Teach for America recruits intelligent, motivated new teachers, but what happens once they are in their placements? One of the essays in Keeping the Faith in Education takes us into one teacher’s experience as a first-year TFA corps member.
Caring Enough to Quit
by Abbi Heimach
On a winter Monday morning, I found myself wondering how my life turned into shepherding hyperactive children into straight lines. I walked through the hallways picking up six-, seven-, and eight-year-old children from their classrooms to take them to my class for differentiated support as their Individual Education Plan (IEP) indicated. What will happen today? Will Andrew’s interruptions prevent me from finishing my lesson? Will Trevion hit someone? Will my kids learn anything I try to teach them? While I waited for five of my students to form a line, Rodell, a sweet, hyperactive first grader, turned to me and said, “Ms. Heimach, I am just filled with so many questions!” There I was, anxiously expecting the worse, and Rodell’s words humbled me. His words gave me absolute joy, and I hung onto them praying he would never lose that deep desire to question and think critically.
This was my purpose: to capture my students’ desire to learn and facilitate their growth, push them when they lost hope, love them when they felt excluded, and celebrate with them in their successes. I am convinced that teaching is one of the noblest professions. It is not a job for those looking for recognition, money, or easy solutions. Instead, it’s a job for servants to the unknown future, for people with hope and belief in children and how the world could be.
When I graduated college I was ready to jump into the education world, teach, and learn from my new community. I started teaching as a Teach for America (TFA) corps member—hard-working, idealistic, and unprepared—and after a year, I learned that teaching was not for me. Therefore, I decided to quit teaching. I quit because I cared—because it was right for me and my students. I write to lift up my colleagues who taught me so much, and I write to celebrate my former students. Here is a piece of my story as a teacher.
I joined TFA because I wanted to change the world. I had just spent the last four years of my life studying inequality and injustice, and I was ready to do something about it. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was passionate about learning and liberatory pedagogical methods. Because I received an amazing education from teachers who had dramatically impacted my life, I decided to teach as a way to give back. I benefited from an unbalanced world, and I had to work to balance it. TFA’s mission is to provide an excellent education to children who did not have access to one. It resonated with me. Their demand for excellence in their compelling recruiting rhetoric caught me.
Except for substitute teaching over spring breaks and facilitating some adult Bible studies in my undergraduate research, I had no teaching experience. This was the case for most TFA corps members. Therefore, the summer before we started teaching in our regions, we were required to go through an intensive teacher training called Summer Institute. During Institute, we learned some basics of teaching, or, for some of us, how to utilize our achiever type-A personalities. TFA assigned me to teach secondary history, and for six weeks I woke up before five every morning, taught two high school students U.S. History with a teaching cohort (we did have three students until one of them threatened to kill us), learned about teaching in the afternoons, learned about literacy in the evenings, and wrote lesson plans until at least eleven every night.
I was in survival mode, living in a way my mentors had warned me against. There was no time to rest and rejuvenate and no time to reflect—a key part of justice work. Even though my two students were juniors in high school, they were on an upper elementary reading level and lived in a part of the country that seemed foreign to me. Training in the Mississippi Delta region, it didn’t matter that I was an American like everyone else there; I was white and middle class and as much of an outsider as an outsider could be. Something felt wrong to me. I knew nothing about what it was like to live in Mississippi, I did not know how to teach, and I was basically told that it was up to me to change the lives of my students and prepare them for college. I wasn’t ready to admit it to myself, but maybe this was not a good fit for me.
After Institute, we all moved to our regions in the country, and for those of us who didn’t have a job yet, we quickly found some housemates, signed our leases, and searched for jobs. My region happened to double their corps members that year, which meant finding jobs for all one hundred of us. My region had a relationship with the public school district, and after the laid-off district teachers were rehired first, the district was required to hire us second, before hiring outside traditionally trained teachers looking for a job. I was conflicted about someone like me, without any experience, getting hired over a traditionally educated teacher with more experience. But as the first day of school approached, I became worried about finding a job. I still didn’t have one. Our regional office put pressure on us to accept jobs outside of what we were originally assigned and prepared for. The most available jobs were in special education and, unbelievably, what qualified me for secondary history according to my state also qualified me for any grade level of special education (as long as I took continuing education classes and more Praxis tests by the end of the next year).
I didn’t feel right about teaching special education. I didn’t know much about teaching, let alone teaching children with disabilities. I babysat for a child with autism in college a few times. The child had a violent outburst once, which I knew could be a reality when teaching special education. I didn’t want to be in charge of a classroom until I knew I was prepared to keep my students and myself safe. I wanted to teach students in an environment where they could be successful and where I could meet their needs. Addressing these concerns, I spoke with the TFA executive director of my region, and she responded to my concerns with, “Abbi, do you always think about the worst case scenario? It’s very unlikely you will have to deal with that in the classroom. We don’t place our teachers in classrooms like that.”
She was wrong. Midway through September, after school had already started, the school district placed me into an elementary special education classroom. Without ever being trained on working with students with disabilities, writing an IEP, or teaching elementary-aged children, I entered the classroom. I remember how nervous I felt the first day. I had no idea what I was doing, and I was scared to let my colleagues know how unprepared I was. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. Throughout my year, my students did have violent outbursts. Most of my daily concerns, though, surrounded teaching students with reading disabilities how to read and how to help students cope with severe attention disorders. As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, my TFA worries drifted away because I had a job to do, to be the best teacher I could be for the children. It was the first year my TFA region had special education corps members. Therefore, I had to rely on my school colleagues to teach me how to write IEPs, lead IEP meetings, track my students’ IEP goals, and manage students’ behavioral challenges. I had one other special education colleague who had a Masters of Special Education and special education teaching experience, and we shared an office. She is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met, and working next to her helped me focus on my goal as a teacher. I wasn’t going to achieve perfection, and she helped me believe that was okay. I survived because of her. She and my school psychologist walked me through the IEP process, and gave many tips on incorporating movement into lessons to help keep students’ attention. I learned to use timers as a reminder to give positive feedback, and for when to give them “brain breaks.” My other colleagues gave me advice and curriculum, encouragement and support such as, “Andrew responds well if he has classroom responsibilities and freedom to walk around during a lesson,” and, “I have this extra math curriculum that you can use, Abbi.” Their knowledge, relentless pursuit for the children, and passion helped me learn how to teach. I loved the school, the students, and the community there, and I am thankful for the many ways they helped me. Thanks to my colleagues, I was better at managing my classroom, differentiating my lessons to meet my students’ needs, and creating a loving classroom environment where my students could come to me for support. I still had a long way to go, but I was getting better.
My students were amazing. I had one student who told me hilarious, vivid and random stories, and would ask me for raw kale from my lunch. Apparently he thought it tasted like candy. He had one of the most severe cases of ADHD that my school psychologist had ever seen—stopping mid-sentence and running laps around my classroom. But once he was back, he usually had the right answer. I had a second-grader who was on a kindergarten reading level, was incredibly loving and could paint beautifully. If she could control her temper, at the end of the day she had permission to paint. I had students who internalized a hard-working mentality—“We need to work with urgency!”—and students who could always be a friend, learning to share and not care if someone cut in line. At my school, we called everyone friend, and each of my friends grew in the classroom by the end of the year, even when they had identity factors like class, race, age, and ability working against them.
Even my friend Trevion had growing moments.
Trevion had a tumultuous home life. He experienced the death of a parent at a young age, and had severe emotional and behavioral challenges. He was one of those students you woke up in the middle of the night thinking about, wondering where he was and if he was safe. In the classroom, he could barely focus on anything for ten seconds, and he was absent so often I wondered if growth was even possible for him. But one day in the spring, I saw him be a friend and a teacher to one of his peers. Mimicking my teaching style, he explained, “Zach, you can do it. All you have to do is go one, two, three, four (holding up his fingers) and five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Is it okay if I write on your paper and show you?” I saw him look over at me in the corner of his eye and I did my best to stay calm—giving him the appropriate encouragement—instead of breaking out into song and dance with excitement. On another day, I observed him stop the school secretary and give her advice by repeating a phrase we would say in my classroom all the time, “We can mess up, but we can’t give up.” These were world-stopping moments for me. They brought tears to my eyes and gave me hope when teaching seemed impossible.
Despite the many joys I experienced while teaching, every day was a struggle. I went to bed with high anxiety about the next day, and I awoke dreading the day to come. My responsibility as a teacher weighed on me. I wondered, “Are they reading enough out of school? Do they know their letters and sounds?” I felt helpless because I really didn’t know how to teach young children how to read, let alone children with unique reading disabilities, and I knew so much depended on learning how to read. I saw how my colleagues taught reading techniques with excitement and had creative individualized work plans for their classroom. I knew they had more experience and training than me, but I couldn’t imagine how they had time to prepare all their amazing lessons. The days were long and draining, and the nerves I felt whenever the students entered my classroom made it even harder to spend hours in the evening perfecting my lesson plans. I was scared to let my colleagues know I was having a hard time because I wanted to support them—when I knew they were challenged by some of the children we shared—and I wanted to be strong.
I also was afraid to admit to myself that I lacked the passion my colleagues had. During a weekend in February, I visited one of my best friends from college. With her in the car, I started sobbing uncontrollably. The thought of going back made my body hurt. My friend said, “Abbi, you don’t have to do this.”
“Yes I do! I made a commitment to teach two years. I have to do this. I have to just get through this year and then one more year.”
“Just look at yourself, Abbi. There will be other jobs that you are passionate about. You don’t have to do this.”
That was the first time I considered quitting, really quitting anything in my entire life. If I am not passionate about teaching, is it right for me to teach? Teachers told me that they also had no clue what they were doing their first year. TFA teachers told me that the second year of teaching is so much better. Despite that I grew tremendously as a teacher, I was unhappy. I wasn’t prepared to meet the needs of the children. When I sat around a table leading an IEP meeting with my colleagues and the parents of a student, I was in that seat not because I had passionately studied and pursued teaching special education as my colleagues did, but because my race and class privileges gave me an education that helped me jump the hoops that traditionally-trained teachers had to take. My students’ parents had waited months for their children to get tested and qualify for an IEP. They were parents who were desperate for the school to help their children, and TFA put me there untrained and as a cultural outsider. If my TFA acceptance letter had placed me in special education, I would have rejected the offer. My students’ parents believed in me, they supported me and trusted me, but they didn’t know that I wasn’t trained to be there. I believe that was ethically wrong. Therefore, I decided to break my commitment with TFA to teach for two years and only teach one year. The thing is, if I truly had been passionate about being the very best special education teacher I could be for the rest of my life, I would have stayed. I would have put in more of the extra work with my colleagues—the sweat, the blood, and the tears. That’s how I work. Those are the types of people TFA wants. But I realized that I didn’t have the same kind of passion for teaching. So I quit.
Two of my housemates, who were also TFA teachers, sat me down to talk. They knew I was quitting, but I hadn’t announced it publicly yet. It was about eight o’clock at night, and I had just gotten back home after the school musical rehearsal and filming a music video to pump up the students for the upcoming standardized test. I was just getting ready to write my lesson plan for my principal evaluation, but they needed to talk to me.
Abbi, we want to tell you why there’s been some tension in the house. We know you’ve been putting in a lot of extra hours on the school musical, which we recognize has been great for you, but we think it’s detracting from your students. You work less than us and frankly, we think you’re being selfish. We know you’ve been having a hard time, but you don’t have multiple classes like we have, you don’t have the type of behavioral problems and language problems as we have. Your job is easier than ours, and so you really don’t have a right to be upset. Quitting makes you seem weak.
One of them continued with, “The day you went to both Zumba and yoga, I thought, ‘Wow, in what world could I ever do that?’ I didn’t come here to be a twenty-something and have fun. I came to make a difference, and you’re letting your students down by leaving.”
The other described, “I’ve lost respect for you, and I really don’t see the point in living the day-to-day life with you.” “You know what?” I answered, “I’m so sorry I work less than you.”
One responded, “Thank you. I appreciate you acknowledging that.”
My school colleagues knew how hard I was working, how much I cared, and when I told them what my housemates said, my colleagues said, “Just look at how hard you work, the growth your students have had, and how much this school loves you. After the position you’ve been put in, I couldn’t do what you do.”
Many offered their guest rooms and couches. After I told them that I had decided to leave teaching at the end of the year, they celebrated the work I had done, but understood my need to change careers. “Abbi, this school was blessed to have you, and wherever you choose to go, you will bless that community as well.”
My colleagues were inspiring and remarkable teachers. I saw them pour soul, time, and love into their classrooms, often while having families. Some had one or two master’s degrees. Most were jumping at every opportunity to learn more, meet individual interests and needs for their children, lead extra-curricular activities, and spend days off further preparing for their lessons. I celebrated with them during moments of student achievement and learned from them how to get up and try again when failures occurred. Yet, I observed a fatigue that demonstrated their need for greater self-care and their emotional desire for public support. Teachers deserve to be supported. They are the saints of our world, and if we truly care about putting students first, about preparing them for the pursuit of their dreams, we have to support teachers.
I quit teaching because of my care for children and their education.
I care deeply about children having the right to an equal opportunity education so they can pursue their own passions and potential. Students and parents deserve a teacher who genuinely wants to be there, who will want to put in extra hours while listening to their own personal needs so that they can re-energize and sustainably continue teaching. Students deserve a teacher who is healthy and supported.
My journey taught me that sometimes caring for students is recognizing when it’s not right to be there anymore. I quit because my students deserved a teacher who wanted to be there more than me. Who actually knew how to do the job, who could soulfully work longer hours, and who was from the community. I quit because I cared and I loved my community too much to stay.
When I helped with the school’s musical, the students performed a song at the state’s performing arts theater. As the kids entered the grandiose theater for the first time, their eyes opened wide.
“Look at that!”
“We get to perform here?”
It was amazing to witness the excitement the students had seeing the stage and performing in front of hundreds of people. There were moments my colleagues and I thought the children would lose all ability to control themselves and the show would fall apart. But instead, after a disastrous dress rehearsal where the kids forgot their choreography and directions, they pulled themselves together. What we saw was inspiring. As teachers, there was nothing else we could do for them. They went on that stage—butterflies in their stomachs and all—and sang and danced their hearts out. Energy poured from their words and movement into the crowd. The glitter from their costumes and props sparkled, and the students adapted to the new environment flawlessly. Through the love of teachers, the joy of children, and the hope of a better world, their performance showed me that it wasn’t up to me to “save” the children. The hope was there, the love was there. We just need to support those whose deepest desire to educate fits the world’s deepest need for education, so students are empowered to help themselves.
Since leaving teaching, I’ve learned to better listen to my intuition and follow my calling. I’m happier and healthier than ever before, and I feel more empowered to continue my dream of positively impacting the world. And now, as I move on to pursue my vocation, I’ll be here, cheering on and supporting teachers and students the best way I can. I treasure what I learned from my experience teaching, and love my former colleagues who are still there.
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