Minding the Gap
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.
"When you have 35 students in the classroom, and the majority are low-level readers and writers, you try to get the biggest number possible to learn the most possible," says Martinez. "But kids inevitably slip through your fingers. Maybe all that one kid needs is a little extra time dedicated to him or her, but I don't necessarily have it."
Jobson taught classes of about 30 students last year as a social studies teacher. This year she's been reassigned to teach ESL with groups of elementary school students half that size. Now, she says, "I really feel I can differentiate. I can work one on one with students and really tailor every day's lesson to what they need."
Because teachers recognize the logistic difficulties of phasing in smaller classes right away, they recommend that, as an intermediate step, schools hire more staff members with specialties. These people could help classroom teachers by working in small groups with particularly troubled students or students who needed to be challenged. This kind of resource, usually only available to special ed or ESL students, should be available to everyone, they say.
Jennifer Wertheimer taught at a specialized high school (a rarity for new teacher), but she shared her peers' frustrations with class size. She taught 167 students and said that, despite her best efforts, she couldn't get to know them all. "It seems like the entire system is working against any sort of personal attention," she said. "Which is hard, because, ideally, it's what everybody wants: students, parents, teachers."
30 Young Teachers Surveyed About Their Experiences:
Based on your teaching experience, do you think there is a strong racist/classist element in the U.S. education system?
79 percent said "yes," 11 percent said "no."
Do you feel that students' needs are adequately and in good faith addressed by the public education system?
90 percent said "no," 10 percent said "yes, at their specific schools, but not in general," and 0 percent said "yes."
Teachers ranked five potential policy changes.
The highest ranked were "smaller class sizes" followed by "more support for troubled students." "Vouchers" and "increased teacher salary" were the least popular.
Young Teachers in Their Own Words:
"Teaching needs to be seen as a profession for smart people, and teachers need to be respected in society."
"The kids ... curse at their teachers, and cut and interrupt class with impunity. This situation will likely be the force that drives me out of the classroom."
"One of the most powerful nations in the world ... and yet, I have a classroom full of 16- and 17-year-olds who can barely read. It breaks my heart."
"My kids are so desperate to be taught and so eager to be told they are doing a good job ... Sometimes they drive me crazy, but it's because they are kids who haven't been given enough to meet their developing needs."
"I think it's a little bizarre to send a mostly white cadre of young people into these schools."
"I like being young in a young school. There's an energy and enthusiasm that I think would be lacking in a school with mostly older, somewhat more cynical staff."
"As long as the focus is on discipline above all else, schools will remain more prisons than schools."
"In general, I think my students would describe their young teachers as buddies and a shoulder to lean on, rather than authority figures and serious educators."
New teachers find they often have to teach students -- no matter how old -- how to think critically and solve problems, as well as learn the subject.
"They've been taught that learning is something you can take home in the palm of your hands," says Anders Meyers, who is entering his third year with the Baltimore Teaching Residency. Kids will tell you if they don't completely understand how to do something, they won't do it. That instinct to stare at a blank screen and struggle has been drilled out of them."
Meyers and his fellow teachers say that, over the years in public schools, students are taught to fill in blanks on worksheets and cram for multiple-choice tests, and the only break they get from this are me-centered creative assignments that leave them without crucial reasoning skills. Telling students what terms will gain them points on a state test's essay does not enable them to construct a thorough argument. But in the No Child Left Behind era, testing is what matters, and schools have no choice.
"Pretty much from November all the way through March, there's nothing else going on at my school [but test prep]," said Jobson. "The students were so sick and tired of it. It's a lot of hours to spend bent over a desk with a pencil."
Having to tailor lessons to the test and help students gain missing skills only compounds the most universal problem teachers face: managing their classroom. Martinez feels that separating lesson planning from classroom management during training, which most programs do, is a mistake. She feels that teachers need to practice making lessons accessible to students whose processing ability may be slower than assumed.
All the teachers interviewed agreed that the tips they got during training were virtually useless: They had to learn on the fly how to utilize their own personalities to lead their classes. Young teachers from privileged backgrounds can find that the strict approach they are advised to take by older educators doesn't work, because teenagers are savvy and can see who's faking being tough.
Even if they can't command authority right away, young teachers serve as the earpiece for their students' concerns, which are many. "They constantly complained about the metal detectors," said Michelle Northrup, another teaching fellow. Jobson noted how desperately her students craved extracurricular activities, a place to socialize with friends and develop self-esteem without the pressure of academic classes. Meyers said that some students at his school knew that they were always stuck with new, inexperienced teachers. But underlying all these complaints on the part of students, teachers felt there was a craving for sustained individual attention and support.
Most of the wisdom young teachers gained is gained after trial and error. "Basically, I was given chalk and an eraser and told 'good luck,'" said Northrup, who ended up staying at her school for three years. Meyers recalls having a troubled student scream and shout during the first session of his class, and having no idea what to do. Jobson and Martinez were bowled over by paucity of basic knowledge their students possessed. But all of these teachers, despite initial misgivings, saw results in their classrooms and connected with students. They ended up feeling proud of what they did and committed to change.
As much as teachers complain about the idealistic jargon they listen to during their summer of training, they feel that they come in less jaded than older teachers who have been beat down by years in the public schools, and their energy and drive helps them persevere.
But they worry that their passion isn't enough to effect the kind of drastic change that's necessary. They wonder if policy makers are using them as a band-aid, an excuse not to pump the needed money and resources into schools. And they wish the deck weren't stacked so high against them. At some schools where teaching recruitment programs are popular, third- or fourth-year teachers are "veterans," (PDF) a testament to the frustrations faced on the job.
One hope for education may be what these teachers do once they get older. One of the guiding ideas of TFA is that its alumni will become movers and shakers in the political and financial world, and their memories of teaching will encourage them to enact educational reforms. Within a generation, we could be talking about a different, more practical set of changes for our schools. "Smaller class size, less crowding, cleaner schools. These are simple things to ask for," said Northrup.
Find out more about issues facing young teachers in these articles:
The trouble with middle school
The New Teachers Project bypasses traditional certification
Lawsuit threatens status of TFA teachers
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer living in New York City. She hopes to someday write a book about inequality in American schools.