Sunday, July 23, 2006

Recommendations and Teaching

I've been considering doing the teaching fellows program for several years now but always chicken out. I wonder what is your experience with the program and would you recommend it. I have an acquaintance that did the program and she said it was doable, but honestly doesn't seem to enjoy teaching very much. She didn't say that, but it was her lack of enthusiasm when we discussed the program that threw me off. She told me a lot of people do the program just to get their degree and then leave.

I know someone else who did the program and quit after a month because they felt it was too much work. After reading some of your old blog entries I realize that the first year is the most challenging.

Anyway, I would you recommend the program? What do you wish you had known before you started teaching?

What an interesting query! It's really got me thinking, which is excellent fodder for this here blog. Let me break it down into answerable chunks.

Experience with NYCTF:

First of all, from what I've seen and heard, experience varies greatly by university placement and teaching level (elementary vs secondary/subject).

My own experience, I would say, was meh.

Know that in programs like this, you are set up to fail. You must work your ass off to rise above it.

The beginning of the program was profoundly confusing and stressful. We were constantly being told things, from the university, from the Fellows, and I was rarely sure who was who. The first summer is six weeks of endless stuff: summer school placement, afternoon classes, evening advisories. My days averaged 13 hours, with the three one-hour commutes.

We were all full of questions, as you can imagine. Everyone was always asking questions about what things would be like, whether vague or specific. Sometimes professors or advisors would give advice, but mostly the answer was, "It depends on your school."

Lots of things are important aspects of your teaching experience: the administration, the students, the type of class you have, the time of day you have those classes, your colleagues, the resources available to you, the parents, the community your school is in. All these things vary greatly between schools. GREATLY.

Anyway, so a lot of the Fellows time was spent asking and answering questions, and rolling of eyes because there's only so much information anyone can give you.

The classes themselves were definitely meh. I was placed in the common branch program, which is k-6. So our classes were mapped out for us, to cover different subject areas, plus 'basic' type courses. The first summer we had to take a literacy class (the first of at least three) and a child development class (very close to Psych 101 and utterly useless).

Despite everyone telling us how EXTREMELY IMPORTANT behavior management is, there were/are no classes about that. Nothing practical.

However, I understand that is commonplace in teacher education, no matter the program (regular and alternative). So I suppose I can't hold that against the Fellows.

The one thing they did emphasize, as I'd hope ALL teacher-education programs would, is that teaching is DIFFICULT. It's not easy, it's not romantic. If you want any kind of personal or professional success in education, you really have to work your ass off.

Enjoy teaching:

This is a really personal, individual matter. I'm still not sure exactly how I feel...I've posted about that before (see the links; I think one of those is up there).

I do know that my second year was light-years better than my first year. The first year was hard, but I kept working at it, trying new things, determined not to let the kids get the better of me.

So with the first bad year under my belt, and time to plan and implement new ideas, I got to enjoy things more. I feel like I had better kids, and they could meet me in the middle instead of me giving them everything.

That's what seems to separate the good from the mediocre: you see kids who just aren't getting the education they deserve. In this city, sometimes it seems like all of them are missing out, at least the ones who aren't in the posh private schools. You see kids that are absolutely brilliant, who are lazy. You see kids that have potential, but no support at home. You see kids who are sweet one-on-one, but who are friends with dangerous or negative kids. You see kids who should be in the top schools, who are struggling to stay motivated in the midst of kids who don't give a shit. The children in this city WANT to learn, WANT to excel and succeed. Too many can't or won't, because of reasons beyond their control.

So it's up to you, the neophyte, struggling teacher, to give them what they need. They're going to get to you, get in your head and your heart, and you may get frustrated and angry, but you can't give up. You can't let them down--you have to give them your all so that they can give their all.

You won't reach all of them. Duh. And don't go around with that, "If I reach one student, then I've done my job" bullshit. Don't be defeatist; reach as many as you can! Be a good role model, show them how to be an educated adult, talk to them as people and not just out of control children, give them tools to discover their own intelligence and power. Help them see that you want them to work hard, because you have faith in them to achieve. That doesn't always mean words, either. It's how you talk to them, how you treat them, the kinds of assignments you do, the kinds of resources you bring in.

First year:

Really, really hard. The most difficult thing I've ever done, hands down. I'm sure any teacher would agree.

The beginning of my teaching experience was a bit unusual. My region wasn't hiring in the summer, and I wasn't from here, so I had no reference for where or what to teach. So I was placed in the Reserve Pool. For the first week and a half, I was in a primary school with a kindergarten teacher. Then I was in a junior high for a week, 'teaching' Spanish. Finally, the third week of school, I was permanently placed at a middle school in Queens, teaching EL @.

Those students, who were rowdy for other teachers, were monsters for me. They'd had two weeks of subs, so they were used to being crazy and doing nothing in that classroom. I took myself and my job very seriously; I wanted to be able to control them and actually teach them straight away. I started with absolutely nothing. I walked in third period on a Monday. The room was empty except for desks. I didn't have chalk. I didn't have a grade book. I didn't have a ROSTER for at least three days! I had no lesson plans, no concept of middle school standards or expectations. I tried to fight it, but I flailed all over the place. I tried, I struggled, I failed, I got frustrated, I couldn't sleep, I got sick, parents tried to fight my ideas, my AP and dean were totally useless...It was like climbing an ice field wearing ballet slippers and no coat. Or something. It felt impossible! I felt like I should have been doing so much better!

I know better, much better, now. Even at the time, I tried to reason with myself that I had the deck--several decks, more like--stacked against me: first year, late start, young, white, not a New Yorker... Let's just say people were proud of me for surviving as well as I did.

But it was such a struggle, with myself and with the kids.

The thing that my principal saw in me, and that's why he supported me so well and trusted me so much this year, was that I did NOT give up. I gritted my teeth to get through the hard times, trying and trying and trying to get somewhere with the students. I had ideas, I bought books, I talked to other teachers, I got advice from my teacher parents, I was always trying new things. Sometimes they worked and I kept them. Sometimes they worked and I didn't work hard enough to keep them. I was inconsistent a lot. Most of the time I had absolutely NO idea what I was doing. I had to figure out who I was in the classroom; what my style is and how I could naturally and yet firmly conduct my classroom. Building it during the year means that those kids didn't really take it too seriously; they saw me at my weakest and my slow progression didn't impress them much.

My dean told me one day that the first year of teaching is an experiment and you can't take it too seriously. You see what happens, you find out what NOT to do, you may find some things TO do, and then you move forward from there.

I was terrified that my second year wouldn't be better than my first. Everyone told me it got so much better after the first year. I couldn't take that chance. That's why, starting last July, I worked my ass off, planning, thinking, talking, buying. I got to set up my room ahead of time, and plan out all my classroom stuff, and be there from the start. I had my teacher personality already. I had my wardrobe personality ready. I worked at school and at home all the way through about mid-October.

All that made the second year night and day compared to the first. Things still were never easy; I still had to keep on my toes.

Now that it's over, I think back and truly miss my students, and I reluctantly realize that I did enjoy myself this year. It's not something I'd say I hated OR loved; it's just something I do. I feel like now that I've established myself, I can really do some great work in education. It's been a part of me long before I had the title "Teacher," and I'm sure it will be with me long after I relinquish that title.

Recommend the program:

That's really hard to say. It's a tough, really tough, thing to do. Not everyone is cut out for it. I didn't know if I was. I joined it to see what I could do. Turns out I can--but again, I had to put in a lot of work to get there. And my principal is supportive.

If you've thought about it, I think I'd say do it. Work hard, persevere, know it will get better. Talk to as many people as you can; having a support system is the absolute most important thing.

Classes for me were pretty useless, to be honest. As a single-subject teacher, doing science and math and stuff were a waste of time for me. Most of my professors were not good and were not in touch with the urban teaching experience. Thankfully, a couple professors were good. That first literacy course ended up being a great resource to fall back on; she had us keep a writer's notebook and do genre projects that eventually we got to use as touchstone texts, so to speak, for our own students in our own classrooms. It's a balancing act: class, plus teaching, plus commuting, plus eating (please eat during the day!), plus life. You're in charge--you have to figure it out.

That was actually my favorite part of being a Fellow: talking, comparing, complaining, being around other Fellows in my cohort. There were two classes' worth of us in common branch, so we got to know each other fairly well. It was a lot of fun to catch up with a new mix of them each time a new semester started. Everyone had a slightly different experience. For the vast majority, things are continuing to improve.

There were a couple new Fellows in my school this year. One did really well, and one did not. That girl was small and quiet and weak, and the students of course saw that. She quickly got overwhelmed and seemed to just give up. I tried to give her hints and ideas, specific ones, and she sort of showed interest. But she just didn't have the heart to really work at it. She's going to a new school this fall, and it's going to be a sorry wake up call; she's gonna have another difficult year unless she finds the will to work and change.

The city and the university might give you mentors, but be prepared for them to be no use at all. You'll rarely see them, they won't give you any concrete advice, they'll keep telling you what to fix and change rather than what you're doing well. If your mentors turn out better, excellent. But don't plan on it.

You'll have to find your own mentors: might be a neighboring teacher, might be a Teacher Center rep like mine, might be a friendly older teacher, might be a relative who's a teacher. Find someone, though.

Be tough in the classroom! DON'T be friendly--the kids will interpret that as soft. You must be firm and strict. I can't say enough how much a difference that makes. The kids WANT and NEED structure and adult role models. They want you to be a teacher! They will gripe and groan about the work and your relentless toughness, but believe me, they will appreciate it, because they'll know you're doing your job, and they'll then be more invested in doing their job.

What to know before you start:

Teaching is REALLY HARD. You can't do it without actually doing it. Preparing won't do much; you've got to get in the trenches and get dirty.

I firmly believe that it's much harder in a big city, and even more difficult specifically in New York. There are so many kinds of kids in the system. Colleagues range from old and cranky to young and idealistic. Some will inspire you, and some will piss you off, and some will be friendly, and some will be irritating. All colleagues are like that, but then you realize that in this instance, those cranky, complacent, inhospitable ones are in charge of teaching youth. You start to ache for those kids that are missing out on good teaching.

Please, do not take movies and television seriously! They totally romanticize all aspects of teaching and gloss over the difficult stuff, like parent contact and grading papers. Not to mention trying to have a personal life outside school.

Good teaching takes time and unbelievable effort, for very little reward.

I knew these things before I started. I'm not sure if I needed to know anything specifically before I started. Since all experiences are so different, there's no easy, one-fits-all advice to give.

There's a wonderful community online of teacher bloggers, and a huge resource of lesson plan sites. Take advantage of all of that!

I hope this has helped; I'm not sure if I really answered anything. Teacher bloggers and Fellows: please share your reactions to this inquiry, and to my response. Please add your experiences and comments and links. What do you think?


special someone said...

I taught through TFA, which is kind of like the Fellows program on a national level and with a slightly better support network. The long-term goals of the two programs are very different, but I digress.

I think it's critical to find someone in your school who can be your unofficial mentor during your first year. Mine was a wonderful teacher next door who taught the same subject I did and who was always willing to give me ideas and resources for my upcoming lessons. Just as important was the fact that by talking to her every day, I didn't feel quite so isolated; it wasn't just me and the kids all day long.

As for the million dollar question that I still get asked - would I recommend TFA? - I usually tell people that even though I think it's a great program for some people, I couldn't actually recommend it to anyone. I think it'd be kind of like recommending that someone sign up to go fight a war. Teaching is an important, potentially rewarding profession, and this country needs as many talented teachers as it can get (especially in large urban districts), but it's not something I feel comfortable recommending to anyone - you have to think long and hard and reach a decision on your own. I agree 100% that TFA, Fellows, and similar programs set extremely talented people up for failure. The first year will be a serious shock to your system in so many ways.

W Brown said...

I just finished reading "Whats Worth Fighting For in Your School?" by Hargreaves and Fullan, My Small Learning COmmunity is having disscussion around this book now.. please feel free to join the conversation. Real reform can only occur from teachers.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog posting! I've been looking everywhere for a clear, well thought opinion more than "it's great" or "I got sued 20 million dollars." I appreciate your comments.