Why I Didn’t Quit Teach For America

I recently read this post on The Atlantic from a former Teach For America corps member, and it has been nagging at me a little ever since. I think particularly because everyone’s experience as a corps member is different… I felt compelled to share mine.

Although no two-year commitment is the same, there is a shared anecdote amongst TFA alumni. Once able to admit the reality of our past two years, I have heard this from more than a few:

Every corps member has had that morning when you are driving to school, and you seriously consider running your car into oncoming traffic. Not enough to actually kill yourself, but just enough to injure yourself enough to the point where you have a valid excuse not to teach for six months.

Dramatic, maybe. True, 100%. I have had those mornings. Why, then, would I want to respond to a post about quitting? Why would I defend such an institution?

Honestly, there are aspects about Teach For America that I disagree with. I doubt there are corps members or alumni who don’t have something to complain about. But the reality is, the common complaint that TFA “doesn’t prepare teachers” enough is actually a moot point. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for what lies ahead as a teacher in a low-income neighborhood.It’s romanticized by movies, and not enough people talk about what it’s really like.

I joined Teach For America partially for the wrong reasons, and I didn’t quite believe how difficult people told me it would be. I was a senior about to graduate college into a terrible job market, with a journalism degree in an era when social media was making the qualification irrelevant. I thought I might go to law school, but I hadn’t done the necessary preparation yet. TFA, with its reputation of sending alumni to top law universities across the country, seemed like a perfect option.

After months of searching in vain for reporting jobs, I felt refreshed to begin Institute, the five-week training program TFA runs to induct and train its incoming teachers. I taught 2nd graders in Phoenix, Arizona, and my co-teachers were amazing, talented people. I taught addition and the long A sound to a group of eight-year-olds ranging from Kindergarten to 5th grade reading level. I went off to Denver, Colorado fully confident in my abilities to close the Achievement Gap.

My wake-up call came in the form of middle school students. I didn’t get hired in an elementary school, because Denver Public Schools was trapped in a hiring freeze that summer (to the outrage of many of my fellow corps members). Because I was starting to feel homesick and anxious, it took nine interviews and a second qualifying exam to get a job with an age group I wasn’t too excited about. By October, I was telling my boyfriend I wanted to quit and move back east.

With “student” and “intern” as my only two career titles, I had never failed at anything before in my life. That’s why TFA hired me, really. But I failed some of my students that year. I struggled with behavior management, making connections with kids who grew up in realities far from my own, and the bureaucracy of working in a public school (this much I can agree upon with the author). I was failing at too many things for my ego and my body to handle.

But you know what? So was more than half of the other teachers at my school. I was only one of two corps members at my placement, and about half of the incoming staff that year were fresh out of teaching school. They struggled with the same things I did. They found small successes and built relationships with their students, like I did. But TFA or not TFA- it didn’t make a difference.We all felt as though we were drowning.

The bell rang one day in February, and I closed the door after the last student left. I sat in my desk and cried. I can’t remember what had happened to spark this, but this wasn’t the first time I broke down at the end of the day. I wanted it to be my last.I called my parents and told them I was done- not coming back next year. At all. They were, of course, completely understanding and supportive. My dad told me later it was awful to be on the other end of the country, listening to my misery on the phone each week.

After a few days, however, I started worrying about what would happen to me with only half my commitment on my resume. I started checking out LinkedIn to see what other jobs might be available to me.I emailed the Dean of Students at the law school from my alma mater and explained the situation. Did he think I could still get into law school? He must understand- I’m not happy, so the kids certainly wouldn’t be.

The Dean called me that week, and I will never, ever forget what he said to me. He said, in a strict fatherly voice, it didn’t really matter about law school. “If you were my granddaughter, I would say this: Those kids have had teachers leave them every year. Every single year. And that’s why you’re there. And you’re just going to do it to them again.”

He was completely, 100% right. Though I had joined Teach For America to beef up my law school application, the real reason I was there, the reason I got up every morning, was to be there for my students. I didn’t want to hear it, but he was right: I couldn’t abandon them.

So I didn’t.

My second year was just as hard, if not harder, because now I knew what I was up against. I still struggled, I still cried, I still worried about my students before I went to bed each night and I still dreaded getting out of bed each morning. But I didn’t leave my kids. Not yet.

I don’t think I’m a very good teacher. I’m impatient, like to move fast, and get easily offended. But I did reach some kids. According to Teach For America, some isn’t enough, and while I was working my butt off and losing sleep, that made me feel like dirt. But I realize now that TFA set the bar high, giving us something to strive for, because if we weren’t working ourselves to the bone, we wouldn’t have reached anyone.

The real problem here isn’t TFA. It’s not a lot of things. I give up pretending to know what the real problems or solutions are. But what I do know from my experience is that teaching in many of our public schools is unsustainable, and many of the teachers don’t last, except for a few golden gems. When I left after my second year in May to come back to New York, about half of the rest of my school staff was quitting, too. Teaching is HARD. REALLY HARD. CAREER TEACHERS ARE SAINTS!

People forget that one of TFA’s largest accomplishments is actually raising awareness. A huge group of graduates from top universities now know how hard it is to teach, how deeply kids in low-income areas need good teachers, and how crucial it is we as citizens solve this problem. Even though I didn’t reach my goal of making all my students proficient readers by the end of the year (though I am so proud of their spectacular growth), I KNOW what a huge problem that is. I know that not everyone has the option to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” work hard, and achieve the American dream. And now I work for a school that’s trying to figure out how to fix that.Where would I be without TFA? Probably living with my parents (no offense guys- I love you) and trying to find myself (have you ever seen Girls?).

So maybe TFA isn’t 100% closing the Achievement Gap yet. It’s going to take something bigger than TFA. We as an entire country have to fix this. But without first knowing the problem, it can’t be diagnosed. And how else would TFA show grads from private, four-year universities the educational struggles of poor kids in America if the experience didn’t totally suck?

P.S. I just read this from my hometown newspaper- there are plenty of teaching jobs available in Harlem. Come work for my school!