Mind the Gap: What's Next?

An inner-city schoolteacher wrestles with what to do after his two-year teaching commitment is up. For many second-year Teach...

An inner-city schoolteacher wrestles with what to do after his two-year teaching commitment is up.

For many second-year Teach For America corps members like myself, befuddlement became a way of life over these last two years. As we entered the education fray with little pedagogical training, we faced questions about content knowledge, instructional techniques, familial relations, union membership, health care plans, graduate school degrees—the list goes on. For many of us, the clouds of confusion never truly lifted. We learned to live in varying degrees of fog.

This spring, however, represented a whole new level of perplexity as many of us struggled with the additional question of what to do after our two-year commitment was up. From January until June, corps members dispensed with greetings upon meeting each other, instead cutting right to the chase: "Do you know what you’re doing next year?"

I agonized over this question. On one hand, I wanted to retreat to an area that I have some skill in and knowledge about—journalism and politics. Maybe more than that, I wanted my evenings and Sundays back—no more 80-hour work weeks and alarms going off at 5:30 a.m. Free me from the minutiae of grading and the agony of lesson planning and adolescent irrationality!

On the other hand, I love my kids. The last two years have carried with them some of the most joyous, magical, moving times of my life. This work gives me purpose, these kids give me energy, and the union gives me 10 weeks off each summer. I’ve gotten progressively better as a teacher—why not see if I can maximize my potential now that graduate school is finally over and I am starting to feel more confident?

I chewed over these questions for months and months. Back in August, I met with someone at Teach for America’s Alumni Affairs office. I was trying to be proactive, since the last thing I wanted was for my hand to be played for me and come back for a third year in the classroom for lack of another option.

Yet by mid-April, I’d made minimal progress. At grad school one day, I ran into a corps member I’d taught with during Institute a year and a half earlier. As the protocol went, we soon inquired about what each other was going to do after the commitment ended. He said he was going to Thailand to wring out the stress he’d incurred. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding, but the idea of fleeing the country was highly desirable. After all, when else would I get the opportunity to travel unfettered?

Part of me thought seriously about staying in the classroom—not out of a desire to teach (I didn’t really enjoy the day-to-day, frankly)—but a desire to serve my kids. My feelings were shared by many of my peers, who after similarly seeing educational inequity in the flesh, found it difficult to turn away. Further, after our underprivileged students had told us tales of woe and abandonment, how could we contribute to them?

With the help of a Teach for America event entitled "What’s Next?" I began to learn about the different means employed to reach the common end of parity in the public schools. I could leave my kids but not leave the cause.

While I pursued informational interviews at a nonprofit consulting firm and an international educational equity organization, both felt too removed from actual kids. I came quite close to taking an external affairs job at a charter school, but then withdrew myself from consideration because of my discomfort with charter schools in general.

Finally, I ended up right where I started—my school. I’ve come to believe most in the Harlem Children Zone/Promise Neighborhood model of linking schools with social services and community involvement. Here in New York City, the small-schools movement has chopped huge high schools into smaller, separate schools within the same building. To augment their resources, small schools partner with a community-building organizations.

Next year I will work as the director of a college prep program that operates in conjunction with (and within) my placement school. I have achieved my goals of having more autonomy, broader responsibilities, and a wider impact. My work-life balance will be healthier, or at least less unhealthy, and I’ll still be able to work with my kids.

The majority of second-year corps members I’ve spoken to are doing something similar. That’s right, TFA critics, whether it’s teaching at their placement school or a charter school, working for an education reform program like Teach For India, or a non-profit organization like mine, most corps members are realizing, after twisting and turning and hemming and hawing, that they want to stay in education, after all.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who just completed his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

Julian Meehan

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