At age 22, I sat in a graduate school classroom and listened as my professor undermined my career.
“You,” she said, referring to me, and the majority of my classmates, “are arguably part of the problem. Your program perpetuates this idea that anybody can be a teacher. Doesn’t that hurt the profession? Don’t you feel a degree of responsibility for that?”
It was a complaint I’ve heard often, not just from her, but also from former professors and friends. It was a complaint that once embarrassed me — that is, until I understood the realities of teaching in America.
I have worked as a teacher in New York City since graduating from college. I didn’t begin my career by enrolling in a traditional teacher-training program, however. I didn’t major in education in college; I never even took a single class in it.
I entered education through the New York City Teaching Fellows, a program designed to get teachers into the highest need-areas of the city. The Fellows did not and do not permit anyone with a background in education to apply.
They want zeal. They want passion. They want talent. They want a belief in the system and a belief in the rights of children. The Fellows only admit 10 percent of all applicants. We, the Fellows, are a diverse group of people.
A handful of those in my group, including myself, had just graduated from college upon entering the program. Others already held advanced degrees in a variety of different disciplines. We came from all over the country and all over the world and held the same ambitious, arguably naïve mission: close the achievement gap.
To be a Fellow requires immediate enrollment in a master’s program in education, which is designed to be completed during your first two years of teaching. In addition to coursework, my group and I endured two months of intense training, where we worked 10.5-hour-long days, during which we spent our lunch breaks riding the subway between Washington Heights and Brooklyn.
We taught summer school by day and took graduate school courses at night, and all of us were employed at New York City schools by August. We were thrown into the system and we were teachers. We had our own classrooms, our own lessons and our own students. We were alone. We were official.
I started my new job in September and spent the next three months crying every other day. I was not prepared to face the fact that my seventh grade students, on average, read at fourth-grade reading levels. I was also unprepared to face the harsh social realities of a poverty-stricken neighborhood.
Not to mention, I didn’t even know how to confront the sudden influx of thousands of papers from hundreds of students.
Critics of the New York City Teaching Fellows and its inspirer, Teach for America, will take this admission of mine and wave it in the faces of every recruiter for these programs. I am not against that. I will never argue or even suggest that two months of training could have possibly prepared me for the realities of classroom life in a South Bronx middle school.
I will, however, argue that there is no program in the United States that would have, or even could have, prepared me. There is no program in the United States that appropriately trains teachers at all.
I enrolled in my mandatory master’s courses expecting further training, as any reasonable professional would. I expected that my professors would teach me useful, practical material and demonstrate how to implement it. They did no such thing.
I spent the next two years sitting in courses that focused on theory. Only one assignment in my hundreds even asked me to design and redraft a piece of student assessment. I spent hours upon hours reading books about management without ever having a forum to practice.
I spent far more hours reading books and papers about the achievement gap without ever receiving direct instruction on how to differentiate assignments for under-achieving students. For the most part, I simply sat in class and listened to professors who had little to no experience in an urban classroom.
At best, my courses were enjoyable social gatherings between teachers who reveled in the opportunity to discuss their classroom issues with each other in a supportive environment. At worst, they were an absolute waste of my time.
I initially thought that this was a problem restricted only to my master’s program, so I asked around of Fellows at other schools. They all relayed similar, if not the exact same, issues.
I asked friends who graduated from programs outside of New York City, who also confirmed that the majority of their coursework involved theory rather than practical training designed to increase teacher effectiveness.
This led me to consider training for other professions. Surely, no doctor is sent to perform surgery without having extensive experience first, as doctors spend the latter half of medical school in their field, engaging in their chosen profession and learning practical skills in the meantime.
They are given direct instruction and offered opportunities to repeat and practice for years rather than given books to read about medicine before performing.
Why are we not outraged then by the abysmal quality of teacher training programs? The issue with teacher training is not programs like The New York City Teaching Fellows or Teach For America, it’s the complete disregard for the difficulty of the profession itself.
Practicing medicine or law is not taken lightly; students remain in schools for years before they even have the chance to start their careers. Yet, teachers are thrown into the profession after a year or two of engaging in educational theory, with no applicable skills in direct instruction.
What does this say about how our country values education?
This is not to say that there are not quality teachers in American schools. There are many, but they are not the result of graduate school education. Quality teachers are the result of their own abilities to be resilient, personable, self-critical and to develop to their highest potential.
So, as I sat there in my classroom, listening to my professor degrade the Fellows and admonish us for engaging in a program that apparently “perpetuates the idea that anyone can be a teacher,” I truly could not help but be confused.
The Fellows and Teach For America accept 10 percent or less of their applicants — a statistic lower than most, if not all, teacher training programs.
The Fellows and Teach for America ask their applicants to exhibit command, knowledge, resilience and ambition, in addition to the ability to graduate from a reputable master’s program.
Which track, then, perpetuates the idea that "anyone can be a teacher"?
I cannot and will not admit that programs like the Fellows are doing it completely correctly. The program is filled with flaws, as is Teach for America.
However, until universities across the country decide to revamp their programs and take teacher training more seriously by supporting teachers in the most effective way possible, programs like the Fellows are necessary.
Photo Courtesy: Tumblr