I wrote this at the end of June 2016 after having left my students, my school, and Chicago Public Schools for the last time. It was the fourth Chicago school I’d left in five years—and it never gets easier to leave my students.
I always say that teaching is 80 percent relationship-building—once teachers and students have a relationship of trust, respect, and follow-through, teaching follows. That’s why leaving is always so hard. Some kids needed a week to warm up to me; some kids I finally reached the last full week of school. A third of the fifth graders I taught burst into tears on the last day of school—we hugged until we couldn’t anymore.
I connected with my Latino students, knowing that it’s hard to be bicultural or multicultural in an American society that prizes white bodies and norms. I practiced Spanish using Pimsleur audiobooks and newspapers like Hoy. I spoke my poor Spanish to let my students know I prized their language and would work to honor it.
Like my students, I grew up in an ethnic enclave, although I speak a different language, eat different foods, and have different traditions. Growing up among Chinese immigrants in New York City meant I got to explore my own culture and heritage, but it also meant, in an American education system, that I prioritized English and lost my Cantonese. Every day I wonder why, as a kid, I didn’t push myself harder to speak my parents’ tongue—and I know it was because we kids weren’t taught to love our native languages. Teaching for me means teaching my students to love themselves, their skin, and their languages.
I knew I was going to leave Chicago eventually by virtue of how I got there. I went to Chicago through Teach For America—I’d never left New York to live independently before and went there straight from college. I must have known that I was not meant to be there forever. Almost all of the people I know from my Teach For America Chicago 2011 cohort have either left teaching or left Chicago, or both. And after five years in Chicago, I felt this longing for my family and my culture. I felt the hurt that my parents and I don’t share a common language—I don’t speak Toisan Cantonese fluently and my parents don’t speak English at all.
When I arrived in Chicago, I was not ready by any means for what the city had in store—I was a green Ivy League grad not used to failure. I was not ready for the curriculum that would be far too rigorous for my students. I wasn’t ready for the prospect of striking, or for saving as much money as possible in case a strike happened. I wasn’t ready for the never-ending barrage of budget cuts and the lack of political will for education funding, and I was not ready for how bare-bones schools could be. I wasn’t ready to fight as hard as I did.
In many ways, teaching is a never-ending defense of ourselves as teachers. We’re constantly having to update résumés for fear of losing our jobs, whether through the defunding of schools, or through a flawed teacher evaluation system that measures test scores of students we don’t teach or who shouldn’t be tested in the first place, or through budget cuts, or through more insidious problems within school settings.
I survive and seek to thrive today because of the mentors and friends I made in Chicago. I’ve made an active effort to mentor those new to this system and to help us all not to get discouraged. Those relationships will last a lifetime by virtue of how hard we’ve all fought—for our students, for our schools, for our livelihoods.
Despite all of the chaos in urban teaching, especially in Chicago, I will continue to teach in New York. Nothing takes away from the satisfaction of putting the puzzle pieces together—who students are, what they want to learn, and how we will learn it together. I listen to what students have to say, and am working on making space for students to discuss and create new ways of thinking. Most days, a puzzle piece gets upended, but the days come when everything clicks and I know I have done my job.
When teachers leave, students must, must internalize it. Students might feel it’s their fault, or their neighborhood’s fault, that their teachers are always leaving. “Ms. Tan, will you be our teacher next year?” one student asked on my very first day of teaching. I found out later that this student had had three teachers the previous year—and that was the norm at that school. There must be some idea in some students’ minds that they’re not worth teaching, or that there are greener pastures elsewhere. It’s typically not the students that force teachers out, but students don’t know that. I made sure this time my students knew I was leaving for family. They understood exactly why I was leaving.
I remember all my students’ names—I’m not one to forget. I’m sure many don’t and won’t remember me, but I hope I made some difference in their lives. And I hope they know I did as much as I could for them, and that I will continue to do as much as I can for all of my students. That’s all I can do.