Why I Still Believe in Teach For America

2012 was easily one of the most difficult, most heart-breaking and most disappointing years for me professionally and personally.

I was supposed to spend the 2012-2013 school year teaching inner city middle/high school kids in LA – something I had left Spain (and job a really enjoyed) for. Instead, I was asked to teach Kindergarten in a rural charter school that had no idea what Teach for America was…or basically anything about me. That lasted a month. I could go on and on about where I went wrong, where TFA went wrong, where the school went wrong and how my plans went ass end up, but that’s not the point of this.

Spanish Teachers

The awesome team I worked with in Spain.

When I was asked to consider coming back to TFA to teach in my home state of Arizona, it was hard to say no. It was mind-boggling to friends and family that I would consider going back to work for an organization that caused some serious trauma in my life. Going back to teaching wasn’t about Teach for America – it was going back for what I believe so painfully in –that our kids deserve better and I want to be a part of the movement. Ultimately I had to say no. I incurred literally tens of thousands of dollars of debt because of my decision to join TFA, so now I have to be an adult with a decent corporate job and work it off. That’s life.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

The last correspondence from TFA before the casual email I received earlier this year inviting me back.

Let’s start with this. I love teaching. I gravitate towards it. I l have a visceral reaction to teaching – I’m happy in mind and body in front of a group of people, trying to share something with them. I didn’t go to school for teaching, I went for journalism. Life takes you down weird paths and the universe steers you to places you’d never imagine for yourself. My first time in front of a classroom was as an aid in a special education class at Powell Middle School in Mesa (R. I.P.). Powell was a struggling school, with more visits from Mesa PD than was healthy and a population that fought tooth and nail both in and outside of the classroom for basic needs. The teacher in my class was a long term sub that wasn’t too fond of where she was or what she was doing. Those kids gave her a run for her money because they were absolutely in love with their actual teacher who was out on maternity leave. This substitute gave me (and the other aid) every opportunity to teach the class, which we took and ran with at every opportunity. Those children deeply touched me and I am still in contact with many of them

A former student and I at her high school grad ceremony. It has been 8 years since I had seen her!

Me and a former student at her high school grad ceremony. It had been 8 years since I had seen her!

Since then I have been involved with social work-education hybrid jobs including teaching middle and high school English in Nicaragua as a Peace Corps volunteer and teaching middle, high and post grad English & culture in Spain. I think it is important for me to point out that teaching in another country is quite different than teaching in the states. For example, when grading papers in Spain, I was discouraged from writing too much feedback because I was “working too hard”. Not that teachers don’t work hard in Spain, but the kids were expected to work just as hard and so were the parents. It was an odd concept for me and I still gave feedback, but my Spanish counterparts were definitely confused by some of my go-getter behavior. Teaching overseas has taught me that all the inane details (aka you must have X number of posters on the wall) that we require of our teachers here in the states aren’t required other places – and the students still did well (generally better) than ours…GASP.

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua - computer class!

One of my many random jobs in Nicaragua – computer class!

Anyway, as a result of my brief foray into the world of TFA, I was unemployed for nearly a year, I accrued an absurd amount of debt (thanks to overpriced private school education that I literally got ZERO out of). This sucks…a WHOLE EFFIN LOT. I managed to get almost all the way through my twenties with no debt. Aside from debt, I left LA with an altered outlook on education in this country.

Now back to the point. Why do I still believe in Teach for America? Bottom line is, people aren’t exactly SUPER PUMPED to work in Compton, the south side of Chicago, Maryvale, etc. The best and the brightest hardly even consider teaching as a profession because society has trivialized teachers’ roles in a disgusting way, we value money over EVERYTHING and everyone wants to be comfortable. I am not saying that the best and the brightest aren’t teachers. I have MANY friends who are teachers and they are talented, hardworking, intelligent and creative. But at the end of the day, Mr. Summa Cum Laude from Yale who will live a charmed life as an investment banker doesn’t think twice about teaching. But who is the person throwing money at that senator who wants to defund early education in rural areas? Who was lobbying No Child Left Behind? They are people (and usually people with considerable wealth and/or power) who have no clue about your third grade teacher’s 12-hour days or your student’s school who has him reading 4 grade levels below someone in a richer zip code.

That is a hard truth to swallow, but it is the damn truth.

People gripe about the two year commitment with TFA and how it is perpetuating the teacher mill that low income schools experience. It’s a legit argument. The truth is, I don’t think TFA is trying to create life long teachers; TFA is trying to groom movers and shakers, politicians, administrators, policy analysts. Maybe they won’t teach for more than a few years, but they will carry those experiences and it will affect everything they do henceforth. But why would I want someone who only taught for a few years to be a politician and speak on behalf of educators?? BECAUSE AT THE PRESENT THOSE POLITICIANS KNOW ZERO ABOUT MRS. CRABAPPLE’S DAY TO DAY. Do you want someone who has been there? In the trenches? Lesson planning at 4 AM? Yes. Yes, you do.

Demonizing TFA corps members gets my goat. Ok, I will give you that there some weird political or administrative things that happen at TFA that I am not a fan of (I am a result of them!). But those fresh young faces, right out of college, with a diploma and a million choices at their fingertips chose to forgo that sweet job as an engineer at Boeing or an analyst at Charles Schwab or whatever it is their long list of accomplishments could have gotten them. They chose to teach in some of the most challenging schools in this country. People talk about how TFA corps members just use it as a launch pad into grad school or whatever. THERE ARE EASIER WAYS. I call bullshit.

[At a corps member's wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

[At a corps member’s wedding] These people were the only thing keeping me sane in LA.

The people I met in the LA Corps were amazing people, dedicated to a social cause and ready to jump in feet first to an absolute nightmare. Let me say that again –an absolute nightmare. Are they generally ill-equipped? Yes. Do they flounder around and want to quit every day for at least half a year? Yes. Does your average first year teacher also struggle incredibly. Yes. The young people I met lived, breathed, ate, and slept teaching. TFA members generally aren’t used to this struggle for success. They’ve been academically successful, most of them natural leaders and extroverts in general. Because of this drive, they fought with every fiber of their being not to fail themselves, not to fail their children, not to fail the cause. Please take a look at that last phrase. To these people teaching is not just a profession, it is a cause.

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here...

Chris is gonna kill me for putting this in here…

We didn’t just talk about teaching and lesson plans late into the night – we talked about the big picture. How do you solve it? What is the root of the problem? Are we the problem? Where do we go from here? Are charter schools the answer? Are politicians the answer? How will we continue to fight? For the most part TFA does a great job creating a vision of sustainable change. The idea is that this change will come through corps members in one of many ways. Maybe they aren’t all meant to teach for life. But they will go on to work in many other fields and they will know firsthand what it’s like to be a teacher in a school that the state has long forgotten and the politicians have written off. This consciousness resounds in immeasurable ways.

So if you’re a teacher and you’re anti-TFA, I ask you not to judge until you willingly go to work in a school that is failing, where you might fear for your safety, where the kids distrust every adult they have ever encountered, where you’re constantly judged for expecting more, having vision, and seeing potential.

Don’t waste energy hating an organization and casting disdain on those who would like to see change. Your energy is better spent seeking reform productively. It’s urgent and it’s tragic that we are failing generations of young Americans.

Rather than looking outward to blame, look inward for change.

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Serious Sunday

what took me 29 years to learn

There have been only a couple of times in my life when I was genuinely, whole-heartedly depressed. Plain unhappy. If you knew me during my high school years, you’re well aware of the of the misery I felt from about 16-18. I was just a kid and the circumstances were beyond my control. I won’t go into details, because it doesn’t serve the point of this particular post. I knew I couldn’t feel that way forever and I wouldn’t be in that place (literally and figuratively) forever. So I made a plan: Focus on school, find happiness in my friends and activities and figure out a way to get the hell out of Dodge. It may not have seemed to be a conscious decision to those around me, but it was. I made myself invisible at home,  killed it in high school, got a full ride to ASU, figured out my financial situation and never once felt that helpless again. I had a lot of help along the way, but I felt like the decision to figure out my next steps (mostly) by myself was my first adult decision. And that decision was to be happy. If you could go back in time and ask the 17-year-old me if I was making a decision to be happy, I would have said, “No, I am making a decision to be alive.” At the end of the day, I think my happiness grew out of the decision not to give up at the ripe old age of 17.

So that’s what this whole pointless garbage is about – how to be happy. That pointless garbage is existence. Existence, to me, is random, beautiful, wonderful, tragic…but it’s cosmic garbage that will be sucked up in time and puffed out into the universe like a ball of dust from your Hoover. That might seem sad to some people – especially religious ones. I can understand that.

I am not religious, but I am spiritual, and I say we can be happy as pointless garbage and that’s OK!!

I’m not saying I have the answer; I certainly don’t.  I have figured something out that might be obvious to everyone else on this forsaken ball of dirt and salt water, but it was certainly a revelation to me. But how that revelation came to be was a process that took about  2 and a half years of shadow boxing with my ego.

I tromped through my early twenties merrily, generally fine with my choices (poor or not) and my direction (or sometimes lack thereof). I went off to the Peace Corps like I had always planned – hardly aware that I was going to be systematically broken down and rebuilt cell by cell. People who work for a long time over seas or in conditions very different from what they are used to back home feel similarly when suddenly re-united with what were once formerly comfortable schemas. I came back and experienced a reverse culture shock that caused me to act like a bipolar 10-year-old for a good while.

I was excited about all the cheese at the grocery store, but I was scared of the twenty people blocking the MOTHER FUZZIN’ AISLE. And why are the cucumbers shrink wrapped!? WHY IS EVERYONE STARING AT THEIR PHONES?!?!?

I wasn’t happy. I thought I would be. I had romanticized home in a way that it could never live up to, not to mention I assumed the new me would be OK with all the crap that made the old me content. So when I was pissed off at Nicaragua, I thought America was the answer, and when I got to America I thought leaving again was the answer. Spoiler alert!! It’s not. Since then, I have lived in Madrid, Spain, and Los Angeles, California. What I assumed would be a logical and meaningful last step before I leapt gracefully into the doldrums of adulthood turned out to be a Lohan Level Disaster. I was forced to face some serious issues about what I thought I was put on earth to do. That was just one of many questions that dragged behind me like Marley’s chains for s i x  l o n g  m o n t h s . And for someone staring 30 in the eye, six months is nothing to be toyed with!

The weird thing was, most of the time I was oddly zen about the whole ordeal. Every once in a while a swell of rage would crash and drag me under for an hour…or a day…or a week. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t burning down buildings and slashing tires with the laser beams that were surely coming out of my eyes. Upon further inspection, there were no laser beams. Just bags from a less than healthy sleep schedule and the same steely determination I had at 17. And then, as if the veritable cheese aisle were magically clear of patrons, everything seemed easier, clearer. I figured it out. It doesn’t matter what I am doing. It doesn’t matter where I am. You choose happiness. It is a conscious, everyday decision. Sometimes a battle. You survey the damage, yes, but you also survey what’s left standing. In my case I had a family who I had managed to barely see for 3 years, a whole mess of amazing friends (whom I also missed dearly), and my passion for my community and the drive to work for positive change in any way I could. It sounds so cheesy and I firmly encourage all the eye-rolling you might have done during this post. But at the end of the day, it’s true. You choose happiness. It is not something you find outside of yourself. It is something that comes from within and stretches out, and hopefully gets to intertwine with the happiness of others – even the sadness of others.

I recently read The Dude and The Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. It was part of the universal energy that helped me to reach all of the fore mentioned conclusions. One of my favorite lines from the book is:

“Look at the ingredients you have, make the best meal possible, and offer it.”

29 years, man.

Sometimes the best meal you have is a combination of old green beans, popcorn and outdated turkey gravy powder*. Eat it and enjoy it because whenever you tell the story a year or two later about eating that shite meal, you will cry from laughter every single time.

*Actual meal I ate on the floor of a bat and mouse infested crap hole my friend John called a house.