Talking a struggling TFAer off the ledge

To quit or not to quit. That is the question?

It’s the same question I pondered twenty years ago, nearly to the day.

TFA doesn’t publicize this, but a lot of the people who gave up all the other opportunities they might have taken do not complete their two year commitment to TFA. Aside from the sort of chaos this reaps on the students of these unfortunate teachers, there is a serious amount of mental anguish the teacher suffers. Remember, this was one of the best-and-brightest who beat out thousands of people including 18% of the 2011 senior class of Yale. These ‘quitters’ had a lot going for them and now they have to feel like failures and have to explain why they quit to everyone who asks and have to figure out what to do with their lives. Quitting is a decision not, to say the least, to be taken lightly.

Still, about 5% of people quit even before the institute ends. TFA says that these people shouldn’t be teachers if they can’t hack the institute, but I believe many of those quit when they realize they’ve been a victim of the bait-and-switch. They expected a training process worthy of the task and they knew they weren’t getting that so it was best to jump ship before it went down.

Then, 8% of people quit during their first year while another 3% quit during their second year. All told, about 1 in 8 people who begin institute do not complete the two years.

Most of these ‘quitters’ are too ashamed to actually write about it. They disappear and have to suffer their shame internally.

Two brave souls have posted their stories here and here.

Their suffering is clear. They didn’t want to quit, but felt they had to. They quit because they knew they were doing more harm than good. They quit because their inability to do this nearly impossible job has caused their own mental health to suffer. They had a choice, but they really didn’t.

I noticed today a post by a new CM called The Chief who is pondering quitting for the same reasons that I was twenty years ago. The post is here. Based on the blog name, I think this is a woman, so I’ll refer to her as ‘her’ and ‘she’ so I’m sorry if this is actually a male.

So reading through her older posts we see that she had a typical 2011 TFA training with only ten students in her student teaching experience. I’ve ranted about this before, but let me say again that TFA is actually breaking contracts they make with school districts when they promise to deliver CMs who have had a proper training experience. Ten students is ‘small group instruction,’ not full class teaching. TFA doesn’t seem particularly worried about this. They’ve been doing this since 1994 when they adopted this model to save money.

OK — enough about TFA. Back to this suffering CM.

Should she quit or not? I’ll write as I think and I’m sure I won’t have the definitive answer by the end, but I’ll see what I can do.

Twenty years ago I wanted to quit. I had even told my friends that Thanksgiving was going to be my last day. I didn’t quit and went on to teach for three more years in Houston, winning teacher of the year in my 4th year, then going on to teach for 8 more years and counting, after taking a break for 6 years. Had I quit, my life would have been very different right now, and probably less fulfilling. So there’s one reason to not quit. Perhaps she is destined to be a great teacher who will have a long career and this tough first year is just a small fraction, like a bad first inning of a great pitcher who eventually wins the game.

I once wrote a post called Calling All Quitters in which I asked ‘quitters’ to comment on the experience. I learned that TFA treats quitters like crap. Once the CM says there is no turning back, TFA turns on the guilt trip and says that the CM is hurting TFA’s reputation, and then eventually they stop returning the disgraced CMs emails so the CM is left all alone and miserable. Maybe avoiding this misery is enough to not quit — yet another reason not to quit.

A third reason not to quit is the inspiration derived from all the stories of all the CMs who had rough starts until they simply ‘decided’ they weren’t going to put up with disrespect anymore and from then on they had a great year. There’s three reasons already not to quit!

But, I hate to say this but I believe it, I think those stories are bogus. I believe that it just gets harder and harder until the only way for the teacher to keep any order is just to scream at kids in an abusive manner until they get so sick of the yelling that they are a bit better. That’s what my first year was like. It only got better when there was about a month left in the school year. Take away that last point, and give it to the quitting side. 2-1 in favor of not quitting.

Another factor that I didn’t have to contend with, but which she does, is that fact that I was teaching middle school math while she is teaching elementary school. I could justify my decision to stay since I wasn’t hurting the kids that much since they were just losing out on one subject, math, while their other teachers were doing a pretty good job. An elementary teacher has a massive responsibility. Who wants the be the reason that an entire class of 3rd graders learned very little the whole year. 2-2 tie.

Only this teacher knows if she is getting mentally beat up and whether or not this could cause some long-term damage. It did for me, and it resulted in an obsessive twenty year vendetta against TFA that ultimately resulted in this blog. Will she be writing an angry blog twenty years from now while she has a spouse and a 3 year old and a six month old and has so many more important things to do right now, like figure out how to pay for double daycare in New York City on a teacher’s salary — I hope not, for her sake. No point awarded to either side — depends how resilient she is.

Now, whether of not she decides to quit, there is something she should do regardless, which is spread the word about how inadequate TFAs training is for the difficulty of the task. If she quits, realize that this was not her failure, but TFAs. TFA quitters are so ashamed that they fail to realize that they are victims of TFAs exaggerated claims of how well their new CMs do and how refined their training model is. She needs to spread the word. In this era of blogging and Twitter it is easier than ever to get the word out. I’d certainly allow a guest-post on my blog, whether or not she quits, about this topic.

But what about the 2-2 tie? Well, I hate to be indecisive so here it goes. Though the training she got by TFA was awful, she has learned enough already so that she will almost certainly be effective next year. If you teach for two months and quit, you ‘took’ from America, but didn’t ‘give’ anything back. By finishing out the year and giving it a shot next year, she could have a good second year which will make up a bit for that first year. The final thing to consider is who will take over her classes if she quits. I don’t know the political situation in Kansas City. Are there veteran teachers who have been put in limbo by a school closing and replaced with a charter? So is there a chance that someone much more competent will take her classes and do less damage? Most likely she’s not doing as badly as she thinks. Others might brag about how well they’re doing, but first year teaching is tough. Few first year teachers are effective. I feel like, even with all my experience, if I had to go to a new school I’d even have problems.

So I’m going to break the tie and say to hang on until winter break. It doesn’t get better but, as I’ve suspected about the fires of Hell, you get used to it. But if she is having a mental breakdown, to get away since it is not worth it to be a casualty of TFAs inadequate training model.

If you’re going to quit, the best time to do it is on a Friday after school. That is when you are in the best state of mind since you’ll be thinking “I made it through another week. I can do this one week at a time.” Don’t quit on a Monday through Thursday.


This entry was posted in Teach For America. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Talking a struggling TFAer off the ledge

  1. BD says:

    Wow. Twenty years ago. I remember it well…..

  2. Cal says:

    I think you’re conflating a few things. This teacher is clearly in a hell hole. Were she not at TFA, she could quit and find another job. I don’t think this school, as described, is a problem with TFA unless you think they should vet their schools ore carefully (and I do). I don’t think it’s about training in small groups or big classrooms.

    The other two teachers, particularly the Bay Area one, are clearly poor choices on TFA’s part. One misses her boyfriend and hates teaching, the other just think she’s a lousy teacher (which is quite possible). I think a lot of high achieving go-get-em females never realize that teaching is actually something that doesn’t have checklists and relies on something other than willpower. And of course, this is the population that TFA pulls from. I don’t think it’s training or planning, but selection.

    I’ve read other stories–the ones that I saw on your last post–that speak far more to the issues of training and placement that you often discuss here. I just don’t think these three fit.

  3. Cal says:

    Just reread my post: I don’t mean to criticize the two teachers. I’m sure they’re great people. But their blogs show that two people who clearly had no idea what it meant to be a teacher and aren’t good fits for the job.

    The KC teacher, on the other hand, appears to have kids that should be in juvey.

  4. Sarah says:


    What does the teacher being a female have to do with it?

  5. parus says:

    I don’t know how we as a society can be so judgmental about CHILDREN who drop out, considering so many TFAers, selected for being go-getters and high-achievers, with all their societal advantages, can’t hack it in these schools.

    I have to admit I don’t have a lot of patience with people quitting teaching partway through a year, unless there’s some truly extraordinary circumstance. It sends a terrible message to the students.

  6. Cal says:

    “What does the teacher being a female have to do with it?”>

    Most teachers are female. Most male teachers (not all, but most) are beta males (in the pop culture definition). Guys that fit the profile I’m describing would not become teachers, as a rule.

    Profile: There’s a certain type of alpha chick that are competitive control, er, freaks (they’d agree with that description). They are bright, but not particularly creative, don’t think outside the box much. What they’re good at is attacking their studies, doing absolutely everything they’re supposed to, following directions down to the nth detail–and they’re accustomed to the acknowledgement and rewards that come with doing everything they’re supposed to do.

    So they go to TFA (or ed school), they listen carefully, they read everything they’re supposed to, they organize and plan and plan and organize and follow instructions and ask for instructions and do their best to figure out what they are supposed to do–and they can’t. Not only can’t they do it, but they realize that people with far less ambition and dedication to being perfect CAN do it. Here they came in to fix the world, show everyone how it’s done, how people who REALLY care and are REALLY dedicated can end that pesky achievement gap. Instead, they learn that control and checklists won’t do a bit of good. They aren’t doing a good job, because they really only know how to follow orders and do what’s expected.

    I don’t mean to sound scornful; I’m a happy underachiever who knows I’ll never be one of them. But you’d think TFA would know that that particular profile is going to have a low success rate at teaching. They’re better off being lawyers or social workers–anything that gives them a boss to please.

    • Sarah says:

      Yeah, I guess I see what you mean there.

      I think that personality type actually does fine teaching other types of students–I can think of some females of that sort who’ve been just fine teaching students who are a lot easier to handle than the ones TFA teachers work with. But you might be right that it’s a no-go in those really tough teaching situations.

      This reminds me of that extremely popular NYT article about building character in schools–people who’ve never failed at anything are a lot more devastated, and more likely to give up, when they do fail.

  7. Frank B says:

    I taught in Kansas City through TFA from 2008-2010, and I just posted two very long replies on her blog.

  8. Cee-Lo says:

    Cal, I’m a female first-year CM who fits into that alpha-chick grouping…and I feel as though you pretty much hit the mark. Great at just about everything I’ve done to this point in my life, and when it comes to my classroom, I rely almost exclusively on resources from others, on what people have done that worked OK in the past. In terms of differentiation, I desperately want to make it work in my small groups, but I lack that little something special that a seasoned, successful teacher has that can synthesize it all and piece it together. I agree…the alpha-chick is something TFA should shy away from. I have thought about (and still consider) quitting, since I feel like I am being mowed over by these kids and am only helping a small handful learn, but TFA reps keep telling me they know I can do it, that I wouldn’t have been selected otherwise. But I think you may have hit the nail on the head — the fact that I was selected is the problem! I do agree the training is less than comprehensive or stellar, but I think I just fundamentally am not cut out for this job. I have the current game plan of trying my darnedest and consulting as many resources as possible and loving my students to the ends of the earth, but I’m not sure it’ll be good enough. And that’s terrifying.

  9. Pingback: Remainders: A day off from school offers a chance to protest | GothamSchools

  10. Tom says:

    Gary, curious where you got your retention stats? Seems like these percentages are a bit inflated, though possibly just outdated…

    Also, I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to communicate here – Don’t quit and just make it to winter break, when things will feel better? Or do quit, just do it on a Friday so that you can avoid feeling guilty about it?

    • Regret doing TFA says:

      SLA 2010 has lost at least 40% of their 100 person corps – and they aren’t done with the 2 years yet.

      • Gary Rubinstein says:

        Is ‘SLA’ St. Louis? If you could get me ‘proof’ like a list of the 100 original people and then a list of the 40 who remain, I’d appreciate it.

  11. Cal says:


    Even if you decide teaching isn’t ultimately for you, and TFA may have made an error, how could you use this knowledge to help your teaching now? Could you toss out everything TFA tells you and figure out what the kids (through their behavior) are telling you?

  12. Sandy says:

    I have read that Kansas City RIF’ed some effective but non-tenured teachers to honor its contract with TFA this year.

  13. Like a clump of snowflakes, every region has different districts with different schools in different contexts. Right now, TFA does an adequate job of general training, but it does fail to prepare CM’s for the specific, challenging placements they will teach in. Is this TFA’s fault per se? I’m not so sure. There are some people who do well and even excel in at-risk schools who wouldn’t have made it at a lower functioning school.

  14. Ms. D says:

    I disagree with quitting alltogether and here’s why: Up until this point most corps members (and I say most based on my experience with TFA) have lived a pretty good life. They have excelled at pretty much everything they have attempted and TFA is the first time many of these individuals have truly struggled at something. Our kids, on the other hand, have struggled their entire life. They have not been given the opportunity to excel at many things thus far and need to be given that opportunity. The only way they will be given this is by effective teachers that push them to do so. I know some teaching assignments are harder than others. And I understand that this is hard job (I’m a first year in October), but damn. It’s only two years. Suffer for two years and if you want simply go back to your old life. It can only get better from here. If not, just think about the fact that every single day you are knocking off a day of the two years. If you can’t suffer through this, than how do you expect our kids to? What happens if they decide to quit? If they decide to quit, they literally quit life and commit suicide. They don’t have that option. We shouldn’t either.

    • KCMO Chief says:

      Ms. D.

      The assumption you make that most TFAers have lived a “pretty good life” is the number one problem I have with TFA.

      I have suffered through other obstacles in my life that are disturbing, so why do I need to add another one to my list? To make me stronger? TFA recommends CMs to see a therapist/take medication because of the struggles at their placement school and the CMs mental state, in my honest opinion, TFA’s mission is not worth compromising one’s health and wellbeing.

      • parus says:

        It’s not as though it’s a secret that first year teaching is hard under the best of circumstances, and that TFA provides minimal training and generally places in challenging environments. There are a lot of things TFA is insufficiently up-front about, but this is definitely not one of them.

    • E. Rat says:

      It’s true that the ability to leave is a privilege. That it is a privilege doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do.

      For some of these teachers, the struggle isn’t going to make them stronger, and as they fall into major depression they won’t be doing their students much good, either.

    • Ms. Math says:

      I think that this makes sense. I’m so glad I didn’t quit. I didn’t suffer permanent damage though I certainly hated my life for awhile my first year. Also, I disagree that things don’t get better unless you yell at your kids. Things got better for me when I asked for help, got a consistent discipline plan(not abusive though) and gave lots of positive reinforcement.
      It was the first thing I failed at-and my parents wanted me to quit, but not quitting was a good lesson. I see what you mean about the kids not being able to quit without being high school dropouts. I’m not sure I ever thought about it quite like that when I decided to keep going.

  15. simplewords says:

    Ms Math– I second what you say. I wake up every day reminding myself that if this is tough for me, then for cryin’ out loud, think of what my kids go through every day crawling out of bed. I may not be perfect. In fact, I happen to know that I suck pretty awfully, and yes, this is the first time I’ve really felt like I’m utterly failing. But all I can think is that it gives me guts to dare to feel the discouragement my sweet 1st-grade-reading-level-students-in-8th-grade feel. Maybe I never will be a good teacher. Maybe they’ll never go to college. But I’d say we better both try our darnedest.

  16. Alohagirl says:

    I was reading the posts by the CMs you linked to here that are planning on quitting. (I also know several CMs in my region who did quit in their 1st year). Having read your blog for awhile, I am very familiar with your thoughts on the inadequate training provided by TFA, and having been through Institute at Atlanta in 2010, I heartily agree. Just as you posited here, I thought I was going to receive a solid job-training experience that would prepare me for teaching. Instead, what I got seemed to be a semi-hazing sort of ritual, where we were denied sleep and made to do many silly “team building” exercises with people we would probably never see again. One so-called training session focused on how to work well with your co-workers (seriously? the ‘best and brightest’ of our nation’s universities need assistance discovering morsels of wisdom like, “Find out their favorite Starbucks coffee drink, and bring it to them once in awhile!”) For a number of reasons, I realized while at Institute that I had made a huge, huge mistake in joining TFA. (I would start my own blog with lengthy criticisms, but as a new teacher with 6 preps, I don’t have time!)
    But in addition to the crappy training, I also felt, then and even more strongly now, that TFA’s rhetoric is extremely damaging. You are made to believe that you, and only you, are capable of and responsible for the absolute stunning success of every child who enters your classroom (not to mention this year’s push to “impact children not in your classroom”, but that’s a rant for another time). If your children are not excelling in every way, it’s your fault. At our last Professional Saturday, we were asked to bring and analyze student work, so we could see who our lowest performers are, and TFA gave us a ‘helpful’ worksheet to guide us through the analysis. The essential question was “How is my mindset about these children affecting their performance?” I would say I was appalled, but I am used to this stuff by now. Granted, if you are quietly racist and you provide less than decent teaching to minority children because of that, then you should recognize that and hopefully bow out of the teaching profession. But in talking to the newly minted CMs in my group,I found them to be genuinely nice, committed girls who really wanted to do right by their students. One low-performer was a SPED student who had significant neglect and abuse issues at home, and missed huge amounts of school. Another was an ELL student with whose parents the school could not communicate. Yet here was TFA, pushing these girls to consider how their mindset was affecting the children. They actually entered into a weird “I wonder if I do have some sub-conscious prejudice against these kids that I’m not aware of and maybe because of that they are not doing well in school” conversation. I stopped them. CM, your student is not doing well in school because he HAS MISSED 1/3 OF THE CLASS TIME, not because you secretly hate him.
    I believe these kinds of exercises are truly damaging to CMs. As an adult (no insult to the recent college grads who make up most of TFA’s demographic, it’s just that I had a lot of life experience under my belt before going in that has really helped me have a much more solid perspective) I feel that with their “relentless” push for CMs to do more, more, more, TFA drives potentially good teachers away. All the studies I’ve read indicate that TFA teachers are about as good as any other first-year teacher, which is to say, not great. But you are never told that. Even though MOST, the vast majority of TFAers, are not all that awesome in their first year, the only examples you are ever given are of teachers who did the equivalent of building their own rocketships and sending puppies they cured of cancer to the moon. Everything you do is supposed to great. When I started last year and was in the midst of my own existential teaching crisis, a 25-year vet looked at me sympathetically and said, “The first year of teaching is just the hardest year of your life.” Having her say this, and having her validate my doubts and fears and inadequacies as normal for a first year teacher and with the promise that it would get better – that I would get better – made such a difference. I was able to push forward and keep going. I formed close ties with veteran teachers at my school – something that I feel TFA actively discourages, as they seem to think the only teachers worth talking to are other TFA teachers. I learned the value of a boring lesson plan – solid: a lecture, a reading, and exercise. You cannot plan 6 incredible, active, 100% engaging and “transformational” lessons every day, as TFA insists. You build toward that. When you are attempting to do that every day, you are up until 2am, falling asleep on your couch with your laptop on your body, as my TFA co-worker told me she often did. Then you go into class so exhausted and low-energy you have no patience for your children, you can’t manage them, and your superstar lessons fall apart, and you feel like the shittiest teacher in the world. That TFA co-worker had a nervous breakdown, and while waiting in the ER while they were admitting her for psychiatric evaluation, I steamed for hours over the BS that TFA puts out that drives bright, enthusiastic, committed people straight out of education as a matter of survival.
    I will finish my two-year commitment, but it has nothing to do with TFA. I want to be a teacher and so I’m gonna keep my job. But I don’t resent people who “break” their commitment to TFA, because I feel TFA breaks theirs almost immediately. They don’t adequately prepare you for the hardest job in the world (and I’ve had a few). They skim over the dark side of teaching in poverty, which is that you will encounter children in situations that you maybe be able to impact – or may not. They make you think every situation can be overcome with just a little more hard work and determination on your part. They don’t tell you that in the worst schools, you may enter a classroom where you are unsafe, or at lest feel unsafe, and find no support from your administration. They don’t tell you that you just might not be, and probably won’t be, teacher of the year straight out of the gate. I blame TFA fully for the non-success of these first year teachers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s