In 2007, I began teaching elementary school in Los Angeles, in what I expected to be the beginning of a long career. I had always intended to go far beyond the two year commitment, and joined TFA primarily to be a part of the community, or the “movement” as it’s often called. I never expected to leave after my first year and to not even complete the two years.
Many of us who have left TFA early don’t like to talk about it because of the enormous shame that comes with quitting. Corps members are constantly told that they are proven leaders, selected for that reason, who merely have to make the choice that failure will not an option. Additionally, corps members who are selected are selected because they display an internal “locus of control,” meaning that they view the primary responsibility for their success and failure as lying within them. Someone, like myself, who is inclined towards an internal locus of control is apt to view quitting as akin to a moral failure. It took me a long time- nearly five years- to realize that many things happened to me during my first year were beyond my control, and that many of the situations that I could control I was not adequately prepared to confront. I hope that in writing this I can give comfort to other corps members who have quit and are feeling the same sense of failure that I felt.
My first disillusionment with TFA came early: during the 07 LA institute. Institute was a mess. While we could have been spending time learning how to plan lessons from various district literacy programs like Open Court, we spent our time making lessons from scratch that would have little to no resemblance to the lessons that we would teach in our real placements. We never observed veteran teachers in action, except in video clips or for tiny fifteen minute durations. Once, we wasted an entire evening reorganizing binders that the institute staff had put together incorrectly. Worst of all, students in the summer school programs where we worked were receiving no benefit from having us there. We were wasting a precious month that could have been spent with real learning. This struck me right away as a bad start to a year dedicated to fighting against the achievement gap. Would wealthy parents have allowed a group of college graduates with zero education experience to experiment on their kids for a month? I doubted it.
I left institute totally unprepared to teach, and my new 5th graders could sense it. As soon as the first week honeymoon was over, classroom behavior broke down, and I spent at least a third of most lessons getting students to stop talking. I was inconsistent in responding to misbehavior, and when I did I often came across as simply being mean and unfair. My principal informed me that I was “too nice,” so I overcompensated. A lot of relationships with students were ruined in the process. Making matters worse were the new student arrivals to my classroom from October to January. Out of six new students, four of them had severe behavioral problems and made the dynamics of the classroom more chaotic. Student learning continued to suffer, and I grew increasingly frustrated with myself for not being able to reverse the toxic classroom culture that was taking hold.
The coup de grace came in February. One of my students with major behavioral difficulties touched a student inappropriately at recess, and she brought scissors to school the next day with the declared intent to stab him. Other students informed me of her intentions, and I referred both of them to the office. I did not hear about it again for several days until my principal confronted me, explaining that according to the girl, I had heard about the inappropriate touching and told her that I didn’t care, forcing her to take her defense into her own hands. This had never happened, but it didn’t matter. My principal let me know in no uncertain terms how she felt: there had almost been a tragedy and it was because of me. When I tried to explain my side of the story, I was accused of being defensive and not taking responsibility for my error. Unsure myself of how to interpret the situation, I become increasingly despondent. My class went off track in March and we had a month of vacation, during which time I devoted myself to improving my teaching and repairing relationships with my students. During the mornings I visited the school of a TFA alum in Compton to observe his class and run some small group activities and in the afternoon I returned to my school and tutored my lowest performing students with the goal of building better relationships with them. On our first day back on April 1st, 2008, behavior was as bad as ever, and all of the self hatred that had been building up in me during the year exploded to the surface. I spent an hour after school pondering a plan to drive to San Francisco and jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge. When I came to my senses I talked to the school counselor, though only vaguely alluding to the suicide plot. She advised me to take time off, which I did. As all of this was going on, support from the TFA organization was generally unhelpful, consisting mainly of platitudes that I needed to “choose to succeed,” and admonishments that I needed to repair the relationship with my principal.
Thanks to the encouragement and support of many amazing and kind teachers at my school, I returned after one week with twelve weeks left to go in the school year. I pledged to finish the year on a high note and give my students the education that they had been denied by having me as their teacher. Things improved slightly over those three months, and my relationships with the students got better. But, the classroom culture and the learning was still very far from where it should have been. When I received an unsatisfactory evaluation at the end of the year with only a weekend to prepare for the new school year (it was a year-round school), I knew I was not ready to take on the second year. I had joined TFA to fight against the achievement gap, and I refused to risk contributing to it again. It was time to leave and regroup.
Although I resigned from TFA, I did not abandon my goal to teach. I stayed with the Los Angeles Unified School District as a substitute from 2008-2009, in what would prove to be a defining year. I re-enrolled in a credentialing program and completed it in 2010, after which I signed up with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program to teach English in Japan, where I currently reside as of this posting. I will write more on my post TFA career in later posts.
Despite my first year disillusionment with TFA, I do not oppose the organization and I started a blog on this site with the aim of adding my voice to those wanting to improve the organization, not undermine it. Although I had a particularly bad first year, I have seen the many wonderful teachers that TFA brings into the profession. Many of them succeed where I failed, and we need to bring more of those people into teaching. TFA should be lauded for accomplishing this. However, like the excellent Gary Rubinstein who writes on this site and inspired me to start this blog, I believe TFA is in need of major reforms in the way it prepares and supports its corps members. More on that to come…