Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle

Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all

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.

illustration: Jon Cannell

"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.

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