September 29, 2007
Young teachers are easy to pick out in a rush hour crowd: There’s usually a tell-tale poster, a box of crayons or a stack of papers marked up with a red pen. The number of these foot soldiers in the war against the achievement gap, who enter teaching shortly after graduating from college, is large and growing.
In 2007, Teach for America (TFA) placed over 5,000 first- and second-year teachers into underserved schools across the country. That’s a 20 percent increase since 2006. TFA spinoff the New Teachers Project , the group behind programs like the Baltimore Teaching Residency and New York City Teaching Fellows, has an equally large scope. These programs use special certification and summer training to vault teachers into classrooms within months of being hired. (Full disclosure: The writer taught at an inner-city high school for one year as an NYC Teaching Fellow. The teachers interviewed for this story are drawn from an extended network of her former classmates and colleagues.)
No matter how effective their time at the blackboard is, young teachers leave highly opinionated about education in America. Since they were students recently themselves, their ideas for change are student-centered: They want extracurricular activities and a smaller student-to-faculty ratio. Young teachers feel frustrated that their students are at such a vast disadvantage. Despite their energy and personal successes, they sometimes feel like the system resists their impact. They long to see structural reforms that go beyond more testing.
Sizing It Down
Young teachers don’t feel that the wider public understands how dysfunctional the public schools are for underserved students, because despite their summer of training, they didn’t understand it either.
The most shocking part of their new jobs can be the sheer amount of catchup needed to get students to grade level. "I never thought I would to tell a 17-year-old to capitalize the beginning of a sentence," says Zulay Martinez, a teaching fellow now entering her third year at a New York high school.
Kristi Jobson, who taught social studies in her first year with Teach For America, recalls how surprised she was when she had to explain to 7th graders the difference between a city, a country and a continent.
During that first week of September, the achievement gap goes from being something discussed in abstract to cruel reality. Teachers quickly realize the importance of "differentiated instruction," or teaching to the widely varied abilities in the group. But overcrowded classes make this a strenuous task.