually from being better… better all those things we know we need but don’t want to take the time to appreciate, to commit to, to prioritize when kids so desperately need you to be more than you ever could be.

Now, secretly I still wish I was the best and I know I fail my kids every day by not being greater than I am, but over the past few days I see that I only can give what good I have and turn towards what better I can offer… there just can be no tired me and rock star teacher self. They’re one and the same.

Laying here recovering, letting go of what I can’t do, I know it’s time to give up who I can’t be for them even if it kills me. We both deserve something better, something more honest.

So for two days I’ve tried to fight off the guilt of dumping my kids with a sub and not only waited for better, but tried to pursue it. I’ve caught up with friends, watched a movie, went to the doctor, and rested… I finally had the time to own how much my kids deserve and how dependent those things are on me pursuing better everything. It shouldn’t be scary to think about giving up 4:30 AM wake up calls, the Sunday night scrambles, and the never ending hours at school for something as simple as sleep, or food, or friendship but it is. That’s how much I love those little monsters.

Because I love them more than I ever thought possible, I’m ready to confess that I can’t give joy when I don’t have it, can’t give energy when I’m exhausted, can’t give love when I don’t feel it. I’m not that great of a teacher. Accepting this and turning towards something lesser but so much more human, tomorrow I’ll say to my precious 5th graders through my 7 hours of sleep, 3 meals a day, and commitment to owning that I can’t do it all: “I love you enough to admit that me, nothing more and nothing less, is all I have to offer.”


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  1. New Teacher Types | Hypersensitive linked to this post.

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Arkansas, y'all.

Mississippi Delta
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