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Unprepared and knowing it

[This editorial was originally published in the March 6 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Would you want a doctor who had completed one year of medical school instead of four? A lawyer who had finished only one semester of law school?

In other professions, we assume that practitioners will have proper training.

But for teachers, a dangerous sort of denial has taken hold about the preparation needed to be effective in a classroom.

It is as if our society had tacked up a sign: Teachers wanted. Little training required. The less experience, the better.

Two programs that may promote the belief that teachers require minimal preparation are Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows.

The UFT counts among its ranks thousands of Teaching Fellows and a handful of Teach for America teachers. The union proudly represents them and honors their good work. But many of them have a hard time in their first few years given the gaps in their training.

The Teaching Fellows program was founded in 2000 when the city faced a shortage of certified teachers. Its participants receive a crash course of six weeks of training before they are placed in high-need schools while continuing their graduate work after school and on weekends.

Reports over the years have documented that a significant number felt unprepared for the classroom. This concern has surfaced again in a new UFT survey of teachers. Among respondents, Teaching Fellows were more than twice as likely to rank their training as poor or fair as teachers certified through traditional college programs.

Since 2005, the city has had contracts totaling nearly $50 million with The New Teacher Project, which runs the Teaching Fellows program. We urge Chancellor Fariña to evaluate that contract closely to determine if it serves the city’s needs.

Also under the spotlight recently is Teach for America, which requires only a two-year teaching commitment from its participants and gives them just five weeks’ training before placing them in high-need schools. The organization Students United for Public Education has a new Twitter campaign, #ResistTFA, that has generated a hugely popular twitter chat about the controversial program.

The chat may be the start of an important debate.

Teaching is both one of the most rewarding and the most challenging jobs. To do it well, teachers need and deserve excellent preparation. And children need and deserve well-trained teachers.

How to read a poem (or how to teach)

Li Wenlan is in her second year as a middle school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. In this entry, she recalls analyzing the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” with her 7th-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class. If you are a newer teacher and would like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org!

The education reform movement has an obsessive adherence to rigidly structured lesson plans, bewildering algorithms to quantify teacher effectiveness and the relentless collection and analysis of student data. But in my second year of teaching, I’ve come to realize that a true education is messy — gloriously messy, like a Kandinsky painting.

A true education blossoms at the nexus of wondrous insight, courageous inquiry and dazzling tangents. It eschews the arrogant certainty of algorithms, the military precision of linear thinking and the uninspired conformity of logical progression.

Halfway through my 7th-grade class’s study of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, the adolescent Ponyboy runs away with Johnny after the latter accidentally murders a Soc, a member of a rival gang. While sitting in an abandoned church and ruminatively observing a beautiful sunrise, Ponyboy is moved to recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a Robert Frost poem about the fleeting nature of life. After his recitation, Ponyboy confesses that he “was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded [him].”

Here was a chance for my students to help out their beloved protagonist by analyzing the poem’s significance.

I began the lesson by modeling a close reading of the first couplet of the poem on a document camera. I highlighted select phrases that stood out and recorded lingering questions and tentative interpretations in the margins to make personal text-to-self connections. Throughout the modeling, I invited my students to weigh in by asking them to contribute possible responses to my questions or to provide alternative interpretations. Then I asked my students to try to close-read the last three couplets of the poem independently.

When my co-teacher and I initially peered over the shoulders of our students, we noticed that many of them were reticent about jotting down their thoughts, understandably nervous about traversing into deep, unknowable territory. But slowly, questions — and interpretations cloaked in the safe, humble guise of questions — began to emerge.

“What did Frost mean when he wrote ‘So Eden sank to grief’?” “When Frost wrote ‘leaf subsides to leaf,’ did he mean that the leaves were dying?” “Isn’t this line similar to this other line about how the flower can only last an hour?”

My co-teacher and I agreed that it was time for our students to share their thoughts and wonderings out loud with each other.

Despite my students’ initial reluctance to delve into challenging poetic terrain, our whole-class discussion unexpectedly became a safe, nonjudgmental haven within which to share ideas. And though I had prepared a set of text-dependent questions that would guide my students to a more symbolic interpretation of the poem, I quickly brushed those aside as my students unwittingly took the lead.

Unburdened by my carefully-laid plans for a scaffolded discussion, students jumped from line to line, couplet to couplet, making unlikely connections amongst disparate phrases, peers’ remarks, and other works of literature. With only the gentlest of teacher guidance, the discussion flowed wherever my students willed it.

“Gold refers to something that’s valuable or precious, so I think Frost is trying to say that nothing good in life can last forever,” offered a student.

“Well, if that’s the case, what are some good things in Ponyboy’s life that don’t last forever?” I asked.

“Maybe the important people in his life. For example, his mom and dad, who died in a car crash,” suggested one student.

“Or maybe he’s relating it to the sunrise and his friendship with Cherry, because even though they see the same sunset, their friendship still can’t last because he’s a Greaser and she’s a Soc,” suggested another.

“But what about the Garden of Eden? What’s that got to do with anything?” a student asked.

“Maybe it refers to a character from the novel that’s grieving?”

Suddenly, another student who had been quietly observing the discussion excitedly chimed in: “I got it! It’s Darry, when Ponyboy runs away! Maybe Darry is the Eden that grieves when he realizes that he has lost Ponyboy!”

“I’d actually like to share a text-to-text connection I’ve made between that ‘So Eden sank to grief’ line and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus,” said a student. “When Icarus dies after flying too close to the sun, Daedalus becomes so heartbroken that he literally sinks to grief because he gives up flying for the rest of his life. This situation is actually pretty similar to both Ponyboy’s and Darry’s that other students mentioned.”

I have heard teachers bristle at the prospect of teaching struggling students out of the mistaken fear that they will have to sacrifice sophisticated intellectual inquiry for mind-numbing, rudimentary mechanics. Though my students’ writing certainly suffers from its fair share of run-on sentences, nonexistent thesis statements and weak explanations of text-based evidence, I still wish those teachers could see my students. I wish they could see how their burgeoning insights and intellectual courage belie their test scores, see how they are able to escape the fetters of low self-esteem to take a chance on their brave ideas, see how they make breathtaking, convincing connections between “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and the myth of “Icarus and Daedalus” or the Bible.

The process of reading a poem is, I’ve come to realize, a lot like teaching. You don’t know where your mind (or your students’ minds) will wander, what questions will emerge or what imaginative insights will blossom, but you let go nevertheless.

And this can lead you to moments of buoyant incandescence, to life-affirming moments when both teacher and student become equally genuine arbiters of knowledge, to unreal, quite bittersweet moments, in fact, when life imitates art and you realize that this very moment is so, so “golden” that it certainly cannot stay.

And yet, it does.

The ABCs of a First-Year Teacher

by MsOui, a first-year 2nd-grade ESL teacher in Queens

Advance: Formerly just a category students were put into based on ESL assessment scores; now it is the name of a new teacher evaluation system we are all still trying to figure out.

Budget: Hopefully in my second year of teaching I won’t have to spend quite as much of my own money on classroom supplies as in my first.

Charlotte’s Web: The first text my 2nd-graders read in our ELA curriculum.

Danielson: Familiarize yourself with this teaching framework and you will be amazed at how you grow in your instructional practice.

Engagement: No matter how interesting and awesome a lesson is, there’s always one student who sits in the corner and reads a book.

Family: The relationship I have with my students. We stick together like crazy glue!

Gobbela: What we named our paper turkey, who was eventually replaced by a stuffed turkey acting as our class mascot. Fortunately, by “stuffed,” I mean with cotton.

High expectations: Because sometimes all it takes for a student to succeed is a seed of belief planted by someone they believe in.

Inspiration: Learn to grow, grow to teach, teach to learn.

Just kidding: Something I learned I can no longer say to my students – because after awhile they won’t take me seriously. I’m not kidding.

Kaleidoscope: Looking at my students is like looking into a kaleidoscope. I see so many bright possibilities. We as teachers have the ability to adjust our perspective to create high expectations for all students.

Laughter: Giggles, chuckles, snorting and bellyaches.

Mathematics: What’s odd plus even? Even odder. Math has become more than numbers. It includes word problems or riddles that calculators cannot solve.

Normalcy: Each student shows me unique and extraordinary possibilities, and this has become the norm.

Oops: Failure drives our success.

Princess: I have one student who frequently forgets to write her name on her test papers and assignments. However, her illustrations always include the same princess on a unicorn with a rainbow background. While other students print their names, she has her own signature!

Quiz: What used to be called quizzes are now called assessments. If you tell students they are having a quiz, you’ll just see a quizzical look on their cute faces.

Rainbows: See princess description above.

Sarcasm: Sarcasm confuses the students who are told their parents are going to be so happy to hear that they are misbehaving at lunch that day. I will just say what I mean and mean what I say from now on.

Tattle: Yes, because your partner spilling a drop of water on her desk will somehow have an astronomical effect on your learning.

Unicorn: See princess description above.

Vow: Because children have pretty darn good memories, keep those promises. Once a promise is broken, good luck!

Why? Curiosity sparks discussion. Get ready. Kids can say the darndest things!

Xerox: Another paper jam?!

Yo-yo: Days are filled with ups and downs…ahhh, and the worst is when the tricks are performed!

Zeal: If you still have this on day 180, then congratulations, you have survived your first year of teaching. Now the best thing about this year is what’s yet to come!

Ode to Joy

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of the New York Teacher.]

Newly appointed Chancellor Carmen Fariña told Department of Education staff during her first day on the job that we need to put joy back in the school system.

Now that is a word we haven’t heard from a schools chancellor in a long time. The Bloomberg administration seemed intent on the opposite goal — sucking the joy out of education.

Fariña also recognizes that at the center of everything that schools do is teaching and learning. “All change happens in the classroom,” she said.

It always has.

Even through 12 years of disruption and damage to schools caused by the Bloomberg administration, UFT members have never stopped bringing a sense of excitement to their work and instilling the joy of learning in their students.

Brooklyn teacher Eleanor Terry, profiled in this issue of the New York Teacher, stuck to the textbook during her first year teaching Advanced Placement statistics at the HS for Telecommunication Arts and Technology, She soon realized that coming up with her own assignments would make statistics more exciting for her and her students. Now Terry’s classes conduct exit polls of voters, analyze baseball salaries and calculate the future impact of college loans.

Her students have become so comfortable with statistics that some use it in pursuing personal interests, such as analyzing their own performance records in sports.

Another math teacher, Elisabeth Jaffe, who wrote the Teacher to Teacher column below, gives class projects in which each student has some choice in the assignment.

Jaffe wants her students at Baruch College Campus HS in Manhattan to develop the same tenacity in academic work as they show in facing personal challenges.

“With a certain amount of freedom, they become more willing to work hard,” Jaffe writes. “They also discover the value of what they learn and a desire to learn more.”

Jaffe and Terry are just two among the tens of thousands of teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, therapists and other school staff who do amazing work every day in our schools.

They know what Fariña reminded us — that joy is at the heart of all teaching and learning.

How I came out to my students

hudsynyc is the pseudonym of a second-year high school ELA teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org.

Sixteen 14-year-old girls taught by one 28-year-old woman. It is my second year having an all-girls 9th-grade advisory class at my high school in Brooklyn. Advisory is a more informal class where students have the opportunity to build real relationships with each other and with their advisory teacher.

By the end of September, my group of girls knew many things about me: I am originally from the New Jersey suburbs. I have a cat and a dog. I play soccer every week. I am relaxed but like to get things moving and accomplished in the classroom. They knew I buy my jeans at American Eagle and that I am never without an iced coffee in the morning. What they didn’t know was that I am married to a woman.

Although our school does not yet have a gay-straight alliance or any LGBT staff members who are out to the students, gay or bisexual teenagers seem ordinary to many of our students, who speak freely about their own sexuality and that of their peers. We even have a transgender student who changed his name and now uses the boys’ bathroom and locker room (as per the DOE’s nondiscrimination policy and our principal’s unyielding support).

At the start of this year, I was out to only that group of 10th-grade girls who had been in my advisory class last year. Now I had a new group of 14-year-old girls who didn’t know. What would they think? How would they look at me? Would they feel awkward sitting near me? I remember how I was at their age. And their parents? Their grandparents? Parent-teacher conferences were only a couple weeks away. Many of their families were religious or from cultures less tolerant of homosexuality. Some of the students must be homophobic, I assumed.

But one Friday, a student from last year’s advisory dropped in to say hello to me. As we were chatting, she asked how my wife was doing.

After she left, one of my most bubbly and outspoken girls asked without hesitation, “Are you bi or gay?”

I tried to keep it cool. “Oh, yes. I forgot. I haven’t told you guys yet, have I? Now when I tell you this, I want us to remember our advisory family rules No. 1 and No. 2. Listen without judgment. And respect.”

Long pause.

“I’m married to a woman. I’m gay.”

Cheers and claps. “You’re married to a woman?” More cheers and claps.

Hands shot up into the air. “I just want to say that I hate when people bully gay people or have something not nice to say. Just let people live.”

“For me, being gay is just as normal as being straight,” another student said. “Every woman in my family is gay besides me and my mother. My aunt’s gay. Her girlfriend’s always over at our house. That’s just how it is. We all sit around together.”

“I’m fine with everyone,” a third student responded. “Love who you love. But my grandfather, he’s not. I can’t stand the things he has to say when someone gay comes on the TV. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, but there’s no point. He just doesn’t listen.”

“My mom used to be the same way,” a different student said. “I just kept talking to her when she made those comments. She’s still, you know, whatever. But she’s getting better. It takes time.”

“What’s your wife’s name again? Where is she from? Is her mother OK with everything? How did you meet?”

Looks like my assumptions were wrong.

The dip in the year

by J. Isabel, middle-school ESL teacher

The week after Thanksgiving is largely heralded as one of the most reviled times in the school calendar. After all the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pie, no one is in a position to come in and teach Common Core-aligned curriculum. No one wants to check for understanding, no one wants to use positive reinforcement to improve student behavior and no one wants to conference with students.

So let’s talk a little bit about a handy little chart that’s been floating around the Internet. It’s used frequently in first-year teacher seminars and professional development sessions.

Although this chart focuses on the feelings of first-year teachers, I really do think this is applicable to anyone who works in schools.

See where December is? Disillusionment. It’s the lowest point of the year — the time when teachers, administrators and school staff the whole world over wish to God they had chosen another career.

Well, let me tell you, I’m feeling it.

I teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to middle school students. On an intellectual level, I know why I’m here. I care about my students very much and I want them to be able to succeed despite a deck that’s stacked high against them. I know that ESL is not a field that many people take seriously or even consider to be a real subject (“Why can’t they just learn English?”). I know that my emergent bilinguals are some of the brightest and most compassionate students of all the kids I service.

Yet, if I were offered another job right now, I’d take it. Straight up. Quit in the middle of the year. Two weeks’ notice. To hell with all of it.

I know that’s some inner part of my id talking. That’s not rational, organized, hardworking J. Isabel talking.

My practicum advisor always says to get strength from your students. Let their energy infuse you, become part of you. I’ve been listening to some really upbeat salsa music, drinking too much coffee and trying to smile even if it’s fake. Because maybe eventually, that fake smile will turn into a real one.


J. Isabel is a second-year ESL teacher in the Bronx. This entry first appeared on her blog, Lessons in Teaching and Learning. If you’d like to write for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

The price of testing

Miss Education is in her second year teaching 4th grade in the Bronx. This year, she’s found herself deeply affected by the challenge of seeing her students struggle with standardized tests.

In early October, I had to administer yet another pre-assessment to my students. I understood that my students were starting to feel frustrated and uncomfortable with all of this pre-testing going on, so I really tried to make it as painless as possible. I explained what had been explained to me. I said, “These tests will not affect your grade; the purpose is to help me, as your teacher, see how much information you know.” I explained that the results of these tests would help me be a better teacher because I’d know what I need to focus on with them.

The test was 90 minutes. It had five constructed response questions — all of which were worded in a way that was more complex than necessary, making the questions confusing and even awkward to read. Nonetheless, my students trusted me, so they accepted the pre-tests with an eager smile and a look of consent.

Ten minutes in, I started to see a lot of worried and insecure faces. After some more time, I heard paper rustling as if someone were madly flipping through the pages of a book. I scanned the classroom and noticed Adam. Adam was flipping through his test aggressively. His face was pale. Next thing I knew, Adam was waving the whole test packet in the air violently.  I nearly ran over to him to intervene.

As soon as I put my hands on his shoulder, Adam stopped waving the paper. “Hey, hey, hey! Relax, relax,” I said. I told him to stop and take a breather, to put his head down and take a break. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he put the paper aside.

Adam is 9 years old.  An unnecessarily stressed 9-year-old. I felt so angry with myself and with the whole system. What are people thinking? Why am I allowing myself to be used as a tool to impose these ridiculous and overwhelming tests on my students for the sake of statistics? I felt extremely guilty and sad about Adam. I wonder how many of those “intellectuals”  who created these tests and these methods have actually had experiences with 9-year-olds.

This whole situation made me question and reassess my role in the classroom.  These tests are not an accurate measure of student intelligence or learning. I know many people feel the same. I just don’t know why our public education officials don’t do anything about it.

Why do teachers leave?

That’s the question asked in last week’s Atlantic, in a piece by Liz Riggs titled “Why Do Teachers Quit?”

But perhaps a more important question is: Why do teachers stay?

And how can we keep them?

The statistics are troubling but familiar: between 40 and 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

Most of us can hazard a guess at why teachers leave, and Riggs names them all: lack of support, lack of respect, low pay. But the crucial flipside of teacher turnover is teacher retention, and Riggs is fairly definitive about the latter:

 If the overall attractiveness of teaching as a profession gets better, the best teachers will enter the profession, stay, and help increase the effectiveness of schools.

She also quotes Richard Ingersoll, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has done extensive research on teacher turnover and retention: “To improve the quality of teaching,” Ingersoll says, you need to “improve the quality of the teaching job. If you really improve that job…you would attract good people and you would keep them.”

But how to improve the quality of a teaching job is the big question. Ingersoll found that higher pay isn’t necessarily the most significant factor in attracting and retaining teachers.

What does make teachers want to join and stay in the profession? A supportive school administration, for one: Ingersoll’s research shows that teachers who have access to mentors and administrators who encourage them are more likely to remain in the job. Interestingly, Ingersoll also cites parental involvement and student achievement as a factor.

In other words: It takes a village to keep a teacher.

What do you think would encourage more teachers to stick with the profession?

Read the article in its entirety »

Is “Dream School” a reality-TV nightmare?

With shows like American Idol and The Voice suggesting that anyone can become a pop star, it was only a matter of time before we had a reality show suggesting that anyone can be a teacher.

In 2010, A&E brought us Teach, which featured actor Tony Danza teaching English at a Philadelphia high school. Danza went on to write a book, aptly titled I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.

Now we have Dream School, which premiered last week on cable TV. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and rapper 50 Cent produce this show that follows celebrity attempts to teach 15 teenagers who have either dropped out or been expelled from school.

The celebrity teachers’ mission is “to excite these young minds, reignite their passions, and get them to graduate from a real, accredited high school,” according to the show’s publicists.

The show’s real-life dropouts have all faced challenges familiar to anyone in urban education: teen pregnancy, bullying, drug addiction, a dying family member. They have come to Dream School for what the show’s publicists call a “last chance” to graduate high school.

What groundbreaking tactics do the intrepid celebrity teachers bring to the classroom? Well, for starters, 50 Cent kicks off the first day of homeroom by, brace yourselves, asking the students to suggest classroom rules.

“In a traditional school, these students would just be expected to follow the rules,” says Dream School’s principal (who off-screen is the superintendent of a suburban school system in California). “But here, we want to empower and motivate each and every kid to be part of the process.”

Did you hear that, you teachers in “traditional” schools? Is it possible that you somehow missed that you’re supposed to empower and motivate your students?

Oliver Stone is the history teacher, and if you think of every approach you would not use for reaching your most disengaged students, you’ll get a sense of Stone’s instructional strategies. He drones on while the camera zooms in on the clock ticking and students falling asleep at their desks. “This is a great example for folks coming in: Teaching is hard,” observes the principal.

Teaching is hard – but this show seems to us at Edwize like a shameful gimmick that’s disrespectful to both teachers and high-risk students. Can you imagine the outcry if we had a show, Dream Courtroom, where non-credentialed celebrities represented defendants in their “last chance” to avoid prison? Or Dream Hospital, where celebrities acting as doctors became their patients’ “last chance”…literally?

What do you think? Does Dream School reinforce the public’s misunderstanding of what makes a good teacher? Or, could the show have a positive impact by showing that teaching is not as easy as some may think?

Today in Education

In this weekend’s New York Times, columnist Joe Nocera explores how teacher preparation programs leave many teachers unprepared for the realities of urban classrooms:

Both [teachers] have undergraduate degrees in elementary education, yet they both recalled how lost they felt when they first stood in front of a classroom. They hadn’t done nearly enough student teaching, they felt, and, in any case, the student teaching they had done hadn’t prepared them to deal with issues, as Edel put it, “like poverty, drugs, crime, and hunger” that she was seeing on a daily basis. Melinda recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory!

“Shouldn’t teacher education be precisely what the reform movement should be focused on?” asks Nocera.

I’m a temporary teacher, and that’s OK

by Frankie Ursula, high school history and economics teacher

Punching my alarm clock again, for the last snooze around 6:55 a.m., I am dream-thinking. In that weird place between wake and sleep, I slowly recall that I am a high school history teacher. Every day I willingly return to the one place that I once wanted so desperately to flee from that I graduated two semesters early.

For several hours, I will teach street-smart kids how to prove people wrong by knowing where Cambodia is and how to express the gravity of what happened there. We get to talk about things that matter for a few brief moments between the whining and procrastination after I must transition into an obligatory assessment of their skills and knowledge. Teenagers have their voices heard, no matter how profanity-riddled, in my classroom, if nowhere else. I have become an anachronism of every awesome teacher that I’ve ever had. Students with learning disabilities or English Language Learners offer their opinions on controversial topics. Some kid started watching the news for the first time last week and then actually volunteered his hand to ask if North Korea was going to bomb us. I mix in a YouTube video or two along with traditional news sources to widen their avenues of perspective.

Nevertheless, the administration is on my back with a new jargon-peppered list of improbable things they need to immediately see upon entering my class for an observation. All students will be engaged and excited about learning the privileged stories of people who’ve changed the world, but have never been to Brooklyn. At least today, Jane Doe from the DR asked me how anyone knows which religion is really real if there are so, so many all over the world. That seed of doubt in the presumed infallibility of organized religion must count for something somewhere.

On a weekly basis last year, I was very conflicted and angry about my new job. Or I was amused. Or I was already over it, on LinkedIn editing my profile. I had my hands in my hair, begging someone to tell me what a monarchy was for the thirtieth time since September. I high-fived a kid who just finished an in-class essay early after skipping nearly two weeks of my class. I often handed out candy to condition thoughtful responses and this did not work as well as I was led to believe it would. The bell would ring, I’d be ambushed by the next group of students. I would sit at the back of my empty room at the end of the day, crying again after another derailed lesson full of verbal abuse. Harsh words that I was expected to deflect or ignore because there is no such thing as detention anymore. I was shaped from the clay of a new breed of instructors, expected to be an emotionally consistent robot and child behavioral psychologist. I made frequent calls to family, friends, mentors, lovers; anyone who would calm me down and give me some practical advice. They told me to quit or to toughen up. They said, why don’t you go apply at a white school, a private school, a “good” school. They said this without sarcasm or shame and I replied, no, that’s not it. It is just that I don’t feel good like they tell you martyrs are supposed to feel right before dying for what they believe in.

This year going in, I’m a bit more hopeful. I’m a temporary teacher (statistically, this is most likely true) trying to prove my relative effectiveness to the people who pay me. Some think that a daily Skype session could replace me. To society, I am the pathetic failure of “those who can’t do, teach”, or I’m bravely starring in the endless sequel to Dangerous Minds, or I’m the lazy overpaid troublemaker who won’t shut up about The Liberal Agenda. I’m reading another article about some idiot educator who has just abused their power on a profoundly inappropriate level. I’m looking for the articles about my teacher friend who taught an 18-year-old freshman how to finally write a five-paragraph analytical essay. Or my friend who dresses up in wigs and co-stars in the short videos created by her students with emotional behavioral disorders in the film club. Or any positive press about all my colleagues who don’t secretly think that their students are too stupid or too damaged to really give a damn about. I’m sure as hell not going to do this forever, and that’s okay right now.

That’s how this thing works, our education system. Some other fresh blood will soon seep into the broken machine of public schooling. It will be their turn to try to interpret and apply the latest band aid solution to our gaping wound of unequal outcomes. She will ask me for advice and I will tell her something that works on Monday but fails by Wednesday. By Friday, we will both be at separate bars drinking our way through a window of respite from our endless lists of things to do. Or we’ll be at separate gyms trying to work mental stress out through the vehicles of our tired bodies. Pick your poison.

They all expect us to solve every socio-economic problem in this country through teaching the youth of tomorrow how to pass state exams. Our efforts are not the salve they seek. Teachers are not politicians, policy makers, economic advisers, and therapists, though some retired teachers do enter those fields hoping to bring in a privileged perspective. We are overwhelmed, earnest people clinging to the ideals that got us through our first year teaching. And here comes the fall again, licking at the last few rays of summer.


Frankie Ursula is the pseudonym of a second-year high school history and economics teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

Choosing to focus on teaching

by Mr. Gillbury, high school English teacher

I am criminally overworked. “Preps” seem to be a thing of the past, as we now have department meetings or grade team meetings during the day. “Lunch” is no longer an eating period as the microwave in the teacher’s lounge seems to have been misplaced. In fact, the entire teacher’s lounge has been misplaced, and yes, that can happen. I’ve been staying late to decorate my room and make a sorry attempt at planning and grading, but it’s usually just a time to try and get some energy back.

I’ve had meetings with the principal and AP where I had to choose how often I will be observed. They seemed to be trying to figure out the new system, and are more confused than the brand-new teachers. We were passively threatened to have our sub lessons submitted with copies of the work for all students done, though the person that makes copies for us is overwhelmed with an insane amount of copies to make.

I’ve had meetings with my department. Meetings with my grade team. Meetings about what we should be talking about in meetings. No, seriously, we actually discuss how to properly have a meeting, what an agenda should look like, all of the stuff to make a school look like it’s a well run corporation. The humanity on that side of things is gone. Perhaps forever.

My new students are calm and respectful…for now. They say that every year you teach, it gets easier as your confidence grows. I do feel that way, that I have finally come into my own as a teacher. Too bad there are all of these new changes, so everything I have mastered over the past few years will be viewed as obsolete. I can hear the chaos in the hallway as I teach my drop-dead-silent classes, and I act as if I don’t hear a thing. The kids take their cue from me and stay focused. Again, I don’t expect this honeymoon period to last. Because…

I teach students I had last year. One group of them is doing great. Focused, working hard, respectful. The other group is not really disrespectful, but they’re wild. Oh, they are wild and they make me laugh, which is fun and we get along, but it’s not the best for teaching.

There’s a lot going on in the classroom, and I have planning, co-planning, and grading to do. But it just feels like there’s so much beyond what you’d expect from a teacher now. It’s hard to even keep track of all the emails and the vague threats if we don’t fill out forms and send emails to the right people and go to the right meeting, have the right things up on our walls, and, I suppose, even teach how they want us to teach. Though teaching itself seems to be the least discussed part about “teaching.” And yet…that’s what I’m choosing to focus on.


Mr. Gillbury is the pseudonym of a 4th-year English teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit a column for the New Teacher Diaries, please email edwize@uft.org.

According to Plan?

by Brook Lyn, special education teacher

A teacher’s life can be measured by a long chain of plans. We plan our days, our lessons, even our free time.  Teachers spend their lives helping young people plan theirs.  I find myself making plans only for them to be altered.

I walked into my District 75 school in Brooklyn on September 3 planning to build my classroom.  I planned on entering the building, seeing my roster, seeing my colleagues, and finally designing the room eight students and I will call home for 7 hours a day.  I had to re-assemble the furniture, do the bulletin boards, put up posters, and organize my files and the students’ IEP binders.

As I entered the freshly painted red doors, the principal handed me a folder containing an agenda.  I visualized the monkey wrench being hurled at my plans, shattering them.  The agenda had the usual welcome back presentation and meetings with assistant principals.  But after lunch, I expected to see classroom setup on the schedule.  All of my careful planning and lists on my Notes app couldn’t prepare me for this… an afternoon filled with a 3-hour meeting.

I had forgotten about the MoSL meeting.  I had been selected for the school’s Measures of Student Learning committee, along with four other teachers, to discuss the local measure of Advance [the new teacher evaluation system].  How could I have forgotten about this meeting?  I had taken a course given by Charlotte Danielson on Knowledge Delivery Systems in preparation for this team.

After the shock dissipated, my mind wandered to my classroom planning to-do lists.  I immediately began thinking about the late nights I would have to work in order to make up for the time I’d be spending in the MoSL committee meeting.

I was anxious throughout the morning sessions and even during lunch.  I envisioned the rest of the school having brightly colored bulletin boards and perfect classrooms that were ready for students to explore, while my bulletin boards showed only exposed corkboard.  However, my work on the MoSL committee was more important.

Ten minutes before the MoSL meeting, I met my staff.  I had one para educator I worked with the previous year and the other two were new to the 8:1:1 setting.   I quickly welcomed my paras to the classroom.  We briefly chatted about our summers, or rather the two weeks between Chapter 683 and the first day of school.  Then, I raced to my meeting.

At 2:50, I made my way back to what I was expecting to be a dreary, bare classroom.  I looked through the door’s windowpanes and was shocked to see one para standing on a chair hanging yellow bulletin board paper, a second para laminating the desk plates I bought for the students, and a third para stapling the borders around the perimeter of the bulletin boards.  The desks were in the neat rows I had planned, the classroom library was organized, and the computers were reconnected.

I planned every minute of my day, but I didn’t factor in collaboration.  I’m always the person others count on.  It was refreshing to feel like I could count on them.  They exceeded my expectations and set a tone of cooperation for the year.  All of my plans didn’t prepare me for teamwork.


Brook Lyn is the pseudonym of a special education teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email edwize@uft.org.

Common Core tests as a game changer

With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion.

Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.

Achievement plummeted on this first try at new tests. City students scored 20 points lower in ELA and 30 points lower in math, with less than 30 percent of Grade 3-8 students meeting proficiency standards. But the tests set an extremely high bar — probably too high — in what amounted to a premature effort to test students against the new Common Core. Curriculum didn’t start to be available until late in the year and the Dept. of Education didn’t have the leadership required to manage such a dramatic transition.

But there is no going back. The New Common Core tests, which will continue phasing in over the next few years, may get better, especially if current state test-maker Pearson PLC moves out the way. But they will remain harder: they will ask students to do more explaining, analyzing and creating.

And here’s the thing: these are the very skills educators want to teach and have had to forego in favor of test prep. Right now, teachers are out of practice, and so are their students. But these are the skills they want to teach. So they will demand more autonomy, an end to the culture of test prep, more time and resources.  As long as the state and city don’t slap ridiculous consequences onto the new scores, students and teachers alike will become less bored and hopefully more engaged.

Harder tests are going to result in widening gaps between better- and less-prepared students. Typically that means racial and wealth gaps, as well as gaps between English proficient and ELL students and between general and special education kids.

These were the gaps that No Child Left Behind set out to eliminate back in 2002. To the extent this succeeded, and it didn’t much, the cost was relentless test prep and/or dumbing down of tests.  Now, as the gaps widen on the Common Core tests, parents will be outraged and politicians will distance themselves from the schools. So they should. Bringing poorly prepared students up to standards is the work of brilliant and passionate teaching, which has been forced underground in the NCLB era. Its reemergence can come only if good educators are free to work. They cannot be commandeered by mayors running numbers. A next generation teacher force can only be brought into being by experienced educators who are not ruthlessly tracked by narrow performance monitors.  

Accountability and Legacy

The education mayor, the education president. These monikers turned out to be albatrosses around the necks of Michael Bloomberg, George Bush and many others. Their legacy is a culture of measurement, not of learning. Testing has become laden with consequences that the tests themselves were never meant to support, including judgments about schools, teachers, and even “where we are heading as a society.”

One of the best things these new tests could do is force accountability to grow up. The city has overwhelmed us with data that, on close examination, is really the same data points parsed a hundred different ways. What’s more, the numbers appear to lie, or at least, they zing up and down without apparent reason.

Common Core tests could do two things about accountability. The first is to force us to adopt a more rounded assessment of students and schools. The second is to put standardized tests back their rightful, and less overblown, place.

So less than a third of students meet standards. Well, what else do we know? How do students perform on social studies projects, lab work, art and music, sports, leadership activities, group tasks, or community service? What 21st century skills do they have; what ones need to be developed? What are the best models for teaching those skills? What can students tell us about what they do and don’t understand and what helps them learn? And how do we measure those?

There needs to be some opening up — more quantitative data that uses non-numerical measures. We have agreed that more than half of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of classroom performance. Why can’t we assess our students that way?

It would be a relief if tests become more the province of educators. Politicians don’t find scales, cut scores, p values and item analysis inherently sexy. But good measurement requires expert interpretation. If the heat gets turned down under testing, and we all agree it’s complicated, then public attention may return to subjects, to projects, to school activities and to learning.

 Of course, there’s another scenario, in which the new tests are simply misused as the old ones were, to pass judgment based on partial evidence, to bash and shame and to claim undeserved legacies. But after a decade of this, teachers and parents, not to mention students, are pretty fed up. Their voices lend hope for a turnaround.

U.S. Teachers Paid Less, Work Longer, than OECD Average

A new report by the leading organization for international education data finds that public school teachers in the United States earn only about two-thirds of what similarly-educated U.S. workers earn, while teachers in most of the rest of the developed world earn 80 to 89 percent of their peer professionals.

In addition, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a member organization of 34 countries across Europe, South America, and the Far East, found that U.S. teacher salaries increased only about 3 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a 17 to 20 percent increase for teachers in other developed countries.

Public elementary school teachers in the U.S. worked an average of 1,097 hours in 2011, almost 40 percent more than the 790 hours for the average teacher in the OECD countries. U.S. high school teachers worked 1,051 hours, some 60 percent more than the 664 hours for upper secondary level teachers in other OECD countries.

Other education indicators in the OECD report, Education At A Glance 2013, found troubling news at both the beginning and late stages of U.S. education.

Just half of 3-year-olds and 78 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of early childhood education in the United States, compared with OECD averages of 68 percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of 4-year-olds. At the upper end of education, what the report reveals is that college attainment amongst all U.S. adults ages 25 to 64 puts us fifth in the world, but zeroing in on just 24 to 34 year olds — young adults — pushes the U.S. rank to 12th.

Finally, the proportion of young adults who were “NEET” (“not employed or in education or training”) increased between 2008 and 2011, to 15.9 percent of youth ages 15 to 29, a shade higher than the OECD average, which includes economically devastated countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

In other words, the U.S. education system, while mighty, is slipping or standing still, while Korea, Japan, the Russian Federation and Ireland surge ahead in the percentages of its populations that are college educated; Spain, Mexico, France and Belgium enroll far more young children in pre-primary education; and Australia, Israel, Poland and even Portugal have raised teacher pay significantly while U.S. teachers have seen almost nothing for a decade.

Is this any way to run an education system?