Notes from a Young Teacher, On What Disillusion Actually Is

There is a quote by Robert Frost that I have loved up until very recently. It reads, “The best way out is always through.”


I am particularly taken with the notion of the “formative years” of one’s life, as I am experiencing these years as I write; these years are the ones, in the early years of being, that influence the ways that one will view the world, and subsequently the means by which one will live and act in that perceived world. When I say “early” years, here I mean the years that ring independent of parental or collegiate structure. In my mind, the formative years begin when one can make decisions without the weight of another’s opinion holding greater favor than the consequences of that action.


I think that I always wanted to believe that the formative years of my life would be shaped by benevolent mistake and happy mishap, that the “lessons” I would learn would come free of any real need to reshape, reevaluate, and reconsider the lens from which I view(ed) the world. As young people, we are indoctrinated with privileged sayings like “everything happens for a reason,” and “good things happen to good people,” without ever being asked to analyze the origins and assumptions that those phrases–and the outlooks on life that they provide–hold.


I imagined these years would be like I was reading a book; while I could learn from hardships presented, I would always be able to close that book and walk away in order to think about it. If I really so desired, I didn’t have to include that book or that experience in the list of things and events that have influenced my actions. The reality is that these years have been far from that.


There is something to be said about spending the formative years of life in a position that exposes me to some of society’s deepest problems every single day. There is a certain aura of inevitable defeat that threatens the very purpose, and subsequent efficacy, of my daily action. On the one hand, it is a beautiful thing to be thrown into a job whose reality is so big that it only begins to reveal itself precisely at the moment that I think I have it all figured out. Simultaneously, it is devastating to come to terms with some of the most heart-wrenching realities that this world has to offer.


It is an interesting place to be in. Here I am, analyzing the impact and outcome of various mindsets and ideas I hold about the world, while in a position to continue to actively shape them, mold them into something better, and subsequently build my life around said ideals. During these years, thoughts and beliefs about what it means to live a good life are really only beginning to take root. I have time to change them. I hope that I live a rich enough life that I will change them.


As a young teacher, I entered the field–as I would hope every young teacher would–idealistically. I also entered the field by way of something that could be considered institutionalized idealism: Teach for America. I don’t know how many careers lead oneself to a sense of disillusion, but I am sure it likely sneaks in on the tailcoats of any major undertaking that is initially pursued in order to cure some problem in the world. Think urban education, non-profit work, politics, even.


Ostensibly, idealism as a concept is defined and upheld by the belief that the actions of a person or collective peoples can change and cure an identified problem in a given society. Conversely, disillusionment is defined and upheld by the belief that something–some action, solution, or idea–is not as good as one once believed it to be. Disillusionment can also be characterized by the realized lack of efficacy of one’s solution to a problem. Whether one is idealistic or disillusioned, both attitudes operate secondary to a central assumption: that the problems we are attempting to ameliorate are the actual problems to begin with.


Teach for America operates on the basis that putting a good teacher in front of a class every day will lead our country to educational equity. Good can mean a thousand different things, and I can imagine that the minds of whomever reads this are probably swimming with ideas of how TFA does or does not fit their definition. No matter. Good, in this sense, will be taken to mean a teacher that understands the potential of every child, a teacher that serves in underserved communities, that can recognize institutional racism, and consistently attempts to develop as an educator in order to act upon said racism.


To be frank, I have become disillusioned with the idea that putting a “good” teacher in front of every child in America will close the achievement gap. Since I began my full-time teaching gig, I have become frustrated and saddened by the idea that a two-year stint in any context is believed to produce real and replicable change. Further, I have often been defeated by the feeling that I was not living up to the solution to educational equity–that I could not even be considered one of those “good” teachers. Until recently, I had never attempted to view the situation through a different lens.


As I had been looking at it, putting a good teacher in front of every class was the solution to educational equity. I had learned it, spoke it, believed it, and as such, became disillusioned with my role in promoting and achieving equity.


Once I flipped the equation, however, I saw that disillusionment rather lives in the realization that what we are “treating” is not the illness itself but the symptoms of said illness. Educational equity will not be solved through my individual actions, because no matter the “goodness” of those actions, they still operate within a system that is greater and more complex than itself.


My disillusion had been mis-defined and misguided. Disillusionment is not about realizing that a problem is bigger than one individual person. Every person that enters this work enters it with that shared understanding. Do we all want to believe one person can change the world? Absolutely. Is the issue more complex than one individual teacher? Undoubtedly. The problems–any problems–are always, and will always be bigger than us as individual people.

As I was seeing it, disillusion would inevitably be a negative, disappointing experience because I did not live up to expectations. I was hurting, and not helping. Until recently, I never thought to think of disillusion as a necessary and empowering step forward.


I cannot help but think that maybe it is a good thing that I have become disillusioned, because it is only in realizing how small I am that I can re-emerge with a sense of understanding of how exactly I may play a role in the bigger solution, and no longer wholly consume myself with dire attempts to attenuate what are ultimately symptoms. Disillusion, at core, is the feeling of realizing that this is all, at the end of the day, a symptom.


This recognition–this disillusionment–is not weakness. It is not giving up. What it does require however, more than anything, is a shift in the ways which we view the relationship between our actions and the world. Too often folk wisdom tells us that acknowledging this relationship must be chalked up to some iteration of defeat, and if we fail to believe our actions alone will change the face of this planet, we are simply not believing hard enough. I have found the contrary to be true–that there is braveness in denying this form of staunch individualism, there is courage in understanding that the world’s issues are far more complex than any one of us can understand alone, that grit can be found in leaning on others, and that disillusion is too often seen as a step back, when it is much more a step out of naivety, and a step forward.
The word “disillusion” itself means a break from appearance. I am inclined to believe that action based on reality may be more effective than action based on illusion, and that while the best way out of a problem or issue might be through, it is certainly always with.

Image courtesy of Pedro Rlbelro Slmoes, Flickr Creative Commons


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