I’m 24 and looking for a job. As I sit in another lobby waiting for today’s interview to begin, my BlackBerry chirps with my daily email notification matching my résumé with potential employers. “Based on your qualifications, we recommend these openings.”
One of my qualifications: until June, I was working at a school in Oak Cliff as part of Teach for America, the national nonprofit organization that enlists recent college graduates (like me) to teach in low-income communities for two years. Teach for America launched in Dallas in 2009, and I was part of its inaugural group of teachers. Many stayed. I left.
I scroll down hoping today is the day I find the job for which I’ve been looking. Truck driver, court reporter, border patrol officer, and a lactation consultant. Great professions in their own right, don’t get me wrong, but not exactly the doors my Teach for America recruiter told me would swing open with TFA on my résumé.
Part of what attracted me to TFA was the prestige, the potential to one day work for a prominent employer. Sure, I care about helping those less fortunate than I, as does any human with a soul. You’ve got to sweeten the pot a little, however, if you want to systematically recruit high-achieving individuals to a systematically underperforming public education system. But that’s for another discussion.
“Hi, you must be Caitlin. Come on in.”
My hands are sweating like mad. Thank God I remembered to put on my Drysol last night. The thought of talking to one middle-aged professional about how I could be the perfect employee makes my heart race as if I’ve been doing cardio for an hour. I am ashamed of my anxiety. Why am I so nervous? For two years, I stood in front of seventh graders, talking for hours on end as their eyes burned through me. For two years, I fielded their funny, inappropriate, and brilliant questions. I had a ramrod straight backbone then. An interview with one person should be easy. But I bombed last week’s interview, and who knows how this one will go.
“So tell me a little about yourself.”
I was born in ... moved to ... graduated from ... completed internships with ... and then I joined Teach for America.
I’m all too familiar with the two reactions I get at the mention of TFA: the furrowed brow that comes from unfamiliarity with the program or the eyes-wide-mouth-slightly-agape-slow-head-nod move that means he or she has heard the Dallas ISD statistics and finds my work admirable. Either way, the interviewer has no idea what really went on in my classroom, and the interview inevitably becomes a one-woman rambling session as I struggle to find the right words.
“So what did you do in this Teach for—what’s it called?”
What goes on in a classroom is, by and large, a mystery to outsiders. Each day was a circus, and I tried to be the ringmaster. I had things planned and backup plans for my backup plans. To the bystander, of course, Portable 24 probably looked like a madhouse some days. Trying to get a 13-year-old to verbalize the thematic lesson he or she most connected with in The House on Mango Street (a high-level novel that addresses racism, sexism, and abuse) is like a trapeze act: scary, dangerous, and exhilarating. I was the audience cheering them on, and I was the safety net there to catch them if they fell. And some kids would probably equate me with the evil circus owner, forcing them against their will to—gasp—read a book.
My students learned a lot in my classroom. Dallas ISD will tell you 83 percent of my students passed their Reading TAKS test my first year, and 92 percent passed in my second year (both numbers exceeded the district average.) But I struggle to explain success beyond quantitative measures. They achieved so much more than numbers on a piece of paper. I had girls who once idolized Teen Mom asking me about college. I had boys who weren’t allowed to do homework or carry backpacks as part of their gang’s initiation begging me to keep their library books safe. How do I explain all this without sounding like just another teacher-saves-the-day cliche?
So I opt to keep it simple and talk about students’ academic and life trajectories and closing the achievement gap. It sounds so anticlimactic coming out of my mouth that I want to vomit.
“Describe an obstacle you had to overcome in a job.”
I’ve prepared for this question, coming up with a million examples. For me, though, words don’t come to mind. Faces do. Faces so vivid I feel like I’m right back in the classroom. My roster of more than 200 students during the course of two years floods my brain, and I remember all that I have left behind. The student who didn’t have running water in his house. The student whose father told me his son was going to drop out in eighth grade. The student who displayed pictures of her newborn baby in the clear plastic cover of her binder. Whatever the case may have been, each student came to my class deserving a quality education, and I did my damned best for two years to show them the power of knowledge. And now I’m leaving.
For the inaugural TFA Dallas corps, I am in the minority. Fifty-seven of the original 91 teachers returned to the classroom for a third year this past August. Their dedication is inspiring, and I feel honored to have called them colleagues. But I’m not them. Why am I leaving? “To explore other career opportunities” and “to advance in other leadership roles,” two of the standard responses I’ve tried practicing in the mirror before. They fail to fully describe my decision to leave.
I’m tired. Really, really tired. For two years, I devoted nearly every waking moment to my students. When I wasn’t at school, I was thinking about school. I was perpetually on the edge of an anxiety attack as the to-do lists pressed down on me like 1,000-pound weights. I put relationships with family on the back burner and became a distant memory to friends I once talked to daily. My life was consumed by the many hats Ms. Myers wore: educator, mentor, de facto parent, office manager, and DIY classroom renovator. But I won’t say that teaching was a burden, and I don’t want it to come across that way. I did for two years what many heroic people do for a lifetime. I’m afraid to say it, but maybe I’m just too selfish to continue.
The librarian at my school, a woman whom students and teachers alike fear, looked at me hard on the last day of school and asked if I was coming back next year. I had managed to dodge that question gracefully until that point. But then it was just me and her in an empty library, and her glare made me confess. “You are so young, so hopeful,” she said. “You have your entire life ahead of you and the ability to do whatever you want right now. So go. Everyone here wants you to stay, but it’s your time to go. We’ll always be here if you want to come back.”
Her words stung me, and I realized in that moment that she was telling me exactly what I had discussed with my students when reading The House on Mango Street. The book is a coming-of-age story of a young Latina girl who wants to escape her impoverished upbringing. She also wants to help her friends and family who are trapped in destructive cycles, which carries the threat of trapping her as well. Many of my students identified with the female heroine, Esperanza.I hated that book when I read it in high school, because I had no connection to the narrator’s struggles. In that empty library, though, I started to get it. The feeling of excitement for the future mixed with the feeling of guilt for leaving the past behind. While I was in the classroom, I could confront the achievement gap head on and know that I was doing something to combat it. But now I’m gone.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.