I researched Teach for America a good six months before applying for the first deadline in August. That is, I researched the application process and the success stories. A friend of mine in college was a year older, very brilliant academically, a leader in various organizations that I was a part of and a liberal arts major, like myself. He was accepted to Houston and I saw myself going there too, if accepted. At the end of my junior year of college I was already dreaming of the possibilities of teaching 4th or 5th graders, my preferred grade. And if I was applying so early, I would of course be granted this wish, right?
My hard work and dedication to the application process (along with my good grades and leadership positions) paid off and I was accepted first deadline to Houston teaching k-6. Life was good. I sailed on my acceptance and planned my future in Houston. My parents were proud and everyone was asking me about it. My mother even wrote in to a local newspaper to share the news and I informed my high school quarterly, where it was also published. I even started a blog in February to chronicle my adventures. Before beginning, I posted about ideas I would incorporate in the classroom, books I wanted to read. As an overachiever I did all of the pre-work reading and more. I took notes as I read Teaching as Leadership and I checked TFANet daily. I counted down the days until institute. I would have to miss college graduation for the beginning of institute. This was disappointing but the excitement of beginning TFA quickly washed over that.
By April I was starting to get antsy that I had not been placed yet and I was seeing all over TFANet people posting about their new placements. I had been in the first pool, why was I still waiting?! Then I received an email from TFA, one about budget cuts in Houston, which meant that it would be more difficult to place us in HISD and also, that my placement had been switched to ELA 8-12. I was only an English minor, a history major, but apparently I had enough credits to teach English. I had not planned on teaching high school at all. Actually, I’m not sure I would have accepted TFA had I gotten high school. I had read Relentless Pursuit in the fall and the trials and tribulations at Locke High School in Watts were enough to frighten me. I was self-aware enough to know that high school was not a good fit for me. And yet, I was so clouded by TFA’s prestige and hopefulness – a new city, a chance to change children’s lives, new friends…well, I accepted the 8-12 placement and went along with my day. I threw myself more wholeheartedly into the effort of planning for English. I spent hours studying for the certification exam and continually adding possible books to a curriculum I thought I understood.
Fast forward to institute. Things went great. I was TFA-obsessed for real now. I made amazing friends, about 10 girls who were all like me – Type A, loved to have a good time and work out, were excited to check out Houston There was not a dull moment. I was busy. I was happy. The only thing hanging over my head was that I had still not been placed and all my friends had. It seemed that literally everyone had been placed. I wondered why I was even in ELA 8-12 when everyone was getting jobs for 4-8 and EC-6. I was so confused and I desperately wanted a school to call my own. Finally, in the last week of institute I was placed at a high school in third ward Houston. One other TFA corps member was placed there, a guy teaching science. I didn’t really know him but he seemed nice enough. I was pumped to be teaching at this school, knowing it was a little more urban and rough than many of my friend’s schools who were at cushy charter schools. But I figured with my success at institute, I could take on anything. At this point, I didn’t really understand the reality of dealing with a place where management, support, mentoring and direction were nonexistent.
As school neared, I started to realize that very few of the corps members in Houston were in a situation like me. Due to the budget crisis, many 2011 corps members were at KIPP or YES Prep. It soon became clear that I was in a failing school and from the beginning, the pressure was on for test scores. The administration was brand new and their asses were on the line if we did not perform. Well, as a new teacher, with an MTLD overseeing 30 corps members, and little understanding of how to align my lessons to the 5,000 objectives that my school wanted me to teach, I was overwhelmed. My first week was shocking. My students were mostly out of control and all of the tricks that TFA had taught me, the numerous systems, the Teach like a Champion book I had read cover to cover, provided little assistance, if any. My mentor teacher provided absolutely no support. Once she found out I was TFA I think she was trying to sabotage me. I would ask her for help and lesson plan and received very little response. She wouldn’t meet on weekends or after school, even though I asked repeatedly, and she told me after 6 weeks that she’d been hiding the curriculum from me because she didn’t want to get me in trouble. I have no idea what that meant. As someone who had always been prepared, enthuasiastic and loving life, I began every day with a sense of dread and a feeling that I had no idea what I was doing. I also sometimes worried for my life when students would cuss me out, throw scissors in class or tell me I was f***ing retarded.
Now, I know that many first year corps members have had similar situations and really, what did I expect? No one ever said this was going to be easy. I also had no intention of quitting. For the first two months, I bit my tongue and spent hours and hours with my MTLD trying to come up with solutions to counter behavior and plan lessons. I wanted it to work and I so badly wanted to teach. I also had some great students who juxtaposed the others. But what I didn’t realize was that I was getting really depressed. I was forgetting to take care of myself – showering, eating. But I felt that if I did not work 100 hour weeks, nothing would get done and the weekends I did rest, the school week was a complete disaster. I also still had no actual support, no friends teaching my same subject and it seemed that every other corps member at least loved something about their school or had a few successes a week. My English department was nice but not helpful, all the English teachers taught something different and though I voiced some concerns at planning periods, they were just sessions for the other teachers to complain about curriculum or the administration. We never planned anything. Also, as an avid runner, who ran every morning at 5 am, I had stopped and I think this also added to my depression.
Miraculously, my hard work paid off somewhat and I was starting to get management under control by mid-September. But I felt extreme pressure with my certification mentor continually writing me up and letting my administration know I wasn’t doing well, my administration’s watchful eyes and negative feedback, and TFA’s constant call for data. Data? Um please. But even though there was a little improvement I had this constant pain in my chest and my anxiety was worsening. I also had one period in which nothing worked, the end of the day class, and I feared for this period every day. They were out of control, stealing things, talking, fighting, eating, saying horrible things to my face. I cried almost every night and was on the phone with my parents in between class periods, after school, sometimes before school. Or I was racing around trying to get something done. My school also had no copy machine so I was spending money at Kinko’s or going to the TFA office. For some reason I thought that buying more things would help me, so I was spending tons of money on laminating more rules, filing systems, color coded seating chart tags. It was the only way I could find control in the chaos.
Little did I know, the other TFA corps member at my school was dying just the same. (He ended up quitting a day after me.) We just hadn’t really connected on it because we were so busy, we had no time to talk to each other. I would give myself Friday night to go out and always end up sad by the end of the night and anxious about working all of Saturday and Sunday. At the end of October, everything exploded. My car got towed on a Friday and I lost a weekend of planning because my computer was in it, then my computer crashed 3 days later with everything in it. Yes, I hadn’t backed things up but I truly believe my stress was causing me to make dumb decisions and forget to take regular precautions. I wasn’t sleeping or eating hardly in this last week. Behavior was out of control because I didn’t have the energy to counter it. I sat down at the end of this week in class, shaking and nauseous, called for a sub and left. The next day my aunt took me to a psychiatrist who advised me in his “medical opinion” to quit or take a medical leave. But I didn’t want to quit so he prescribed some medication – anxiety meds and sleeping pills. I spent the week planning a new curriculum to the textbook (since I was in trouble for not using it..). I tried to get through the next week of school but I couldn’t. I was literally stopping in the middle of classes, on the verge of tears, turning on music while my kids messed around. I had lost it and I didn’t see myself getting it back.
Finally I went to inform my vice principal that I was having problems, he told me they’d been planning on laying me off any way due to a drop in enrollment of 400. They were planning on firing 10% of the staff. This explained all the added pressure I had felt from my administration, negative feedback and constant observations. They even yelled at me about test scores on a test which I was told to give my students but I had never seen the test. Knowing I was going to get laid off (or maybe fired considering what they’d seen in my classroom) pretty much told me that I could leave my class (or should to avoid getting fired) knowing they’d be put into another teacher’s class. But truthfully, I didn’t want to leave. Well, I wanted to leave my school but not Teach for America. I spent three days off, trying to decide, going back and forth and feeling sick about it. I just didn’t know what else to do and I felt like I needed to take care of myself. I’d never been this depressed and anxious in my life and it scared me. After I quit, I felt equally depressed and confused, I just needed to go home and get better. I really loved Houston, my friends here, my life. I could hardly bare to leave. And there was this kind of, what have I done? feeling.
I understand that TFA is not down with moving people from their schools but I wish they’d listened more when I voiced my concerns. We signed up for TFA and agreed to a precarious and potentially hostile situation but it was certainly hard to hear from other more experienced corps members in Houston (where I sought some help), “95% of corps members are not in your shoes. You just got really unlucky.” Now, a month later, and after a good amount of therapy and talks with my parents and people who have an outside perspective, I realize that a job really shouldn’t be like that. I am 23 and do I really want to spend the next 2 years hating my life? Even during the days when I was relaxing with friends or going to happy hours, I felt inadequate and anxious, hearing their funny/happy/silly stories of teaching younglings. They were hung up on the kids who sometimes spoke out of turn. When I told my stories, they tried to offer advice, but after a while they’d just shake their heads and say “I’m really sorry…” I guess I should admit that I didn’t want to be a teacher long term but I saw a chance to make a difference and live in a new, fun big city. However, after institute, I really thought I wanted to be a teacher. I was considering a third year. Of course, this was all before it actually began and I was idealistic.
After leaving, the two biggest issues I have are – I miss my kids. I know that if I had been able to channel them in effective ways, we could have done some amazing stuff. But I truly did not have the knowledge or experience to do so. And I suppose I was going to leave my high school anyways with the layoffs, so I would not have seen them again. And secondly, I failed at something. For the first time in my life. I failed. Like flunking out of college. And if things had been different, if I could go back and change a few things, maybe it would have been better… Luckily I got a really good job in my home town and am moving back to pursue other avenues. I even have a charter school in Houston interested in interviewing me, but it is too late, I’ve moved out of my apartment. TFA gave me an emergency release and I can return next year and I’d really like to try again. I believe that in a different situation I would have made it and maybe even loved teaching in the end.
What do you think? Should I try again next year in a different situation? Should I give it up? Is TFA just not for me?