Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle

Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all

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.

illustration: Jon Cannell

"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.

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