Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle

Fresh from the frontlines, New York Teaching Fellows tell all

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?"

illustration: Jon Cannell

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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