I so easily could have ended up on the other side of this reform debate.
My story was straight out of the Educators4Excellence playbook: after graduating from an Ivy, I entered urban education because I had been so inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s writings on teaching in the Reconstructionist South (I had a major in Intellectual History, minor in African-American Studies: you know, just to keep my hegemonic worldview in check). I had been an overachieving kid who felt bored in elementary school, so I had no reservations about waving the “strive for academic excellence” banner. I applied to the NYC Teaching Fellows, an alt-cert program that boasted an acceptance rate of 12%. With that stat, how could anyone accepted not feel like a member of the “elite”?
I went to work in a public elementary school in Harlem, in a K-2 self-contained special education class. My only classroom experience was shadowing a 9th-grade math teacher for four weeks. Apples and oranges much? I interviewed and was hired for the K-2 job within my first week of training. Could I change to a more relevant setting, I asked the Fellows office? No. What about training at the school that hired me, as they had offered? No again. Does being part of the elite 12% mean that I have intrinsic knowledge of how to teach elementary school? I hadn’t even been inside of an early elementary classroom in 15 years!
My start date was February 1, and I soon learned that the class hadn’t had a permanent teacher since November. The math coach handed me the Everyday Math Curriculum and shrugged, “I guess you’ll have to start at Unit One.” [For those unfamiliar, EM is a “spiraling” curriculum that has to be taught in sequence.] My most vivid memory of the first month of school was the adaptive Phys Ed teacher wrinkling her nose in disgust and sneering, “You went to Penn and you’re a schoolteacher?!” Of all the ways I could shame the good name of my university, this wasn’t the one I expected. Despite the program’s assurance that I was part of a capable cohort of elites, I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously when I talked to parents. When I told a colleague that I felt like my classroom parents didn’t respect me, she bluntly said, “You have to face facts: if you’re a white teacher in Harlem, the perception is going to be that you’re not very good or you would be someplace else.”
We went through four different principals in the two and a half years I taught there. Not that it mattered, since the principal and assistant principals spent most of their time behind locked doors. Nevertheless, all our photocopies had to be submitted a week in advance, along with a form justifying their instructional purpose (did they spend all day in that room deciding which copies to approve or deny?) Teachers were told that we should not make any parental contact (notes sent home or phone calls) without administrator approval. A colleague had a medical emergency, and I was disciplined for calling 911 from my cell phone while another colleague notified the main office. When the paraprofessionals (older women whose years of experience exceeded my age) in my self-contained classroom were actively undermining me (telling parents that I babied the kids, refusing to assist me with any classroom tasks on the basis of, “If you were a regular teacher, you would have to do it yourself”), my assistant principal told me I was to blame for “not managing them effectively.” When my DOE-assigned mentor tried to advocate for me, she was banned from the building.
My class was always 1 or 2 students above the roster limit of 12 (I handwrote their names onto the printed attendance sheet). Most of my students were officially 1st-graders, but about half of those were at a pre-kindergarten level instructionally, still learning their letters and sounds. Despite their needs for intensive instruction, I was required to keep pace with the school-wide scripted Reading First curriculum. Meanwhile, the other Fellow at my school, taught a 3rd grade self-contained class with only 4 students. Why not put my two second graders, who were also my highest students academically, into his class, making a K-1 class and a 2-3 class? Because the THIRD grade students are the ones who need intensive test-prep, that’s why! (I didn’t begrudge my colleague at all in this situation; it was an administrative decision.) I stayed with that group of children for one full school year after my half year, and then was switched to a 4th-grade inclusion setting. Contrary to the inclusion model of placing students with disabilities into classes with their brightest peers, the “general education” students in my class included all of the students who were repeating the grade, the students who had been unsuccessfully referred for special education services in previous years (lots of parental resistance to labels), and the biggest behavior problems in the grade. The logic went that the neediest kids would benefit the most from having the support of two teachers. In actuality, it was like teaching a self-contained special education class, only with 28 students instead of 12. [Edit: Or 14]
So why do I think that this school should be saved? The teachers at that school had deep ties to the community. Many of them had taught the parents of their current students. There’s a stereotype about old, lazy teachers, but the dowdy woman in the classroom next door had an enormous binder filled with detailed notes on all of her students. Some of the instructional methods used were not supported by the most current research, but no professional development was offered to allow teachers to change them. When I was moved up to fourth grade, I was excited that I would no longer have to teach the regimented Readers First program. The literacy coach gave me the curriculum calendar developed at Teachers College. The first unit dealt with building up readers’ “schema.” Less then a week later, the literacy coach returned with a set of basal readers and a yellowing teachers guide. “We’re using these instead.” My knee-jerk reaction was to blame the coach for falling back on the old ways. I didn’t realize yet that, without professional development, asking teachers to switch from the basal model to a highly conceptual workshop model was as unfair as asking me to teach K-2 after being trained in 9th.
Yes, there was frustration and bitterness, but that frustration was with the administrators and the system that made our school a dumping ground for principals who had failed elsewhere – our first principal was a young Broad graduate who was abruptly “removed” midyear (rumors abounded: was it corporal punishment? Mismanagement of funds? Drug use?). The young, inexperienced AP took over for the rest of that school year, only to be replaced by a principal that we discovered had been ousted from her previous school by the parents, and an AP who had been demoted from a principal position. A charter school was given the top floor of our building – as well as the most advanced and motivated students from each grade. It was hard to object to another school taking our space when my school wasn’t even using the space it had: the computer lab was closed, the computers all unplugged, and the library was turned into a storage closet (we made it onto Fox 5 news – the reporter ambushed the principal outside of her home and she denied being who she was). I don’t know who was to blame, but it certainly wasn’t the teachers. Putting teachers “like me” into the mix certainly didn’t help in any measurable way; in fact, it hurt, because it implied that an idealistic white girl from the suburbs with a fancy degree and no education experience was more qualified to teach inner-city kids than a person of color from the community who had completed a traditional teacher-preparation program. No impressive statistic or Ivy League credential could compensate for the fact that I didn’t know the first thing about teaching. No amount of liberal idealism and good intentions could ever change the fact that my presence sent the message to students, parents, and colleagues that their community needed “fixing” from outside.
I deeply regret the harm my incompetence and hubris did to my first class of students. With my experiences in mind, I reject the elitist, classist, racist, and ageist rhetoric of the education “reform” movement.