First Person

On The Revolving Door Into (And Out Of) The Classroom

Some experienced educators believe that new teachers taking the “alternative certification” route into the classroom through programs such as NYC Teaching Fellows or Teach for America will leave soon after entering. It’s not just them — when I tell my friends I want to be a teacher, they ask, “But then what?”

Administrator? Politician? Non-profit CEO? None of those jobs interests me, but to other people, getting on-the-ground experience as a teacher is a fundamental step toward working effectively in them. Teachers who go this route face the criticism of being called “revolving door”educators, for creating churn in school systems and devaluing the concept of teaching as a career in and of itself.

I understand these concerns and think it would be preferable for new teachers to build long careers in the classroom. But as an aspiring teacher looking for a way into the system, I also understand the practical perspective of many new teachers. Fifty-three percent of my graduating cohort this past June is unemployed, and we have on average $27,000 in college loans to pay off. Meanwhile, most school systems are dramatically scaling back their hiring and tenure policies. Put simply, it’s getting harder to become — and stay — a teacher.

For some, joining education-based service models is not just a great way to “give back.” It is the only practical way for many college graduates (who, like me, did not major in education) to get into the education field. AmeriCorps service members get their college loans frozen for the duration of service, and receive grant money towards paying those loans off.  Many college grads can’t afford going to grad school for a second degree and becoming teachers through what is called the “traditional route,” as much as we respect those who do it. We want to get in the classroom as soon as possible, and financially can’t afford to do it any other way.

One college friend, F., applied to two dozen jobs, including Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows. In the end, TFA was the only job she got. After much deliberation, she chose TFA over unemployment, despite her ideological reservations about the organization. She decided she would rather not move back home and let her thousands of dollars in college loans accrue interest, particularly because she did want to work in education. I talked to her about her decision at length. I told her about Veltri’s Teaching On Other People’s Kids, explained Ravitch’s campaign against corporate privatization, and recited some lines from Gary Rubinstein’s blog — which all detail and criticize the drawbacks of TFA’s “revolving door” model. But apart from these big-picture concerns, the simple fact was that F. needed a job, any job, and TFA was a good opportunity to do work that she believed in and be financially stable post-graduation. For my generation, it is a privilege to have our job reflect our ideals. Many of us want to follow our ideals perfectly, but we have to live within our means first.

Another qualification of the “revolving door” critique is that the door is not just revolving for education. According to a Future Workplace study, 91 percent of millennials expect to stay in their job for less than three years. In other words, we are a flighty bunch, and it’s not just in the field of education.

Still, the drawbacks of teacher churn are clear. But instead of disparaging transient educators, we need to work with them. We can capitalize on the energy of eager, talented college graduates: If we rebuild the system, the service model could complement — and support, rather than dissolve — the career pipeline towards becoming a full-time educator. We should work towards a system where veteran teachers and apprentice teachers can work in conjunction, learn from each other, and support each other, regardless of where our lives take us. We need a service model that prepares new teachers fully so that they do not burn out and leave the profession within three years. We need a service model that supports and encourages young educators rather than criticizes them for being flighty and idealistic. We need a model that gives new teachers networks of support and opportunities for professional development rather than disparages them through controversial metrics.

The model I found that is trying to do these things is Blue Engine. Blue Engine Teaching Assistants partner with lead teachers rather than replace them. They partner with the schools they work in to increase academic growth rather than come in with their own ideas and take over. Unlike other education service models (see comparisons here, and here), Blue Engine works only in district schools. No charters, no private schools. And we spend the years as apprentices, learning from experienced teachers rather than replacing them or working against them. We do not have to bear the professional burden of being solely responsible for the education of 120 students after a single month of training. The support structure this provides counters the burnout effect that so many new teachers suffer from.

After Blue Engine, I’m planning on staying in the classroom for as long as I can. Some of the other BETAs aren’t — some already have plans for graduate school. Many still don’t know whether or not teaching is for them, so they will stick out another year with Blue Engine or apply to certification programs (traditional and alternative alike). One of our BETAs last year moved on to secure a position as a lead teacher in the same school he started, through the Teaching Fellows program.

But what’s important is that none of those leaving will have deserter’s guilt; we are not lead teachers, so we won’t leave as big a hole behind us when we go. And our year as apprentice teachers has disabused us of illusions about working as a teacher, so if we continue as teachers we know exactly what we are getting ourselves into, and are practically vaccinated against burnout.

Like the rest of my generation, I don’t know where the next 10 years will take me. And that’s okay. This is why I joined Blue Engine. I don’t think it’s perfect by any means. But what we are doing makes sense, and the revolving door is still there for those who want it. My hope is that we can continue to tweak our country’s education service programs so that they cater to the financial and ethical needs of our generation, while also supporting the system that is already in place.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.