world on fire

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 25 2011

the one where i explain my decision to leave

During my TFA interview a thousand years – and by that I mean not even two years – ago, I knew that I would be asked about whether or not I could ever see myself leaving before my two years were over. My relentless perusal of Relentless Pursuit prepared me for this, and I was ready. My interviewer, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and who is currently the Executive Director of a charter region, fixed her intense, searching brown eyes on mine. She opened this behemoth question by referring to the innumerable challenges and difficulties that would certainly befall me as a corps member, and that being said, could I think of any reason for which I would leave Teach For America before the end of my two-year commitment?

I did my best to match her intensity as I looked her squarely in the eye. “If I got a terminal illness and only had a few months left to live,” I said, “I probably wouldn’t be very effective in the classroom anymore anyway, so in that case, yes, I would say ‘I need to go die now.’” My intensity rose. “Other than that, no. I take this commitment as seriously as I take my commitment to my four younger brothers.”

Several weeks later, when my interviewer and I spoke over the phone about my acceptance to the corps and my placement in the Bay, she told me that she could see me having a tremendous impact on my students. She also told me that she follows up on the people she interviews. And, “if I ever hear that you’re thinking about quitting, I’m going to call you and remind you of what you said in your interview.” She laughed a little at this point, but we both knew that that was simply a less menacing way of communicating the message, “don’t you dare fuck this up.”

Although I clearly remember her words on my own, I am bracing myself for that phone call. And I know exactly what I will say to her – or, at least, what I want to say to her – if the conversation goes as I imagine it will. Which would be as follows:

Her: Maria, you were so passionate about serving these kids – about righting centuries-old wrongs, and doing what those in power cannot and will not yet do. You told me how committed you were to Teach For America, and to serving as a corps member for two years rather than only one. How can you do this to your students?

Me: [Interviewer's name], I am not doing this TO my students. I am doing this FOR myself, and for the work I will do as a healthy individual in the future. As a teacher, I felt like I was suffocating. Like I was being pushed to run harder and faster than I have ever run in my life, and if I took a moment to stop and breathe I would instead vomit until the world ended, let alone educate forty children. I hardly knew myself, and I wept at what I did know. I realized I’d reached a point at which I likely needed medication simply to keep functioning. I felt dead inside when I pulled up to school in the morning, when I enforced culture items I didn’t believe in, when I yelled at a student even though I knew I shouldn’t, when I came home from a twelve-hour day and realized there was still so much more to do, when I counted down the weeks always standing between myself and those I love in Texas, and when I thought, with terror clenching my stomach, about how trapped I felt in this situation. Depression is more than a challenge or a difficulty, [interviewer's name]. It is like a disease, and it was eating me alive, making me as ineffective in the classroom as I imagined I would have been with a serious illness. The person attempting to lead her students in Room 17 wasn’t me, not after the first few months. So I found a way back to myself. I applied to graduate school, knowing that I would receive the training I needed to work towards righting social wrongs outside a classroom setting. I applied to programs in Texas, knowing that attending one would relieve the formidable burden 1,800 miles can place on a relationship, especially a life-changing one.

And you know what, [interviewer's name]? By the time my admissions decisions began rolling in, and I had the opportunity to actually choose my next path, I knew that I physically could have done a second year if I’d chosen to. I could have survived, and I most likely could have done it with even better results than those I’ve gotten this year. But being not-depressed-anymore is hardly being happy. Surviving is quite different from thriving. Going to graduate school for public policy in the same city as the man I love is exactly what I need in my life right now, as opposed to being a teacher for another year, knowing it isn’t what’s best for me.

At this point she might interject with “But what about what’s best for your students?” as any socially conscious person would. To that, my answer is simple. What is best for my students, [interviewer's name], is to have a passionate teacher who leads them to transformational academic and personal growth every day; here in California, at this time in my life, I cannot be that teacher. What is best for my students is for the teacher who replaces me next year to be nothing less than excellent, which is possible now that I have given my school notice about not returning (which was a risky decision in an at-will employment situation, but the unequivocally right thing to do nonetheless). What is best for my students is for them to be as prepared as possible for the third grade (or for the opportunity to start second grade afresh), and for that reason I will do my absolute best over the next nine weeks to make sure that will be true.

I love my students. I love their families. I love the community in which I have been privileged to work for the past almost-year, and the ways in which that work has opened my eyes to more realities, both beautiful and harsh, than I can put into words. I love that, although this year has been without question THE most difficult time in my life, I am now equipped to go forward in my personal life and my professional life, with even more knowledge about how I’d like to make a difference in my society. (I am most interested in the intersection of education policy and immigration policy, especially for communities like the one in which I work here in San Jose. Several faculty members in my graduate program specialize in either or even both of those, and I couldn’t be more excited to delve into those studies while accruing the quantitative skills I need to enter the field of public policy analysis.)

If you (the general “you” now, not my interviewer) told me two years ago that I would end up leaving TFA before my commitment was over, I probably would have given you the stink eye and a sassy “no way in hell” type of response. What can I say? My life circumstances changed pretty dramatically, even from the time I applied to the time I got placed with Rocketship, and I ultimately changed my path accordingly. Will I look back on this choice and regret not doing my second year? No. For where I am in my life, this is the path I need to be taking, and I could not feel more confident about that. But will I look back and wonder what year two would have been like? Of course. Will I feel bittersweet twinges of curiosity when I try to imagine what my students are doing next year, what they look like, how they’re doing? Absolutely.

Am I humbled and empowered by my experiences with Teach For America? You bet I am. I hope to stay as connected as possible to TFA and its movement in the future. Although I am cutting my official corps-member ties to TFA after this year, I wish current and future corps members nothing but the best in their – in OUR – quest to ensure that children’s skin colors and zip codes will no longer determine their opportunities in life.

7 Responses

  1. bythebay

    Hey! I think that’s a really tough and brave decision to make. I, too, am in a very long distance relationship, and I think TFA really should look into placement a bit more and think about how far away they really are sending their corps members from everyone they love!

    Best wishes in the future!

  2. Sonya Mehta

    Thoughtful, reflective, and poignant – you’re making the right decision.

    I too decided to leave Rocketship last fall after only one horrible, stifling month as enrichment director at RLS to apply to grad programs in education, to volunteer at schools that more aligned with my philosophy about teaching and learning, and to be in San Diego with the man I love. Now I’ll be starting a masters/credential program at Berkeley this fall, and I couldn’t be happier. Leaving was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. Congratulations, and good luck with all that the future holds for you :)

  3. Ms. D

    I am an incoming corps member and have a few questions. If your loved ones were closer (maybe even in the same city) do you think you could have finished? I chose the Dallas region and knew that I would probably not accept my TFA offer if I was placed anywhere else because Dallas is where my fiance is. And I was just wondering, as a curious incoming corps member, what you think you could have done differently to finish out your committment.

    On another note, I am glad that you have realized that you staying is not best for either yourself or your students. You seem very strong and I hope that everything works out for you. Thanks for posting.

  4. Corey

    I definitely enjoy reading what you wrote, and now must consider your story from the perspective of leadership.

    I hear you referencing feeling depressed to the utmost degree, but I am left wondering exactly why or how. What is an example of something that happened while you were teaching that made you lose yourself?

    The reason I ask this is that so many of us are not actually prepared for these roles we step into. Have you ever seen “12 O’Clock High?”- there is one example of a man’s emotional and mental hijacking after a situation with numerous obstacles.

    I also must ask you to give more detail because I am curious as I, too, was in a Teaching Fellow situation for 3 years. The first year, I came hope and face-planted on my hard wood floor just before eating 4 bowls of cereal and wailing myself to sleep. I am trying to look very deeply at why, when faced with very similar obstacles, I kept going.

    So here, I return to leadership. The leading literature at Harvard right now discusses mindfulness in leadership- that which allows us to consistently pause and go inside to become more aware of our internal dialogues. Mindfulness addresses questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” and “How is my body responding to this moment?”

    Connecting these ideas to psychology, both adolescent and adult development suggest that where we feel our deepest anxieties is not a place we should avoid, but an avenue to be explored. Many of us create defense systems within ourselves to respond with negative emotions to something that challenges all that we do to protect ourselves.

    To this end, I respect your decision to leave TFA but I encourage you to seek opportunities in life that might make you respond in similar ways. For me, sticking it our for 3 years became less about the students and more about my ability to dispel assumptions about myself and rise to personal challenges that I otherwise would not have realized if not having placed myself in such a nerve-rattling, bone-shifting situation.

    Feel free to respond with any new reflections you may have, whether about the points I have made or insights you have gained since leaving TFA. Many positive vibes to !


  5. Lifelong Teacher

    Wow, you really think HIGHLY of yourself. I wonder what you will think when you look back on this post in ten years or so. I imagine you will feel a bit embarrassed and I hope you will even have the decency to be a bit ashamed. You made a commitment and you felt extremely, melodramatically proud of yourself for doing to; now you have broken that commitment and feel equally proud of yourself. You seem very typical of other TFA CMs. Get over yourself. If you spent less time and energy writing and reflecting about how important your decisions were you’d have more time and energy to actually teach these kids you so gut-wrenchingly now miss.

    • mariagarnett

      Caroline, I’m not really sure how slamming a perfect stranger’s life choices on the internet is providing you with the time and energy to “actually teach” your kids, but I respect your work as a lifelong teacher. Best wishes this school year.

    • Moseis

      You may be one of the lucky ones, like I was. I worked in a school, for four years, where I was supported. When that principal left, we got a manias as his replacement. Try walking in the “skin” of another before making judgment. If you taught where I am currently teaching, you would probably run out screaming.

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