This Is Not the Way to Prepare and Support Teachers

In my previous Huffington Post blog I wrote very critically about Teach for America. New York City has its own alternative certification Teach for America-style program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. During the 2009-2010 school year, the last year for which I found data, eleven percent of the city's public school teaching staff, almost nine thousand teachers, came from the Teaching Fellows program. Almost a quarter of the Fellows were assigned to teach special education students and about eighty-five percent were teaching in high-needs minority schools.

A recent report by the TeachNY Advisory Council for the New York State Education Department is dismissive of Teach for America as a model for recruiting and retaining teachers, but describes the Teaching Fellows program as an exemplary program for "alternative entry‐to‐teaching." Perhaps State Education officials believe the New York City Teaching Fellows claim that "the program has been a smashing success."

However, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing New York City teachers, has been critical of the Teaching Fellows program. A 2014 union sponsored survey discovered that only one in twenty of the program's graduates described their preparation for teaching as "excellent" while almost half the Teaching Fellows called it "fair' or "poor." Basically they are underprepared and under-supported, As with Teach for America, the problem rests not the individuals who are recruited, but the program itself. It is a program that pretends to find a solution to the problems facing inner-city minority schools, so it does not actually have to address the problems caused by poverty, unemployment, over-crowding, homelessness, and inadequate health care, or the need to make a major investment in the lives and education of young people.

A 2013 blog published by Diane Ravitch was also critical of the Teaching Fellows program. It described the little initial preparation they received as "haunting dehumanized uniformity" and compared it to basic training in the military. The writer accused the city Department of Education of setting students and teachers up for failure and demanded to know "why our nation's leaders think it is a great idea to send poorly trained people to teach the neediest students and why they care so little about supporting and retaining experienced teachers."

I am in email correspondence with a Teaching Fellow assigned to teach special education students in an inner-city minority school. I do not know this teacher but was contacted because they are a reader of these Huffington Post blogs. The teacher agreed to be interviewed for this post, but because he or she (I do not know) hopes to continue as a teacher in the future, I promised to protect their identity.

This teacher's experiences paint a very dismal picture of inner-city urban education and the inability of teaching recruits, without significant preparation, experience, or certification, to make any kind of significant difference in the education of underserved minority students. I know I cannot generalize from the experience of one teacher, but I think this "interview" underscores the need for teachers who are certified, who know the curriculum and the rules, and who can challenge short-cuts and what appear to be patently illegal administrative practices.

Who are you and why did you contact me?
I've been following your blog on Huffington Post since I joined the NYCTF. Your experienced, learned take on the mess of education in New York has been shared amongst many of the Fellows as we struggle to make sense of this place. I thought I was going into this program with a practical mindset: no, I'm not some savior who will drop in for two years, change children's lives merely by being in their presence, and then return to the private sector with a nice set of bullet-points on my resume. I'm in it for the long haul. I couldn't have prepared for how quickly the harsh realities set in.

Since I had a college degree, a clean criminal record, and was willing to teach Special Education, I was snapped up into the "elite" NYCTF program. Much of the recent cohorts of this elite corps have yet to pass all the required certification tests. Even with the safety nets around the tests and sharing test information, many of my fellow Fellows are unable to demonstrate proficiency in high school-level math and English, subjects that they have been hired to teach.

What did you expect to find?
I knew this would be hard work, but I thought the hard work would be teaching. I rarely teach. Early on I was told that I am not to co-teach with my co-teacher. They will do the real teaching, which means giving students worksheets they found on a Google search, worksheets that often contain factual errors. I am to take students with disabilities out of the main classroom and into an empty laboratory for "small-group instruction," even though the students are supposed to be in an integrated co-teaching environment. I expected to find a way to make a positive difference. So far I haven't.

Are students in your school provided with appropriate special education services?
No. We have a few kids receiving Special Education services they don't need. The school won't declassify them because they receive funds for these students without having to provide extra services. All IEPs must be written to show the services the student is already receiving, not the services they actually need. There are not enough staff to meet student needs. I attend IEP [Individualized Education Program, the document that certifies students for Special Education services and explains what the student's needs are] meetings. One student needs 15:1 services [a classroom where there are no more than 15 students, all of whom have IEPs]. The school will not provide these services, and I will be threatened and harassed if I say that the student needs them. I am there to fabricate IEPs and make the school look like it's in compliance. Instead of advancing social justice, I'm part of violating the rights of underserved children.

What is your experience with reporting what you've seen?
I was speaking with another teacher about the superintendent's upcoming visit. I asked about students set up on computer-only classes (it's cheaper than hiring enough teachers). I suggested that we should tell the superintendent what's going on, as it's illegal. "She knows," the other teacher said. "She doesn't care." The union has done nothing. They just send emails saying all the great things they're doing for their members. They are no help if you're not tenured. You can be fired at any time without tenure.

Do other Teaching Fellows have similar experiences?
We talk about the usual things: teaching to the test, unreasonable working hours and conditions, students who are so sadly used to low expectations that they are angered when you demand more from them, and openly corrupt administration. There are the older teachers who resent Fellows and think it's their job to harass us until we quit. Then there's looking inward and the growing recognition of the hubris of the Fellows and how we're being used as cannon-fodder to break down the union. They use us to plug up staffing leaks, knowing that most of us won't last 5 years. There are always new bodies to add. No tenure, no recourse against illegal activity.

What has been the impact on the Fellows?
A lot of us seem to have dropped our expectations to certain points: first, maybe this won't be our entire career. Then, maybe 5 years. 4. 3. The end of the program. The end of the year. The end of today. We're still so idealistic and want this to work, in spite of everything.

What does the future look like?
I want to teach. Oh, man, how much do I want to teach. Even if I transfer to a less-awful school, how much teaching will I actually do? According to an NPR report, I might expect to spend about 27% of my time actually teaching and another 27% in preparation for teaching. The majority of the rest of the time would likely be spent making IEPs that say things like an alternative-assessment ID kid [someone so intellectually disabled that they are exempt from taking the Regents exams] should be in ICT classes because that's where the money is and the school won't offer 15:1 services no matter how many kids need it. The only thing I'm teaching my students that will stick with most of them on some level is that I'm yet another figure in a system designed to prevent critical thinking in "certain populations."

Reading my words above, I'm saddened by the anger and cynicism that pervades them. I feel so foolish for thinking that I could make a sustained, positive difference in the lives of kids with some hard work and hard training. I've become suspicious of 5+ year teachers, because the system won't break: it breaks you to fit. Someone who's been in 5+ years likely has done some things that I find unbearable to contemplate. If I were to stay here, in two years I'd be a Republican. I can't accept the kind of creature I'd have to become to stay in this job.

I do not know how representative are the experiences of this Teaching Fellow. I hope other Fellows respond to this blog.

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