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I broke a cardinal rule of teaching several times last year: I cried in front of my students.

Teach for America experience
Caitlin Hannon (courtesy of Caitlin Hannon)

Sometimes it happened out of frustration. Just as often, I was overcome during very honest conversations about the struggles my students face within and beyond the school building. At least twice the tears were brought on by uncontrollable laughter at a student’s joke.

As a first-year teacher, I figured tears (of some kind) were inevitable. I entered the classroom with a conservatory degree in acting, a bachelor’s degree in public affairs, lots of knowledge about urban education and the achievement gap, and the hope that I could improve another person’s life.

I knew I wanted to make a difference, and I thought that difference needed to start in the classroom—not in an office as a policymaker, with little or no connection to, and understanding of, what happens inside schools.

This desire, and my nontraditional education background, led me to Teach For America, a program that trains recent college graduates from various backgrounds to teach in public schools. I spent my first year teaching English at Tech High School, which serves a predominantly low-income, minority population. This year, I am teaching seventh-grade language arts at Emma Donnan Middle School.

By the end of that first year, I realized that the life I’d changed the most was my own.

Teach For America is sometimes knocked for sending young adults into classrooms unprepared, but I felt tremendously capable of leading a classroom of students to academic success. I’m not sure that any educator, traditional or nontraditional, is emotionally prepared for this experience.

Who is prepared to read a child’s disclosure of abuse in a journal entry?

Who is an expert at helping a student handle the loss of several close family members in a bout of gang violence over the weekend?

I experienced both of these scenarios and more during my first year, and it’s hard to imagine a traditional route to the classroom making it any easier to deal with such heartbreak.

Writing an engaging lesson plan is teachable; developing empathy for experiences so far from one’s own must be learned on the job.

The greatest upside to being part of an organization such as Teach For America is the unending support I’ve received from colleagues. There’s no question that teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve never felt alone in the journey.

I have incalculable respect for those who enter this profession without the professional development and encouragement from which I’ve benefited as part of TFA. My sister is one of those teachers—she, too, teaches in the Indianapolis Public Schools—and I will never forget the struggles of her first year.

Our teachers deserve better—not just our TFA teachers, but all of those who’ve dedicated their personal and professional lives to educating the next generation.

Being a teacher in an urban, low-income school is a bit like being a protective mother bear. There are days when my cubs stretch me to my limit, but if anyone does anything to try to hurt them, that person must cross me first.

I’ve been shocked by the reactions I receive when I mention where I work and what I’m doing with my life. At a retail store that offers teachers a discount, I’ve encountered looks of sympathy—if not pity. While shopping, a colleague of mine was jokingly offered her purchase for free because she taught at one of “those” schools.

I try to smile through my frustration and say it really isn’t all that bad. The truth is, I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. I love my students; I love my colleagues; and I consider myself lucky to be doing what I’m doing.

Friends and family constantly ask me for the magical solution to closing the achievement gap. Do the kids just not care? Do they lack role models? Are their parents disengaged? Does being poor mean a student can’t learn?

The fact is, virtually all students care; I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want the very best for his or her child.

There is no quick fix. That’s why we are all still here talking about the problems and doing our best to find solutions.

But I emphatically believe that my students can learn. Not only can they learn, they are desperate to learn, and it is my job to bring their desire—however nascent, however hidden—to light.

Recently, I took three of my new students to a board meeting of an educational organization here in Indianapolis. The students wanted to talk about the achievement gap and what we could do to make Indianapolis better.

Through my experience, I have come to believe that the only way we can overcome the struggles embodied by the achievement gap is to create informed young people who advocate for themselves and their right to an excellent education.

The politics behind trying to make schools better often involve a dialogue by adults not from my students’ schools or neighborhoods. While I have little doubt that these adults want to improve things, we need leaders to emerge from within the communities we serve. Only then will there be an authentic dialogue about the changes necessary to overcome the educational inequities enshrined by ZIP codes.

Every teacher—novice and veteran alike—knows failure intimately. Whether it’s a lesson that doesn’t go as planned, a test that students flunk or a tough talk with an even tougher student, I’ve constantly questioned my abilities as an educator.

It’s important to find a way to reflect and improve without tearing myself apart for what I could’ve done better. That is the biggest difference between being a new teacher and a teacher with some experience: You find ways to get better without feeling like the world will end because of a bad day.

After the third day of school this year, my phone rang. I answered the phone as I was running out the door to an appointment. It was one of my students from last year. (I’m teaching at Emma Donnan this year after being displaced from Tech due to enrollment projections. I hadn’t heard from or seen my former students, so I was excited to learn how the new school year was going.)

“Ms. Hannon, this is Jarell. I found out I passed the ECA and I wanted to call to thank you.”

I spent my first year working with students who had failed the 10th-grade end-of-course assessment in English. They were retaking the test at the end of junior year, and it was the last test between them and graduation.

“I never would have passed if I hadn’t had your class,” Jarell continued. “The school isn’t the same without you this year.”

I wasn’t responsible for Jarell passing his test. But I like to think I had some part in putting him on the path to passing. He signed up for the SAT, he called to say, and he might need a letter of recommendation as he applies to college this year.

I didn’t cry in front of him (this time), but I felt overwhelmed by pride mingled with sadness for all the other students who hadn’t quite made the cut.

I teach for Jarell, and I teach for every one of my students who wants to make a change. I even teach for those who don’t believe change is possible.

In my Teach For America application, I cited a quotation used in an Apple campaign: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The only crazy thing about thinking you can change the world is thinking you have to take on the whole world to make a difference.

If I can walk away from Room 217 at the end of a school year, knowing my seventh-graders are not just academically smarter but also truly believe that through education anything is possible, I will have succeeded.

I teach for all the crazy people who believe this, too.

Caitlin Hannon teaches language arts to seventh-graders at Emma Donnan Middle School in Indianapolis. She also is a member of Stand for Children. A version of this op-ed appeared in the Indianapolis Star on November 20, 2011.

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