The Untold Teacher Story

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 05 2011

Survival of the Cowardly

10 days.  That’s it.  That’s all I’ve got left.  Ten days are the only things standing between me and freedom.  Between me and summer, and relief, and new beginnings.  I have been holding my breath for months now, waiting for these ten days to be gone.  Waiting to say goodbye to my school forever, put this year behind me, and finally move forward.

But with exactly ten days to go, I received the news that one of my students had been critically injured by a single gunshot wound as he walked home from school on Friday afternoon.  When I say I “received” this news, I actually mean that I received a cryptic email message from my principal, pulled up the local headlines, and put two and two together.  But the fact remains that one of my students is in the hospital right now, and many more are at home traumatized and terrified.  The shooter was a kid, who aimed at a whole group of other kids.  And could have killed one.  For all I know, the shooter himself could have been one of my students too.

It is killing me to sit here and wonder which of my students is hurt.  It’s killing me to think of these kids facing that kind of danger, in their own front yards.  It’s killing me that they’re so young, and that they’re facing this reality.  Most importantly (though I never expected to hear myself say this), it’s killing me that I’m leaving them ten days from now.

I’m sure there are those of you out there who will take this opportunity to jump on me and say, “I could have told you that quitting TFA was a mistake!”  So allow me to clarify:  I feel no twinge of guilt, even in this moment, for choosing to leave Teach for America after one year.  I honestly don’t feel guilty that I’m leaving.  But I do feel guilty as hell that I can leave.

I know this will sound crazy, and selfish, and near-sighted, but in the midst of surviving my own misery this year, I think I lost sight of the fact that my students were sharing in my unhappy reality.  Of course, I don’t mean to say that my students are usually as miserable as I am when they’re in my classroom.  In fact, most of the time, I’m at my most miserable when they’re at their most happy and carefree.  But if their reality were an easy one, I wouldn’t be in their lives in the first place.

The truth is that my students’ lives are often dangerous and difficult in ways that mine never was.  Granted, I did not choose to leave teaching because I felt that my job put my life in danger.  But I did choose to leave because my job made my life incredibly difficult, without yielding any true benefit for my students or myself.  I made the decision that life wasn’t supposed to be this hard, and then I made other plans.  It really wasn’t that complicated.  I had options; it was simply a matter of pursuing one and committing to it.  I had resources, people to turn to, and places to go.  I had the ability to walk away from the difficulty and the danger.  It only took me a couple of months.

But my students can’t leave.  First of all, they’re not old enough.  And even if they were, their families are there.  Their lives are there.  They don’t have the luxury of walking away and starting over.  Where would they go?  How would they get there?  College, even for those who will attend, is still at least four years away.  My students accept these four years as a matter of course.  I, meanwhile, have been counting.  Thirty days… Seventeen days… Ten days.  Each and every one seems unbearable.

The little voice inside my head that once was telling me to stay for year two, to stick with the mission of TFA and honor my commitment to my students, has long been silent.  The news of this weekend did not bring it back to life, because I know that it would be a mistake to stay for solidarity’s sake.  If I wasn’t delivering quality lessons for my students, and if I did not have a meaningful positive impact on their academic trajectories, then it would be foolish to continue teaching simply because I want to send a message, or prove a point, or atone for the sins of history.

Still, I am left feeling guilty, and rotten, and raw.  I am left wishing that I had found a way to deliver real, tangible opportunities to my students.  I am left wondering why we can’t find better answers.  After all, what kind of society routinely exposes its children to a reality cold enough to send a determined twenty-three year old running for the hills?

I shouldn’t have faced a choice between escaping a difficult, dangerous life and doing the right thing.  My students shouldn’t face a choice between safety and opportunity on the one hand, and leaving behind the world of their childhoods on the other.  In the land of liberty and justice for all, the deep injustice of my students’ lives will continue to haunt me long after I have left my classroom behind.  And even if TFA does not always succeed at eliminating these types of injustices in our nation’s schools, at least it is trying – diligently, doggedly, and often desperately – to do so.  I can only imagine what would happen if more Americans tried –  and I mean really tried – to do the same thing.

2 Responses

  1. danielleinthed

    I’m sorry about your student. I’m sorry you feel that you have to leave; I have quit a job before (City Year) and I know how guilty it can make you feel. Please don’t become overwhelmed by these feelings, but instead focus on the fact that you truly believe that you are doing what is best for you and what is best for the kids. You deserve to be happy, and the students deserve to have a teacher who wants to be there everyday. As TFA corps members, it is typically our nature to be selfless, but sometimes you have to serve your own interests, for the sake of your own sanity. I have always put the needs of others before my own, but when I quit City Year last year I knew I needed to do what is best. It’s hard to be seen as a “quitter” but you know what? It’s even harder to live in a state of perpetual misery. Good luck to you.

  2. Calesse Cardosi

    I quit TFA this fall and I still feel guilty about it. I wish I could have made it. I thought I had it in me, but in the end, I was failing my students. They weren’t learning because I couldn’t control them. I loved them and cared for them so much–even in the short time I taught them–but I knew, deep down, I wasn’t doing them, or myself, any favors by staying. I know I exhausted ever possibility to try to improve myself as a teacher, but nothing was working. I still wish I could have done more…I understand how you feel though. Props to you for lasting a whole year…

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To quit or not to quit?

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