I guess I’m now a statistic.
In the fall of 2009, I was a senior in college, excited to escape the “bubble” of my liberal arts experience yet terrified about what I might find outside. Facing a highly competitive job market and a dearth of marketable skills—I probably should have focused a lot more on quantitative work in my Political Science studies—I spent a lot of time thinking about where I should be headed.
Education was my first consideration. Growing up, talking about education was as much a part of family dinners as forks and plates. Both of my maternal grandparents worked in the New York City public schools; my mother has been deeply involved in our local school district (Lawrence, New Jersey) for as long as I can remember, first as a special education advocate for my brother, and for the last 9 years as the President of the school board. While I was fortunate enough to attend great schools my whole life, just a few miles down the road was Trenton, a struggling city with a troubled school system. The injustice of students having to attend inferior schools simply because they lived a few miles away was certainly not lost on me, and conversations with my mother on topics of education reform and school finance in the context of her school board responsibilities piqued my interest.
In college, I jumped at the opportunity to learn about the topic in greater depth. I wrote my thesis on the influence of teachers’ unions in federal education policy, and became well-versed in the issues. Yet my knowledge was all in the abstract: I read about educational inequity and agreed on paper that it was something that needed to be fixed, but I had never attended or worked in any of the schools that were apparently in dire need of improvement.
In that sense, Teach for America seemed like a great fit. I applied and was accepted into the program. I was placed in a turnaround charter school in Northeast Philadelphia with an administration of visionaries, a remarkably dedicated faculty, and a vibrant, supportive community. I spent the last three years growing alongside my students. I can’t properly articulate how incredible the experience has been.
Yet I’ve decided to move on. I have accepted an offer to write about education policy full time for StudentsFirst in Sacramento. Telling my students and fellow teachers that I was leaving was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. Though my skills as a teacher are far from irreplaceable, the guilt of causing any sort of disruption in a school I care so much about was almost too much to bear.
So yeah, I’m a statistic: another TFA corps member who left teaching after a few years.
I could try to cook up a justification for my decision. I could lie and say that I didn’t get along with my coworkers, or that my administration wasn’t responsive to my concerns. I could blame my curriculum. I could simply say that I didn’t have the fortitude to stay in the classroom long term.
But I’m not going do that. The fact is, I decided to leave because the policy world is a better fit for me and my skills; I believe that this role will allow me to have a bigger impact on kids. I have been obsessed with politics and policy since attending my first political rally at age 7, and always assumed that I would end up in the space professionally. (I also insisted on carrying around a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution throughout high school. It might have helped my grades in my U.S. Government class; it definitely didn’t help me get a girlfriend.) A great opportunity presented itself, and I decided to take it.
Of course, the transition is bittersweet. As I write this, I am thinking about my kids and their families; about my school and the incredible teachers who give their all every day; about Philadelphia, this city that I have grown to love; about my friends and family on the east coast that I leave behind. But I am energized and excited about fighting every day for policies that will make a difference for kids.
I’m not sure how active this site will be going forward, but feel free to contact me on Twitter @jacobwaters, or at jacob.waters (at) gmail (dot) com. I’ll see you on the left coast.