Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all
by Stacy Cowley and Neil deMause
August 6th, 2007 3:42 PM
The subway ads promise inspiration, fulfillment, and the kind of career satisfaction rarely found in an office cube. "Your spreadsheets won't grow up to be doctors and lawyers," one gently chides. "You remember your first-grade teacher's name. Who will remember yours?" asks another.
The posters are an effective lure for enticing dissatisfied corporate professionals and idealistic college grads to apply for the New York City Teaching Fellows program. Set up in 2000 as a collaboration between the city and the nonprofit New Teacher Project, the program aims to address the city's chronic teacher shortage, epecially in hard-to-fill areas like math, science, and special education. It offers a subsidized master's degree in education and a quick on-ramp to a new career. This year, nearly 20,000 would-be educators from across the country applied.
But recent fellows warn aspirants not to fall for the gauzy sales pitch. Recounting their initiation into leading a classroom, the novice teachers describe a scene that's more Full Metal Jacket than Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Seven weeks of crash-course training and summer school student teaching, they say, is no preparation for the realities of city classrooms.
"The year before I came, the kids set three or four fires in the school," recalls one fellow about to enter her fifth year of teaching first and second graders. "You're prepared that some of the kids aren't going to listen, but not for the things they're going to do—like throwing desks across the room. I had a kid taken away in an ambulance my first year because he just flipped out and was ramming into the door."
Adds another fellow who just finished her first year in the program, and is currently hunting for a new job that will let her avoid returning for a second: "I was pretty much thrown into the depths of hell."
By one measure, the Teaching Fellows program has been a remarkable success. A decade ago, talk of a teacher crisis was everywhere. An impending wave of retirements, combined with the city's high cost of living and salaries that lagged 20 percent behind the national average, created a systemwide shortage of credentialed teachers. The United Federation of Teachers, in a bid for higher pay rates, ran ads showing a classroom of children staring forlornly at an empty teacher's desk.
The advent of the Teaching Fellows program—along with the growth of Teach for America, a similar alternative credentialing program that operates nationally—has helped forestall those fears. Fellows now comprise 10 percent of all New York City public school teachers, and will account for 20 percent of this fall's new hires. The system will need them, because it continues to hemorrhage teachers as fast as it can hire new ones. Around 10 percent of each Teaching Fellows "cohort," the program's term for its entering classes of new teachers, drop out before the end of their first year. At least 30 percent don't make it through year three, and by the start of year five, less than half the program's recruits remain, according to Department of Education statistics. Those numbers are, DoE officials note, about on a par with other big-city school systems, which have long struggled with teacher retention.
Yet interviews with current and former teaching fellows reveal that one reason for the high turnover rate may be the poor preparation that the program provides for life in the classroom.
"Diana," like several fellows who insisted on using a pseudonym because she feared retribution from school administrators, had just graduated from college last summer when she joined the Teaching Fellows ranks. She was eager to move to New York and try out a career in the classroom. The year that followed she calls "the most miserable experience of my life," one filled with Kafkaesque bureaucracies, exhaustion, humiliation, profoundly needy students crammed into overstuffed classrooms, as well as sexual harassment from students and a co-worker.
Diana's frustration set in on day one, when she arrived for work at a Bronx middle school she had never before set foot in. After initially slotting in fellows to teach at schools without regard for either their desires or those of school administrators, the DoE has since reformed the system to require incoming teachers to interview for positions. That's in line with the Bloomberg administration's goal of giving principals increased control and accountability. Once admitted to the Teaching Fellows program, recruits are in charge of finding their own placements, with the help of job fairs, websites listing open positions, and word-of-mouth.
Diana, then a 21-year-old transplant from the Midwest with no prior teaching experience, went on more than a dozen interviews without landing a job. The Teaching Fellows placement office had promised that in the unlikely case she couldn't find any positions, she'd still be paid through December while serving in the substitute pool. ("They made it sound like a flight attendant saying, 'If the plane crashes, which never, ever happens . . . ' ") At the same time, she says, program officers ramped up the pressure to find an assignment before September. "It had been drilled into us at that point that we needed to find a job," she says.
The day before the school year began, Diana finally got an offer at a job fair and took it sight unseen. The position she accepted was to teach eighth-grade English plus one section of French—a language she didn't speak fluently but felt she could wing her way through with textbooks, which school administrators promised she would have in abundance. But when she arrived, she was handed a schedule assigning two sections of French, two sections of English, and one section of special education, a field Diana had no training in and says she would never have agreed to teach. And the promised textbooks never arrived: The school, she was informed by school administrators, had "run out of money" and had no books of any kind to offer Diana's French students.
"There I was, teaching special ed and a foreign language that I barely spoke without books," Diana recalls. "I went home every night and cried."
Her appeals to the Teaching Fellows placement office for help, she says, fell on deaf ears. "I said, 'I can't do this anymore. I'm teaching a foreign language I barely speak, and I can't teach it without books!' Their response was, 'You're in this situation, you have to deal with it. We're not going to help you leave the kids without a teacher. How could you do that?'
"I felt sorry for the kids, but I also felt sorry for myself," she continues. "I don't think the kids are getting a good education from someone who isn't qualified to teach them, especially without books."
Any program placing as many as 2,400 neophyte teachers a year into classrooms is going to generate a few horror stories, but fellows consistently report feeling overwhelmed and underprepared for the realities of New York City teaching. Veteran teachers, they note, have first dibs on choosing classroom assignments, leaving the tougher ones for unsuspecting newbies.
"Your first year they give you a class that's just wretched," says "Susan," 26. Her inaugural class, she says, included a haphazard mix of kids who had been left back a grade, kids with special needs that for various reasons weren't in special ed, and kids with known behavior problems. She believes some principals may see it as a useful trial-by-fire for new hires. "Because so many of us had that horrible first-year class, I can't see that it's an accident. They see it as an initiation—it's sink or swim."
Kimberly Wand, now 27, sank. After drifting through a series of unsatisfying office jobs, Wand joined the Teaching Fellows as part of the cohort that began teaching in February 2004. (While most fellows train in the summer and first enter classrooms in the fall, the program runs smaller mid-year cohorts as well.) Wand's group had no student-teaching exposure or classroom observation time, she says. After two months of training, Wand found herself in a classroom on her own with a full teaching load, including a "Ramp Up to Literacy" class collecting the school's most disruptive, learning-disabled, or disinterested students.
"I knew I would be going into a school that needed teachers, but I didn't expect the level of misbehavior in the classroom," Wand recalls. "I had never dealt with kids throwing things across the classroom. One time, I remember turning my back to write on the blackboard and noticing that the kids who were sitting by the bookshelves had ripped up a book. There were paper shreds all over the floor." One of her peers landed in the hospital after a dispute with a student ended with a door slammed into the teacher's head.
Wand occasionally used her prep periods to observe other teachers in action, but giving up her only planning time exacerbated the growing time-crunch and exhaustion she was feeling. By the end of her first year, she was having serious doubts about her new career.
"I was so happy I had survived. I thought, 'It has to get better the second year because I'm more used to it, '" Wand says. "It didn't. The problems were the same, the classrooms were still overcrowded, I still didn't have enough mentoring or someone to model for me how to handle a group of kids who are unruly."
Wand didn't make it past that second year. Midway through, she drew an unsatisfactory rating on a lesson review from her supervisor. Another observation, unannounced, also drew a critical review. Wand's pleas for advice and assistance in improving her classroom management skills went unheeded. At the end of the year, she was fired. A few credits short of her master's degree, Wand gave up on teaching.
"I could have fought it further, or I could have gone to Teachers College and transferred credits from Pace to finish my degree, but it had left such a terrible taste in my mouth that I decided to let it go," Wand says. "It's not a career I'm going back to at any point.".
Department of Education officials acknowledge that the Teaching Fellows program is a work in progress. They're continually adjusting the two-month pre-service training, they say, while moving more teaching mentors into individual schools. They also tout the new "open-market system"— "like a Monster.com for the school system," explains DoE spokesperson Melody Meyer—by which both new and veteran teachers can peruse job openings citywide to find the right match.
As for preparing new teachers for the classroom, though, Vicki Bernstein, the Department of Education's executive director of teacher recruitment and quality, says there's only so much any program can do. "From what I hear from everybody, it's just something that has to be experienced. There are some complete naturals, but it's just something you've got to do," says Bernstein. The most important thing, she says, is giving teachers realistic expectations. "A lot of people who are drawn to this think they're going to save the world in a day. And teaching is a tough task, even for experienced teachers."
While Bernstein acknowledges that many teachers have a rough time their first year, she calls it a bit of an urban myth that they all get stuck with nightmare classes. But she acknowledges that "fellows are going where there's the greatest need."
In practice, this has meant not just technical subject areas like math, where 25 percent of all city teachers are now teaching fellows, but other slots that veteran teachers often see as undesirable. Teaching fellows now staff 18 percent of special-education teaching positions and 14 percent of the classrooms in the Bronx. These are classrooms with the greatest need for confident, skilled teachers—but that's not what they get, fellows argue.
"I still really feel bad for the kids who had me the first year," says Susan. "Those kids did not get a good first-grade education at all." The constant turnover, she says, only makes things worse. "It screws the kids having new teachers coming in every two years. Because we all just burn out."
Marla Greenwald, 26, a fellow who since 2005 has taught at a Brooklyn K-8 school, is equally blunt in her assessment of her own first-year job performance: "I believe that I failed my first class. I mean that from the core of my being. I did not give them what they deserved as students."
Like many other fellows, Greenwald says that summer-school classes, the only in- classroom training Fellows get before assuming full teaching duties, are an inadequate representation of life as a city schoolteacher. "The summer-school classes are really small—you'll have 10 kids and two teachers," she says. "Then you get a class in the fall, and might have 30 kids."
Greenwald's own summer-school experience was with second- and third-grade classrooms; when she found a job, just one week before school started, it was teaching fifth graders.
Students and novice teachers alike suffer from the lack of preparation, she says. "I had a really rough group. I didn't understand how to teach them. I didn't understand how to plan lessons or execute them effectively. I started every day with a smile and ended every day feeling ineffective, frustrated, and exhausted." Still, she stayed up into the wee hours every night writing lesson plans, "because I felt like they deserved it."
After a "nightmare" first year, Greenwald says she's now happy with her teaching career, though it took two years before she started feeling confident about her classroom skills. Still, she doubts she'll stay at it long-term, at least not in New York City: "Considering the obstacles that I see systemwide, I could not handle this for the rest of my career. It's far too draining."
These are, of course, the same complaints that city teachers have had since time immemorial: impossible assignments, little support, and high burnout rates. The teacher pool is chronically leaky—and since the city is unable to plug the holes, alternative certification programs have at least allowed it to keep topping off with fresh recruits.
That may seem an unattractive characterization, but it's one that Bernstein, who both oversees the Teaching Fellows program and serves as liaison to Teach for America, does little to dispel. A 10 percent turnover rate per year is "not at all unusual in school systems," she says, especially considering that teachers are continually moving out of the classroom to other jobs within DoE as well. And though city figures show that the rate of leaving picks up at the two-year mark, after teaching fellows get their master's, Bernstein doesn't think the exit and the degree are necessarily correlated. She does acknowledge a widespread belief that fellows stay long enough to get certified and then split for the suburbs, but says, "We see no evidence of that."
Having to replace half of the teaching force twice a decade is, in Bernstein's eyes, just a necessity of modern life. "Nobody stays in a career for 30 years anymore," she says. "It is just the general labor market."
Even those fellows who stay, though, describe a system that works to drive out all but the most dedicated individuals. Sara Lippi is a Teaching Fellows success story. She's among the minority of all fellows who survive five years in a city classroom. After graduating from college with a degree in political science and Latin American studies, Lippi had brief stints as a paralegal and in public relations, but neither took. "Corporate culture was really unappealing to me," she says. "I couldn't continue life in a cubicle." After spotting the ubiquitous NYCTF subway ads, she applied to the program, and ended up teaching at Cypress Hills Community School, a bilingual school in East New York.
On the one hand, Lippi feels the program worked. "I love what I do now," she says. "I'm so glad I came into education, and I wouldn't have without a program like this." But on the flipside of the coin are the programmatic obstacles Lippi and her peers have had to overcome. Summer-school teaching, she says, "was a joke. Summer is totally different than the regular school year." Upon landing in her first assignment, she says she felt overwhelmed and unsure even what questions to ask, with little of the support she'd expected.
"I knew it would be hard, but I didn't know how hard," she says. "It's a tremendous amount of responsibility to be in a classroom with young people all day. You know you have the opportunity to do something positive, but you're also so ill-prepared in that situation that you could really do harm to these kids and hold them back. . . . I feel like I've grown so much and I'm getting so much out of this experience, but what are the kids getting?"
Fellows interviewed for this article unanimously recommended that the Department of Education arrange more in-classroom apprenticeship or student-teaching time for its fellows.
"I really think the DoE needs to put their money where their mouth is and pay for teaching fellows to have as long as they can—ideally a full year—to be an assistant teacher in a classroom," Greenwald said. "If the DoE would pay for that, teachers would be better equipped to succeed."
Lippi, who says it took three years of teaching before she stopped having doubts about whether she'd continue in the school system, agrees that either an apprentice program or a part-time teaching schedule would help ease new teachers into classroom life. "I think probably more fellows would stay in the game. They would build and become better teachers," she says. "As it is, we're just thrown into these classrooms with these kids to do a full-time job with six weeks' orientation in the summer."
Another universal complaint concerns the quality of the graduate studies programs that fellows must pursue during their first two years of teaching to earn the degree and certification that will let them stay in the classrooms. Teaching fellows are assigned to either Fordham, Pace, St. John's, Mercy, or one of several CUNY schools—Columbia Teachers College and Bank Street, the two top education programs in the city, are notably absent—for a two-year master's program that runs concurrently with their first two years in the classroom.
Diana calls the education she received in her master's program "horrible."
"Not very rigorous" is Lippi's assessment.
"Total bullshit" is the term used by both Greenwald and Susan, who adds, "I think I did better work in high school."
Greenwald says her Pace University class had its cumulative thesis-like portfolio project cancelled because the school didn't have the staff to support it. "It's really frustrating that I have a master's degree I think is basically meaningless," she says. "I was burdened by these assignments in terms of time and energy, and I wasn't learning anything nine times out of 10."
Asked about complaints with the master's programs, Bernstein was carefully diplomatic. "We think that there's—how should I put this?—room for improvement." While she says the city is continually working with the schools to improve things, she argues that it's inherently tough to satisfy the fellows. "It's very difficult to see coursework as relevant. They want something that's going to help them. Tomorrow. And it's hard for a university program to do that."
The frustrations—with grad school, bureaucracy, and classroom chaos—take their toll. Diana is interviewing this summer for jobs outside the classroom. If she lands one, she's considering abandoning her in-progress master's and writing off her Teaching Fellows experience as a regrettable mistake.
Wand is now finishing a 16-month licensing program in massage therapy—a course of study, she notes, that requires more than 1,000 hours of training, far more than she received before becoming a schoolteacher. Her advice for aspiring fellows: "You should sit in a classroom before you go and decide you want to do this. The ads say, 'Go make a difference!' but they don't tie you to the concrete reality of what a classroom looks like."
Greenwald is glad she became a teaching fellow, but still thinks the program needs an overhaul: "It worked. I'm passionate about what I do now. I'm in it heart and soul and I'm working my ass off. But that doesn't mean I think the process works well. I think there need to be changes. I think if they reach out to us and invest in us, they'll get it back."
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