On self-worth and how it should come from, well, yourself.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: today absolutely sucked. I don’t even know quite how to explain it other than to say that I started the day with hopes for the week and by third period I was 100% done with everything.

It was the perfect storm, really. An offhand comment by a colleague during first period that sent me looking for my preliminary REACH results.* Being reminded during second period that I will be out of the building several days in a row (again). Seeing said preliminary results during third and feeling like I had been punched in the face. A squirrelly fourth period. Being unprepared for fifth period because I was so upset. Having forgotten my lunch at home so I sat during sixth dreaming of the chicken and rice in my fridge. Seventh period calling me out on being behind on grading.

And then… and then. A ton of little factors and minor annoyances converged to create a catastrophe in my eighth period. First, one of the co-founders of the program that sponsors my last class came to visit. It was a Monday, during eighth period, after I had been out of the building for three straight days (field trip and then Rosh Hashanah). Class schedules were switched and there were 8 new students out of the 18 that were present. It was hot. I was already tired and upset. Some of my students came from gym. And all of these things ensured that this was the worst class I have had with that group this entire year. As in, over the past five weeks. Absolute worst. And of course we had company.

I don’t know at what point in the period I threw in the towel–but I did. I just tried to circulate and get people back in their seats as they struggled with an activity, while silently praying that the period would end. When it did end, my visitor stayed behind to participate in a coaching meeting for the program… a meeting that was already scheduled, but that I had assumed would be just me and my coach. We then sat there for over an hour dissecting every single awful thing about that class, and coming up with strategies for me to do better with them. And, while it was solutions-driven and my visitor pointed out that he’s seen me teach before, that he knows this isn’t my MO… it still felt like I was being called incompetent over and over for an entire hour.

After they left, I put my head down–check on the cool laminate of my desk. I closed my eyes and remembered that damn preliminary score: 2.71 when the previous year was a 2.95. I thought of the 2’s (out of 4) that I was awarded on a couple of observations last year. I thought of all the scores I got, and how I could and should have contested some of them–and then remembered that I didn’t do that because I had been too humiliated and heartbroken about being considered a bad teacher (no matter how many times the AP and principal assured me they didn’t think that). I remembered crying my eyes out in my principal’s office after my last observation of the year because I felt so helpless–like it didn’t matter how hard I worked because the odds were stacked against me and nothing would ever be good enough.

I felt like that again on Monday. I felt incompetent and useless and worthless. I thought so hard about quitting and just going off and disappearing, somehow, so that I didn’t have to deal with the crippling shame of it. I called myself a pompous idiot for having overestimated my worth as a professional. I told myself that I was doing a disservice to my students. I realized that those scores would follow me for the rest of my career, and that I would look like a lazy teacher at best and a bad teacher at worst. I said that all the naysayers had been right, and that I didn’t belong in this profession. And then, buckling under all of those words, I drove home in a tearful daze, got some groceries at Target, and faceplanted in bed when I got home.

Twelve hours later, on Tuesday morning, I thought about all of that again. Why was my immediate conclusion that something was wrong with me? Why did I jump to every possible worst-case scenario before even stopping to think about possible solutions? Why did I crumble under the weight of a whole number and two decimals?

I can chalk it up to depression–and a part of me does, because I know that it definitely enhanced what I was feeling, made it heavier. But the feeling didn’t start there–it started in my own head, where I have spent the last 25 years defining my self-worth on other people’s terms. I gauged myself worthy by virtue of being a good friend, person, teacher, student, Jew, writer. But, at some point, the validity of all of those things can be questioned. What about the times where I take forever to reach out to someone or, worse, to get back to them? What about the months where I don’t give tzedakah or I’m too busy in my own life to do nice things for others? What about the days where I’m just done and my students get the tired version of me? What about the times I procrastinate so much that I turn things in slightly past the deadline? What about all of the Shabbat evenings where I’m just too damn tired and I go home instead of going to services? What about all the times where I feel like I’m writing for myself and no one will ever read it (nor care to)?

Now, on Tuesday evening, I find that the answer does not lie in any of those questions. Instead, the answer is a question in itself: why can’t I just consider myself worthy because I am, because I dream, because I try? Truth is, there’s no damn reason for me to find ways to label myself unworthy. For that matter, there’s no reason for me to be trying to measure my worth through other people’s standards. I can simply call myself worthy and focus on other things.

So whenever the urge to belittle myself again strikes, I will remember this: I am a good friend because I love my friends, give sound advice, and strive to be present in their lives. I am a good person because I care to be, and work towards it. I am a good teacher because I care about my students, know my content, and work really hard to help all of my students succeed (sometimes against their will). I am a good student because I want to learn, I work hard (if late), and I am truly working to improve myself through my new knowledge. I am a good Jew because I uphold Jewish principles in my life and work tirelessly to sanctify HaShem’s name through my actions. I am a good writer because I work to improve in my craft and I read voraciously and I put my heart and soul into every word. I’m a badass, damn it, and I just need to remember that.

And, well. I might just be competent in ways that REACH can’t measure–just like my students are learning in ways that standardized tests can’t seem to account for. And so I did, after all, email the boss to see if we can discuss last year’s results.

*REACH, or REACH Students as the program is actually called, stands for Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago Students. It is Chicago Public Schools’ most recent evaluation system, which was put in place during the 2012-2013 school year. This means that my first year I was evaluated on the old, extremely subjective system (think a checklist after every observation and guesstimation of a rating), and the past two years I have been evaluated on the REACH rubric based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching.


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