Teaching in the D

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 19 2012

Why I Left Teach for America

As some of you know, I left Teach for America in December. It was a hard decision, and I’ve tried to write about it several times since then, but none of the posts was quite right. I think now I’ve got it close enough to make public.

There’s something of a wall of silence around quitting in TFA. All of us know someone who has done it, and in some corps (including Detroit 2011), a lot of people seem to disappear. Most of those of us who leave don’t want to make a ruckus. We stay quiet because we have friends in the corps and they are doing the sort of amazing work we always hoped to do. We stay quiet because we need to heal and close the wounds. We stay quiet because we have this feeling that, if we just had one more chance to do it over, we could get it right. We stay quiet because TFA said “you are a successful person, so you will succeed” and we haven’t, so there must be something wrong with us.

A story might help illustrate this. It was a dark night, almost any night, and I was driving back from the TFA office along the highway. It’s after midnight, and a school night. I’m thinking about everything I have to do the next day, and suddenly my car hits the rumble strips on the side of the highway. I jerk back to reality and pull my car back into my lane, only to drift back into rumble strips a few minutes later as my eyes close for a second in exhaustion. I wonder if I could take a day off tomorrow to sleep and regroup, but I have no sick days until January (a school policy) and a training class that there will be some mysterious but frightening ramification if I miss. And, honestly, I can’t bring myself to care about a little car carelessness or what it might cause. So I keep driving, fall into bed for a few hours, and get up. The next morning, my braking is jerky and the next night I make friends with the rumble strips again. Over and over and over again. How I never hurt anyone, I have no idea, and I don’t like to think about how long my lucky streak would have lasted. I never told my bosses at my school or TFA, because what could they do? “Nothing, except find you less fit to continue and throw you out of the corps, or berate you and send you back,” said the voice in my head.

A few months later, after I quit, I ran into a friend from Chicago on the street. “You look great!” he squealed. “You’ve gained so much weight!” Having always been on the pudgy side (and gained about 30 pounds since my graduation from college), I made some sound of confusion and hurt. “Honey,” he said gently, “you looked sick this fall. We could watch your face fill back out when you came in for a night and slept while we helped with your grading. You look healthy now.” I had never seen what he was describing in me, but I knew exactly what it was. I had seen fellow corps members, many of whom left, have the same look – thin (regardless of body weight), hollow eyes, and an air of fragility normally associated with the very sick. Most corps members never get it, but those that struggle the most do, and many of us leave.

Like many corps members (whether they complete their service or not),  I have mixed feelings on TFA. There are days where I wish I hadn’t gotten in, or gone. These are days where I read an article about leadership development citing TFA and I begin to hyperventilate until someone holds me and convinces me that it’s over, that I don’t have to ever go back. There are days when I am angry at the lack of care for corps members’ schedules, preferences, talents and needs. Why couldn’t they provide the curriculum support I needed? Why did they make me teach something I didn’t understand over all my objections and failures? Other days, I recognize that it made me a better person to have done it, even for only 6 months. I learned that teaching, although not middle school, is a passion of mine. I’m applying to graduate school in the fall so that I can become a professor, which I had never imagined myself doing before. I have all sorts of ideas and experiences about urban education, urban development, and workforce development. I have lots of particular issues and ideas for TFA, but that’s just the sort of person I am. I always want to change the system, improve the formula, find new and better ways of doing. Maybe someday I will.

One last story: about a month before I decided to quit Teach for America for good, I drove to Chicago so I could be there for about 12 hours. I had started having a panic attack during a required Saturday leadership event, and realized the people who could calm me down were in Chicago. So I texted that I was coming after the event, got in my car, and took the highway going the opposite direction of my apartment. I arrived and started calming down. At one point I whispered, “When I’m here, I remember how to be happy.”

To any current or future corps member, please remember that you can be happy. If that’s being in the corps, then do it with all your might and know there is a silent corps ready to support you. But if it isn’t, don’t be afraid to leave. Quitting TFA is a mythical act while you’re in the corps, and no one knows how or what the ramifications will be. It’s shameful and scary and potentially expensive. Do it anyway if you need to. Life on the other side is an adjustment, and you won’t be immediately blissful, but it gets better. You can be successful, and happy, and do the things you want to do. The scariest part is deciding to find that other path.

To my friends, fellow corps members, institute CMA, and family: thank you so much. Thank you for supporting me when I decided to do TFA. Thank you for encouraging me when you saw I wasn’t doing well. Thank you for letting me know it was okay to leave. Thank you for helping me recover since then. I am safe and happy now, and I will be successful again one day.

59 Responses

  1. I’m glad to here that you’re doing so much better. This sense of deep unhappiness that people have while in the corps seems to be pervasive. I hope people take your cue and continue to bravely write about how being a CM can leave one forgetting how to be happy. Without strong voices, like yours, I’m afraid that the necessary change will never come.

    • Thanks, Jay. I really hope that it helps some corps member. I know reading Wess’ blog (http://wessie.teachforus.org/) really helped me, even though we ultimately made different decisions.

      • Wess

        I’m still not sure whether I made the right decision by staying or if I should have quit!
        I’m still healing from my time in the corps, but I often wonder if it would be taking me so long if I had stood up for my mental health earlier and taken control of my life. I also have these faint urges to go back to education, and part of me thinks if I’d left TFA a year earlier, I might have felt more able by now to follow those inclinations and start working on the achievement gap again–but as of now, I still can’t really talk about teaching without this sort of PTSD/flashback effect that scares me. Maybe if I’d taken control and gotten out, I wouldn’t still be feeling so scared?

        I did some volunteering recently, and I was making copies on a big office copier for about an hour. It was a small personal triumph to be able to stand there, making copies, hearing and smelling copier sounds and smells, and feel happy and good about my life instead of sinking into teaching echoes and feeling broken.

    • Also, I really should’ve proofread that comment before posting. I’m an embarrassing English teacher.

    • TFA 04

      I would simply urge CMs to try to have some perspective.

      Most CMs (myself included) came from high achieving backgrounds and were constantly being told how smart and talented we were.

      For many CMs, being a teacher is the first thing many of us ever *truly* had to struggle with academically or professionally. And that can be depressing…particularly when you’re accustomed to being successful at everything.

  2. G rammy

    Hannah darling,
    I hope this was cathartic. You are a very special person, with incredible talents. Whatever direction you ultimately choose, you will make this world a better place. I love you.

  3. I identify with so much about this post! Granted, we were often on the same page this year. I am first and foremost so glad to know that you are doing well and enjoying Chicago!

    Reading your post reminds me of times this year when I have driven to work and had serious concerns about whether I needed to pull over or if I could make it the next 8 miles or so to work. (Fortunately this hasn’t happened recently… I’m not sure if I’ve gotten used to it or have forced myself to get more sleep. I think it is the latter.)

    I think your advice on being happy is invaluable. I’m still debating whether this is a career that will ultimately make me happy. I know this year there was (still is, perhaps) a long stretch of time where I was definitely not happy. (The husband, family, and friends have put up with a lot this year!) I know you were committed to your kids and you worked much harder for them than I have this year. And I know that you will be an awesome professor if that is the career you decide to pursue. (Maybe not quite surprisingly that route is on my radar… why I think you rock.) I am glad you are happy and healthy. I appreciate you reminding me to strive for that as well! Be sure to continue to keep me updated on your adventures. =)

  4. emmanuel

    I also quit TFA, although thanks to the kindness and encouragement of a lot of people close to me in my school, I was able to complete one year. I identified with your post on every level. When you’re in the corps, even when your own health and well being is in jeopardy, you often feel like quitting is simply impossible; a “mythical act,” as you describe it so well!

    I’m so happy you had the courage to do what was best for you and that you are finding happiness and success as you move on. Good luck to you!

  5. hill

    Thank you for sharing. This could be my post on why I left. I’m glad you’re a healthier and happier person! You did the right think for you and it took a lot of courage.

    The “mythical act” is head on…you never, ever, believe it could actually happen.

  6. TFA 04

    I’m a TFA alum from ’04…and my two years were very difficult. Ultimately, however, I’m thankful that I stuck it out.

    While I won’t make judgements about those who have decided to leave, as each circumstance is different, here is my message to any future or current corps member reading this thread:

    1) It can get better if you CHOOSE to make it better….and yes, you have to work your a** off for that to happen (even harder than you already are).

    My biggest regret from my time as a corps member was that I didn’t realize that sooner….I wasted too much time focused on how miserable I felt rather than just focusing on what I needed to do. But once I stopped doing that, things got better almost right away.

    Remember: it’s about the kids.

    2) Teaching is a lifestyle choice. If you want a simple 9-5 job that doesn’t require you to take work home, teaching isn’t for you. Period. The sooner you realize that, the more at peace you will be. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a life…it just means that sometimes you have to make hard choices.

    3) Even if you don’t think your students would care if you left, you MUST understand that kids take it VERY personally when you leave.

    Even the worst-behaved kids really do want their teachers to like them and believe in them. When you leave it confirms (for them) that you don’t.

    • Thanks for commenting! You are completely right about how kids take a teacher leaving. I hadn’t been with my kids very long, and I still got handfuls of goodbye cards. I dedicated a day to speaking with my kids about why I was leaving and how they could use this opportunity to have a better year with the incoming teacher, and I think that helped a lot. Even so, it’s definitely difficult for everyone involved.

    • TFA 04, I’m curious to know what your placement school was like and what kind of supports you had. While it’s true that many factors that determine happiness are within a CM’s control, many more are not. For instance, I happen to be at a school with reform-minded administration and several fellow CMs, in a region that’s small enough that my PD has half as many CMs as most–plus, I live within easy driving distance of the TFA office, where I can get all the support I need. I didn’t really choose any of these circumstances (at least knowingly), and while I do work my @$$ off, I’m not sure this year would have been survivable without them.

      It’s good to be reminded that we’re ultimately doing this for the kids, but I don’t think what CMs to hear is, “If you fail, it’s because you didn’t want it bad enough.”

      • TFA 04

        Mr. K- My school was probably a fairly typical TFA placement school….although we did have a few particular challenges. For example, we had 3 principals and 3 assistant principals during my 2 years there. As you can imagine, that’s not exactly a recipe for a successful school.

        The school faced lots of discipline problems…lots of fights, disrespect etc….plus low teacher morale.

        That said, my PD at the time visited my room and worked with me probably as much as they did any other corps member.

        It was hard. I shed some tears, vented to a lot of people (to whom I’m now very grateful for putting up with me). Ultimately, I was able to get a bit better over time, but it was never easy for me. I thought about quitting MANY times.

        But I stuck it out for several reasons:

        1) I knew I had made a 2 year commitment and felt I should keep my word if at all possible….after all, I was the one who signed up for this.

        2) I knew that unless/until I had truly exhausted every possible solution to improve my teaching, i could not justify (to myself) quitting on those kids, particularly not in the middle of a year. Our school had several “long-term subs” in the building…and I knew what effect that had on the school and the kids.

        3) I saw several plenty of teachers who COULD handle it and who COULD get things done….and none of them had the added benefit of having gone to top-tier schools or coming from privilege. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?

        So, yes, on some levels I do feel frustrated when I hear of CMs quitting….because I know that their problems are ultimately solveable. At the end of the day, YOU are the one who has the most direct control of what goes on in your classroom.

        I don’t consider myself “above” any CM that decides to quit per se…..because I thought, felt, and said many of the same feelings that they’re feeling. What I feel instead is a sense of lost opportunity and disappointment.

        But instead, I simply encourage corps members to take the long view…teachers can and do get better.

        And remember: many of these schools TFA places in already have high turnover. So quitting isn’t going to “make a statement” to anyone. They’ll just find another teacher and move on…and just add you to their list of teachers who “couldn’t handle it”.

        • Thanks again for commenting and keeping this conversation respectful. I will dispute one thing in your reply. I’ve known a fair number of people who left the corps and no one did it to “make a statement”. Leaving is an enormously difficult decision and none of us take it until we feel we have exhausted our options (I, for example, changed my living situation so I didn’t live alone, went through live management coaching for several months, began submitting detailed lesson plans to my MTLD in advance every week, and had curriculum development discussions with the professor who led my cert group). When we leave, we do so because the situation has become unsafe for ourselves and our kids. Those of us with the ability to do so facilitate transitions to other teachers. For example, I discussed my replacement with my administration and left a detailed document describing everything from my management system to what I had taught to how to feed the class pets. Obviously, teacher transitions are difficult for everyone invovled, including the CMs who remain in the school/region. And, on behalf of those of us who have chosen this path, thank you for finding your way of succeeding. I’m sure you made an incredible difference for your kids (and perhaps still are).

          • TFA 04

            Thanks for your reply as well and for sharing your story. I hope you see that I have tried to avoid sweeping generalizations about people who decide to leave.

            Naturally, I wouldn’t expect a teacher who is in an unsafe situation to remain there….and each person is their own best judge of what they can handle.

            I’ve been speaking from a point of frustration. While I’m not on staff, I still remain connected to TFA through friends & family who are…

            …and it frustrates me to hear stories of teachers who quit part way through and then go around blaming Teach for America for all of their problems.

            TFA is not a perfect organization, but it does bother me when people refuse to take ownership of their circumstances. (I’m not suggesting that this applies to you). That’s not to say that everything is the fault of one person either…but the buck does need to stop somewhere.

            I’m also frustrated when I hear CMs complain and act surprised about things that TFA is very open and upfront about:

            For example:
            -”This is hard”
            -”But I didn’t want to teach in a rural (or urban) area”
            -”I didn’t want to teach ____ grade or ____ subject”
            - “I dont want to do all this extra training”
            -”My school is bad.”

            These kinds of sentiments frustrate me because a) it’s not about you and b) anyone who does their homework about TFA before applying would know that all of these things could happen.

            Simply put, TFA is a *service* organization….it’s not an honor society, a social club, a camp counselor job…or just a chance to go some place exotic. Teaching is a profession that people go to school and get degrees for….and should be approached as such.

            Anyway, most of what I said is not directed at you specifically, Hannah…..but I feel the need to comment on some of the things I’ve seen and heard since I finished my time in the corps.

      • I don’t criticize any individual CM for quitting, because everyone comes to the table with their own issues and every situation is different, but I do agree with TFA 04 in general.

        I’ll give a little background for my view: my placement was extremely difficult in general; my school was among the most violent in my region, and most teachers started (and some ended!) the first year I was there with no curricula or texts. It was also difficult for me personally, as TFA saw fit to assign me both a region and a subject area that were near the bottom of my list of preferences and definitely outside my cultural and academic skillset, and I was also dealing with some personal problems at the time. Additionally, we CMs didn’t have a lot of support from TFA itself, for various reasons I won’t get into because this isn’t the place for an angry tirade and I suspect I don’t have the whole story anyway. Most of the other CMs in my district were in a similar boat, but only one of them left. The rest of us adapted, with varying degree of success, on various metrics of success.

        This experience contributes to my conviction that both one’s mood and one’s ability to act well within a given situation ultimately come from inside. Circumstances and external support can make it easier or more difficult to find this inside oneself, but ultimately it’s on corps members themselves to both figure out how to live in their new skins and to do good in their new community. It’s not a matter of how much one wants it or how skillful one is, but rather of how to adapt without losing one’s core.

        I think TFA would be better off if they explicitly looked for people who have experienced true personal failure and know how to be resilient in the face of it.

    • Rosie

      Thank you for sharing your thought provoking insight and experience with TFA. It was priceless for me, a potential TFA CM. Joining the corp is a serious decision and your advice gives me a better idea of the level of commitment required to be successful. Now, that I have an understanding that to be effective intense focus and dedication are a must, I can make a more realistic decision in regard to moving forward.

      For this, I am grateful. Eternal thanks.

  7. TFA 04

    Another thing that I hope future and current CMs realize:

    YOU are the person who has the most control over your corps experience.

    TFA can help you. Your colleagues can help you. But ultimately it’s up to YOU.

    No amount of feedback, observations, and lesson sharing, etc can replace your own hard work.

    Simply put, TFA can’t want you to be successful more than you do. They can’t teach your class for you.

    Grab the bull by the horns and own it.

  8. contemplative

    I’ve been googling you to try to send a response, but I will leave it here. I am a Chicago 2011 corps member and found out my contract won’t be renewed for next year. I am struggling with it and maybe would love to talk to you about it, as I am thinking of next steps for me. my email is [REDACTED]. Thanks for your entries!!

  9. I’ve had a really bad year doing a fellowship in an urban school in Chicago this year. I’ve committed to joining TFA but I’m reading this now because I literally googled, “I’m scared to join TFA” and was somehow redirected here.

    What Hannah is describing is the exact sentiment that I currently have towards teaching and my current school. It is amazing how you can completely lose yourself and the things that make you happy because you are trying so hard to do something that just isn’t for you. At some points in the year I have literally felt like a shell of my former self. A friend said to me, you are still bubbly . . . but it’s like this light has gone out in your eyes. Word bro, word.

    I feel like I owe it to myself to try one more school, but the hopelessness and guilt that Hannah describes, I’m already uncomfortably familiar with. The year has been a failure, I’ve been going through and dealing with things that TFA teachers at my current school say are all too normal and I don’t know if i want to do it again.

    I am going to go to Las Vegas in two weeks . . . but I’m so freaked out that I won’t be able to finish. I don’t want to feel this feeling again that I have to finish so people aren’t let down. It’s honestly too much. Plus I’m aging like the president.

    When people write, “it isn’t about you” that makes me concerned because as much as it is about the kids, if I am mean and psycho to them . . . it becomes about me. I’ve said things this year that I NEVER thought I would say. It’s shameful. I’ve obviously been talking with people all year about my choice to commit. But they have said multiple times that I need to get my attitude in check before leaving for institute, otherwise it will poison my TFA koolaid so to speak. I don’t know how to get that sense of hope back. I feel like if I can’t change my attitude, I’ll quit before institute ends. HELP.

    • Hi Jenna!

      First: Breathe. As much as it seems weird for me to say this, everything will work out in the end. Irrespective of what you choose, your life will rebalance and move on.

      Second, think about WHY you’ve had a difficult year this year. Was it because of a single event or inexperience with management techniques? If so, getting two fresh changes of scenery (institute, then your placement school) might be great for you. You can start over and be the teacher you wanted to be. On the other hand, if you’re having difficulty because you don’t like being far from home/friends or the routine of teaching doesn’t give you the time and space you need, then you might want to reconsider joining.

      Third, pick a few people who will be your support system if you decide to do TFA (institute is very supportive, so don’t worry too much about that). At least one should live within a four-hour or so drive. Have them read Donna Foote’s book (Relentless Pursuit) and read it yourself. One of the best predictors of your success in TFA is whether you have a support system that will make sure you are taking care of yourself and staying sane.

      Fourth, figure out what you need to be happy. Is it working out? Sleeping in on Saturday mornings? Going to religious services? Eating home cooked meals? All of the above? Then look at some TFA corps members’ schedules (remember, institute is weird, so look for fall schedules) and see if you can reasonably fit those things in (including looking for whatever facilities you’ll need).

      Finally, take some time off for yourself before institute. (Not moving, packing, preparing, etc.) Just relax, reflect, and get out of your teacher headspace for a while. And remember the following two things: No job is permanent – you will have to leave/change jobs many times in your lifetime, so it’s not the end of the world if you leave this one. Second, TFA is an amazing experience, especially if you are mentally and physically ready for it.

      • Thanks so much for taking the time to write that out Hannah. It seems like really good advice. I noticed this year when I was going to a dance class after school, even though it meant staying up 2 hours later than regular, I felt more normal. I guess I’ll have to find something like that in Vegas. I’ve continued reflecting and am actually feeling a little better about starting somewhere new. I was talking to my friend and he was like, why don’t you just commit for the moment? Say I’m going and that’s that, instead of wondering what could go wrong. So, I’m going to try Vegas. Wish me luck :) and thanks again. By the way, I’m from the D, did you at least get the chance to fall in love with the Tigers?!

        • Hannah

          No problem, Jenna! I’ll definitely keep my fingers crossed for you (and be here if you want support/encouragement/to check in with someone).

          Sadly, I never had a chance to get into sports in the D. I did, however, develop a deep love for certain family-owned restaurants. And Jets Pizza – I really miss that!

  10. I think people generally understand what they are signing up for with TFA, however, I’d argue that “alignment” is EXTREMELY important when it comes to placements. One CM might be a ‘Teacher of the Year’ candidate in one school, but flounder at another. IN the MS Delta, while all schools are poor (obviously), each school/district faces unique challenges. It’s hard to the play the “what-if” game, but there’s definitely something to be said for different factors. One’s region, district, school, grade, subject, and even hall can have a tremendous impact on your experience.

  11. Marie

    I haven’t had time to read all of these replies, although I read about half. I firstly want to say thank you to Hannah for being so forthright with her post. You put the words to a lot of feelings I’m sure many, many people struggle(d) to express.

    I know that for me, leaving TFA never felt like an option. I think a discussion surrounding the mythical nature of “quitting” and the language (re: guilt, abandonment, giving up, etc.) TFA instills in CM’s from day one of Institute is necessary. You feel guilty for even CONSIDERING leaving the program, before you’ve even met your students. This is a tactic of psychological control that is well executed on the part of TFA (or at least the staff I encountered) and I feel it is wrong.

    I quit very suddenly after finishing a term of teaching in a very rural Southern area and it was made near impossible by my TFA mentors. My own PD called an emergency meeting with me and his own Director, whom I’d never met, and she sat there and cried. I understand the deep connection so many feel to the mission of TFA and I wholeheartedly respect it, but this I felt was an extreme I can only compare to things I have read and learned about cults.

    The messages I received from other leaders in TFA were laden with insinuations of me being heartless, selfish, and anything BUT caring for my kids. There seems to be a disregard for the fact that if a CM makes it as far as having an actual classroom of students whom they show up for every day, selfish is the last thing they are.

    I quit in October and still, today, in July, feel just as guilty for leaving as I did when I decided to quit. It is difficult for me to talk about and difficult for me to stay in touch with my students because of these feelings, which I know people view as self-deprecating, deserving, or self-imposed. Whatever anyone thinks, I know that leaving prevented me from becoming a sickly individual incapable of teaching anyone, nevermind the wonderful, curious, and under-appreciated children in my 4 classes.

    I have followed up with my students and know that they had a successful year, with a teacher they connected with, and performed well on their state exams. The messages I internalized from my 6 months with TFA force me to still feel guilty despite this reality, to still wonder if I could have helped them do better. TFA manipulates its CMs psyches to enforce this guilt and to keep those who leave from speaking up. Until now I have not written one thing about my leaving and have not sought others who feel the same. I am done being manipulated by this program that purports itself to be so inherently good. I want my happiness back.

  12. z

    Hi, I have a friend who is miserable. I was wondering if you had any tips for getting out of tfa? What is involved and how to do it smoothly?

    • If it’s TFA that’s upsetting him, he’s a district employee, not a TFA employee. TFA doesn’t like it and can make your life a bit rough, but if your school is happy with you it’s certainly possible to keep working but just not participate in TFA. If it’s his actual district contract he wants to break, I would recommend he talk to the local union/teacher’s association rep first to get the scoop on the possible and probable repercussions.

      If he’s at a non-unionized charter school, I got nothing.

    • There are many ways to leave TFA, some more considerate and official than others. First, your friend should have a long conversation, preferably several times with several people in his/her personal life. What is making them so unhappy? Are there things that can be done to fix it (by your friend or others)? Should they quit? Second, your friend should talk to someone within TFA about the situation and how they feel about it. This doesn’t have to be their MTLD (TFA supervisor), and is often a fellow corps member or a non-supervisory staff member. Other TFAers can honestly advise whether or not the organization can help. Third, your friend should talk to someone at the school where they teach, if the unhappiness is caused by school issues. Leadership, support staff, specialty staff (such as those who work with students with disabilities), and other teachers can really pitch in.

      If your friend has decided that leaving is the best option for them and the kids, there are two paths: The “official” path and the unofficial path.

      The official path involves declaring to their MTLD that they intend to quit. This is typically followed by several rounds of intensive coaching, mentoring, and referrals to other support sources. Whether or not this is a good option depends on the MTLD and your friend’s timetable. With the start of school approaching, it may be best to cut this process short and avoid starting school at all (if that is a possibility). However, if your friend thinks there is a chance they can do well and be happy, this is a good way to get support and then legitimately say “I tried everything” and divorce himself from TFA.

      The unofficial path is to speak directly with the school where your friend is a teacher. This is the route I went. I had spoken with the principal and vice principal many times and had intensive coaching to no avail. After Thanksgiving, I made an appointment with my principal for my planning period. I spoke with her about the issues in my classroom and the advice I had gotten from veteran teachers. Then I handed her a letter of resignation which offered that I would stay for two weeks but would provide lesson plans until a new teacher could be brought on full time. I know other teachers who stayed until the nearest break or until a replacement could be found. I then called TFA and told them I had resigned, which I believe surprised no one. Remember, the school is the one that pays teachers, not TFA and the contact is technically with the school.

      Either way, the end is the same. The MTLD should provide a series of forms – one formally leaving the corps, another to AmeriCorps saying they didn’t finish the year and forfeit the benefits. There is no momentary penalty for leaving, however the following fees may apply:
      1. The school that is providing courses for certification may require that tuition be paid out of pocket by your friend. Mine was pro-rated so I paid roughly a thousand dollars.
      2. Your friend will not receive the $5,000+ AmeriCorps award, which your friend may have planned to use to pay down college loans or use for graduate education. If your friend completes this school year and then leaves before the second year begins, they will receive one award.
      3. Your friend may have to pay interest on college loans that is often deferred during AmeriCorps – your friend should check with their loan providers.

      All that said, if the school year has not yet started, it is the best time to quit if that is what your friend needs to do. Your friend doesn’t know their kids yet and will have significantly less guilt about leaving. The school can find a new teacher before the kids have grown attached to one. The TFA staff can give each corps member a little more time and assistance. Just don’t skip the talking it through on multiple days with multiple people days. You can make the rest work out if you need to.

      • MDMD

        Thanks for being honest. I’m feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and at the end of my rope. I have panic attacks almost every night and morning thinking about going to school. It’s horrible and I really feel like my mental health is deteriorating as a result. My question is, what/how did you talk with kids about you leaving? What reasons did you give them for leaving? How did your principal/administration handle it? I really want to quit, because I think it would be the best thing for me AND the kids. However, I’m terrified of the consequences…not least of which the money (how am I gonna pay my student loans, grad school tuition, rent, TFA transitional funding, etc), and the reactions/treatment by my school staff and TFA. Please help me out, I’m desperate for someone to talk to about this.

        • I didn’t tell my kids I was leaving until my last day at my principal’s request. I explained two things to them – first, that this was an opportunity for them to start over. We all knew the discipline problems I was having were unacceptable and not common at the school. This was their chance to start working WITH their new teacher and learn. Second, that I had chosen to leave and had not been fired (like their previous teacher). I explained that my choice was because I believed in them and believed that they could succeed with a different teacher. They had already met the new teacher, so I think they understood that. I also explained what I wanted to do with my life – I was going back to Chicago, where I had gone to school, and the sort of projects I was going to work on (I was lucky enough to already have set up a new job before I left) and left my contact information so I could keep in touch with them if they wanted.

          My principal and administration were very understanding. They didn’t like what was going on in my room any more than I did, and also believed that the new teacher we had found would be a positive change. I offered to stay on until they could find and hire a new teacher, which I think was very important to everyone.

          The money issues are important – you lose a lot of benefits (not to mention salary!) if you leave early. Do you have an MTLD or UMich instructor you can talk to? I’m happy to chat offline (I can see the email addresses of people who comment) if you’d like.

          • MDMD

            Yes, I would really appreciate emailing (can’t actually talk on the phone right now as I’m sick with a cold.) But I do have questions about money, finding a new replacement teacher, etc. Thank you so much.

    • TFA 04

      The school year has only been underway for 2-3 weeks in most places.

      FIrst, I would tell your friend to take a deep breath and a step back before making such a consequential decision…

      …and ask him/her if he/she has truly exhausted all possible options for making things better. There are lots of things you can do to get better.

      Finally, if the person must quit….for God’s sake, be professional about it and do it the right way:

      -Talk with your MTLD
      -Give your principal some notice (2-3 weeks at least).
      -Don’t run your mouth, make a scene, or bad mouth anyone on the way out….and don’t be a martyr.

  13. TFA 04

    I don’t know what the specific situation is in this person’s case…so I won’t judge him/her.

    But it’s simply stunning to me, how many people will declare a “lifelong” commitment to education during their TFA interview…and then want to quit 2-3 weeks into the year the first time it gets tough.

    Look, I get it…teaching isn’t for everyone and it ain’t beanbag.

    But do your homework and know what you’re signing up for, for crying out loud.

  14. TFA12

    I literally just searched “quitting teach for america” and stumbled upon your post. I’m a 12 Corps member in Detroit and I feel like my life is completely miserable. All I think about is quitting and the toll that this is taking on my health. But I feel like a horrible person for wanting to give up, to reneg on a commitment that I made to this organization. And, more importantly, to these kids. Education is my thing and I just feel so lost so often. Reading this helped because you expressed every feeling that I have right now. I’m not sure what I’m going to do but it definitely helps to know that there are people who have done it and are stronger because of it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi, I am a ’11 CM in Detroit. I just saw your comment via e-mail because I commented a while ago when I saw that Hannah posted this in her blog. I felt like Hannah and I were on the same page about a lot of things last year, but our decisions were still very personal and ultimately different because I am still teaching at my placement school. I wanted to reach out because I know that there were many, MANY! times last year where I felt very stressed and very alone in my struggles. My first semester at my school was especially rough and it took quite some time before I felt like my administration really supported me and accepted me into my school’s community. I’m pretty sure my mother, friends, and my MTLD were tired of listening to me complain or burst into tears in the middle of meetings. I can’t (and won’t) make a judgment on what is best for you as an individual, but I know that as stressful as I have been at times in my (short) teaching career, there have also been moments that I would have greatly missed, both for myself and my kids, had I decided to leave. I want to encourage 2 things that I have personally found helpful. 1. I never “hung out” (i.e. worked like crazy) at the TFA office last year. It seems counter-intuitive, but going there to lesson plan and work with partners this year has really been a life and sanity saver. The vibe with ’12 CMs there is more positive than I feel like many of us experienced as 2011s. (And many of us struggled and left TFA) I just think there is something helpful for me to be around people who are sharing in the same struggle/ hard work as you. 2. Reach out to others and don’t struggle on your own. I know it is easier said than done, because I certainly struggled on my own for quite some time last year. (This year I probably complain a bit too much to others!) If you want someone to sit and listen I am personally willing to grab hot chocolate with you. (You probably don’t want to post personal info here, but I do believe you can comment on my blog on here and I can see your e-mail address and get in touch that way.) I’m not someone who will give you the official TFA line… there is absolutely no way that they would ever want to hire me into the organization. Don’t feel any pressure to get in touch, but I would love to be helpful in any way that I can. I think a lot of CMs left last year because they didn’t feel supported, or felt like everyone around them was ‘drinking the kool-aid’. I just knew that my induction and institute roommates both quit, along with 2 of the people that I felt closest to in the corps and I had to figure out why I should stay.

      • ProspectiveCM

        Hi @amandainthemitten, I am in the final interviewing process for TFA and am very interested in teaching the Detroit. However, I have been hearing recently the difficulties TFA is facing there. Do you think the struggles/challenges you have had while teaching in Detroit have stemmed from the dissent and resistance from veteran teachers in the DPS system? Do you feel like you have job security in a district that has laid off more than 400 teachers in the past year? Is your ability to approach learning in a creative and innovative way thwarted by the red tape put up by the people who have a disdain for TFA?

        As a Michigan native, I believe teaching in Detroit has the potential to be a region where the highest impact can be had, but is there a place for CMs in a district where veteran teachers have been laid off? Are the bureaucratic battles being fought in Detroit worth the personal and professional battle that a TFA CM might endure as a result? I am really interested in your insight on this and appreciate your feedback!

        • So many great questions that I really don’t have good answers to! :( I personally knew that I would be teaching in e D because my husband is in school in Michigan. (I am still a young professional so I can’t speak to any added responsibilities of raising a family, etc. while in the corps) I was actually placed in a charter school that brought in several CMs my year after having 1 the previous year. The school is definitely struggling so there was a need just as any of the schools we are placed in, but it was expanding so none of the staff felt like we were taking any jobs, etc. I have only received minimal pushback this year when I switched school buildings, but most teachers are supportive and willing to help me grow as I am in my 2nd year. I am sure the experiences of CMs differs greatly based on the school, but I have heard many positive stories of CMs working with each other and with veteran teachers. In DPS, CMs join the union but I am not sure of the specific deals/rules that TFA has negotiated with DPS or the current EAA where many CMs are located. I also know that several CMs have taken leadership positions as representatives for their teachers in unions and I. The Michigan PTA.

          In terms of job security, I know that some CMs from the 2011 corps did have to switch schools over the summer, and some were laid off at the beginning of the year when my high school unexpectedly shut down. In all of these cases TFA worked really hard to replace CMs and were effective in doing so pretty quickly. The 2nd science teacher at my school, a ’12 CM was actually placed into a new school a day after he found out he would be leaving and before he officially ended work at my school.

          I am fairly certain none of the above has been particularly helpful. My 2 years have definitely had their ups and downs, but I feel like my focus has been more on my classroom and the policies implemented by my school administration than the drama of the school system in greater Detroit. I have heard that Detroit can be a tough region, compared to some others… but in saying that I can’t compare to other regions in reality and I would never want to diminish any difficulties/ struggles in other regions. I am personally thankful to have taught in Detroit and worked with the TFA staff and CMs in the city even with all the stress and difficulties I have had these past couple years. Good luck with the interview process and feel free to check out my blog or ask me if I can be more helpful!

  15. gmason

    Just wanted to say thank you for this post. As a 2013 CM, I haven’t even entered the classroom yet. I am still very confident in my decision to join TFA, but I think it is important for me to hear all sides of the story–the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’m currently in a master’s program for education, and I know that teacher burn-out is a very real thing. The better professors in my program always emphasize the need to take care of yourself physically and emotionally. I’m hoping I’ll be able to do that successfully as a teacher, but I’m also glad that you had the sense to leave when that wasn’t possible for you. Wishing you all the best.

  16. Broke TFA

    I am a current CM in the South and came across your post since I plan to leave after my 1st year of teaching. There are so many factors that come into play that I feel it is necessary. I simply cannot afford my bills! Between the long drives, rent, personal bills, tuition for certification, and the transitional loans (which I cannot pay right now), I am finding it hard to break even at best. I’ve contacted TFA about the situation but they have only reduced my monthly payments minimally. I’m exhausted all the time and having financial stress on top of the workload just doesn’t seem worth it. I’m glad I can at least stick it out until the end of the school year but I am sad that I will let my MTLD and principal down.

    • TFA 04

      Broke TFA- I understand that things feel stressful right now and I can completely understand that it is not fun to have additional stress piled on top of stress from teaching. I totally get it….so I offer a few suggestions from a place of understanding and compassion. I urge you to think bigger picture. Here are a few things to consider:

      1) If you leave your job without another job to go to, your income goes to zero, which only makes things worse. Your benefits go away too (unless you pay for COBRA)…and you won’t be able to save anything either. You may also have to move, which costs money (moving truck, storage, gas, plus the costs of getting a new place to live, deposits etc)

      2) If you leave the corps, TFA usually requires that you pay back the transitional loans within 30 days. (I believe this is the case…my sig. other is on staff).

      Also, if you quit before the end of your commitment you lose your Americorps Award….personally I think it’s crazy to forfeit thousands of dollars of free money, especially if you have student loans to pay off or if you plan to go to grad school. It’s just a bad financial decision. My Americorps award in 2006 was worth over $9,000…not a small amount if you have loans or tuition to pay.

      3) Take a really hard look at your budget and what you’re spending your money on….or ask a trusted friend or family member who can give you tough love to do it for you. Be honest with yourself about where you can cut back. I don’t know you personally, so I’m not making any judgements at all, but look at how much you spend on going out to bars, dining out, clothes, coffee shops, etc. Where can you cut back? For example, do you need the premium cable package? Can you take a less expensive vacation? Can the new phone/tablet/laptop wait? Can you find a cheaper place to live or get a roommate if you don’t have one? etc.

      4) Truthfully, a single adult should be able to live comfortably on a full time teacher salary…even in the South. It may not be luxurious or upper-middle-class, and it may not be what you’re used to (again, I don’t know you)….but it’s VERY do-able. (I personally lived for a few years in grad school making less than what you’re probably making now…and I wasn’t homeless or hungry…it can be done.)

      5) If possible, have your necessities (like utilities, rent, car insurance, student loans, retirement savings, etc) be set on “autopay” from your bank account. This way you’re forced to pay those bills first before you do anything else.

      In short, your situation is not uncommon, but it’s also very solvable. Plenty of teachers across the country live on salaries like yours everyday…and even have kids to support.

      I just urge you to think carefully about this decision. Make sure you’re not trading one set of worries for a new set of worries.

      Best of luck!

    • TFA 04

      One more comment about the long drives that you describe. If you have a long commute, is there a way to live closer to where you teach?

      As I mentioned in my earlier reply, my significant other is on staff with TFA in the South…and sees this all the time. Many CMs choose to have really long commutes so they can live “close to town” or in a trendier neighborhood. If this applies to you, have you considered living closer to where you teach? It may not be as trendy or as nice, but chances are, you’ll be able to find a grocery store and most of the other things you need during the week. If you want to go out, or go to town, you can always drive into town on the weekends. But, personally, I don’t recommend accepting a long commute (I define “long” as more than a 30 minute drive).

      A long commute does a few things: it costs a lot in gas money (especially at $3.50 or more per gallon), it deprives you of leisure time that could be spent relaxing or doing other things, and it puts wear and tear on your car (another hidden cost). You’d be amazed at how much you can reduce your stress by simply getting your life back from commuting.

      But just as importantly, living in your school community has lots of advantages: you get to know the community, you feel more like a part of things and you can understand what your students’ lives are like a little better. Plus, believe it or not, many students and parents LOVE to see their teacher around town just doing “normal person” things like getting gas or groceries, etc. I’m not suggesting that you live somewhere unsafe….but I am suggesting that you explore your options for living closer to your school. It really helps your relationships with parents and students if they can see you as part of the community.

      When I was in the corps, I was placed in my hometown (ATL)…and so I had the added advantage of knowing the community a little bit already. But as a result, I could tell a difference in how I was able to relate to people compared with other CMs…I knew the streets, the landmarks, who the local leaders were, where people went to church…and I knew how to talk to people like a local. Even if you’re not in your hometown, trust me…it makes a big difference if you are able to know your community.

  17. Sarah

    This still seems fairly active, so I’ll throw out a comment and see if I get a response.

    I’m a college senior applying for the 2013 corps. (My phone interview’s Monday -eek!) I’m undecided about joining right now. I was hoping if you or one of the commentors could answer a question for me. How much free time do you have a corps member? Obviously, I understand that the average day will be pretty busy – class time, plus maybe helping kids with stuff before or after school, and then working on lesson plans and grading at night after you’ve left. That’s what you get when you’re a teacher. But, what about the weekends? Does TFA make you do any sort of training/workshop thing most weekends, or do you get those off to catch your breath?

    Even if I decided tomorrow that there’s no way I’m doing TFA, I’m still doing the phone interview though, just for the good practice for other interviews in the future!

    • Hi Sarah,

      The short answer: You have very little free time. Whether TFA will require your presence at weekend training varies by region – we did, but some of my friends in other regions had never heard of such a thing. As a first year, most corps members are so busy that they have to designate a “sacred day” (or half day) so that they can do things like grocery shop and do their laundry. Second year corps members, because they have many of their lesson plans written and have worked out some classroom tips that reduce take-home work, are often able to take Saturday or Sunday entirely as ‘free time’. Keep in mind that in addition to your ‘day job’ (teaching) and your ‘night job’ (planning and grading), and 10-ish hours of TFA-based professional development, some regions require that you complete your Master’s while in TFA. That adds another 5-10 hours of class per week and another 5-10 hours of homework (plus writing a master’s thesis your second or third year of teaching).

      Good luck on your interview!

      • Sarah

        Thank you!

        Is there information anywhere about which regions require the Master’s while in TFA? The idea of dealing with TFA stress plus Masters classes stress sounds a little much for me! :(

        • Meg

          If you go to the tfa website under “where we work”, each region has an “expenses” page that lists the certification requirements, including whether a masters is optional/required. I will say that almost every region requires outside coursework in addition to TFA professional development, usually done through a partner university. While it doesn’t necessarily require a master’s, its almost inevitable that you will be in class at least once a week. The only two regions I’m aware of without any additional coursework are Nashville and Memphis.

    • TFA 04

      Many of the replies to this are generally correct. You will need to spend some time outside of teaching pursuing certification (unless you already have it), in addition to grading/planning.

      So yes, you will be busy during the first year in particular. But as time goes by you learn to work more efficiently and to manage your time better.

      Personally, i was able to still have some free time and to occasionally get away on weekends, but it was hard in the first few months.

      This is a full-time job in every sense of the word….but many people can and do do this job everyday across the country. And no, college is not anywhere close to being like a real full time job, no matter how busy you may feel. But remember: ANY full-time job with any kind of responsibilities is going to be more challenging than college. I’ve been out in the “real world” for ten years now…and college seems like a breeze compared to the jobs I’ve had since then.

      Frankly, and this is just my personal opinion….if you’re having serious doubts now, I think it’s better to just not do it at all than to start and then quit part way through. It’s not fair to the kids or the school for you to just come “try it out” for a few months. If you’re going to do it, at least promise yourself that you’ll stay all the way through one school year at a minimum. It’s far less disruptive to leave during a summer than to quit mid-year.

      I don’t say any of this lightly…my first year was very challenging for me…and I considered quitting on several occasions. But I stayed for the full 2 years and do not regret doing so. It got better over time, but I also had the personal satisfaction of knowing I kept my promises.

      I know I sound like I have an axe to grind here, but I’m saying these things because I’ve seen the effects of CMs quitting. My sig. other is on staff now…and I’ve seen too many CMs get caught up in the challenges of the moment and quit without taking a long view of the situation.

      • KIPPalum

        TFA04, I’ve noticed a thread through your comments of not quitting because you gave your word, hang tough, etc. All noble virtues, but some of us also realize that the mission of the administration or organization we work for is one that’s actually counterproductive to genuine education, and not being a party to it is the only way to keep our integrity.

        I wasn’t TFA but I taught at a KIPP school, so it was basically the same in terms of hours, commitments, philosophy, etc. Our principal was replaced by one who was only driven by data and test scores, and the shift went from being a liberal arts high school to doing well on state exams, with measurable outcomes on 3-minute exit tickets every day. Was that how you were taught? It’s not how I was taught; it’s not how any well-educated person I know was taught; and it would not be tolerated by parents who knew what a good education looked like and knew how to advocate for their kids.

        I left *because* I loved the kids, many of whom I had known since they were 10 or 11 years old because I’d lived in the area for several years and had connections with them through church, their feeder schools, community orgs, etc. When I said “this has nothing to do with you,” they knew it was true, because I visibly enjoyed the time I was actually with them; but I couldn’t support the new agenda.

        I still see many of them; 4 of them stay over at my place at least once a week.

        People have a variety of reasons for leaving, and sometimes it has nothing to do with not being able to cut it.

        • TFA 04

          We actually agree on many things…and I am personally concerned with the direction that TFA/ed reform has taken over the last few years, so I share some of those concerns you described.

          But most CMs I’ve encountered who are leaving (or thinking about it) aren’t leaving for philosophical reasons. They’re leaving usually because it’s too hard or because they didn’t do their homework about what they were getting into.

          That’s my issue with alot of these comments here.

        • TFA 04

          To add to my previous comment:

          My issue isn’t with “leaving” per se. People leave jobs all the time. Just do it the right way…leave at the end of the year. Be professional about it. Realize that you affect the lives of LOTS of students.

          Don’t punish the students by abandoning them in the middle of the year.

  18. MDMD


    This was yet another contributing factor to why I left (though bigger ones like my mental health, feeling hated by the kids, not liking them or teaching, etc were more top of mind). In my region, you could choose either to just do certification coursework (you would need to at LEAST do that in every region unless you’re already a certified teacher) or to get your masters. The certification coursework was less, so I went that route. I still had literally no free time- I was lucky if I got to go out and be with my boyfriend or friends *maybe* one night a month. The rest of the time was literally FILLED to the brim with planning, grading, calling parents, entering grades, coursework, or TFA requirements and meetings. The absolute lack of socializing or doing ANYTHING other than teaching was, at least for me, soul crushing.

    I thought I had been busy in college- I was a full time student with two challenging majors, I worked two part time jobs to pay my own way through school, AND I spent at least 15 hours a week in a lab and writing my research paper. So I thought, “busy? With just ONE job? I can handle it.” I was wrong- it was way worse than anything I’d ever done in college and not something I will voluntarily do ever again.

    Personally, I will never recommend ANY of my friends or family to join TFA. It was just a nightmare from beginning to end.

  19. Caesar

    I quit mid year (taught high school science). In my first few months my students:
    1. Threw textbooks, CDs, eggs, etc. at me.
    2. Stole multiple items from me (speakers, headphones, etc.). I caught one of them and had to file a police report.
    3. Spilled toxic chemicals in my classroom from a cabinet in the back.

    and much, much more… I can’t even remember it all now.

    Biggest thing I learned: The people who run (and teach at) urban schools are great. Even TFA has its heart in the right place (though the training needs a complete overhaul).
    The main problem is, we (as a society) have failed the kids. They have no real incentive to learn or behave in school. The culture that they grow up in completely screws them, and it isn’t their fault.
    Unfortunately by leaving I have simply reinforced that fact. I’m sorry to report I just couldn’t stand their terrible behavior for another moment. Hopefully others aren’t ever put in that situation.

  20. KeKe24

    Hello all, I was recently selected for the interview process. However, I wanted to know if TFA would consider letting me teach in my hometown Baltimore? I want to join TFA, however I cannot afford to move out of state. It’s this an option for me? Baltimore is urban and in need of teachers, is it ok for me to continue in the application process? Thanks

    • They’ll consider it, but they will not guarantee you a placement in Baltimore. Of course, you can always decline once you’ve gone through the interview process (and should if they place you somewhere you do not want to live.) If finances are your only reason, know that TFA does give grants to help with certain relocation expenses – you can talk to your regional director about this if you are accepted. However, if you have other reasons for not wanting to leave Baltimore, you can make those known and hope for the best and decline if you don’t get it.

  21. Alexandra

    I’m a first year corps member and I’m considering leaving. I don’t know how to find out, what are the ramifications if I do?

    • Hi Alexandra,

      It depends – you will probably have to pay out of pocket at least some of the tuition for your certification/master’s (which TFA would have paid if you had completed it). There may also be union dues/problems, but I can’t speak to those since I worked at a non-union school. If TFA paid you any transition assistance (for moving, etc) you may have to pay it back. Your life will likely be a lot easier from a financial perspective if you make it through the end of the school year (since things like the Americorps grant will come in to pay for your certification). Otherwise, the ramifications are mostly personal – trying to find a new job (either in your current city or a new one), explaining why you left the job after such a short time (usually anything less than one year is a red flag for employers – another reason to try to make it the last few months if you can).

      But, seriously, other than the money (which for me was about $1200, I can’t imagine it would go above $5000), the only ramifications are finding a new job and getting yourself to a good place about your decision. It’s not as scary as you might think – people quit jobs all the time, for a variety of reasons.

      • Alexandra

        Thanks Hannah, its the end of third quarter this week so I plan to make it through this last quarter. I am wondering, how did you get a teachforamerican e-mail address to write on this blog? I would really like to share my experiences, it seems you have gotten a lot of feedback and have been able to help struggling corps members like me.

        • It was an automatic part of induction process when I was a corps member. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how it works these days!

  22. Nicole

    I am a first year TFA teacher. I am considering not coming back for the second year, and taking another opportunity (still in education). I am curious about the AmeriCorps award. Will I receive any portion of the award if I complete at least one full year of teaching? And if so, does anyone know when the AmeriCorps award is actually disbursed?

    • Not sure when it is disbursed, but you will get one year’s award (they are done annually).

Post a comment

About this Blog

One Girl's Teach for America Detroit Experience

High School

Subscribe to this blog (feed)