I’m trying my best to have faith that I helped change my students’ “academic and life trajectories” enough that they can find success. But I’m scared of what will happen when the crushing reality of the achievement gap tries to push them down again and again and again. “No one cares about that, Miss,” one 14-year-old boy shouted after the first time I talked about the importance of graduating high school. “My uncle is a paletero man and makes so much money.” The rest of the class nodded. His uncle sells Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and ice cream from a cart on wheels.
In June, Dallas ISD boasted that 74.6 percent of high school students now graduate in four years, a higher increase than expected. But the district still trails the statewide graduation rate by 10 percentage points. The numbers don’t mean much to the average Dallas citizen, until you drive through Highland Park, a mere 15 minutes from Oak Cliff, and realize nearly 100 percent of students living in that ZIP code graduate each and every year. I pray to the Education Gods my students defy the statistics.
Of course, I don’t say any of this in the interview. At this point, I don’t care about the interview anymore. All I want to do is run back to my students and help them overcome more challenges, because I didn’t do enough. I’m leaving after two years. But I don’t say this either. Instead, I summarize how I helped one student pass her TAKS test for the first time by tutoring her after school and on weekends and investing her in what we TFAers like to call “a big goal.” My interviewer nods, scribbles something in a notepad, and spits out one last question.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
What’s going to happen to my students? Are they going to be okay? Do you think they’re going to be mad when they come back to visit and see someone else in Portable 24? Will they remember everything I told them? Will they still believe it? What will the other teachers think when I don’t show up next year? Am I selfish for leaving? Should I go back?
But I don’t ask those questions. I ask about benefits and the potential for growth within the company. And that’s that. I say I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m told, “We’ll be in touch,” and we exchange one last handshake as I head for the door. I anticipate the “thanks, but no thanks” email to be in my inbox within 72 hours.
I leave the interview wondering if I am sabotaging my efforts to get another job. “Pull it together, Caitlin,” I tell myself. I’m not even used to hearing my first name anymore. For two years I’ve been Ms. Myers, and it’s going to be extremely hard to shed that moniker. I stand by my decision to leave, though, as I remember what my principal told me.
It was toward the end of the school year, and I’d been called to his office. He wanted to know my plans for next year. I said I was considering several options, teaching for a third year among them. He nodded a knowing smile and gave me two pieces of advice. First, teaching deserves a third year, as the new teacher has a good idea of what to do and has the luxury of experimenting within the classroom. I agreed. I know my chronic anxiety as a first- and second-year teacher was part of learning the ropes. Second, he would never want me to feel as if the position was holding me back. Being in the classroom is an experience you must throw your whole heart into, and without complete dedication you can’t expect to yield complete results.
And that’s when it clicked for me. If I stayed for a third year, I would not be focused solely on my work, as I had been for the past two years. Yes, I’d still provide my students a quality education. But I’d be checking my BlackBerry each day for open jobs. I’d be tweaking my résumé at night. My students didn’t deserve to have that boiling in the back of my head. They deserved my undivided attention, and I’m afraid that’s something I could no longer provide.
A recent study from Harvard University and the University of Connecticut found that 61 percent of Teach for America alumni continue teaching for at least a third year. This is on par with the estimated 60 percent of new teachers in high-poverty schools who remain a third year. Why, then, is low retention the No. 1 criticism of TFA? Because naysayers don’t look at the whole picture. They find people like me and point their fingers. “See that Caitlin Myers? She left after her two years. I told you so.” But I find the focus on my decision to leave to be beyond the point. For two years, I went above and beyond what was expected of me as a teacher, and I’ve got the performance reviews from administrators to prove it. I did my job well, and it opened my eyes to things I’ll never forget. Teach for America promises lifelong education advocates, and I am living proof that it delivers on that promise.
This is not to say that without TFA my students are doomed. I came to know many fantastic teachers in Dallas ISD from whom I learned so much. Their perseverance in the face of a frustrating public education system gives me hope. They return year and again well knowing the heartbreaking realities of lower-income schools, and they continue to do their jobs exceedingly well.
But there are just as many, if not more, teachers who are not there for the right reasons and not providing our students with the love, attention, and motivation they need if they are going to have a fighting chance. There are teachers who don’t give homework because “these kids don’t do homework.” There are teachers who teach solely to the test and get their students to produce the necessary results so they can keep their jobs. To students, these teachers probably seem cool. To me, they are the type of teacher to be feared the most.
I am leaving Portable 24, but I am not leaving my students, our students. From whatever desk I find myself behind, I will be watching as they move forward. I will be watching the TFA Dallas-Fort Worth Corps expand each year, increasing its impact not just in the classroom but in other educational leadership roles around the city, as well. I will be watching our mayor, Mike Rawlings, and avidly supporting the change our public schools so desperately need—higher-quality teachers, accountability across the board, parent involvement, and equitable funding. I am leaving the classroom, but I will never leave the movement.
Two years ago, my friends laughed when I said I wanted to join Teach for America. “You? A teacher?” I was the naïve journalism major who would graduate and hopefully land an entry-level writing gig. This wasn’t part of my plan, and I didn’t fully realize what I was getting myself into. I didn’t know I’d learn to function on four hours of sleep. I didn’t know I’d shed so many tears. I didn’t know I’d care deeply about the lives of Oak Cliff middle schoolers. I didn’t know I’d become aware of issues many people either don’t know exist or choose to ignore. It wasn’t what I signed up for. But it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
So, if you’re looking to hire, might I suggest a Teach for America alum? We’re great team players with the ability to multitask in high-intensity environments. We can make PowerPoint presentations with our eyes closed. We can effectively communicate with a wide variety of constituencies. We can patch holes in sheetrock, paint walls, and decorate small spaces like you wouldn’t believe. But be warned: when you ask us about our kids, boy, have we got some stories for you.
Since writing this article, Caitlin Myers found a job at a Dallas-based advertising and public relations agency, where she works with nonprofit organizations. She is also involved with education advocacy efforts. Write to [email protected].