How it Is
It is rare that I do not receive a desperate or despairing text message or email from a colleague in my NYCTF cohort. “I’m drowning” says one, “This is bullshit” says another, “We have all been set up for failure.” The latter is a message I’ve received from numerous colleagues in the program numerous times throughout the school year. It’s become an accidental mantra–when the truth must be spoken no matter how cutting: “We’ve all been set up for failure.” Not just us fellows, but our students as well. We fellows are, after all, sincere, dedicated overachievers. We do truly care about being–becoming–effective educators. Nonetheless, we are also honest, intelligent, and responsible people and it is impossible to deny the naked truth: “We all get screwed in this. Us, the kids. It’s awful.” This message came in from a colleague of mine who had been teaching in the Bronx. A Peace Corps alum, a brilliant and attentive student, and a kind generous heart. She too has been broken by this. There are many casualties.
How it Began
We spent the summer drilling Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion classroom management techniques. It was eerily similar to basic training–been there, low-crawled under that–and at times had the haunting dehumanized uniformity reminiscent of a Handmaid’s Tale. Meanwhile, many of us were grounded in our ideals of sharing our passion for learning, social justice, and community service. We knew as the summer training program unfolded that it was grossly inadequate and ill-conceived. This became ever more apparent when summer school began and we found ourselves utterly ill-equipped to properly care for our students’ intellectual and socio-emotional needs. However, ours was a tenacious bunch–seasoned overachievers who had long ago developed the stamina and fortitude to forgo sleep and self-care in order to reach a determined goal, no matter how distant.
We slogged through the days–summer school from 7:30-12:00pm (for most folks), subway across boroughs (for many) to Spanish Harlem for a three-hour graduate class, subway down to the Upper East Side for a mind-numbing hours-long fellow advisory session, during which we continued to drill Lemov’s “Cold Call” and “Do It Again.” Each of us knowing the futility of these measures. What we needed was training in the content area we would be teaching–and although we were fellows in the TESOL track many of us had landed jobs teaching outside of that temporary license. We needed training in methodology, developing learning objectives, aligning assessments to objectives, material design and modification, and for some us, training in designing curriculum maps. Yes, some of us have been made responsible for designing curriculum maps as first-year teachers. How do you like them apples?
But, alas, by the time the school year began the fellowship had provided only a TWO-day workshop focused on unit/lesson planning. That. Was. It. TWO DAYS. The summer graduate program in methodology–rather our capacity to absorb the material presented in that class–was dwarfed and overshadowed by the exhaustion brought on by the crazed schedule that for most started at 6:00am and did not end until 11:00pm or later. Those of us who completed our graduate readings and assignments were typically awake until the witching hour and met the new day with three or fewer hours of sleep.
Message from Walcott
Dennis Walcott recently sent me a letter thanking me for becoming a teacher in the New York City public school system. Well, you’re welcome Mr. Walcott. And thank you for supporting a program that sets interested-in-becoming-teachers and their students–who attend the least-resourced and highest-needs schools–up for failure. It’s heart-warming to know that you were once a kindergarten teacher and that you “understand” how difficult the first year teaching is…but nonetheless you support a program that is at its core unjust. Tell you what, go for a nice long run and think about it. Is there a more intelligent and responsible approach? I believe there is.
What I’ve Learned
Teaching is the most intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually rigorous work I have ever undertaken. Many of my colleagues in the program likewise consider this work the most complex and challenging they’ve engaged in. It is not unusual for a classroom to contain a continuum of abilities that ranges from pre-literate (lacking awareness of the alphabetic principle, unskilled in holding a pencil, lack a familiarity with print materials) to on- or above-grade-level proficiency. Frankly, I rarely hear from my colleagues in the program about students who are reading and writing at a level appropriate to their grade. More often than not our classrooms are populated by students who are devastatingly ill-prepared to meet standards.
Here’s an example: one colleague is teaching in a school that serves a large population of English language learners (ELLs). The majority of his students have been in the country for less than six months, a substantial number of them have had interrupted schooling (some have had as little as one year of schooling prior to joining his ninth grade class). A large number of them are illiterate in their native language and lack basic classroom skills (e.g. bringing a pencil to class, showing up on time, not shouting across the room, keeping a folder/binder/notebook, taking notes). Some of them come from strong educational backgrounds in their native language but are far below grade level in English–because they are ELLs. My colleague–like all of us–is pressured to teach Common-Core aligned units that use grade-level appropriate anchor texts and Common-Core aligned assessments. Notably, he has received very little training focused on designing Common Core units and assessments and is presumably expected to figure it out in his “spare” time.
“Good afternoon students. Today we will begin reading Of Mice and Men. Please don’t accidentally strangle me when the fire of your frustration pitches you into a blind rage.” Blank stares mostly and a few looks of troubled concern.
Master teachers with years of experience and training can absolutely manage this–and they do so brilliantly. MASTER teachers. They use multiple versions of a text, film, they skillfully scaffold and differentiate their materials to afford all students–no matter their levels–access to the text. [Dear God, grant me the endurance, intelligence, and stamina to become such a teacher.] Of course, this is true for master teachers who are working in a school that provides such resources. Many of our schools do not. We are expected to develop our own materials–more often than not, from scratch. First-year teachers are similarly expected to do this–with little to no support–under the crushing weight of their own commitment to serve their students, apparent student need, administrators’ critical eye and scathing reviews (for they are under fire as well), and, well, a very real lack of experience and expertise. It’s heartbreaking, exhausting, and downright reflective of our old man Sisyphus and his hellishly redundant labor to achieve the impossible. Knowing full well that we will continue to miss the mark, we dig deep into our hearts and sleep schedules and continue to push the boulder up the hill because we care so deeply about doing right by our students.
Caring is not Enough
Young people have finely-tuned bullshit detectors. It’s true, you know it is. They watch and they detect. The reading flashes through their eyes; if you are looking–noticing in the Parker Palmer sense of the word–you can read their assessments easily. It matters to young people that their educators care but caring is not enough. It is the bare minimum….perhaps not even that.
In order to be an effective educator a person must have a strong grasp of content knowledge, methodology, and be skilled in material selection and modification. We must also have a deep understanding of multiple intelligences, varying levels of student readiness, and the expertise to properly scaffold and differentiate our instruction so that it meets each student at his or her level. Simultaneously, we must ensure that all students are being challenged and moving forward. We must have the capacity to build relationships with students and form safe classroom environments so that learning can take place–knowing, as we do, that students will not take the requisite risks that learning demands if they do not feel safe. In order to be an effective educator a teacher must be knowledgeable about cognitive and socio-emotional development–what is appropriate or standard for the age group he or she is teaching and how to relate socially and intellectually to that particular population of students. Of course, we must understand how to compensate for the intellectual, emotional, and material malnourishment that many of students endure at home and have the emotional and spiritual strength to deliver that compensation.
Then there is the politicking. Principals–I am learning as I listen to my peers’ experiences and my mentor’s war stories–are often egocentric, power-hungry creatures. They are typically skilled bureaucrats who may begin with the purest intentions but are soon mired under the endless flow of accountability measures and the day-to-day minutiae. They–much like teachers–work ridiculous hours but too often turn their rage, inspired by the system’s intractable flaws, against their teachers. Untenured and under-prepared teachers are likely to be most vulnerable to their administrators’ wrath. We are, after all, the weakest link. The Achilles heel. We represent their own sense of inadequacy. As we stand before this impossible task of healing broken families, splintered communities, the result of generations of abject poverty and lack of access to quality education…we are confronted at once by the enormity of our own hearts and the devastating limitation of our own humanity. Caring simply is not enough.
What to do at Mile 20?
My mentor has told me that teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Well, as it goes, I’ve literally run several long-distance races: fifteen half-marathons, twenty or so 10K, 20K, and 30K races, and two full-length marathons. Rather, I completed one full-length marathon and walked off the course of my second full-length marathon at mile twenty. Most people who have completed a marathon will tell you that mile twenty is the point in the run at which all affectations fall aside. You either have the chutzpah and brute strength to finish this race…or your don’t. More often than not it boils down to mental discipline–will the mind chatter produce a river of molasses at your feet until you are brought to a sluggish and sticky halt? Or will you endure relentlessly toward the finish line despite the exhaustion and the mental and physical pain?
Soon it will be February. According to the Phases of a First Year Teacher’s Attitude Toward Teaching chart I should be slowly beginning to feel rejuvenated. For a minute I saw glimpses of such rejuvenation around the corner. Then came the results of my first formal observation–unsatisfactory–and this I can liken easily to a crippling seizing-up of the iliopsoas muscles reducing one’s stride so dramatically it seems as if the finish is forever in the distance. Deflated, demoralized, insecure, depressed, regretful (inner monologue: “How dare I be so foolish?! How dare I think that caring was enough! I feel so guilty! I’ve let down my students…”) and restricted.
The physical and mental exhaustion that has accumulated across the miles compounded by the lack of resources (professional development opportunities, support at the school level, and materials available to me–i.e. without my spending hours researching to track them down or build them myself from scratch) has left me feeling very much like I did when I ran the Cherry Blossom 25K in a very hilly village in Japan: it was 98 degrees and their were very few water stops. At least, during that test of my endurance and grit, I was not being tailed by a hostile coach who held my nascent career in one hand’s careless grip while using his other hand to throw obstacles in my path. Shame on you. A primary responsibility of any coach is to support, form, and inspire his charges, not to tear them down. You have failed but won’t admit it. I have failed and I am embracing it–as painful as it is–in order to grow and learn. However, I am still undecided whether I will tap into my deepest reserves to finish this marathon.
Chancellor Walcott, you understand this analogy, you are also a marathoner and were once a first-year teacher. What are your thoughts? In the deepest hours of the night and those rare moments of brutal and exposed truth: Do you believe that NYCTF is a just and effective program?
Readers…please respond. What are your thoughts?