It was the fall of 2013 and I was in my senior year of college. So many of my peers already had jobs and grad schools lined up after graduation, so I felt pressured to do the same. That’s why I applied to Teach For America, an organization that places recent college graduates in teaching positions at low-income schools.
As many of you know, it’s important for teachers to have patience. As regular readers of this column know, I am not exactly patient. I try to accept problems with grace, but my tone often betrays me. It’s like another person comes out in stressful situations. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to control my less-than-helpful attitude over time.
But in the fall of 2013, I had not learned how to do that. I’d say my impatience was in full swing. Somehow, the TFA hiring team hadn’t detected that during the first two phone interviews. They asked me to come in for a formal interview, where I was tasked with creating a mock teaching lesson.
I decided to teach about subject-verb disagreement, blissfully unaware that the entire interview setup would disagree with me. I vividly remember finding a parking garage in Memphis and walking about a mile to the TFA headquarters. I wore a black dress, black boots and black leather jacket. Upon entering the building, I learned it was a group interview — and none of the other applicants were dressed for a funeral. That should have been my first sign.
Four applicants presented their teaching lesson before me, and they eased right through it. We were being interviewed by three TFA representatives who told us to pretend they were students. They asked us to visualize them as young children. As my lesson began, I started to trip up. Then one of the interviewers — a grown man, mind you — raised his hand and asked the dumbest question I had ever heard. My response?
I realized that was not the right thing to say, so I cleared my voice and tried to fix it.
“No,” I said. “You’re wrong.”
Tail between my legs, I watched as everyone else gave far superior lessons. I wanted to walk out right then and there, but pride kept my butt in that seat for the next two hours. Then it was time for the one-on-one interview. Though I was clearly a horrible teacher, I wasn’t unaware of it. I let my interviewer know.
“So about my teaching presentation, I know it was bad,” I said.
“Oh, we consider several criteria when making decisions,” he said.
“I’m just letting you know I know it was bad,” I reiterated for some reason.
And again at the end of the interview.
“It was bad.”
Even after I described the horrible interview in full detail, a few of my loved ones insisted that I shouldn’t give up hope. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought, they said. I reminded them, as I reminded my interviewer, that it was bad. They didn’t seem to believe me until the rejection came a month later. Then I could gleefully tell them I was right — I truly did suck at teaching, despite how much they believed in me.
With TFA off the table, I decided to do the scary thing I had promised myself I wouldn’t do. I graduated with no plan whatsoever and enough money to make it through the summer. Coincidentally, I got a job at Carroll County News in July, just as my funds were starting to run out. That job turned into a career. That career helped me become part of a community I am so thankful to call home. I have loved the last seven years of my life more than I could ever express in words.
It turns out my future wasn’t in teaching. Failing that interview was once a shameful moment for me, but now I see it as a major step toward finding myself. So I fell flat on my face during my first big job interview. Don’t we all screw up on the journey to who we’re meant to be?
I’d rather learn from failure than let it consume me. This week, I’m raising a metaphorical glass to failing forward — so bad, it’s good!