Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some Notes on Leaving Teach for America

Imagine you are in the market for a hammer (it doesn't really matter what it is; just go with it for the sake of the example).  You go to your local hardware store in search of one, and to your surprise, they're sold out.  You ask the clerk about it, and he tells you that he could place an order for one and get it in next week.  Then he pauses, deliberating.  "Or," he finally says, "you could go to the store down the street.  They have some in stock right now.  Cheaper than ours, even."

We've all had this experience, and it is, I submit, the Holy Grail of customer service: when a business actually refers you to a competitor.  Sure, the clerk loses a sale that day, but you can believe that you'll be going back to that hardware store, and recommending it to others.

It takes a certain confidence, a clarity of purpose, a commitment to something larger than personal success to do this, and whenever we are on the receiving end, it gives us a tremendous case of the warm fuzzies.

I have been on the receiving end of this in my exit from Teach For America, and it has deepened my conviction that, bureaucracy aside, there are people within the organization can genuinely put the interest of students above their own.

My Program Director [boss, basically] asked me, during our end-of-year meeting, why I was leaving; "most people who leave TFA are doing something else.  But you're staying in education.  Why?"

I told him the truth: if this were a breakup, my trite line of choice would be "it's not you, it's me."  I wasn't looking for another job -- I had no desire to leave TFA early -- but another offer found me.  I happened to get a job that required me to leave, but would provide me, I felt, the opportunity to do even more for students than I'm able to do currently.

The basic idea is this: I am working for a start-up school that will see its first class enter in Fall 2012.  I'll be running an after-school program as a recruitment tool, but the bulk of my time will be putting together the curriculum for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math department.  I'll travel around Los Angeles and beyond, meeting with science teachers and collecting great ideas; then, we'll put those ideas together in a school that will admit a mix of wealthy and poor students, with the former subsidizing the latter.

I have impact in my classroom, to be sure, but I also feel encumbered by the public school environment.  State standards determine what I have to teach, and in what depth, and I have no control over some policies that I think cripple students down the line (e.g. no due dates, no grades below 50%, no homework).  The best public schools get students into college, but can't keep them there, and this, I think, is the biggest issue the system has to contend with right now.

And, honestly, are we surprised?  I attended a high school with courses like Russian History and Modern Novel.  My students graduate without ever having chosen a class; without spending more than 40 minutes a day outside of direct supervision; without, in many cases, being able to formulate a grammatically correct English sentence.

While, obviously, an elite private school in Marin is an unfair benchmark, I believe that truly great education depends on academic freedom for teachers.  Freedom, is, after all, the ability to fail, so no doubt some teachers would use this freedom to play Angry Birds on their phones, but this is inevitable.  Most teachers get into this game because they really care, and the more autonomy they have in the classroom, the more ability they have to excite themselves about what they're teaching (and as we all know, genuine excitement is contagious and impossible to fake).

I do believe that, to some extent, this is the move in education.  One of the key policies in Finland's rise to the top of the world in education was their decision to, barring serious problems, close the classroom door and let teachers go wild.  It can happen here, too, and bringing this about will take dedicated, free-thinking educators; I have no doubt that many of those people are in TFA right now.  But my decision to leave was, ultimately, personal.  It's possible to educate with rigor in a public school, but I struggle with the benchmarks and standards (even though my scores, I think, were pretty good), the exactly-57-minutes-no-earlier-no-later I have to spend with my students every day, and so on.

So, having said all this, my Program Director said something amazing.  "I'm sad to see you go," he said, "and I don't want you too, but I understand why you're doing this.  Maybe someday you'll start your own public school -- I hope you will -- where you can do these things you're talking about."

I have griped about TFA at various points through my year of involvement with the program.  I have complained about what I see as excessive buy-in to standardized testing, and done my share of mockery of team-building exercises.

But ultimately what I see, and have seen throughout the year, is an organization that cares about the opinions of its members, and isn't afraid to be criticized.  Hell, TFA has been re-tweeting my posts practically since I started this thing.  I have seen that people in the organization have been discussing the same things that concern me since the biggest educational issue on my mind was which frat I wanted to join.  And I honestly think that, for many of the TFA staff, while recruitment and retention and numbers and so on are important, they are overshadowed by the needs of students.  It listens, and it adapts.  Today I had someone in the organization I had never spoken to before call me just, more or less, to tell me that the things I want to happen are already happening.

I am leaving TFA.  I'd stay in it if I could, but this is my chance to shape a school from its inception, to watch it grow and establish a culture that will last, I hope, far beyond my time there, and I just don't think I can have that type of impact in my current situation.

But I see TFA as a partner, and I hope they see me the same way.  I walked out of my meeting with my Program Director with serious warm fuzzies, the kind that come only from that particular willingness, in a professional relationship, to lay aside personal interest for a greater good.

As I got into my car after that final meeting, I thought to myself, for all my cynicism and complaining, that TFA is ultimately something positive.  It makes mistakes, but it listens, and tries hard to correct them.  I wouldn't trade this past year for anything.

Except a hoverboard.


  1. Have to be honest - I greatly appreciate your candor, and I sincerely value your opinion. But it really bothers me that someone with such a serious lack of experience seems to be playing such a serious role in starting a new school, which, in my experience, is a tremendously complicated task deserving of the efforts of those with lots of experience and critical thinking skills.

    I don't mean to say you won't do a great job. I have no idea. But it seems someone who's done this before successfully might be a better candidate? We don't have med students starting hospitals. Why is this okay with schools?

  2. Without purposefully interjecting myself into some sort of fiery education debate: this metaphor is the metaphorical bee in my youknowwhat, and people in the ed reform world these days are all over it- what's the deal!? Med students don't start hospitals but neither do experienced doctors; if you're in the development world you know that "ladies who lunch" are behind the reigns of children's hospitals (which is an issue unto itself), and those who back and create institutions like Kaiser facilities usually have little experience in the medical world; if you've ever had an appointment in such a place you might reconsider those med students. Similarly, one doesn't need be (and I would propose often isn't) a veteran teacher to shape an excellent curriculum- though you're certainly welcome to think otherwise, as long as you keep your figurative language straight.

  3. Med students don't start hospitals, but we do shape the curriculum at our respective medical schools, often to a great degree. I currently sit on the curriculum committee at my school, and it was because of my recommendation (based on feedback from my classmates) that we launched an extensive overhaul of the 1st and 2nd year preclinical curriculum this past fall. That being said, that's not even the proper analogy. Mr. N isn't a student. We're talking about a teacher who has finished all of his training and has spent a year teaching in front of a classroom already. A more accurate comparison would be a first year attending physician leaving his practice to work on curriculum development at a medical school. He may not be ready to be the dean of the school, but he's definitely more than qualified to help design curriculum for one or more of the courses.

    But anyways, getting back to Mr. N: he's had his share of crazy kids, he's dealt the bureaucracy, he's run into tough parents. He knows how the system works. But more important than all that, he knows his content REALLY WELL, and he knows how to teach it REALLY WELL. If you've ever had a chance to observe this man teach, you would know that he'll knock your socks off every time. The thing that kinda sucks here is that the world is losing an incredible educator in the classroom, but I do believe that he will indeed make a greater impact in his new position. And let's face it, just because you've taught longer in the classroom doesn't mean you're a better teacher, ESPECIALLY in science.

  4. Mr. N might not have a lot of experience, but he definitely has critical thinking skills. He can come to my kid's school today.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Good luck in your new role! I'm curious, though, to hear your feelings on leaving TFA after one year of the two year commitment. And while finding a job that is a better fit for you is laudable, didn't your current school make a commitment to have you as a TFA teacher for two years? So it's like an early breakup with both TFA and your school, correct?

  6. Your philosophies on school reform are all well and good, but unfortunately, the kids at your school have to stay at your school and don't have the choice you have to pick up and leave. What happens to them?

    And it doesn't seem like waiting your plans out one more year would be that much to ask, in the interest of fulfilling a commitment you made to your kids, school, community, and the broader ed. reform movement.

    The opportunity you have to make a bigger impact is a great one, and your intentions are definitely honorable, I just wonder if the benefits outweigh the repercussions at this point?

  7. This post pretty much shows the exact reason veteran teachers don't like or trust TFA recruits/teachers. I went to the trouble to reading most of your posts and you seem like a decent person. However....

    1. You couldn't be bothered to fulfill your obligation to your school or TFA. Sadly, this is not uncommon. I understand that you are young, but is really too much to ask that you fulfill your obligations? This happens in my area (DC) all too often with TFA and DC Teaching Fellows, leaving schools in the lurch as they leave in mid-year (really bad) or the end of the year (significantly less bad).

    But, you say, this was a great opportunity. So what? Try meeting your commitments. Too many TFA recruits are only interested in padding their resumes or getting out of the classroom as soon as possible, and you don't seem much different. You committed to a school, and its kids for 2 years, you didn't get the affluent school you wanted, and now you are leaving.

    2. TFA recruits seem to think that they have everything figured out after a year of teaching. Do you have any idea how arrogant it sounds to hear a first year teacher talking about how they are going to develop a curriculum for a school with ONE year of teaching experience, with kids who are NOTHING like the kids who are going to be at your school?

    You want to get out of the classroom like most TFA recruits and get into what seems to be easier stuff such as administration, curriculum development, etc... However, the people who are best at those tasks are those who have some experience in the classroom (I know that is not what TFA believes, but it is pretty accurate).

    So you are going to create a school for rich kids like you went to, great, but that does nothing to actually help education. Even if you are really successful in developing this school, you will basically have given an A+ education to kids who are already getting an A/A- education, and if you manage to squeeze some poor kids in you'll find they are less prepared on average and you'll end up skimming off the talented ones and throwing the rest back, just like 99% of private schools do.

    I'm sorry that you feel so constrained by the straitjacket of "standards" and "benchmarks" and other stuff that makes public education hard, but the truth is most of the emphasis on these come from TFA graduates who don't believe that poor kids can learn in the way your school was run. TFA graduates would NEVER send kids to a school that was run the way they suggest.

    I don't begrudge you the right to do what you want with your life, but your post sounds like a typical self-centered 23 year old TFAer who didn't like teaching but wants to be in education without the difficulties of kids with issues, problems, or poor preparation. Hopefully as you mature you might see the value of educating all students, but given TFA's track record I won't hold my breath.

  8. A couple of notes in response:

    1. The school I am working for next year will not serve a completely different population. The model we are working with for the summer program and beyond is to recruit a mix of affluent and low-income students. These latter are decidedly not receiving an A- education.

    2. I chose to leave my commitment to TFA because I believe I can be more effective elsewhere. There is no use investing effort into a system that is fundamentally broken. Whether public education is broken is an open question -- I believe that it is, and you believe that it is not -- but to decline to participate in something that is not working is not arrogant.

    2b. My "not working" assessment is mostly based on the fact that some of the highest-performing secondary schools (especially CMO-run charters) have very poor college retention rates. If our measure of success for schools is a poor predictor of success of that school's alumni, our system is in serious trouble.

    3. To build on [1], I would have almost entirely different students next year than I have now, so I am not exactly walking out on them.

    4. Charter schools in general have a very high turnover rate. Mine has a much higher turnover rate than average. When a business routinely has 40% turnover in a given year, something is up; see my point about public education in [2]. While this doesn't necessarily make me look any better (i.e. other people failing to follow through on a commitment doesn't excuse my doing the same), I am the first TFA teacher this school has ever hired, so clearly the problem of fleeing the classroom is widespread among veteran teachers as well; this anecdotal evidence is well-supported by statistics. Again, see [2].

    5. I am 22. And I don't think I know everything; I know very little. That is why, in order to build a curriculum, I will be meeting with hundreds of STEM teachers from around the country and compiling best practices. What I believe I can provide more than anything is the insight that comes from being a successful student and a life-long lover of school; admittedly limited, but still powerful.

    6. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. One of the things that most attracts me to education is the vibrant debate that continues to surround it.

  9. i disagree with those who feel you're abandoning ship.
    you're renewing your commitment to teaching by being a part of creating something new...incidentally, a much harder venture.

    youth and inexperience shouldn't be equated with lack of ability or vision.

    you continue to be inspiring and i can't wait to see what comes next.

  10. I have to agree with James Boutin. Experience matters, and 180 days of teaching brings very little to a job developing curriculum. Just today, I read an article about Herbert Cain, a Republican presidential candidate. The author’s main criticism was that the former CEO didn’t have any experience in politics.

    On the other hand, the real issue is whether teaching experience matters to Mr. N’s future employer. Apparently, it doesn’t. Lately, that seems to be true for many high-profile hires. Experience didn’t matter to President Obama when he appointed Arne Duncan, a man who hasn’t taught a day in his life, to be Secretary of Education.

    I know I’d rather fish a certain lake with someone who’s fished that lake for a few years, and I’d rather be in a platoon with a lieutenant who’s been in command for more than 180 days; but, those who do the hiring in education often share a blind spot to the value of experience.

    Even so, I wish Mr. N the best of luck.

  11. So are you going to change the name of your blog?

  12. 22 years old and developing a curriculum, is this a joke. And yes you walked out, do I blame you - no, but be honest.

  13. Are you trying to convince your readership or yourself? Your argument is weak (at best) and is riddled with excuses. You simply don't want to teach anymore! Which is fine. Especially in a low income neighborhood which can be less like a school and more like a constant mentorship program... or a battlefield. I know because I am a Special Day teacher at an "inner-city" high school.
    But on another note... a curriculum specialist... a recent college graduate? This is where the education system has gone seriously wrong.

  14. I just wanted to leave a quick comment to let you know that I really enjoyed this post. I am a TFA alum who did finish my 2-year commitment, went on to get the full certification experience in education as well as a master's degree in education and am now teaching in a fairly middle-of-the-road district as far as socio-economic status goes in a rural part of the country. I felt that your comments were insightful and true. TFA has its flaws, as does any similar organization, but the people involved really are trying to put the good of the students as a top priority. They may make mistakes, but so does the public school system (40% or more leaving within the first 5 years says something to me). I felt good about the people that I worked with, even if I didn't feel good about every moment. I got that same feeling from your post. I wish you the best in your new job.

  15. I am very curious about your 2b statement above, about college retention rates. Can you point me to some sources that discuss this? Thanks.

  16. PLEASE remember, if you are ever in a position to make education policy or influence those who do, what you said here about the value of letting teachers "go wild" in the classroom. I am lucky enough to teach in a public school in the suburbs where I can often do just that. There are state standards, but it is entirely up to me how I get my students to meet them. There is no fixed curriculum, and I have never seen a "benchmark." Instead, I am highly educated and very dedicated; even after 15 years in the classroom I am working at least 50 hours each week, and maybe 20 each week in the summer, preparing lessons, doing background reading and research, teaching, grading, etc. It's a hard job, but deeply rewarding... and that is because I am prepared, encouraged and permitted to assess my students' preparedness and learning in the ways that make sense to *me*.
    Education policymakers know exactly what I'm talking about, because they went to schools where teachers had these rights, freedoms and responsibilities, and they send their own children to schools like this too. They would *never* send their own children to schools where students are data points and learning is measured by multiple-choice exams.