Teach For America Burned Me Out
It’s back-to-school season, and for the first time, I am not a part of the melee. At 24 years old, I have no classes to prepare for, no lead pencils to buy. My masters degree is completed, a useless (and enormous) piece of cardstock in a very expensive frame. College is a distant utopian dream. My two years as an inner-city middle-school teacher have been distilled to a line on a resume, a punch line to the black joke that was my early twenties. That thing I did, that one time.
I applied to Teach for America for the same reasons as anyone else. Fear was primary among them. It was 2009, and Anthropology majors were not getting jobs. Of course, idealism played its part: Educational inequity! Changing the world! The fourth season of The Wire! And there were more than a couple of New York Times articles patting TFA corps members of the back. According to NYT, we are among the nation’s Best and Brightest. The nine percent. When I got in, I felt both breathlessly relieved…and deeply validated.
This feeling faded almost immediately. TFA is notoriously brutal, and the workload is intense. In my first five months as a teacher, I juggled TFA meetings, school meetings, data tracking, a masters degree, and a full-time position as a professional Wrangler of 14-Year-Olds. When people asked how I was doing, I would nod really hard and say, “It’s challenging, but it’s soooooo rewarding!”
Somehow HR sniffed out my cautious contentment. I was promptly relocated from an under-enrolled charter school to a school bursting at the seams with eighth graders who had already seen two English teachers come and go. I would be their third teacher in six months.
There was, I found, a reason for that, one that was not entirely the students’ fault.
The city where I taught lives and dies by a lowest-common-denominator standardized test, used primarily as a way to make everyone (administration, faculty, students) miserable. “We aren’t teaching to the test,” our administrators lied, “we are simply helping students do their very best.” The material was lackluster, and despite my best attempts to jazz it up, students were apathetic at best. I couldn’t blame them for that.
I could, however, blame them for starting a fire in the back of my classroom. For piercing their own lips and ears as I attempted to simultaneously explain my slides on personification, and confiscate their makeshift awls. I could blame them for vandalizing my classroom. For breaking the door to my room, throwing objects at my head, and instructing me to “shut the fuck up, bitch” so often that I started playing a grim version of Teacher Bingo. I won if I heard it more than twice per period.
My principal, who visited my classroom exactly once, had some helpful advice for me. “Mr. ________ knows how to manage them!” she said, citing the 8th grade team leader, who had been teaching for 29 years, seven years longer than I had been alive. “Why don’t you act more like him?” she continued, before sweeping out of my classroom. “And stop sending me office referrals. I’m drowning in paper as it is.”
The panic attacks began in mid-January. My heart became a percussionist, my entrails contortionists, my thoughts sluggish swimmers in a thick, constant current of dread. I fantasized about crashing my car on purpose. Already a vegan, I cut out sugar. I cut out gluten. Soon I cut out eating almost completely. I was caffeine and nerves, thrumming like a human electric wire. I didn’t think I would ever be happy again.
Summer came. I don’t know how. I went home, I read books. My heart lost its frantic energy.
I wasn’t happy yet. Happiness is a thing that has to be relearned, and I was in a state of mental disrepair. Like a collapsed house on a fault line, I had to be rebuilt slowly. I was eating normally, I was even going out, but my wiring was incomplete, my joins unfinished. And below me, the fault line waited.
I didn’t quit. It would be a waste to turn back now.
It’s interesting what happens to ideals when they are under fire. I still believed in TFA’s mission, but I had been unworthy. I gave myself another year to make good on the promises I made in my application essay. One year for reparations.
During Institute, TFA’s five-week Teacher Bootcamp, there was a rumor going around that TFA chose its corps members for their “Grit,” a thinly veiled code for “masochism.” This made sense to me: I knew I had gotten in when I told my interviewer that I “volunteered in war zones” and her eyes widened with glee; my decision to return for a second year must have been driven, in whole or in part, by this tendency to put myself on trial by fire. It had very little to do with the students — not because I didn’t care about their futures but because I had so little confidence in my teaching abilities that I doubted my presence in the classroom would make any kind of difference in their lives. But I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t beaten yet.
Second year was, in comparison, a dream. I had been assigned honors classes — the privilege of seniority! — and my principal had other, greener teachers to pick on. Most importantly, I began the year with my students, established immediately that This Is How We Do It in Ms. Elbaz’s Class. I wasn’t afraid to exact discipline because I knew, firsthand, what would happen if I didn’t.
The lingering tendrils of depression and anxiety evaporated. I had friends again. I felt human. And miraculously, I was actually teaching. Not babysitting. Not breaking up fights. Not watching my lesson plan turn to shit. Kids listened to the words that came out of my mouth. They would cower under a reproachful gaze. They asked my advice after class, hung out in my room after school, emailed me on weekends and sent “get well” texts when I was sick. I worked fourteen, fifteen hour days, and I was happy. Not all the time, not every day. When you are a teacher in the inner city, failure is your shadowy companion, a phantom frenemy. You hate each other, but somehow you can’t fully shake him.
My second year was a last hurrah. I was tired of the fickleness of my administration, the disorganization and mismanagement of resources and finances, the arbitrary and often conflicting demands made of teachers in failing schools, the lack of consistency in our principal’s behavior and demands, the low morale.
I joined TFA to be part of the solution. In leaving, I became a part of the problem. TFA’s model, predicated on a two-year commitment, is inherently flawed. High teacher turnover contributes to the disorganization, discipline problems, poor academic performance, and low morale of urban schools. For true reform to take place, teachers need to stay.
A parable, about morale and turnover: When I quit, my colleagues threw me a sendoff brunch. The party line was “we’ll miss you!” The whispered subtext was “good for you!” It was like being released, blinking and hopeful, from jail. The other prisoners waved me off, counting the days til their own liberations.
I started an “Escape” fund, stashing birthday money and small bills into the hand-painted box where I keep old letters — a tangible, if childish, incentive to meet my future head on. The next year was a big blank, an I-Dare-You, a terrifying promise. I could publish a novel or go into consulting or join a circus or do anything but stare America’s biggest problem in the face every day; I settled on moving to San Francisco with my roommate, so high on the idea of change that my unemployment didn’t seem like a big deal. Teaching had burned me out so much that I refused, point-blank, to get a job that was anything less than perfect; in my febrile brain, San Francisco was the answer to every problem that TFA/Adulthood had lobbed at me. The perfect job existed on the West Coast, I would move there and be happy forever.
The light at the end of the tunnel is blinding.
You can guess the end of this story. I got rejected from low-paying non-profit job after low-paying non-profit job. The rent was too damn high, my Escape fund too damn small. I had a choice: eke out a living, however meager, on my terms (flexible hours/ telecommuting, writing-oriented), in a cheap city I was starting to hate, or blow through my money in one of the most expensive cities in America with no guarantee for the future.
The financial responsibility of choosing the former depressing option is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I still have no proper job, despite having TFA on my resume.
Like everyone, I made compromises, weighed what would make me happy instead of what would be most financially savvy. The most lucrative option was to take the corporate job I was offered this summer; the best option would have been to become a freegan beach bum with dreadlocks and no hang-ups about scrounging for food. I chose the happiest medium I could find, without feeling like I was sacrificing my mental health. Two years of stress, of head-and-heartache, convinced me that no job is better than a bad job. I use this time to write, to peruse grad school applications half-heartedly, to cook and read and plan. I tell myself that I have time before The Real World — that ultimate debt-collector — comes for me, too.