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.