Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mark Twain and the Dirt Eater.

Interesting yet bewildering; this idea of letting the DOE take over the certification of aspiring teachers.  Especially bewildering is the notion that placing a new college graduate with an experienced teacher in a "thriving" school would somehow provide the framework and support for that newbie to take over a class in one of our famous hard-to-staff schools.  Let's get this straight from the git-go.  I do believe that the best preparation for a teacher contemplating a career teaching in NYC is not only a degree in education but also the essential fieldwork that introduces the novice to the daily reality of the teaching profession.  When I returned to school and enrolled in a graduate program in education, part of our assignment was to do the required fieldwork in a school of their selection.  The fieldwork is the first step into a classroom - where you, as teacher, are finally facing the class and not the other way around. I was sent to a number of  schools but I want to focus on two experiences that relate to the subject of this post.
The first school I was assigned  to was a 5th grade class in an elementary school on the Upper West Side which is, by all accounts, a great school.  Great staff, facilities, parental involvement, money, and a student body that valued education.  I can recall being asked to do a read-aloud of a Mark Twain story. Having some experience on stage, I gave it my all with animated gestures, character voices and audience engagement.  The kids loved it, even applauding the performance - my mentor congratulated me on my efforts and gave me suggestions for the lesson follow-up. What I was expected to gain from this experience was to know how and when I was "on my game" as a teacher.  What did student engagement actually look like?  What did it sound like?  All of this out of the learning room of the graduate school into the teaching room of the public school.  Wow, I thought, this is going to be great; here are the budding minds, eager to learn, eager to show off what they already know, respectful, knowledgeable and wanting to know more.  So, this is what teaching is like and this is a teacher's classroom.
The other school I wanted to mention is located in East Harlem.  Not a difficult school by any means; nice modern building, helpful staff and just elementary school kids being kids. I was assigned to a lower grade - maybe 2nd or 3rd with a teacher who used "Shhhhhhhush" after every other word.  This was the first indicator that perhaps I have chosen the wrong second career.  My engagement with children so young was ineffectual and frustrating (thus my stint as a Middle School teacher).  However, I did learn an important lesson from one child and it is a lesson I always keep in the back of my mind.  Due to some malfeasance on part of the student, I was instructed to deprive said student of a privilege held dear.  As I was trying to explain my action to said student I was met with an impenetrable and defying stare that accompanied the words " I don't care.  I can eat dirt".  Clearly, the deprivation tactic to change behavior was not going to work here.  Wow, I thought, this is NOT going to be great; this is not as easy a being an animated reader to a group of inquiring minds.  Where is the desire to learn?  How can I get to make these children care?  Two starkly contrasting experiences of the daily reality of teaching in an urban public school.

So how does this fit in with the topic of the post?  Needless to say, I am basically against the DOE taking over certification but I am aiming at what I see as a misguided strategy for preparing any teacher to take over a classroom.  You cannot teach unless you can manage and you cannot learn classroom management out of a book; it helps and give you some tools to work with but you will only get it in the classroom itself.  Design for a teacher preparation program for an urban public school must place primary importance on classroom management and, in most cases, lack of management is not a big issue in a "thriving school".  The idea that you would mentor a teacher in a thriving school as preparation for that teacher to take the helm in a struggling school is to miss the mark, big time. We know that there is more learning than teaching in a teacher's first years on the job and the steepest learning curve to navigate is classroom management.  This is why it would make so much more sense to place a last year graduate student into a "managed classroom" in a hard to staff school in order to hone their skills in this critical area. To succeed in the trenches you need to learn in the trenches.  All this would seem quite self-evident to any teacher already in the system, so I am not offering any revolutionary ideas and, in fact, this "mentoring issue" is subsumed in the larger picture of the DOE efforts to drive experienced tenured teachers out of the building.  As I consider the bigger picture and how this "bogus route to certification" is being contemplated, I am tempted to suggest that their "mentoring' idea is valid with the idea that if implemented it is doomed to failure - another disaster policy brought to you by the DOE.  The only drawback is that another class of students will fall by the wayside as the DOE clumsily grasps for more power with their oversized hands.

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