I Almost Quit Teach for America

But I didn't. Why?
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The author in fall 2006, her first year teaching high-school English in the Mississippi Delta

I’d always been a relatively composed person, but my first year of Teach for America broke me. I cried at school, sometimes in front of my students. I got deeply, deeply angry, which I’d channel in ways both constructive and destructive: sometimes by going on long runs or writing in my journal or praying; sometimes by drinking to excess; once, on one particularly long and desperate day, by hurling a curse word at a classroom full of students.

The tears and the rage were my confused, panicked response to the failure I was facing every day. I worked constantly—writing lesson plans, grading, calling parents, making exams—but my efforts rarely seemed to pay off. My students talked over me, threw things at me, told me to go back where I came from. The mayhem in my classroom made any progress in the curriculum a daily struggle, and my students’ grades and skills suffered for it. Life outside of school was also challenging. I was assigned to the Mississippi Delta, possibly the most different place in America from my hometown, New York City. I had to get used to driving everywhere, to people asking me “Where are you from?” every time I opened my mouth, and, of course, to having my friends and family far away.

Returning home after that first grueling, humiliating, lonely year was exhilarating. I was reunited with my friends and family. I had an internship at the New York Daily News. I loved the work, and I loved my colleagues. “This is how it feels to not dread coming into work every day,” I marveled to my boss at the end of my first week.

It didn’t take long for me to start wondering what it might be like if I didn’t return to Mississippi. I asked my supervisors at the Daily News if they’d be willing to keep me on beyond the summer. They said yes. One of my best friends was looking for a new roommate and wanted to know if I’d consider living with her. I wrote my Teach for America mentor an email detailing all the reasons why I didn’t want to go back: I’m not a good teacher; the system is broken beyond repair; I’m so unhappy; and so on.

And yet, in late July, I packed up my car and drove the 1,200 miles back to Leland. I completed my second year. I impressed my Teach for America advisors enough that they asked me to give a speech at a year-end party for donors.

In the weeks since we published Olivia Blanchard’s piece on why she quit Teach for America, I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t quit, too. I saw the same problems Blanchard did: the insufficient training, the touchy-feely “mindsets” sessions, the insistence that any problems in the classroom are the teacher’s fault. And yet when I could have quit, I didn’t. I went back, finished my two years, and along the way became a moderately successful teacher. Why? Why did I return? And what sustained me when I got there?

I Had a Solid Social Network

I became very close with two of the other Teach for America teachers at my school. We had a standing frozen-pizza-and-beer dinner every Thursday to celebrate the (almost) end of the week. We took road trips to Oxford and Memphis and Little Rock. We hosted a Freedom Seder at Passover and invited our principal. When I was contemplating not going back to Mississippi, I knew my absence would affect these two friends the most—at school because they’d have to cover for a teacher who’d dropped out just weeks before the new year began, and outside of school because there’d be one less person to hang out with.

I Loved the Subject Matter

I’d been an English major in college, and I was fortunate enough to get a teaching assignment that used my degree. Even in the darkest, most frustrating stretches of my time in Teach for America, I took great joy in lesson planning: figuring out how to get my students truly excited about reading Shakespeare and writing poems and drafting essays. When I realized my students didn’t know what a pun is, I showed them one of my favorite Muppet sketches:

I taught them about rhyme using the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.” I had them read Julius Caesar aloud, playing up all the dramatic parts: Caesar’s friends plotting against him, Brutus’s wife calling him out for keeping secrets from him, the mad power struggle that took place after Caesar’s death.

One of the ways I talked myself into going back for my second year was by developing units on This Boy’s Life by Tobias Woolf and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Simply ordering the books from Amazon and imagining the pleasure my students would take in reading them made returning to the classroom seem less daunting.

I Had Good Continuing Professional Development

Like Blanchard, I found the instruction at Teach for America’s five-week training institute to be infuriatingly vague. We were taught the five steps of a successful lesson plan but not given in-depth examples of how to execute the steps successfully. We were encouraged to “unpack our privileged backpack” but not offered any specific strategies for how to teach to the needs of children from poor families.

Fortunately, my fellow Teach for America teachers and I were required to attend monthly professional development sessions, and I found a lot of those classes to be refreshingly, crucially practical. My first semester, I took a “First-Year Survival Class,” where the instructor worked with me to develop an emergency classroom management plan for my most unruly class. He counseled me on the minute details of executing this plan: the precise words to say to a student who was acting out, how to organize my classroom so I would be ready with a disciplinary referral if I had to send a kid to the principal’s office. The plan worked and saved my fourth-period class from devolving into anarchy. In my second year, I enrolled in a lesson-planning class that filled in the gaps from my original training. I put one piece of advice to use immediately: “For each class, make sure the first question you ask is one that everyone in the room can answer.”

In my second year I was also part of a seminar on a book called A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne. The book describes the differences among the three major social classes—upper, middle, and lower—and the “hidden rules” that govern each one. I learned that poor children tend to learn best when they like their teacher, and that a silent classroom can be unsettling to low-income students who are used to being in environments with more noise. Yes, these are generalizations bordering on stereotype. But I’d spent my entire educational life in private schools and had rarely, if ever, had meaningful exposure to anyone outside my social class. I needed some way to begin to understand where my students were coming from.

I stopped trying to be the authoritative, tough-love teacher I’d had growing up and forced myself to relax, smile, and joke around with my students. Rather than trying to maintain a quiet, orderly classroom, I embraced the boisterous “learning noise” of students working in groups, gasping in delight as they read a particularly juicy passage in The Crucible, and answering questions I lobbed at them during a lecture.

I Hate Quitting

The biggest factor in my decision to finish out my two years was basically a personality quirk: I don’t like to give up on things. This is not a boast. My aversion to quitting is grounded in pride (“What will people think of me if I don’t finish?”) and fear (“Changing plans is scarrryyy!”), not moral fiber. Sometimes it’s good to give up on something, even something as apparently noble as a Teach for America commitment, if it’s not working. But I was too stubborn, too proud, too afraid to make that choice. I went back.

***

To sum up, I got lucky. Completing my two years of teaching depended on a lot of factors outside my control. If I hadn’t clicked so quickly and easily with my fellow teachers, if I’d been assigned elementary school math instead of high-school English, if I’d signed up for different professional development classes, I might not have made it through. I think the same was true for a lot of my fellow teachers: They joined Teach for America because they wanted to make a difference, but what sustained them through the two years were less lofty, more idiosyncratic satisfactions: coaching baseball, living in a beautiful house, tutoring a particularly endearing student, going out for Mexican food every Friday night with the other teachers in the area.

I am grateful that I did finish. By the end of my second year, I hit my stride. My classroom management improved, and my students started to listen to me, putting an end to the daily battle for their attention that had consumed my first year. More importantly, they got excited about what we were doing in class. They enjoyed our unit on the transcendentalists so much that they threw a surprise party to celebrate their love of Emerson and Thoreau. They wrote beautiful plays about their community modeled after Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. They diligently prepared for the ACTs, taking practice tests home so they could study in their free time.

As for me, my time with Teach for America changed my life. It opened my eyes to the racism and inequality that persists in America. It made me a better journalist, by showing me how to connect with an audience and present important information accessibly without dumbing it down. But the most painful, crucial lesson I learned in my two years was a deep sense of my own limitations. Being well educated and well intentioned do not guarantee success in life. I am capable of repeated failure. And I cannot weather hardship without a tremendous amount of help.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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