with love and squalor

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 10 2011

not saying i regret it

the following contains my own personal advice and it’s not meant to offend or whitewash anyone else or their experiences.  it’s just things i wish i had thought about way back when (actually, not that long ago).  but still…

i see that some people have been accepted into TFA this week and are probably considering accepting/declining their offers at this very moment.  some of you are probably even reading this right now.  i know i read all of these blogs for months before and after my own acceptance.  i’ve been thinking about what i wish i had known back then.  in a lot of ways, i feel that my experience in tfa has been relatively similar to how i envisioned it.  in other ways, it’s been radically different.

i wish that i had known how unsupportive and out of touch my school would ultimately really be, but this varies from school to school.  sometimes i wish tfa had been a little more forthcoming about the institutional disasters that many public schools in atrophying cities really are.  given the tfa mentality, any school, any grade, any class, any student… all salvageable.  theoretically, i would not argue with this, but this undermines the unbelievable impact that poor or strangely prioritized institutional direction can have on a teacher, their class, or their students.  which is to say, you may become a staff member at a school that can’t simply be “turned around.” you may end up at a school that will require a hell of a lot more than you, your cohort, or teach for america/education reform in general to possibly heal or be saved.  you may end up at a school where the only prayer it has of making itself sustainable would be an overthrow of our government, an uprising against capitalism, and a complete redistribution of the wealth.  the amount of hopelessness this situation could place you in may or may not be enough for you to swallow, day in and day out.

does that mean you can’t make a difference?  of course not.  i feel like i make a difference every day, and that my job is incredibly meaningful.  this is easy for me, though, because i teach pre-k, which is very different (although not necessarily easier) than teaching a grade of more jaded students.  maintaining the balance between surrogate mother and teacher is a constant battle, but one that i take gladly for the reward of seeing my students’ growth and adjustment to me and my classroom.  i like my job.  i would like it better under improved circumstances, but that’s kind of the point of teach for america.

there are lots of reasons to take this job and lots of reasons not to.  do not take this job if you want to put it on your resume.  yes, you’ve heard that a lot, and of course you NEVER WOULD DO THAT, but just… don’t do that.  i’m not going to lie and pretend a small part of me didn’t want this job because of how prestigious it is.  just understand this.  you may have just competed your ass off and put your best foot so far forward you were practically doing the splits, for a job which involves scraping caked-in shit off a bathroom floor.  literally.  at least, that’s how it is in my case.  this job may be “prestigious,” but it’s not glamorous.  besides, using it as a notch on your shiny resume belt is an insult to your future students, your future colleagues, and, ultimately, yourself, as you begin to hate your job and hate yourself for the reasons you elected to take it.  taking this job as a stepping stone to medical school, law school, or whatever, is, i believe, morally bankrupt.  i would say that you should not take this job if you don’t have at least the slightest interest in becoming a teacher for life.  of course, you may realize (early on, too!) that teaching isn’t for you, but do not take this job if you want a two year foray that will help you get into the top law school of your choice.  this job is too hard, and the stakes are far too high, for this sort of mentality.

do not take this job if you have a savior complex and think that it’s your civic duty to do community service; it’s not a community service job and thinking of it as such is undermining to teaching as profession.  accepting a job as a teacher in an inner-city school is not the same as working at a homeless shelter or for a non-profit.  although your job will be more stressful and more unstable, you must consider that teaching in a struggling school is and should be fundamentally the same as teaching in an affluent school.  you cannot, or should not, attempt to claim moral superiority based on accepting this job.  that isn’t the point.  no one has asked you to save anyone and you must rid yourself of this line of thinking if you’re seriously considering become a corps member.  not doing so is a disservice to the organization, as it simply aids and abets the entitlement and privilege that so many corps members are guilty of being unable to reconcile or even acknowledge.

similarly, do not take this job because you think it would be cool to get a shout out by lupe fiasco in the song “float on” when he says “five in the air for the teacher not scared to tell those kids that’s living in the ghetto that the shit’s holding back that the world is theirs.”  you may do this, in your membership in tfa–i do it every day, in fact–but that song makes me feel kind of sick sometimes, because this job isn’t glamorous, as i said before.  it’s not like every education movie or documentary you’ve seen–it’s real life, yours, and your students’.

other considerations:

-i’m not sure i could have survived this long if i didn’t live so close to home.  familiarity will become important to you quickly… seriously consider the convenience of your placement region

-also, do not become too attached to your content placement; mine didn’t, but i’d say you have like a 50-75% chance of it changing

-understand that this job may mean you have to do things that you find morally questionable (at best).  for example, teaching special ed students with no qualification to do so; witnessing things in your school you find objectionable or dubious; grading students in a way you don’t believe truly benefits them, etc.  know this.  this is a facet of this job.

-similarly, realize how young you (probably) are, and how much you (most likely) don’t know, and how unbelievably hard it (truly) will be.  there are times, when i talk to my students’ parents, that i feel guilty or even ashamed for the fact that i am the teacher of their children, because i feel under qualified and therefore irresponsible.  if you’re not used to feeling incompetent, you might want to familiarize yourself with that (it sucks)


with all that being said, i obviously thought the pros of joining TFA outweigh the cons.  i would not say this is the case for everyone.  you might really hate it.  you might quit.  you might not.  you might LOVE it and become a teacher for life.  at the very least, you will learn a lot, especially about yourself.  of course, every CM’s experience is so wildly different that this is just my own meandering experience so far, and i’m still only in my first year.  i don’t mean to sound pretentious, but these are the kinds of things i really wish i had kept in mind before i hit that “accept” button.  NOT SAYING I REGRET IT.  i won’t say that.  i love my kids too much.  but i’m just saying, it’s not a decision to take lightly.

9 Responses

  1. Great article! We are linking to this particularly great
    post on our website. Keep up the good writing.

  2. CEP

    I know this probably wasn’t what you intended, but I just wanted to tell you that I found this post really inspiring. You sound like a wonderful person, and despite your struggles and feelings of inadequacy, I bet your kids are lucky to have you. Hang in there, keep doing your best.

    • aea107

      thank you. i’m all for inspiring people! unfortunately, when it comes to tfa and other movements that resemble it, i feel a lot of the rhetoric comes off as inspiring when it should really be foreboding. the abstraction a blog post like this provides is very comforting when you don’t really know what the real life experience feels like.

      • CEP

        Yeah… don’t worry… I think you sound great, but this website as a whole has made me strongly reconsider TFA. I hear from them in a month, but I don’t think I’ll be doing it either way. Good luck!

  3. Lee

    Great post. Fairly accurate, I would say. An added piece of advice for incoming CMs: not all regions are the same. Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into before you fill out the preference sheet for placements. Talk to current CMs about how TFA works in their region…

  4. egordon

    “you cannot, or should not, attempt to claim moral superiority based on accepting this job. that isn’t the point. no one has asked you to save anyone and you must rid yourself of this line of thinking if you’re seriously considering become a corps member.”– this is why I continue to creep you via TeachforUs, facebook, and real-life mediumz.

    • aea107

      haha…………. of course! i feel this is one the fundamentals we missed in our training, and not everyone comes in with this frame of mind. it’s an important element to consider when you’re trying to integrate into a new community, especially one that struggles economically, that no one necessarily asked for your help, even if you’re willing to give it.

  5. parus

    If TFU had a “like” button, I’d hit it.

    • aea107

      thanks :) my mom just told me if i started using proper punctuation, more people would comment on my blog. i told her she’s missing the point, but…

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