As Teach For America gains traction on college campuses and within the national media and as the education reform movement with which TFA aligns itself becomes more prevalent, an entire genre of op-eds has risen out of this surging popularity. The “Why I Quit TFA” blog post is a subject that myriad different former Corps Members have tackled. Olivia Blanchard’s account was published in The Atlantic Monthly while I found Sydney Miller’s account to be particularly well-written and poignant. Gary Rubinstein’s “Why I Did Teach For America and Why You Shouldn’t” is (to my understanding) one of his most widely-read posts and even satirical website The Onion has contributed to the discussion with a sardonic piece.
Generally speaking, there are a few common threads throughout these writings. The criticisms around TFA center around the idea that incoming Corps Members are undertrained do not fully ingrain themselves into the communities they serve, and often leave during or immediately following their two-year commitment, creating a vacuum of experienced, dedicated teachers.
Reading these posts and the many others like it was an important part of my Teach For America experience. While I was applying for TFA, I read these blogs voraciously, intent on learning what it was really like to teach at an economically disadvantaged school. After I began my own teaching career, I remained an active part of this particular community, blogging my own experiences while following others. Reading others’ experiences kept me connected when I felt like no one understood what I was going through. There were moments when I was bitter, frustrated, and upset that TFA had placed me in a situation that, admittedly, I sometimes found to be hopeless. I related to those who quit. I understood.
But I didn’t quit. I didn’t leave. I stayed, and while I never felt totally satisfied with my work and while I didn’t become the type of “transformational leader” that I entered the classroom believing was my destiny, I’ve never once regretted my decision to fulfill the commitment that I made.
I’m not better than anyone who quit and I’m not worse than anyone who is staying for a third year. I’m no hero. I firmly believe that Teach For America isn’t for everyone, not even for every person who is accepted into the program. That being said, I feel like everything I read on the internet is either anti-TFA to the point of mobilization or PR-friendly enough to gloss over the harsh realities experienced by incoming Corps Members. I don’t often hear the perspective of Corps Members who are ambivalent, who care deeply about Teach For America and the cause it advocates but also sense that there are flaws within the movement, who emerged from their experience jaded but haven’t lost all their idealism, who didn’t change the world but did make a difference.
That is how I feel. This is my story. This is why I stayed.
When I stepped into my classroom for the first time, I felt like I was viewing a scene from a movie. I saw myself standing alongside Jaime Escalante from “Stand and Deliver” and Erin Gruwell from “Freedom Writers”, ready to make a difference, ready to push my kids, read to save them. On the first day of school, I told my kids that they would be the best writers in the state by the end of the year. I didn’t have lesson plans, I didn’t have a knack for classroom management, and I didn’t have relationships with my students, but that didn’t matter to me: I had ambition, heart, and unwavering idealism. These would be more than enough to push both me and my kids to greater heights, I knew it.
What followed was the toughest year of my life.
Nothing I tried worked with my students. I was supposed to teach writing but my students, most of whom were part of the school’s English Language Learner or special education programs, were so far behind that I didn’t know where to start. All day I would try to manage class after class of 7th graders who were alternately apathetic and destructive. When the school day finally ended, I would go home and spend hours writing lesson plans, grading assessments, and calling parents. I coached softball and ran with the cross country team and taught Saturday School in addition to everything else. Not dry heaving in the morning before leaving for work felt like a personal victory.
I lost sight of what had made me join Teach For America in the first place: the belief that all kids can learn, the idea that every child needs a sturdy adult role model, the understanding that change is not possible without tremendous sacrifice. I lost faith in my students and in myself. I distinctly remember saying things like, “My kids are just so far behind” and “If they don’t care and they don’t want to learn then what am I supposed to do for them?” I yelled at kids. I wrote office referrals. During my first official evaluation, I scored poorly in many domains. I worked myself to the bone but felt shame because I wasn’t doing better. Outside of the classroom wasn’t much better. Mandatory professional development sessions and staff meetings sapped my energy further but rarely did I leave feeling empowered and able to implement what I had learned. My classroom was toxic for both myself and my students and I was deeply, visibly unhappy.
As the bell rang for the final time of my first year of teaching, I remained seated in my chair. I did not listen to music. I did not write. I did not call any of my friends to celebrate. I sat slumped, completely empty. My energy, my very soul had drained out of me and lay pooled around me, evaporating into the May air.
When that first year ended, I did not feel content. I did not feel like I had accomplished anything or like I had made a difference. I did not feel like my students were better prepared for the challenges of the world because they had me and, just as painfully, I did not feel as though they knew that they were unequivocally loved and cared for. A year of struggling, fighting, and grinding had resulted in an impact that I felt to be negligible.
That feeling carried on into the summer. It was a hangover from a year spent physically, mentally, and emotionally draining myself. All I wanted to do was sleep. I went west on a backpacking trip with my dad and my brother and couldn’t fully appreciate the beauty around me; I went to New Orleans with my friends and didn’t want to leave the hotel room. It took almost six weeks before I began to feel excited again, before I felt worthwhile and whole and human.
If there was a time to quit, that summer was it. I’d made it to the end of the year and in likelihood my school would be able to replace me. There was another Corps Member at my school who was leaving as well. No one would have blamed me. When, a week before classes started, my assignment was changed from teaching honors to teaching remediation with many of the same students who had made my life miserable the year before, I was afforded another opportunity to walk out.
But I stayed.
Why did I stay?
As with most real-life questions, the answer is nuanced and complex. A big part of it was the friends that I’d made during my first year in Oklahoma. They wouldn’t let me quit and I wouldn’t let them. Another factor was the fact that I’d never quit anything in my life and I didn’t want to start then. But ultimately, it came down to a simple reason:
These kids need me.
I wasn’t who I wanted to be for my kids. I wasn’t a good teacher and I wasn’t a good support for my students. Still, in the face of the gangs, poverty, and abusive home lives that many of my students faced, I was something. Maybe I wasn’t the savior that I had set out to be and maybe I wasn’t changing kids lives, but I had to do something. Right?
So I dug in.
I didn’t do anything heroic. I didn’t put forth some sort of Herculean effort or come up with any innovative systems. I simply recommitted myself to loving my kids and doing the best I could with them, resolved to learn from last year’s mistakes, and made sure that my first three weeks of lessons were airtight.
When my students entered my classroom for the first day of year two, nothing was different and yet everything had changed. I was enthusiastic and engaging. My procedures were efficient. My content was engaging and exciting. The class moved so quickly from one meaningful task to another that the students didn’t have time to act out. Buoyed by my positive attitude and the promise for real, tangible results, students bought into my classroom.
Once I had them hooked, I never let go. A true culture developed in my class. By the end of the fall semester of year two, I had developed a stronger relationship with nearly all of my students than I had with hardly any of my kids during my entire first year. I didn’t write a single referral. I didn’t have to lecture kids or dole out punishments like Oprah giving away cars. My students grew as readers and more than a few of my 8th graders read entire books for the first time in their lives. I found that I actually enjoyed the company of my kids. They made me laugh. At the end of the semester, several kids said that I had taught them how to love reading, how to appreciate the stories the world has to tell.
The next semester, I had my teaching assignment changed again and I went back down to 7th grade and the same thing happened. I got close to my kids and they grew close to me. We learned from each other and I saw my kids make strides, not only as learners but as human beings. My soccer players had a phenomenal season and through that I became even more firmly entrenched in the lives of my kids. For most of my students, I was a fun language arts teacher; for a couple I became a surrogate parent, providing rides and meals and advice.
Let me reiterate: what I did was not special. During my time in Oklahoma City I was surrounded by teachers, both at my school and within my Corps, who worked harder than I did, got more academic growth out of their students, assumed greater leadership roles, and ultimately did more to help raise their students. I was a good teacher, yes, but my numbers weren’t astronomical. I was a few kids’ favorite teacher, but not everyone’s. A couple of kids might look back on me the way that we all look back on certain teachers as those who made tremendous impacts on our lives, but only a couple. All this goes to say that I was good and I was effective, but I also did not and do not deserve to be put on a pedestal.
But I chose to stay. And that made all the difference.
I stayed because I realized that my kids didn’t need a savior, they just needed someone who would listen and care.
I stayed because even though I couldn’t solve all of my schools problems, I could help mitigate them.
I stayed because many of my students needed a father figure and even though at 23 years old and scared, I was still worth more than nothing.
I stayed to show my students that when you commit to something, it matters that you honor that commitment.
I stayed because I said I would.
Honestly, I don’t know what the lasting legacy of Teach For America will be in this country. I don’t know if the organization as a whole is adding or taking away from the United States’ education system. If you’re reading this and trying to decide if you should apply for Teach For America, I don’t know whether or you should or shouldn’t.
However, I do know that if you are there already, if you are falling asleep at three night after night only to wake up at six to do it all again, if you are walking into a classroom every day and feeling like no one, including yourself, wants you there, if you are nodding in solemn agreement with every editorial and memoir that claims that Corps Members are underprepared and overmatched, then you should not quit. Whether you realize it or not, even on the days where you aren’t your best and even on the days where you feel you’re at your worst, those kids need you. Those schools need you. When you leave, it creates another hole, another gap where a role model should be. The problems facing us, our kids, and our entire institutional system are large, but leaving does not solve them.
Author’s Note: I didn’t write this piece as a show of political support for either side of the ed reform debate but instead to share one person’s experience. I tried to present this experience in a nuanced, complex way because that’s what human experiences are: nuanced and complex. However, I understand that putting these thoughts into writing sometimes simplifies them and turns them into empty rhetoric. I did not intend them as such and do not wish to be attacked as such. Please, comment. Tweet at me, email me, reply and engage in a dialogue. But do not make blanket statements about all Corps Members. Let’s work to find solutions together.