Drinking The Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 23 2014

It’s not you, it’s me

I never thought I’d be one to leave a school mid-year. I am not a quitter and I’ve always prided myself on never giving up. But as the choices become more complex, and less black and white, I’ve realized that sometimes not giving up on a dream means walking away from something that you know is wrong for you.

Teaching is hard, no matter where you are. It requires a lot of heart and a deep-rooted faith in what you’re doing. And when you’re teaching in the poorest pockets of the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago, you need to find a sense of hope in something. Whether it’s the principal, your co-workers, or the organization you work for, there needs to something that gives you hope in what you’re fighting for each day. Especially in a world that gives you so much to be disheartened by and so little to be hopeful about, it is impossible to teach and to do it well if there is nothing you can find within your school to give you hope.

I don’t mention the kids, because of course you can find hope in any kids that you teach. But the kids are simply a product of the system they are a part of. I have no doubt in my mind that my kids could be successful if they were part of a school that understood them and adapted to their needs and allowed them to learn and grow. But due to a long list of factors that include a CEO with no knowledge about the population he serves, a leader with no clue how to run a middle school, and a truly unbelievable first year of a school that opened without a building until January with its first day outside on a playground, the school was floundering. There were 18 fights within the first three weeks, over 1500 office referrals in the first quarter, and absolutely no learning going on in the entirety of the building, especially if you consider the amount of growth that these kids needed to make if they were going to catch up to the rest of the country.

Ultimately, this is what made me leave. I truly felt that my school was a disservice to the children, that they were better off before walking through the halls of my school than they were after one year in it. And although I poured my soul into the school and did everything within my power to teach them as best as I could, despite all the other circumstances, I am only one drop of water in the ocean of my failing school. As much as I want to be the white horse riding in and saving the school on my back, I am one teacher and I don’t have the power to do that, no matter how hard I tried.

So mid-way through the year, I was faced with a choice. While I didn’t fill out a single job application, both of my roommates’ schools had openings and I ended up with 3 job offers in December. The choice was: I could either stick it out and stay at my dysfunctional school, knowing very well that it wouldn’t get better because, despite my effort, a school is a system that relies on others. Or I could make the hard decision to leave behind my kids who needed me, and my coworkers who feel like family, and the hours and hours that I’ve put into building the school over the last year and a half. But when I thought about it, the only reason that I could think of to stay was that I felt guilty leaving. And guilt should not be what you base your life decisions around. Feeling guilty is not a reason to stay at a job.

So I made the decision to leave. I explained it to my kids as best as I could in a way that they would understand that it’s not about them. (One kid said my “it’s not you-it’s me” speech sounded like a break-up movie). And I packed up my entire classroom to start over in the middle of the school year. As a person who always looks out for everyone else and has a hard time looking out for myself, the decision was hard. But I realized that this decision isn’t just what’s best for me. Ultimately, the choice is what’s best for kids too. Because I’ve been in this toxic place so long that I’ve started to lose sight of what I’m doing, and I’ve forgotten what it feels like to believe in what I’m fighting for. Even if this move is only for the remaining 6 months of the school year, rediscovering a sense of hope that functioning schools do exist, and that there can be joy in teaching, is absolutely necessary if I’m going to continue teaching and fighting for kids.

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