Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle

Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all

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?'

illustration: Jon Cannell

"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 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.

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