So, when I heard that tonight’s speech was titled “What’s Next at Teach For America,” my heart leapt, then sunk, then leapt again. As someone who has been (impatiently) waiting to see the results of the listening tour undertaken by Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, TFA’s co-CEOs, I was excited to see what was coming next at the organization. But then, of course, came the doubts and the jaded nature you can get when you’re part of an organization for five years. Would there really be anything new? While I’ve seen TFA change throughout my tenure—I came in as a corps member, and now am part of the social-media team—I wasn’t sure where the event’s message was headed.
If you don’t know me, I joined Teach for America’s social media team about two months ago. Before that, I worked at Teach for America Hawai’i. Before that, I was a 2009 L.A. alumna who left the classroom for a number of reasons (two-word summary: panic attacks).
I’m not bringing this up because I need you to have my bio, but because I’m about to speak mostly from that experience. I want to be completely upfront about what this piece is: this piece is another personal experience (like Chad’s) to provide, perhaps, some counterpoint for discussion. I’m not your numbers and facts go-to, like our super-smart Raegan Miller has shown here and here. When I mentioned to Chad I was writing this, he said something I really appreciated. So, I just want to tell you some stories. Oh, then ask a question.
During my two years in the classroom, I was placed early in a pretty large charter management organization in Los Angeles. My time there was fine, but admittedly not perfect. This piece is also not a champion of the charter movement, because I have a lot of complex feelings on charter schools and their role. Instead, here are three reasons why I struggled with Chad’s piece based on my own experience:
When I came to the difficult decision to leave my students, I wasn’t sure WHAT was next in my career path. My interests were still primarily in education. Yes, I could get a job on Teach For America’s staff (which is how my story eventually ends), but after two years of being completely steeped in education reform, part of me needed a breather.
So, when a private materials distribution company came knocking, I listened. I interviewed, and I eventually took a job there— but not without some reservations.
It’s easy to feel guilty about “going private” (as one friend put it). Just because you left the education world doesn’t mean you’ve lost the experiences and lessons you learned from your time as a corps member. There are a ton of ways you can stay an active member of our alumni movement while in the private sector.
After I made my peace with taking a job in the private sector, it was still an adjustment. Looking back, here are some things I wish I had realized when I made the leap from the non-profit world to a corporation:
What if you’ve already fallen head-over-heels for this person? NOW WHAT?!
I had the unique experience of interviewing someone who married someone in his corps (they now have 2 adorable kids). Here’s what I took away about making it work:
- Have boundaries for what you discuss, and be willing to talk about it. Like I said, venting can spiral into something much deeper if you’re not careful. Be proactive, and discuss how much time you’re willing to devote to that. I once heard of a couple who, if they vented for more than 5 minutes, had to put $1 into a date night jar. Cute!
- Do things that are not teacher-based. It’s okay to have a conversation that has absolutely nothing to do with education, students, your school, education policy, your MTLD, or anything else education or Teach For America related In fact, it’s highly recommended. You should push each other to grow personally and professionally beyond your work, not get stuck in the same rut.
- Be proactive about how much of your relationship should go public, especially if you work at the same school. Keeping things from your superiors never goes over well, and you want to be on the same page when it comes to students. Every couple does it differently, just makes sure you’re on the same page.
- Try not to take things out on each other. When you’re frustrated with your students, it’s easy for that frustration to permeate into other parts of your life. Don’t be afraid to say, “hey, can you give me a few hours?” and take some space, or tell the other person that you’re in a weird head space. This leads to the most important part of, frankly, any relationship:
- Be honest and communicate your feelings and needs as much as possible. I seriously can’t stress this enough. The biggest thing I learned from my relationship while I was in the corps was that people can’t read your mind. There was no way he could know that I didn’t want him to try and fix my problem with Marco graffiti-ing all over my walls (nor was he able to), but that I just needed him to listen and tell me it was going to be okay. You have to tell your partner what you need from them, or else how can you expect them to give it to you?
Sometimes, love comes from where we least expect it. That means that love (or at least attraction) can punch us in the face in the middle of a content collaboration session during lesson planning.
Dating in the workplace isn’t normally recommended, but when “your workplace” also means “everyone you know in the region,” it’s absolutely possible that the next handsome gentleman or lovely lady who catches your eye also teaches down the hall.
And that makes sense. At Teach for America, we’ve gathered a group of people together who, while bringing myriad experience to our work, have fairly similar work ethics and values, as well as the ability to build good relationships. Odds are there’s going to be lots of chemistry. LOTS of it.
(It also doesn’t hurt that Teach For America people tend to be fairly good looking. I have no science to prove that, but when I look at the corps I was in, the people I work with, and the people on the sidebar who write for TeacherPop, I think “Ya, I buy that.”)
There’s a lot of dissenting opinions on finding love in the corps. I’ve had friends totally against corps dating. I’ve almost met quite a few people who have found their soulmate in the corps]. From my 3 years with Teach For America, here’s a look at the pros, cons, and how to make it work if you make the deep dive into Teach For America love.
“There are few things in my life that are certain. I don’t know how much I’ll pay for a gallon of gas or milk next week, I don’t even know how much I’ll have to pay to finish school next semester …There is one thing that I am certain I want to do: I want to teach.”
That was the opening statement of my letter of intent in September 2008, when I was applying for Teach For America. I wasn’t being facetious either. I had been planning on teaching high school English since I was 16. When I was placed at a charter school teaching high school English. I figured I was in this for life.
Life has a funny way of working, though, and a year and a half later, I found myself weighing the options of either staying and seeing my students (many of whom would be seniors) graduate, or combing the TFANet JOB board (which is amazing, by the way) for a new position after finishing my second year.
It was a difficult pill to swallow. Admitting that maybe, just maybe, my once-dream job was not really what I was meant to do was really humbling and terrifying.
When it happened, the first thing I would notice were their eyes. It was never a flash of realization, but rather a wave. I might stutter, start to sweat, lose my train of thought, and would start to realize this was more than just a brain hiccup. I’d notice that they were all looking at me. As the wave washed over the room, my heart would start hammering, like thunder rolling in during a storm. An imaginary hand pushed down on my chest, and I would feel an intense desire to hide or run outside– anything to not be looked at. It felt like all I could see were 35 pairs of teenage eyes watching me, and eagerly anticipating my next move.
Of course they were watching me, though — I was their teacher.
I’ve been dealing with panic attacks for most of my adult life. They don’t happen often. What’s more frustrating is that, like many who deal with anxiety, there’s no specific trigger that sets them off. High-stress jobs or situations don’t tend to spark them. I’ve fallen down a cliff (seriously), and I’ve worked pretty high-stress jobs without panic rearing its ugly head. In fact, the first big attack I had in college occurred after a particularly annoying apartment move. In addition to all the chest tightness and flight instinct, anxiety also likes to play tricks with the mind. During that move I began to irrationally fear my own death. At two in the morning, I called my mom sobbing, convinced that the mole on my chin was cancerous and that I was going to die that night.
By the time I was accepted into Teach For America, though, anxiety attacks were pretty rare. Therapy had given me the tools to deal with panic as soon as it felt out of hand. Somehow, I even managed to get through my first year of teaching without experiencing an abnormal level of anxiety. Sure, I still had the normal, “Oh crap, what am I going to DO with them right now/tomorrow/next week?” that most of us experience. For the most part, though, I found myself going through the typical emotional first-year-teacher cycle.
During my second year, however, I noticed that being in front of my students had become more mentally taxing than I realized. Nothing had changed: I was still exercising as much as I had my first year, and the classes I taught were arguably less stressful. The only that had changed was the way my mind reacted to being in front of 35 kids in rotation for 8 hours a day.
“I don’t know how to talk ‘Teach For America”
“I don’t think I can really be real when I’m around [Teach For America staff].”
These are both comments I have heard from alumni and corps members since I joined staff, and certainly heard from my peers when I was a corps member myself. One of the unexpected places I heard it though? The Teach For America Latino Staff Summit this past month in Washington D.C.
They came up when we were asked to talk about our “authentic leadership.”
I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel that way once myself.