I have often thought that Teach For America should require a longer commitment. Would this result in fewer applications or higher attrition? Perhaps. Would this result in more effective teachers and leaders? Probably. Is this feasible at this point? I don’t think so – at least not nationwide.
The idea of year 3 has been on my mind for a while. The beginning of the school year was so wonderful beyond belief that I was seriously contemplating not just staying in Memphis, but staying at my placement school. The illusion of improvement at my school slowly crumbled back to dysfunction, unfortunately, and when Penn Law asked me to confirm that I would be attending this fall after my two-year deferral, I didn’t hesitate.
There have still been days since that I consider staying. Like city championship day, where all six of my swimmers medaled in at least one event. Like parent-teacher conference day, where one mother, whose daughter I have taught both of my years here, told me she hoped A. would have me again for algebra 2, and one grandmother, whose grandson I have taught both years, told me she hoped her freshman granddaughter would have me for geometry next year. Like Saturday, when, at Teaching As Leadership professional development, the former coach of the Manassas High football team, featured in this year’s Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, explained how his players were initially wary of him because they thought he might be a “turkey person.” A “turkey person,” one of his players told him, is a rich stranger from the suburbs who brings turkeys and other Thanksgiving foods to poor families in the city and then drives away. Do they really care about us, the student wondered, or do they just want to be able to say that they did something good for us? They didn’t want to trust the coach, lest he be just another “turkey person.”
This struck a nerve with me, because I can totally see what corps members and “turkey people” have in common. For the most part, we were outsiders to the city, whether from the suburbs of our region or some other place altogether. And not only did I have no idea what it’s like to grow up here, but I also had no idea what it’s like to grow up the way many of my students have: with absent parents, with limited resources, with low expectations. As the only full-time teacher of my race at my school, I was a stranger to my students in every sense of the word.
For the most part, we don’t stay long, either, which further plays into the idea that we are not really interested in educational equity, that we are just here to serve our commitment so that we can move on and say we did something meaningful once upon a time. The voices of criticism of Teach For America believe this to be true of many of us, and while I don’t believe this to be a mindset of any corps member I know, I wouldn’t be surprised if some corps member somewhere admitted to it.
In any case, I worry that, by leaving, I am no better than a “turkey person” on paper. Do I care about my students? Absolutely. Do I believe that educational equity is possible? Absolutely. But these beliefs and emotions will get buried under the fact that I only taught two years, that I lived in and loved Memphis only to return to Pennsylvania.
What will my departure mean to my students? At my school, where corps members have taught every year since the charter corps here, students are used to the cycle of young, mostly white teachers coming and going after two or three years, so maybe it will come as no surprise when I tell them at the end of the year that I will not be returning. To be honest, there’s a cycle of teachers in general, whether by district design or a personal choice not to return. It hurts to think of myself as yet another inconsistency in my students’ lives, but even if I were staying in Memphis, I would not stay at my school anyway. I have stuck out the dysfunction and lack of support but refuse to tolerate it another year, especially after a particularly trying encounter with administration recently that left me feeling ambushed and with a nasty taste in my mouth.
I hope to stay involved in my students’ educations, if they allow me. It still stings a little that I didn’t keep in touch with my institute students, but I can think of a handful of students (and their parents) whom I teach now or taught last year or coach who I’ll likely keep in touch with. I want to know about their senior years, their college application journeys, their proms; I plan to attend their graduation. Even though I am leaving, it doesn’t mean I won’t return. It doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop caring.