The Untold Teacher Story

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 05 2011

Why I Am Quitting TFA

Last night I was standing in a crowded bar, drink in hand, talking to a boy.  Well, shouting, actually, because it’s the only way we could hear each other.  We shared names, he asked how long I’d been living in DC, I asked about his gorgeous French accent.  He was a friend of a friend, attractive, well-dressed, and a native of Luxembourg.  I was intrigued.

There are a lot of predictable ways for this story to end.  I could tell you that I went home dreaming of him.  I could tell you that I went home after a healthy dance-floor make-out session with him (it was a rowdy college bar, after all).  I could tell you that I went home with him.  Or, at least, that he called the next day.  But the truth is, after about two more lines of the above conversation, I never saw him again.

Soooo, why all this fuss over nothing, then?  Well, it turns out that Nicholas – that was his name – is an incredibly perceptive Luxembourgian, even when it comes to strangers who have to repeat their sentences two or three times before he can hear a single word.  By the time Nicholas and I started talking, I had already been introduced to a handful of his friends, all of whom had politely asked the routine question:  “What are you doing in DC?”  To each of them, I had answered, “I’m a teacher,” and that was that.  But when I said it to Nicholas, he said something shocking in reply.  He said:  “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”

I am fairly certain that my jaw dropped, though I was on drink number something and so I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.  What I do know is that I managed to clarify, “Oh, no, it’s just that I hate my job.”  At that moment I was dragged away by a girlfriend in need of another round, so I have no idea what he thought of my reply.  Most people would have been sympathetic, and asked why.  But clearly, Nicholas was not most people.

Until his analysis, I had no idea that my “I’m a teacher” had implied anything negative at all.  Usually when being introduced, I would wait until my new acquaintance asked what I thought of teaching before unleashing my depressing commentary.  After all, no one likes being the person whose defining characteristic is her hatred of her own career choice.  Especially not in this day and age, when teachers are either saints or Satan’s helpers.  It’s kind of hard to be seen as one of the good ones when you walk around spewing angry stories about small human beings.

But apparently, with a strong dose of gin swimming around in my brain, I was having a hard time filtering.  They say alcohol tells the truth, and in this case it was a truth I hadn’t been aware of myself:  I was ashamed of my job.  Yes, I hated it.  That much I knew.  But Nicholas had been right.  It wasn’t just hatred.  I was ashamed.

Why, though?  Being a Teach for America teacher implied prestige – not to mention the job was temporary.  Saying, “I’m a teacher” and knowing that this meant “I am a member of Teach for America” shouldn’t have been cause for embarrassment.  Saying, “I’m a teacher” and meaning, “I have chosen education as my career field” could potentially have been a different story.  There are plenty of parents out there who would lament such a low-paying job, but coming from a family bursting with educators, I wouldn’t have disappointed anybody even if that were the case.

Yet, there it was.  I was ashamed.  Shame is an ugly emotion, so I suppose it’s no wonder that I had pushed it deep into my subconscious.  Now that Nicholas had forced me to confront it, though, I realized it had been there for a while.  Months, if not more.  What was it doing there?  When had it arrived?  How could I get rid of it?

Teach for America is a grand proponent of introspection, so when I woke up with a ridiculously bad hangover on the morning after my encounter with Nicholas, I decided that I would play hooky from my mandatory TFA professional development Saturday and stay home to reflect on my newfound emotions.  I figured, if my Program Director (code for TFA boss) knew what I was doing instead of reporting for duty, she might want to shoot me a little bit less.  Still, though, I knew that what I was doing was cowardly.  I hadn’t called out sick, let alone provided advanced warning.  With this single decision I would forfeit my right to claim an AmeriCorps grant of $5,000 at the end of the school year.  Really, though, I hadn’t done anything brave in a long, long while.  So what difference did it make?

Suddenly, as a lay perfectly still underneath the blankets waiting out my tremendous headache and praying that I wouldn’t throw up my advil, I realized I had found my answer.  I wasn’t ashamed to be a teacher, per se.  I was ashamed of myself as a teacher.

I should start by saying that, even if I were good at my job, hating it so much would be sufficient cause for shame.  There’s something truly and deeply embarrassing about making the wrong life decisions — marrying the wrong man, choosing the wrong school, winding up in the wrong career field.  When you inevitably wind up unhappy, and loathing yourself for the poor choice, you feel like an idiot.  Why didn’t I see this coming?  Why didn’t I think twice?  Why didn’t I go another way?  Admitting this to the friends and family who supported your decision – and who happen to be happy with their own situations — adds a whole new dimension of humiliation.  No one wants to be pitied by everyone they know.

When it comes to teaching, matters get even worse.  Nobody ever says it, but you know that at least some of them are thinking:  “Wait a second, you hate working with kids?”  or “How can you hate being part of such a noble organization?”  The smartest ones interpret, correctly, that “I hate my job” means “I’m a terrible teacher.”  How else could things be so bad?

Now, this really gets to the heart of things.  And admitting it is probably the first and only brave thing I’ve done since the shame first set in.  I am a terrible teacher.  Awful.  Abysmal.  Painfully inadequate.  This, coming from the girl who has been teased since age five for not being bad at anything — well, besides team sports.  I am a bad teacher.   To put it kindly.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that my failure is directly proportional to my students’ poor behavior.  That is, the worse they act in my classroom, the worse I get at “managing” them.  It’s a spiral that’s been out of control since mid-October.

Things did start off alright.  Aside from the fact that I had 200 students. (200!  200 names to learn!  200 papers to grade, twice a week minimum!  200 parents to call!  200 human beings whose welfare was in my hands!)  And aside from the fact that I had four special education classes, no (legally-mandated) help, and no “SPED” training except for a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation through which I learned the acronyms for different disabilities.  Useful stuff, let me tell you.  Even so, in the beginning of the year, for the most part, the kids did what I told them to do.  I had my PowerPoints and my “exit slips” and a million other things that not a single one of my teachers had ever tried to put me through in a classroom, but if TFA said they would work, I had faith.  And so I became a teacher.

But my students must have sensed weakness, because then they pounced.  As one little boy very candidly informed me about a month ago, “You were too nice to us.  So now we take advantage of you.”  I wasn’t even hurt — he was absolutely right.  I had been seduced by TFA’s ideas of a positive learning environment, where students learn because they are “invested”, and so they achieve.  I had smiled before Christmas, and now I was screwed.  Just one more item to add to the list of everything that was TFA’s fault.

Was it TFA’s fault, though?  Had I been inadequately prepared for an impossible mission?  Or was it just me?  I had a sneaking suspicion that it had to be the latter.  After all, there were plenty of TFA teachers out there mixing up fresh batches of Kool-Aid while I lay in bed hiding from my boss.  Maybe they were crazy, or maybe they were just good.  Maybe they were talented, and I just sucked.

Still, there were problems with this explanation.  I had begun with a strong desire to succeed, and an unparallelled work ethic.  I had been the college senior who did all the reading, for goodness’s sake.  I could define discipline in my sleep.  And until this past September, my life story had been a beautiful testament to the classic “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  Only now, I was pulling my hairs out trying to determine what had gone wrong.  I had the will, but where – where, in God’s name! – was the way?

All the nightmare stories about Teach for America that can be found in the blogosphere sound like minor variations on my own classroom.  Truthfully, it’s a war zone.  Nobody is learning — which, according to the prevailing wisdom in today’s education field, means that I must not be teaching.  Pencils and rubber bands are used as weapons, with occasionally painful and potentially lawsuit-inducing consequences.  I once had a student who threw a whole desk at another kid’s head while I stood in the hallway during passing time.  I have broken up fistfights, screamed in students’ faces, nearly cried in class on countless occasions, and succeeded in teaching my students only that I’m easily overpowered, and really just a sad pathetic joke.  I have been cursed at in multiple languages, and even been sideswiped once with a pretty hard punch.  Usually, even when I yell, nobody can hear me.  That’s how loud my classroom is.  Nobody stays in their seats — sometimes they even chase each other.  They turn in empty pieces of paper a lot of the time, after 72 minutes of “doing work.”  I, in turn, give them passing grades.  I have to.  I can’t fail everyone.

I used to find these things discouraging to the point of emotional breakdown.  And then I just gave up.  I lost the energy to keep fighting, but I felt paralyzed – both financially and morally — and so I stayed.  When I quit TFA (note:  when, not if) I will owe more than $3,000 in “transitional funding,” or the money that TFA gave to tide me over during the four-month time span between the start of summer training and the arrival of my first paycheck.  I will have thirty days to produce the lump sum.  Not to mention, I’ll forever have to look back on this period in my life feeling like a quitter.  Like somebody who couldn’t handle a challenge.  When the going got tough, I got going — out the door, that is.  And yet, all of those things seem bearable in comparison to getting up in the morning and surviving four whole periods.

I will probably never know if it was just me, or if it was my particular situation, or if it was TFA as a whole that caused things to turn out this way.  I do know that even if I were a fabulous teacher, my students would still finish out the year woefully far behind.  My eighth graders with children at home would still have children at home.  None of them would ever make it to the Ivy League, and probably many would never make it to college.  They came into my classroom confident that there was nothing in it for them, and I failed in my attempt to change their minds.  Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would quit now in the hopes that somebody great would come along, and make up for the six months of harm I’ve done to them.

That’s the thing nobody tells you when you sign up, though.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person.  It doesn’t matter if you cry out of determination to improve your teaching, or out of desperation to escape.  It doesn’t matter how guilty you feel, or how badly you want things to change.  When you fail, nothing matters except that you’ve failed.  And suddenly you’re this person who is ashamed all the time, and cowardly all the time, and mean all the time.  Because you failed when the stakes were too high to fail.  And there’s no way to make up for that.

I am strong, and courageous, and compassionate.  I do the right thing and I never leave something half-finished.  Everything I do, I do well.  I stand up for myself and I stand up for the people around me.  I am persistent as all hell and I am the most stubborn person I know.  I’m a fighter with a conscience.  Or, at least, I used to be all of those things.  Now I don’t recognize myself.  And that’s the truth about TFA, for me.  For me, TFA has been a lesson in how things fall apart.  How we let our society fall apart, and how the task of putting it back together again is enough to make us fall apart too.  I wish I could say that there has been something redeeming in all of the bad stuff, but if there has, it will take me a few years’ worth of hindsight to identify it.

To return to the original starting point of this rambling story:  lying in bed hungover, on the morning of this realization, I knew that I was being stubborn.  I was pissed off at TFA for not making me a good teacher, as if that was their responsibility instead of my own.  And so I was being passive-aggressive, and stubborn, and staying in bed on a one-woman teacher’s strike against ineffective workshops and useless handouts.  I was wallowing at a time when I needed to get my act together and get my head in the game.  But somehow this was reassuring.  Being stubborn felt familiar.  It felt good.  It felt normal.  It was one of those feelings I thought that I had lost to the job.  If I could reclaim stubborn, maybe I could reclaim everything else, too.  And hey, I had to start somewhere.

If you’re thinking about joining TFA, let me be your Nicholas from Luxembourg — before you make the decision, instead of in the March after you’ve already committed.  We all have a right to be proud of what we do with our lives.  If we’re not, we’re doing something wrong.  Or, maybe we’re doing the wrong something.  Before you send that email that says, “I’ll do it!” you should know that it might be something you love, but it also might be a big something that you regret.  And it’s by no means assured that you’ll succeed at it, even under the most generous definitions of the word.  Do I disagree with TFA’s mission?  Not even the slightest bit.  Do I think that TFA works, though?  I can only speak from personal experience, and I have to say the heartbreaking word that none of us want to hear — the very same word that I should have said in my own fateful email last November:  No.

76 Responses

  1. Gayle

    Well done I think. My mother was a teacher because she didn’t have many choices. She didn’t make it look like anything that I would want to do. I only had a few good teachers. I knew I wanted to do something with science, biology, wildlife, environment and this was a long time ago. At that time, my choices were also a lot more limited than today. But extremely long story short, I ended up being a natural educator but I knew that I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher. I have been very involved with what is called public education and outreach for local government agencies and non-profits. I have frequently been the guest teacher for a day and I really like it. Its the best part of teaching without all the difficult parts. That’s why I do admire and respect the people who are the classroom teachers. But there might be alternatives that work for you better but still let you be an educator about issues or whatever that you really are passionate about.

    I have been involved with natural resources and watershed education, wildlife, restoration, conservation, and so on, I have now gone back to college and gotten the technical training so I can now be involved with energy efficiency and conservation or renewable energy education as a part of sustainability. I hope in the future to work as much as possible with educational organizations concerning this field.

    Just a suggestion for you to consider. I wish you good luck on your new path.

    • Lenore

      I have to wonder, did you graduate from college and then decide to join TFA? If so, then you missed the point of the program. You were suppose to have life experiences to bring to this job and the common sense to realize the you were going to a low income school system. A system that already had odds stacked against it. Kids that expect to be failed. You sound like a very young and inexperienced person, especially since you were in a bar drinking and thinking of picking up and being picked by men. I would not want you to teach my children. So I am glad that you came to this decision to leave now before you seriously undetermined a student.

      • Shannon

        Lenore, I don’t think you understand TFA at all. It’s fairly rare for people to enter after having worked in other fields. Other alternative certification programs (New York Teaching Fellows, for example) get mid-career people, but TFA specifically targets recent college grads. They recruit heavily on college campuses; every TFA’er I’ve known is in their first post-college job. I don’t think you understand this program well.

  2. MsStrawberryFields

    Congrats on reclaiming stubborn! For the record: you’re not the only one feeling this way. I’m out on the West Coast debating the same trials and tribulations. My two cents: even if you’ve failed, at least you’ve tried. I think that’s pretty noble.

    • Moseis

      She did not fail :) The system failed her. But again, just blame the teacher, so we don’t have to address the real issues. Just blame the teacher because they will surely blame themselves. After all, women, historically, are an oppressed group. They will buy into the hype; they will buy into the LIES.

      Best wishes

      • Moseis

        Do you all not realize how much PROFIT is being made on your irrational “just” blame me for “quitting.” We have corporations making billions on crappy standardized tests, making billions on scripted curriculums that are “teacher proof.”

        WAKE UP!!!

  3. garyrubinstein

    Quitting is a very difficult thing to do, but if you can go through with it, it was the right decision. I’m sure that you would have been more successful had TFA properly trained you. They shortchange secondary teaching, especially. I tried to fill in some of their training shortcoming with some blog posts, but I don’t think it’s enough to undo most of the bad advice they give new teachers. Good luck in your new path, whatever that might be. Please post again in the future so we can see what you’re up to.
    Gary

  4. Leah

    Wow, I am in Houston, and I feel like I could have written this blog. Well, I never met a Nicholas from Luxembourg, but I have had the same problems that you have been experiencing all year and decided to resign after the end of the year.

    I don’t think you need to worry about transitional funding– after September, you don’t have to pay back grants and the loans are on a month-by-month basis. At least, mine is, but I’m in a different region :(

    Have you thought about what you are going to do next? There are probably still ways that you could fight the battle without being in the classroom. I don’t see it as a complete failure, anyway. People keep telling me, “How would you know if you had never taken the risk?” It feels awful to think of it that way, because either way we still failed at it. I finish everyday feeling the same way you do, but I still go home knowing that I have learned one thing, that one door is closing for me, and another one is going to open for me in the months ahead. And in some ways, that makes the decision far more exciting. I don’t know if that helps at all, but changing my mindset has made me feel for optimistic about life after TFA.

    • Moseis

      For some reason, I am unable to respond to her post directly.

      I am puzzled as to why teachers are blaming themselves. This issues and the conditions under which we have to teach are absolutely abysmal. Many of us literally and figuratively work in ZOOS, having to listen to incompetent administrators tell us to put behavior issues in a “reflection” corner. This comment is coming from someone with excellent classroom management. Teachers: STOP WHINING LIKE THE OPPRESSED GROUP WE ARE, AND START voicing your concerns! There sure are plenty to voice. I’ve worked in a wonderfully supportive Title I high poverty school, but, as soon as the new principal arrived, it went to Hell in a hand basket. BAD teachers are NOT the problem. Screwed up administrators and kids acting a fool are the problems. IT’S MUCH BIGGER THAN US FOLKS!! MUCH BIGGER. I believe it can be fixed, but not if we keep blaming ourselves; we need to come up with solutions for the real problems, not solutions that blame the teacher.

      • Moseis

        Pardon my errors…I am unable to revise….

        “these issues….

      • Teachfatigue

        I could have written this article as well. For a second I wondered if I had, perhaps while sleepwalking. I am in the process of quitting TFA as we speak. I can’t help but agree with everything said, and especially with you, Moseis. Sure, I can’t say whether it is me or TFA and if I just pushed harder if it would change, but I can say that regardless, my administration is a pile of shit. I hope that leaving this job doesn’t leave me with mounds of regret and shame, I hope instead that it leaves me with the hope not just to fight for the future of education but to fight for the future of teachers. Good teaching is important but when it comes down to it, it is probably not at the crux at what needs to be addressed.

    • Moseis

      Uh, no, you did NOT fail. The system failed you. You should be fully supported. I don’t care if that means have a police officer and psychologist in every hallway, but I know one thing, you better not tell me to put a kid who just yelled, “Suck my D*&jk!!!” in a friggin “reflection” corner. LOL. OMG. Guess what? I have yet to use my reflection corned, and I’ll be damned if I ever do. Why? Because my teaching is rigorous and relevant. And, my management is TIGHT. So, yeah, I may be a “teacher,” but I am not a WUSS, and I CANNOT save the world, and I WILL NOT BE ABUSED by some 16 year old who has no father in the home. He better get a grip and choose to learn, or, slaving over that grill is going to be HOT. No, I will not take the BLAME, and NO, I will NOT be abused. And, NO, I am not a cop or a day care provider!! STOP BLAMING YOURSELVES. IT’S NOT YOU!!!!!!

  5. HappyFirstYearCorpsMember

    “I was pissed off at TFA for not making me a good teacher”

    While I understand that you were expecting TFA to be miracle workers in an attempt to make you a wonderful teacher, TFA also requests a two year commitment, so they can have the time to do that. Did you really believe that in 8 months that you would be perfect at a new profession; well actually, did you really think that in 2 months (since it seems you quit back in October), that you would be perfect?

    Perhaps, if instead of taking out your aggression out on TFA, and put that energy towards starting a new classroom culture, you would still have the opportunity to change your life trajectory, and ultimately, 200 others as well. Furthermore, i am intrigued by the fact that you never discussed the school itself or the school district it is in. I find it ironic that you place the blame on TFA, the organization that has absolutely nothing to do with the structure of your school, and nothing to do with the disciplinary actions that seem to be necessary to be taken for some of these actions. I wonder what would happen if you took this discontent to the school administration, and advocated for the future of these students, what might happen then?

    But alas, it seems as though your mind is made up, and just like so many other people in these childrens’ lives, you will up-and-leave when the going gets tough. Fortunately for you, it seems as though you have plenty of optimistic supporters (as seen in the first 4 responses), and I do wish you well, but I just can’t help but wonder… what do you do after TFA?

    • Willie Smith

      Well said HappyFirstYearCorpsMember!! I concur!

    • Alohagirl

      At Institute, there were a number of us who referred to “drinking the Kool-Aid,” a not-so-subtle reference to TFAs similarities to a religious cult. Happy, thank you for re-affirming that assessment. When people decide to leave a religious group, one common weapon used against them is guilt, a mean-spirited and blunt instrument. You use it here to make ridiculous suggestions (do you really think that in a school where a first year teacher is slammed with 5 preps and no one steps into to prevent violence in the classroom that anyone is going to be persuaded by a newbie teacher’s “advocacy for the children”? I work in a school where I realized very quickly that the reason I was given the teaching assignment I was given – one I was vastly underqualified for – was that my school pretty much didn’t care all that much about my particular group of students and all my “advocacy for their future” has fallen not just on deaf but on resentful ears).
      I fully believe that TFA is to blame for the failure of many of its CMs. TFA teaches unfair and unrealistic expectations to a group of overachievers who then genuinely think that everyone around them is a great success so they must be a great failure. My own experience with TFA is that they are quite happy to accept BS from CMs, as long as it fits their narrative of greatness. Truth is, the happiest CMs I know are, with one or two exceptions, the shittiest teachers. They don’t bother much with lesson planning, they say all the right things to TFA without actually implementing any of it, and they basically lie with their data. TFA is not the educational powerhouse it pretends to be, and when dedicated CMs really try to meet the unrealistic expectations and fail, they think it must be their fault because “others” are succeeding. TFA is much to in love with its own (false) narrative to be straightforward about what teaching in the first year can be like in a tough school, and this is a huge set up for failure for many CMs.

    • Moseis

      Try working at the school I just left. You probably wouldn’t make it either. I have seen the good, bad, and the ugly, so I don’t judge anyone’s decision to leave. I have SEEN the UGLY up close.

    • Moseis

      OH PLEASE! Our schools have turned into zoos! Ex Marine…6 year teacher, here.

      Also, my kids receive top scores, not the mediocre passing score…so, I can teach! But, I also know and see the truth. Our schools have turned into Daddy Day Care Centers (my kids chuckle when I say, “this is NOT Daddy Day care…”). Our schools have turned into Prison Holding PENS! Our school have turned into PATERNALISTIC holding pens. ENOUGH.

    • Joel

      Very well put. I am in the process of applying for TFA, as today is the second dealine for the application. I think that the standards you set in classrooms is what will drive in your results. Ive taught health curriculums at High Schools in Harlem, NYC where schools are definitely not the best. It was never easy, but I never gave up on the students. It seemed as though the person who wrote the previous “story” gave up on the students, as the many of the people who are in their lives do. It always seems so easy to quit but so hard to stay and fight when the going does get tough. I am looking forward for TFA.

  6. K

    I’m a first-year corps member feeling so many of these same things. Like Leah said above, I feel like I could have written this post. I’m still grappling with whether to stay or go at the end of this year; I commend you for having the confidence and self-awareness to make a decision.

  7. I am an incoming CM. I am also a certified teacher and have been in the classroom already. I am also a dad of a college student and would offer to her what I’m about to offer to you…

    If teaching isn’t your thing, then find something that is. Life is too short to be living the nightmare that this experience seems to be for you. Every failure is just another step closer to success. Find something that you love to do and then find a way to make a living at it. Be the brave, confident person you were raised to be and find what lights that fire inside of you. Whatever you decide to do, be the best you that you can be. Best of luck…

    For the zealot who commented above…get a life and try to pull your head out of the kool-aid bowl long enough to take a breathe every now and again. The lack of oxygen seem to be negatively affecting your objectivity.

    • in final interview round

      If I get in, I hope my CM is like this guy

    • Lovey

      I am a First Year Corp member. Like you, I am a certified teacher. I have had the WORST experience in TFA. I do not feel that traditionally trained teachers are respected. I am thinking about quitting. I hate every interaction I have with TFA (staff/organization).

      • Moseis

        Lovey,

        I can see you don’t plan to be an administrator in the next 36 months! :) Bravo, you see the TRUTH!! You know the say, “follow the money, follow the money.” It’s not about the KIDs Lovey! It’s not about the kids! It’s about lesson plans and scripted lessons and scripted curriculums and blaming the teacher. Screw lesson plans. If you want to see if EFFECTIVE instruction is happening, get your butts in the classroom and stop entering referrals for dress code, sitting in your office.

        All the meetings, all the lesson planning, all the crap! Let me tell these future, fluffy principals something: You probably don’t see the truth because you have an agenda (uh, 100K a year as a vice principal? hmmm? where you can be a bully towards many of these clueless wussy teachers who blame themselves), or, you don’t see the truth because you are a paternalistic fool who believes that it’s natural for children of poverty to act like animals in a zoo, or come to class with only their body, not a pencil or a piece of paper. Right, I am NOT an elementary school teacher (I I were I would velcro supplies to their desks), I teach 170 kids EACH day, and if these kids can afford to pay $3 for a paternalistic foo foo event, offered by administrative fundraisers, DAMNIT, they can bring a pen to my class!!!!!!

        • Moseis

          oops.. “you know the saying.” Forgive, I am a teacher :) I don’t have TIME to proofread. lol.

          • Julie

            Can you offer your classroom management techniques!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • CMo

      Kodiak40, quick quesiton…
      as a certified teacher with experience, do you get paid based on the steps, or does the core still only pay you the bachelor’s degree 1st year pay? I am applying to TFA with a Master’s degree and am also certified and wondering if I will at least get paid on the 1st year step of a Master’s salary. Thanks

  8. Wess

    Here’s the thing. You have it in you.

    I really think that if you just accept that the ability IS there and that you CAN make this happen, you’ll get there sooner than you think.

    I know you’ve already decided, so anything trying to convince you to stay is going to seem like an attack—but I honestly believe that good teachers are made, not born.

    I was a shit-show, for months and months and months. My kids threw calculators, climbed out the window, taunted me high-school style, and learned nothing. I woke up every morning sick to my stomach and once I had a full-blown panic attack in front of my first period. But, like you, I didn’t quit, because it was too complicated and I was frozen.

    You HAVE done something brave, and continue to do it, every single day since school started sucking. Walking into your classroom is far from easy, and it takes a lot. You are an incredibly willful and strong person for not quitting in the middle of the year, with the cards you’ve been given—even though you hate your job, you’re willing to just exist at the front of the classroom because you know at least that consistency is better for your kids than having no teacher at all or a long-term substitute. That steely, selfless stubbornness for your kids is exactly why you’re here, and it’s what will keep you here, if you let it.

    You do NOT know what the rest of the year will bring. Right now it seems like it’s too late, that even if you were to suddenly make an overnight turnaround, nothing worthwhile would come of it. But if I’ve learned one thing from this experience, it’s that every day is an independent opportunity. Every single day, you have the opportunity to wake up and try your damndest break the cycle. And you’re just enough of a fighter to do that.

    Here I am, sitting at March 9th, having only just recently had my “it does get better” moment of sorts. I’m staring the end-of-April state tests right in the face, and then the end of the year not long after that. So maybe my kids, having really learned maybe 25% of what I’ve taught them thus far (if I’m being generous), aren’t going to get to grade level by June. So maybe we won’t hit our goal passing rate on the test. But hell if I’m going to sit here and let that keep me from teaching them what little I do have time to teach. Now that I feel more confident walking into the classroom, I’m ready to work my ass off to see how close we can get.

    For me, TFA has been a lesson in how things fall apart, in pure suffering, in how much agony I can put myself through—but also a lesson in how you put it back together again, stronger, and how one day all of the awfulness starts to feel like an awful dream.

    I’m proud of myself for still being here, and I’m SO proud of you for still being here, because it takes a strength I don’t even know how to describe. There are CMs who jump ship as soon as things get gritty, and it’s so GOOD to read about someone who was able to at least keep her kids in mind. I just don’t want you to give up on yourself as a teacher, now or next year, because it’s in there somewhere. Maybe it’s taking longer, for whatever reason, than the “phases of the first year teacher” curve would have you predict—but you’re learning constantly and you ARE getting better. In the space of two weeks, you can go from bawling every night to actually seeing kids sort of responding to your efforts, and it’s so worth it.

    If you have ANY crumbs of second thoughts left at all, or if you just want to argue back and prove a point, email me (walkertexasleslie@gmail.com) or comment on my blog . PLEASE do. I can hook you up with my PD (who has now brought several of us “back from the brink,” so to speak), or with any of the amazing people who helped me decide to stay, or give you more details on my experience, or just listen to complaints with an understanding ear (that’s what I needed, most of the time, when everything sucked). Even if you ARE 100% totally sure you’re quitting, at least let’s connect so that maybe we can find a way to make the rest of your teaching life more bearable. I hate to think of you resigning yourself to some kind of martyrdom, and I’d like to do what I can.

    (sorry about the epic comment)
    - Wess

    • Megan H

      Wess, I know you have good intentions in writing that comment.

      However, I strongly disagree with your idea that anyone can be a teacher. When you say, “Teachers are not born, they are made,” I appreciate that yes, it takes countless hours (10,000 if you will) of practicing teaching to become a good teacher. I still believe that not everyone (or just anyone) can be a teacher — and that this notion (perpetuated by TFA) is degrading the teaching profession.

      An example, to clarify my point:
      My boyfriend is a composer of classical music. This is something I could never do the way he does. Sure, I could study music if I forced myself, and I could attempt to do what he does. But that is what comes naturally to him.

      I am a preschool teacher. What comes naturally to me is teaching and understanding young children. He could force himself to work with young children, but it is unlikely he would be as successful of a teacher as I am.

      Note: in both of these instances, we would have to FORCE ourselves into these different professions.

      Do you understand the point I’m trying to make? I think it is extremely humble and noble to realize, “This is not for me. This is not what I am meant to do.” As another person noted, find your passion and pursue it. Why spend two years in a profession that you don’t enjoy? It’s not good for you, and it’s certainly not good for the students.

  9. garyrubinstein

    One thing I remember about my really horrible first year was that the kids suddenly got much better when there was about a month left of school. I don’t think it was because I got much better. I think they just collectively though “Wow. This guy still hasn’t quit. Let’s give him a break.” You are getting close to that ‘second honeymoon’ so if you think you can make it till the end of the year, that’s something to look forward to. Then you can make the decision about next year during the summer.

  10. westlawn5431

    Thank you for having the bravery to write this. Particularly for those of us who are used to succeeding, failure (especially when the stakes are so high) unleashes a whole cocktail of negativity (particularly self-loathing) and I think you have done a great job at verbalizing what many CMs couldn’t.

    I agree most with kodiak40 – sometimes this work, though noble, just doesn’t fit your skill set AND THAT’S OKAY. At the end of the day, those students deserve an effective teacher who wants to be there, and the sooner you can inform your administration of your plans, the more time they have to find one.

    Best of luck with whatever it is you do next.

  11. mrmambo

    I was just accepted on Monday and am debating whether to accept. I don’t like to half commit and I have a lot of doubts about the efficacy of TFA’s mission, my ability to succeed and be happy, and my willingness to give up my life to the cause.

    All this angst amidst multiple phone calls and a barrage of e-mails pushing me to decide a week before TFA’s deadline. I assume they’re under pressure to place people and get things set for Institute and so are pressuring the Program Directors, “Hey, what’s with Joe Blow? What do we need to do to close the deal with him?”

    I’m a 43 year old professional, who hasn’t been fully employed in 2 years, despite many years of success. TFA only first appeared on my radar in early February thru a Newsweek column–I jumped in, applying 1 day before the final deadline, and was amazed as I made it thru each step.

    I’ve tried to read the good and the bad, from blogs to books to studies, watched documentaries, etc. all in order to prep myself for the TFA-based journey. My wife’s a teacher and I have lots of teacher friends, all of whom were supportive and complimentary, but also surprised at my choice—they thought I’d do something with cooking (a passion of mine) or something else. They warned me about the horrors of the local school system and wanted me to go in eyes wide open.

    I realize that despite the hype about changing the world thru teachers, TFA is really about two things: 1) getting smart people in classrooms to hopefully help some students on the individual level and 2) expose smart people to our nation’s education problems firsthand to become advocates for education, no matter their career path after TFA.

    I think for me, though, it’s about: will I be a good teacher? Is this something I can love? Is it enough to help even a handful of disadvantaged kids and then maybe move into a private school where it’s “easier”?

    Selfishly, I also am thinking about the impact to my personal life: I have a great home life with my wife, awesome 20-year circle of friends, a nice house, etc. It’s hard to conceive of working 5:30am to midnite for 6 weeks during the summer, not see my wife or friends at all, and then dive into a teaching job where I might have the same schedule and tons of pressure from TFA and the district, bureaucracy, chaos, disinterest, etc.

    Is it worth it? I’m not sure. I may be too frightened or selfish, but I want to be committed to this before accepting.

  12. Ms. Frazzle

    I am currently nearing the end of the first semester of my second year in TFA and I am still having these same thoughts. In fact, I found this blog after I googled “quit Teach for America” following a good long cry to my husband about how I just can’t imagine making it through the next 6 months. I think you said it well when you explained, ” I wasn’t ashamed to be a teacher, per se. I was ashamed of myself as a teacher.” I would be able to handle 6 months of unruly kids, 6 months of weekends taken up with lesson plans, and even 6 months of trying to make and sell a yearbook in a school that has no intentions of buying a yearbook they can’t afford. I could handle it all if I didn’t feel ashamed of the product that comes out of my work. In this case, last year it was failing ECA scores and students who hated me. This year it looks as though it will be the same. It’s hard to do something day in and day out in which you know you are failing. It’s humiliating and it gets hard to look at yourself in the mirror. I just worry I will cringe even more at my sorry reflection if I quit…

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      @Ms. Frazzle:

      Right now I’ve been out of TFA for 6 months. I feel like myself again. It took a while to regain my footing, but now I look in the mirror and see someone I recognize. Maybe quitting isn’t the right decision for everyone, but it was the right decision for me. Granted, I got lucky with job prospects immediately after the school year ended — but looking back, I don’t think it would make a difference if I were still searching for a job, or struggling to make ends meet. I think I would still feel this way — liberated, and happy, and balanced — even if quitting had turned out to be as much a disaster as a miracle. Because ANYTHING would have been better than repeating Year 1. A blank slate is scary, but trust me — you’ll find something to do with it that brings you back to the best version of yourself. Good luck, whether you stick it out or not!!!

  13. Unsure

    @the untoldteacherstory:

    I’m feeling the same way you were feeling in your original March post but it’s only December of my first year. Do I stick it out until the end of the academic year because it’s the “right” thing to do or cut my losses and leave now? My school is on a semester schedule meaning the students wouldn’t have me again next semester either way.

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      Hey Unsure,

      It’s funny you should ask this question now. As it so happens, just several days ago I stumbled across an old email that I had written, dated January 17, 2011. The email was written to a close friend from college, someone I was hoping would give me advice about how and when to quit. More than that, I was hoping he would help me figure out what quitting would mean for me, emotionally speaking. It’s a pretty long message, but this paragraph should give you an idea of where my head was at:

      “I am quitting TFA. I haven’t told anyone yet, not my school or my boss or my parents; they don’t even know I’m unhappy. It’s not that things at my school are going horribly — I’m pretty sure they’re going just the way everyone else’s classes are going. But the job is killing me. I cry constantly, even in the mornings before school, which is bad because I always worry that someone will be able to tell. I have constant migraines and I feel like someone took my personality and deflated it. I hate it every single day, whether it goes well or not. I don’t recognize myself, I don’t feel like I have a choice. I just feel like I have to get out.”

      In many ways this paragraph is unremarkable. I did wind up quitting, after all. I had been miserable for months when I finally resigned in May. So to discover that in January, I was willing to voice these feelings to one of my closest friends, should hardly be surprising. On the other hand, though, this email was written only days after the end of winter break. I should have still been coming off a high of Christmas cookies and vacation days. It was also written months before I posted this blog, months before I crafted a resignation letter, and months before I admitted to the rest of my friends and family how I truly felt about TFA.

      The email is also shocking because it contains the following lines:

      “I’m terrified because I don’t know what I’m going to do next or how I’m going to do it. I don’t know if I can make it until tomorrow, let alone June.”

      To think that in January, I couldn’t face the thought of tomorrow! I have no idea how I made it till June. I did, somehow. But the more I reread this message, the more I realize I shouldn’t have. The price was too high. The job was killing me in January, and it continued killing me for six whole months before I finally got up the guts to cut myself loose. There are parts of me that will never come back. Did I do the right thing by sticking it out for my students’ sake? Debatable, considering my quality of instruction. I honestly don’t think anyone benefited from my decision to prolong my torture in order to make my resignation more palatable to resumes and TFA enthusiasts alike.

      If you are feeling like this in December, maybe things will turn around. There are other blog posts written by other corps members who talk of such a transformation. But then there are people like me, and my roommate from Institute, who quit in April of her first year and has never looked back, and our friend from PDS who left after Year 1 to join the ministry and is happy with his choice as well. And there are my friends who are still going off to teach every day, still miserable, and still too scared to stop. It would be okay if you stuck it out, and wound up in the first group – the “miracle” group that manages the impossible mid-year turnarounds. It would also be okay if you quit, no matter what anybody says to the contrary. It would NOT be okay if you stayed, and stayed miserable. Take it from someone who did just that, and regrets it.

      If I were you, I would be terrified of resigning in December and having absolutely no plans for the other side of the Christmas holiday. I would be scared, and angry, and frustrated, and just plain depressed. But if I were you, I would resign in December. Because the thing is, I WAS scared, and angry, and frustrated, and depressed – all the way up until the last day of school in mid-June. And I would never wish that on anyone else.

      Good luck. You deserve a happier life than the one you’re living right now — whatever you choose, just remember that.

  14. Unsure

    @Untold

    THANK YOU! I will keep you posted on my progress.

    Both TFA and my school know that I have one foot out the door and it’s only a question of whether I leave in January or June. I suppose that either way I will learn a lesson, I’m just debating now whether I want to learn the lesson of fulfilling obligations and persistence or the lesson of pursuing my own happiness even if it means taking a huge risk by leaving in the middle of the year and dealing with the judgments that come from that from the outside and within myself.

    Thanks again for sharing so openly

  15. Ms. Frazzle

    I think the decision becomes difficult when you realize that either choice could result in a regrettable feeling of failure. If I leave the profession (and TFA) now, in the middle of the year, have I ultimately failed TFA, my school, and my students? Or, if I stay for another semester, have I ultimately failed myself, allowing my physical and mental health to decline? Six more months seems such a small amount of time. What is six months over the course of my life? Shouldn’t I be able to “stick it out” until June? And yet, when breaking down into involuntary fits of hysteria, when the idea of driving into a ditch seems more desirable than arriving safely at work, or when 1, 2, 3, and 4 AM become common waking hours due to the dread of going into school the next day, six months suddenly seems much longer. What’s more irresponsible? Leaving the profession six months early or neglecting my health for six more months? There is no in between. I can’t stay in the profession and just not care. That would be the worst decision. But when I work hard at this mission in this setting, I fall apart emotionally and mentally. I don’t know what’s more cowardly, leaving or staying.

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      Are you able to deliver the high-quality lessons your kids deserve, in spite of your stress and frustration? Are you confident that your presence in their lives has a meaningful impact on their academic progress or social development? If so, I understand the impulse to stick it out. In my experience, though, I knew that my stress and unhappiness were showing in my classroom persona. My students were getting someone short-tempered, frazzled, and unprepared. It wasn’t for lack of trying — I just couldn’t deliver! There were times when I couldn’t open my mouth in class because I knew I’d either scream or cry. I was aiming each lesson plan at getting through the period rather than mastering the daily objective. For me, it wasn’t a choice between leaving early (letting my kids down) and sticking it out (letting myself down). The two were so closely connected that by staying any longer than I did, I would have let everybody down. If you are considering sticking it out, just make sure that what you bring to your kids will be worth it.

  16. Unsure

    @Ms. Frazzle

    I am still in the exact same position as you, attempting to decide which option would be more cowardly and what obligation I have to my school and my future potential students as opposed to what obligation I have to myself and keeping myself well physically and mentally, I’d love to hear your thoughts through this process as well as what you ultimately end up deciding. I’ve been going back and forth on this since October and I just thought that I would have a greater sense of clarity by now.

    • Teachfatigue

      @Unsure & Frazzle

      Same boat here, exactly. And in the TFA loan situation atop the cost of grad school with TFA. Plus, I moved across the country to do TFA and while I love the place I’m from and not so much a fan of where I am now, I can’t even fathom the embarrassment of returning to the place where so many of my friends are still waiting, unemployed, for any job that will arise.

      Regardless, each day of teaching is hell. I’m unhappy, the students are unhappy and extremely unruly, and my principal is ACTUALLY harassing me on a daily basis. I get no pleasure from lesson planning and even less pleasure from executing lessons, even when they go well. I have more or less already made permanent moves in the direction of quitting but I’m terrified: of letting myself down, my kids down, my staff down, my family down. I wish you both the best in your decisions and especially in your futures It’s nice to know there are people feeling the same way right now.

      • Sam

        Teachfatigue –

        There is nothing cowardly about recognizing when you’re doing more harm than good for yourself and for the students. If you can, stick it out til the end of the year. If you have to leave before then, well, then you have to.

        But please – don’t think about who you’re letting down. You bought into the TFA hype. It was sold to you as something that any smart person can do. IT’S NOT. While you may be embarrassed to face your friends and neighbors back home, it’s so important for you to get that message out there – that you can’t solve education by just throwing smart teachers into poor schools, that teaching isn’t as easy as many “reformers” would make it seem.

        I hope that once you’ve accepted that you’re leaving after this year – once you’ve accepted that it’s OKAY that you’re leaving before two years, once you’ve accepted that you were put into a ridiculous situation by people who should have known better – you will be able to get through the rest of the year knowing the end is near and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I hope you will be able to keep your cool knowing that this is a temporary situation. But if you aren’t able to deal for the rest of the year…well, I’m certainly not going to judge you for that.

        Best of luck to you. Know that people are thinking of you and hoping for the best for you. Know that there are people out here who don’t think you’re a failure.

        -Sam

  17. Ms.WhatComesNext

    Wow, it really is helpful to know that there are so many people out there with similar experiences and especially similar emotions to mine. I’m a 1st year CM who doesn’t really have a lot against TFA (although there are things I would change about it) However, the experience on a whole has left me feeling miserable almost every waking moment. I am returning to my school tomorrow morning after holiday break. I thought the break would help me regain energy and give my spirit a chance to revive a little, but I found the whole time I was just dreading tonight. I slept way more than I needed to and I didn’t want to talk to family/friends about my job or really anything about my life because I didn’t want to start crying.
    I’m a slightly older CM and I gave up so much for this opportunity and I admit I’m scared of the “what comes next?” question in quitting at this point, but I seriously wonder if I can go another 6 months without a complete mental break.
    Anyways, just thanks for sharing everyone. You are not alone.

  18. Mrs. Frazzle

    Just an update on my situation. I made the decision to leave. I never thought I would say that and it isn’t a decision I take lightly. Currently my school is on Winter Break and everything isn’t officially final as I still need to clean out my room and hear back from my principal about what else I need to do before I leave. Regardless, the decision is final in my mind and my mental and physical health has improved so much. I haven’t been able to talk to most of my close friends over the past 6 months and now I’m able to reconnect with them. I’m told I seem much happier. I read a book for the first time this year. My husband told me he likes that I can spend time with him in the evenings. We’ve gotten to know each other so much better! Overall, I look forward to the day now when I wake up. I haven’t spent one unpleasant morning in the bathroom due to stress since I made the decision and certainly haven’t thought about running my car into a ditch. I feel like I’m rediscovering who I am, picking up hobbies I used to take part in and becoming a social person again. Even my husband (we were married 6 months ago) is learning more about what my passions, likes, and interests are. This decision we the bast decision I could have made. as my principal reminded me, students are resilient. I was jot doing them any good anyway by hating school even more than they did. Besides, someone else out there who really wants to teach will be able to come in and be passionate in the classroom. Now the search begins for a new job which will also be stressful, but I am fully convinced that I made the right decision and because of that, I know things will work out. Struggling for awhile looking for a job far outweighs the stress that filled my previous 6 months. Big sigh of relief. :)

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      Congratulations! I’m glad to hear that you are happy. Best of luck with everything!!!

    • Sharon

      You are lucky that you are married and can do that. I am not and cannot just resign without something else lined up. But it doesn’t matter because I’m getting fired anyway!

  19. nycfellow

    Hi All,

    I didn’t do TFA, but the NYC Teaching Fellows. In fact, there were a number of TFA CMs in my grad school classes. The two programs share the same propaganda — data, data, data, no excuses, and if your classroom is spiraling out of control, it is your fault.

    I quit in January 2010 of my first year, three days after Winter break for many of the same reasons vocalized here. Now two years later, I still feel guilty about this decision, but know that it was the best decision for me at that time. Of late, I’ve pondered earning my degree through a traditional route and teaching younger grades (I taught 8th grade SPED and simply couldn’t manage the behavior). There were moments when I truly enjoyed teaching, but mostly it was agony. I wonder if going through a two year program, with two semesters of student teaching would make a difference? Has anyone done/contemplated this? It’s too bad teaching doesn’t use an apprenticeship model – I think that would make a huge difference. As we all know, first year teachers are abysmal and especially have no place teaching high needs kids.

    • Sharon

      Do not do it, especially if your main problem with teaching is classroom management. Student teaching does not prepare you AT ALL for classroom management, because your cooperating teacher is always in the room. They will act differently for him or her and you won’t even realize it until you graduate and have a class of your own. Then it’s too late. Also, don’t count on elementary being better. I teach at elementary and they are AWFUL with me. DO NOT DO IT!!!

    • parus

      I did my ed degree program after I’d already completed TFA, and my management was already okay by then, but I still found the student teaching I did there helpful in developing additional classroom management skills. I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with a number of skilled teachers, and it gave me a wider view of what was effective and what wasn’t. My program was good about including a lot of in-classroom time and partnering us with teachers who a)knew what they were doing and b)were invested in being mentors, though…I’m sure it varies a lot program to program.

  20. Joy Thornhill

    It’s not TFA, it’s the current teaching culture that is causing us to feel on the verge of a nervous break-down. In the mid-90s I went through an excellent post-bac teacher prep. program and began teaching. Our school district had site-based management, 3 standardized tests for K-12, no curriculum map, i.e. lots of freedom to take the state standards and be creative, teach a little more critically. Then came No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the rise of homeschooling, the creation of so many charter schools, the big-money takeover of the profession via books/tests/legislation to buy! – the change in our culture is so obviously apparent. Teaching today compared with 1995 is radically different. It is not fun, creative or pleasant.

    When I quit my $46k job last May, my principal called me 4 times the following week asking me to stay because I was such an excellent teacher.

    If anyone asks my opinion of whether they think they should go into teaching, regardless of their ability or passion, I tell them no.

    Change in cultures tends to be fairly gradual and it’s unlikely that the pendulum will swing back in the direction that I can tolerate on a daily basis within my professional lifetime.

    Yes, battling the feelings of failure is real. It will pass and feeling the extreme relief of leaving this intolerable profession (in this day and age) should help assuage you!

  21. VH

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! It feels so good to know that I’m not alone. I’m not TFA but went to grad school in a cohort of TFA people.
    I’ve wasted 6+ years of my life as a teacher. I have had some successes but not enough to make me feel like a stellar teacher. I have a family to support, so I am not going anywhere for now. Listen to my advice: life is too short to waste your precious time in a job that does not make you happy and if you stay, like I did, to prove to yourself or your family that you can handle it, you’re a fool. I know Im a fool. My health, my personality and my mental health has auffered tremendously. This job is not worth the angst.

  22. Sharon

    Oh wow, I can completely relate to you! Except that I didn’t do teach for America. I got my graduate degree in education (after a bachlors in psychology). Now, $40,000 later, (and a year and a half of teaching) I have never been more miserable. I learned in October that if I don’t find another job (or school) by June, they are going to discontinue me. Fights always break out in my classes. I feel like I have failed, but not just that- I feel like it’s a cr$ppy profession. Even amoung the veteran teachers at my school (those who are good!) few are happy with what they do. I’m sorry, but teaching really does suck. If you are not “mean” (or strict) then the kids are brats with you and make your life hell. I would not recommend teaching to anyone, unless you teach adults. I am trying to figure out what to do after this school year. I am also looking at going back to school to get training to do something else. At this point, I’d even be willing to do a job I dislike or found boring, as long as I’m good at it and as long as it pays well and is secure (ie there are jobs). I loved student teaching in grad school- I tutored and loved it, I taught English abroad (Where kids are civil or the native teachers smack them when they don’t behave) and I loved it. I taught adults and I loved it. But what I am doing now? It’s pure hell. I teach elementary in an urban school and kids are always beating each other up! Its horrible. I don’t know what to do for a job after this because I have no training in anything else (yet) and this economy still isn’t great. Why on earth would ANYONE but the ignorant want to be a teacher?

  23. Drew

    Hello, wow, it has been almost two years since I finished my TFA commitment. I was a 2008 cm. For years now, I have felt deeply ashamed and regretful about my first year of Teach for America. As many people have noted on here, my first year in TFA was literally the most stressful and soul-destroying year of my life. I taught 7th and 8th grade science as well as an elective, giving me a minimum of 3 lessons a day. The institute training I received mostly focused on general practices, with maybe a total of 8 hours of science training, and to top it off, my program manager had been an art teacher. I had not idea how to teach science well when I first arrived. Furthermore, my school was the worst in the district for behavior, with all of the kids expelled from the other districts.

    It…. was….. hell… Students got in fights all of time, screamed across the classroom, refused to stop talking, swore at me, one girl flashed me, kids stole things from me, etc etc. The admin AND my TFA program manager made me feel like I was a horrible person and fundamentally flawed.

    When I would ask my program manager for help, she would tell me to go back “to the big picture,” as in backwards planning. Of course, she couldn’t really help me because she was an art teacher.

    Finally, the work load is ridiculous. Being a former psychology researcher, the demands and expectations of first year cms, both in the results expected as well as the time necessary to achieve them, were ridiculous. Expecting “smart” people with 5 weeks of training to all be able to magically do what veteran teachers struggle to do is naive at best, abusive at worst.

    Between TFA trainings, lesson planning (which took often 3-4 hours a night being an inexperienced person and desperately trying to figure out what to do), and the required masters degree put my cohort’s hours at easily 70 hours a week.

    There was not a week that went by my first year where I didn’t dread going to work, literally feeling despair at the thought of going to work the next day. There were days were thinking that I had six months left to summer, let alone another school year ahead of me, made me feel like having a mental breakdown.
    Half way through the year, my ability to stay patient with the chaotic students faded and I began losing my temper, even swearing twice that year in class.

    A commenter above spoke truly when they said, “Teach for America” makes you feel like an utter failure if you do not achieve wonderous results. To be honest, it is only the past several months that I have begun to heal as a person from the blow to self-esteem that first year and TFA caused. Reading people’s experiences on here really helps me to realize that there wasn’t just something fundamentally wrong with me or my “teaching as leadership.”

    In my second year, I switched schools in the district and found an experienced science teacher who had good results and learned how to teach a lot better. She gave me everything, showed me all kinds of labs, shared supplies with me, etc. In the second year, my students achieved the results TFA expects. This was great and many students excelled.

    However, in hindsight I probably wouldn’t do TFA again and it is wrong to just throw new college grads into the hardest teaching jobs with very little training and make them feel inferior if they don’t achieve what veterans have a hard time doing.

    Honestly, I know a few people who quit in their first year and I absolutely don’t blame them.

    • Ms. Math

      It is good to hear about how someone else took years to recover their self-esteem. I felt like a failure as well- as if something was wrong with me, as if I just care more or worked harder I could achieve the TFA dream. I don’t know how TFAers could care more honestly-the caring doesn’t seem to be a problem in the group. I agree it is bordering on abusive to tell first year teachers that if they work hard enough and care enough they can achieve brilliant results. WHen that doesn’t happen the pain is too great. If I was just told that my first year was going to kind of suck, I wouldn’t have to have spent so many tears wondering what was wrong with me. I needed to hear two messages-that the first year would be almost impossible to achieve good results and that through hard work and dedication it was possible to turn around horrible classes and do some good.

  24. Teaching_Fellow

    Your article made me cry. Thank you so much for giving validation to what I’ve been feeling for the past three years.

  25. Ex corps member

    Teach for America looks for people who don’t give up or quit. I didn’t even know that quitting was an option because I too had this mentality in my life. My advice to anyone struggling to make this decision is to think about why you are here. If it has changed from you being here for your students to you being there to just get by and get through the next 2 years because you never quit anything in you’re life, then you should seriously consider resigning. I went into teach for america with a sense of urgency, passion, and dedication and I left because I realized I had to do a lot more to be an effective teacher. If I began doing even more, I would have gone crazy. It takes a lot out of you. If you can’t smile and enjoy the process than you aren’t doing anything good for your students or yourself.

    • Struggling

      I enjoyed reading your comment because it is so hard to come across corps members willing to express their experience. I’m a 2012, currently struggling with this same decision. Hearing more about your experience would help tremendously, if you have the time to email me. LR9021@gmail.com

  26. I am TFA ’99er, & have been teaching until two days ago (October 12, 2012). Felt this day coming for thirteen years. There were periods – years, really – of tremendous highs. The lows were also many but manageable. This year has it been hard to drive to work, and I need change badly.
    Like many readers, I devoured your essay. Superb expression. You could live as a writer, in my opinion. With one exception, everything you’ve written I can relate to – the self-examination, the shame, the suppressing of an irrepressible truth.
    The exception is your feeling for TFA. As somebody who never felt like he was made of true TFA stuff, and made it through 3 years in the original placement pretty much on the fumes of weekly corps house parties, I know what it’s like to regard the organization (and its slogans and missions and strategies) a bit askance. So really I should say your hesitation about TFA does resonate with me. What I want to suggest to you, though, is to consider those kool-aid drinkers who really do succeed, and whose students really do blow away expectations. Because those people are real, they are many, and those things do happen. Super-prepared, consistent, motivated, positive, multi-tasking, persistent ass-kickers who are doing with their batch of kids what those before them have failed at. That’s who Wendy K looks for each year, and she finds them: those people who don’t let two, or three, or four, and even nine bad months get to them; who have enough ego and enough determination and enough disregard for depressing national statistics to say “not in my room”; whose classrooms are the most organized & unrelentingly learning-oriented rooms in the school. These nut-jobs are out there, and they have been since ’91, and the state of US education is better because of them. The TFA data-driven everything-can-be-corrected ethos has spilled over into many spheres of public education, and while there are still countless lawless zoo schools remaining, many other schools have been lifted from such a fate because of it.
    Thank you for writing your wonderful paper, and I’m sure you’re happier now in an environment more suited for your talents. I hope to do the same.

  27. T

    Hi,

    I’m a 2012 CM. I have been contemplating about quitting for quite some time now. I have made up my mind that it will happen at the end of the semester. What’s the best way to go about it? Thanks.

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      I think it depends very much what your relationship with your school is like, and what your relationship with your local TFA office is like – in particular how well you get on with your PD. In my case, I was fed up with the leadership I was getting from the DC office, and as a result of that I didn’t give them any sort of official warning, as it would naturally have opened up an opportunity for them to try to dissuade me at the eleventh hour. They knew I was unhappy, but my decision to quit probably came as a surprise – even if it shouldn’t have. I simply dropped a letter in the gmail inbox of my PD informing her that I was out. I let my principal know at about the same time.

      In your case, if you’ve made up your mind, I recommend being decisive in your communication with TFA. Craft a resignation letter carefully and send it to your PD or hand-deliver it after making an appointment, whichever you are more comfortable doing. Explain why you are leaving in a paragraph or two (they do genuinely care and want to know) but don’t apologize – they lose people every year and they can handle it. If it wasn’t right for you, stand firm by your decision because it’s the right one.

      When it comes to resigning from your school, I would tell your principal sooner rather than later. In fact, contractually you may be required to give some amount of formal notice – though in my case, I never signed nor even saw the contract under the authorization of which I was supposedly working. Hiring a teach mid-year is obviously not ideal for any administrator, but it can be much more easily and happily done with a bit more notice. I didn’t give a reason in my resignation letter to my school, which was probably no more than two or three sentences in total, and my principal didn’t ask – he said thank you and that was that.

      Perhaps TFA should have handled this interaction, but they never indicated an intention of doing so. They never so much as asked whether I had told my school. They were very hands-off, or disorganized/unprepared – hard to tell. If your region reaches out and wants to be a part of the process here, then kudos to them, but I didn’t see it happen in DC.

      If you have cultivated a close relationship with one of your mentors or TFA staffers, it’s likely they may want to sit down with you and discuss your choice. You don’t have to say yes – but if you genuinely like and/or respect the person asking, it might not be a terrible decision. It’s up to you whether you want to talk about why you’re leaving – don’t let TFA try to strongarm you into an exit interview-turned-interrogation. They did that to a close friend of mine and she was traumatized.

      Congratulations on making your decision – I know it was tough. Best of luck with the next few months and with whatever you choose to do in 2013!

    • TeachFatigue

      If possible, quit like you would a normal job. Give them two weeks prior to the end of the semester. Do it in person with your principal if possible as well. Then I’d tell your MTLA. TFA will want to have a meeting with you and will also ask for an official letter of resignation.

      I say this because I did not quit in a very professional manner. I quit last December. On top of all other things, my principal was literally off her rocker. There were many rumors that she had hit children in her office and she and I, prior to my leaving, had already had a few verbal altercations. I was genuinely afraid I’d get punched in the face if I resigned in person. So I packed up the things that were mine in my classroom and cleared out, leaving the key on the desk in my room on the day before winter break. Then, during winter break, I resigned via email to my principal and to TFA. You’d be surprised how professional a crazy principal can become when something can be documented. In the new year, I had my meeting with some TFA officials and sent in my official letter of resignation which I made as vague as possible. Haven’t heard from anyone since.

      Good luck. It’s a tough decision and hard to do, but don’t doubt yourself if you know it’s the right thing for you. Life goes on after TFA.

  28. TeachFatigue

    So I just opened up the email account I never use and found I am subscribed to this blog for commenting once. Figured I’d send in an update for those of you who are debating your TFA choices right now.

    I resigned from Teach for America in December 2011 while I was home for holiday vacation. I was doing TFA across the country from my home and was terrified about what was next. Where would I work? Would anyone hire me?

    The resignation went smoothly – too smoothly. My principal wasn’t even surprised and didn’t seem to care. I packed up and cleaned out. Drove cross country back home.

    Turns out, contrary to my biggest worry, people do hire you after you leave Teach for America. I got a job a month after being back home. In some interviews people wanted to know why I had left, in some people didn’t even know what TFA was. I’m careful in discussing it in interviews – usually I saw something like “it wasn’t a fit.” If I explain more, it’s hard to say what people think of me.

    It’s been almost a year since I left the program. I’m happy. I make more in my current job and and saving more money. I’m around my friends and family again. Soon, I’m moving on to a new job that’s a promotion from the one I’m in now.

    I guess I’m writing because of what I’m about to say. I think about TFA a lot. Usually about my kids or what I could have done differently to stay. Mostly I wonder what kind of person I would be now if I had. I’m happy now but I still do wonder.

    My main issue is that I’m not particularly excited about the work that I’m doing now, I hope to go to grad school in 2014 and move away from it. I was excited about teaching going into it though. I still teach part time. I wonder a lot about the path I was on. I wanted to go into education which is why I took the position with TFA, and still it’s where my passion lies. I was miserable with TFA in every way possible but would I be on a more fulfilling path to the future I want if I had stayed? It’s impossible to say.

    I don’t regret leaving TFA but I certainly do look back and wonder. Just wanted to post though, and let you know, it’s not the end of the world to leave. If you are miserable, don’t force yourself to stay in that misery, you can be happy elsewhere. Also, if you’re a new grad and going into education because you want to (and not because TFA is prestigious), I wish I had considered the other ways to go into education. There are ways where you can be successful and happy – TFA doesn’t have to be it. Consider if you want TFA to be the option you go with.

    • Struggling

      Again, it’s so rare to come across corps members who are leaving or who already left, willing to share their experience. I’m looking for any advice/input I can find as a 2012. I would love to hear more about your experience since it was almost relieving to hear you say simply, “I’m happy”. If you have the time, I can’t tell you how much I would appreciate an email. lr9021@gmail.com

  29. eastendenigma's Blog linked to this post.
  30. sp

    I have been a techer for 10 years in Houston and I am burnt-out. Kudos to those who have walked away with no regret. I will have none……

  31. Whatever you decided to do next, please incorporate writing. You have great style and voice!

  32. youu

    Don’t think you are doing the country any favors by being a TFA member. It’s numbers have expanded while the number of jobs have declined. It’s being used as a battering ram to destroy the teaching profession by de-professionalizing it.
    You are part of the problem, not the solution. If you want to get some nice teaching experience, and not screw over the education system, do the JET Program, like I did.

  33. A

    There are plenty of problems with TFA as an organization, but it sounds like the real issue here is a misunderstanding of what teaching is. This is service work. Your job is to be of service to hundreds of people. That is not glamorous, that is not lucrative, that is not easy. I do not mean “service” like we are some sort of missionaries. I mean service in that we are government employees who have been hired to serve the people of the United States. The ability to do all your reading in college about topics you find interesting is no indication of ability to succeed at completely devoting yourself to the service of others. Understanding the level of selflessness requisite for this would be especially hard for some one who has never been in a school like the ones TFA places in. Previous posters have stated a lot of things that make great teachers. In my experience, the teachers who are successful in high-need schools are the ones who are completely committed. And not just for a couple months and not to some abstract mission. The best teachers I have seen are committed to their students, each individual one. They care about the things happening in their lives. They are also committed to their content as a vehicle for their students’ future happiness and well-being. I have seen a lot of very impressive and hard working individuals come and go from this profession, but when it comes down to it, if you can just walk away after a few months you probably don’t care all that much.
    And I know some one is going to get upset and go on about me drinking the Kool-Aid. I have had the furniture thrown at me, I have been cursed at dozens of times in a class period, I have broken up countless fights, I have been on campus with weapons, I have taught in a classroom that was so full there weren’t enough desks, and I have had those months of distressing lack of learning in my classroom. And I kept showing up and it got better eventually. Teaching is a really hard job and no one is any good at first. But it is important enough to sacrifice a year or two of personal comfort to become good.
    In college a mentor teacher told me she was getting ready to leave the profession. She said that to be a good teacher in the type of school where she worked, your job has to be the most important thing in your life and for her it wasn’t anymore. She had been teaching for thirty-something years at that point and was starting to burn out.
    As for CM’s quitting before their commitment is up, it just seems to me that they can’t handle putting some one’s needs above their own for two whole years.

    • KIPPalum

      I wasn’t TFA, but I did teach at a KIPP school for a year (the two have a very close relationship). I quit because we got a new principal who only cared about test scores and exit tickets and wanted every 57-minute English class to have a measurable outcome.

      Anyone who went to a decent high school herself knows that that is absurd, and that there isn’t always a way to measure the way we connect and understand each other and ourselves through literature. To say you are “closing the achievement gap” while focusing exclusively on test scores just perpetuates structural racism and classism because–let’s be honest–WE KNOW THIS ISN’T HOW RICH KIDS LEARN. This isn’t best practices. This would not be tolerated in schools with parents who were equipped to advocate for their kids, who know what good education looks like themselves. We would not tolerate this for our own kids.

      To suggest that quitting means people couldn’t put someone else’s needs above their own is absurd. It may well be that they realized they weren’t being allowed to serve other people’s needs, or couldn’t do it effectively in the condition they were in.

      I took my son out of a KIPP school packed with TFA-ers and sent him to boarding school. Best decision ever.

  34. A.J.--'08 CM, West Coast

    This was interesting to read. I was very miserable my first year, but knew going in that I would struggle with management. I chose TFA because it would force me to be more assertive, I love kids, and I was shocked when I realized how utterly different education was in schools mere minutes from each other. I also wanted a decent income to get rid of debt before moving overseas.

    I never considered quitting, but my loyalty/commitment and love for individual human beings are probably my defining features. I survived an abysmal first year and my second was glorious in comparison, decent compared to more experienced teachers’ rooms. I was still wholly discouraged by my students’ lack of progress, however, and moved to a more affluent school across town to see what the other side was like.

    Two years later, I moved back to my placement school. The “nicer” school had much higher scores but the same federal pressure thanks to NCLB’s requirement to constantly improve. The administration was bipolar in nature, while I knew how to handle my original school’s disorganization and “hands-off” policy, and in fact, thrive in it. More than anything, though, I felt like the work I do here (still teaching, same site) actually makes a difference and matters to the kids, whether they go on to college, or not.

    The gift from TFA is that it gave me a bigger picture view of a career I never would have considered, and a career in general. I “just” went to a state school, but have done well and ended up in an environment where I believe in my work–even though I’ve experienced the cursing, violence and craziness described by other posters.

    I ended up a CMA for a Philly Institute a few years later, however, and I will say that the experience was one of the worst of my life. I had Ivy League grads giving me flack about writing lesson plans, and I could see MANY of them going on to be horrible teachers. One simply didn’t show up for the first day of summer school, rarely turned in plans and hadn’t even taken the PRAXIS by the end of Institute due to poor organizational skills.

    When confronted, she had a remarkably self-assured attitude and ended up being allowed to stay in the program, largely due to my own self being reticent to take charge earlier, and also due to poor leadership on TFA’s end from our school site.

    I knew better, and will not do it again, BUT will say that I agree with much of “A’s” comment above. There is a certain level of self-righteousness and entitlement that comes out in subtle ways with high-achievers who “lower” themselves to the level of being a teacher for two years; and I would say, if that is your perspective, it might not be for you.

    Even still, however, an Ivy League grad who grows more quickly frustrated with education than I do has remained at his placement site here in the region since 2008, is now a curriculum leader, and was an incredible teacher before the transition. He’s an example of all that TFA can do right: grab an intelligent, visionary individual with great organizational and leadership skills, put them in a classroom, and watch them shine. While my own path has not been nearly so smooth, I am happy, and I do a good job.

    Finally, with two sisters who are teachers, I will add that the first year is always incredibly hard, and that teaching is indeed a tremendously thankless job. If you are used to accolades and external praise, that has to become some part of your drive for very accomplished individuals. Succeeding in a failing or challenging arena, where the government supplies your paycheck and the Ivy League halls no longer commend or respect you can be quite difficult.

    I think failure teaches us more than success ever will. My only caveat to your experience is that I was one of “those” teachers, who had a horrible first semester, made enough improvements to survive the year, and decided that was enough to stay. My students did learn, and the next year, I did an excellent job.

    My first year with TFA we had many first-year teachers on campus and in grad classes outside of the program. They seemed just as stressed; while TFA adds a lot, it also gives you an outside compassionate voice that other first-years don’t get. In conclusion, I think that teaching is demanding, period, and the first year is almost always horrific. Coming from little to no education background makes it harder, but it’s worth it if you can stick around. If not, you grant yourself greater sanity in the short term and a different career path long-term. The world will survive, and I am certain that you’ve found something better suited to you now.

    As for me, I hope to head overseas next year, and may or may not stay in teaching. I think I will transition to counseling or psychology to continue to work with students, but one on one, as I can tell that is my greater gift.

  35. Ms. Math

    Was it TFA’s fault, though? Had I been inadequately prepared for an impossible mission? Or was it just me? I had a sneaking suspicion that it had to be the latter. After all, there were plenty of TFA teachers out there mixing up fresh batches of Kool-Aid while I lay in bed hiding from my boss. Maybe they were crazy, or maybe they were just good. Maybe they were talented, and I just sucked.

    I have asked myself these exact questions HUNDREDS of times. In the end, I decided that I’ve seen no real proof that there are transformational secondary TFA math teachers out there and that I did about as damn good job as anyone, which is to say, not a great one.

  36. I don’t think it’s TFA’s fault, and I don’t think she’s really blaming TFA per se. But our nation has this idea that TFA is the answer to all of its urban education problems and refuses to shed light on the reality for so many. This is also the reality for young, idealistic traditionally trained teachers who watch a few too many movies like “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers” and think they are going to make magic. Posts like this show the much-needed view that this job is insanely hard. it’s not a job that someone can do just because they are smart and hard-working. From listening to a number of my friends who have left the profession, mostly TFA, this job is harder than law, engineering, med school, and business. This job is freakin HARD. It’s close to impossible. And unlike the aforementioned professions, it’s glory-less. You are actually treated like total crap by the world and by your salary. Makes positive morale a bit hard to come by. And the government acts like raising a few bars or tying evaluations to performance and test scores is going to fix things. As though the reason teachers aren’t succeeding is only because they have too few incentives. The truth is, most people go into urban education with the view that they CAN make a difference, and they fall in love with their students but are beaten down day after day. Their administrations cannot support them because frankly, they don’t know how. And parents cannot support them because, well, they don’t know how either. And those teacher WANT to raise achievement, but well, they don’t REALLY know how either. TFA throws out some jargon, lets a bunch of inexperienced teachers open charter schools, and because they have made some very marginal improvements in one subject in one state, call themselves successful. THANK YOU for this post. We need all of the people who wrote about their experiences on here to come forward as well. I’m glad some people had great experiences, but this is not the norm. Of all of the TFA friends I have in my life, about 1/50 stay in teaching past four years. Someone please make this information just as public as the propaganda the current administration is feeding the non-education world.

  37. Cathy

    I quit TFA halfway through the Institute (Summer of 2011). Honestly, I just couldn’t take it. I felt like a complete failure the whole time, I couldn’t produce a proper lesson plan, I was physically beaten by the lack of sleep and the lack of time to process what was happening, I didn’t approve of the way the kids in the summer school were treated, and I was seriously alarmed by the cultish atmosphere. I expressed my concerns to my group leader (can’t think of the acronym), but was told the solution was to work harder. I said I was going to leave, and then a group was gathered who bombarded me with propaganda such as I would always feel like a quitter and a loser and the kids needed me and I would be letting down my Colab colleagues. So I swallowed hard and tired some more. A week later I basically escaped in the dark of night. I had not been hired, and had recently received the “good news” that I had been granted an additional placement and would have to travel to another state to take an exam. OF course, I would have to pay for the travel and the exam, and I would have to find a way to study for it so I would pass it. In all, I wasted at least $5,000 on my TFA adventure. I was contacted numerous times by TFA people who wanted explanations and were billing me for a variety of things. I refused to communicate and I refused to pay anything. Finally they stopped. It took me about a year to feel whole again. I think there is an inherent badness in TFA, and I am sorry I was ever associated with it, even for a short time. I was awfully naïve to be taken in by their rhetoric about “closing the achievement gap”. Furthermore, I bought their assertion that only the “best” get selected for TFA, and so I felt special to be selected. I truly believe that TFA is merely a tool for people whose ultimate goal is to dismantle public education – which will surely destroy our nation.

  38. SadTeacher

    I don’t know what to do. I am not apart of TFA, but I teach 6th grade in an elementary school. I am severely depressed and want out now. I’m very torn as to what to do. Do I quit now, right before winter break, or do I stick it out for the rest of the year. I can’t imagine myself waking up every day and doing this for 6 more months, but if I quit now I will have to admit to the principal, my fellow team members, and my students that I am a failure. I live in the same town as the school that I teach in and I am scared I will always be running into my former students/coworkers and being reminded of my failure as a teacher. What will they say about me? Oh look, there’s the girl who left us mid year… how could she have done that to us? I am ashamed of wanting to quit, but I also feel like I need to get my life back. Any advice would be very helpful. If I do quit now, would I have to train a long term sub to take over for me. If I had to do that they would see how crazy and out of control my students are and would probably not want to take the job. I’ve decided that I want to have a job where I can come home and not think about work. The stress of it all is really getting to me and I can’t get my mind off of quitting. I know it’s not going to be good for my students and my school and that it will come to a surprise to my principal, but I can’t live like this anymore. Please help! What should I do?

    • theuntoldteacherstory

      Quit. Get a new job. You will be happier for it!

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