I will try to describe myself in one paragraph: I am 23 years old, and I teach 23 second-graders. I teach everything, from math, science, and reading to shoe-tying, apologizing, and keeping the milk in the cereal bowl. This is my second year teaching second grade. I am a New York City Teaching Fellow, which means that my first month of teaching was also my second month of training. I am now beginning my 16th month of teaching, which means that I am also in my 17th month of training to become a teacher. I teach in Brooklyn and I grew up in Brooklyn. I attended a strange private school, where students did not receive grades, from kindergarten all the way through my senior year. I am learning the particularities of public school as I go.
I decided in my senior year of college that I wanted to be a teacher. I took the path that was advertised on the subway and joined the Teaching Fellows. It would have been wiser, I think, to go the traditional route into teaching, but here I am. Before deciding to become a teacher, I wanted to become an actor (from ages 5-11), a comic book artist (11-12), a politician (12-13), a wealthy person (13-14) and finally a journalist (14-21). My favorite subject to teach is writing.
My school can be classified, if you wish, as a low-functioning school. We received a poor grade on our progress report, the yearly assessment of student performance, parental satisfaction, teacher quality and administrative oversight.
Our mid-level students did not improve their test scores last year. Well, a few did. But others did not. The low-level students did improve their scores, but not by enough. I am classifying students as high-, mid- and low-level based on their scores on the reading and math exams taken by children in grades 3-8. Thankfully, my second-graders are not yet ranked.
Our students are absent more than they should be. Monthly faculty meetings are always a grim affair. The heating system is sporadic. The pipes clang. We had a mouse one day. Jasmine (not her real name) stepped on its tail for one moment but then got scared and let it go. We never saw it again. I once saw a giant cockroach while preparing the day’s lessons one morning. I stood up so fast that my chair fell over and the chair banged and scared me again. Two scares in two seconds! Some days are better than others.
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The school deals with troubling student behavior, though not like in the old days. I was not there for the old days. In the old days, Ms. Palmer* told me, the fifth-graders carved gang signs in the desks and a bulletin board would not stay decorated longer than three days. Kids hurt each other seriously. Last year, on my first day of teaching, one boy seriously hurt another and I sent him to the office. The office sent him back. I told him to get some water and calm himself down. He ripped down my bulletin board. After school I asked him why he did that and he didn’t have much to say. My hands were shaking so I went home and took a 45-minute shower.
Despite its problems, my school is a miracle of activity and effort. We have wonderful teachers in our school, and I have been watching them closely for two years. My hope is that by posting a series of dispatches from the front lines of a job that resists abstraction or categorization, I can offer some of the lessons I have learned from these teachers. I aim to present concrete instances of some practices that work, and some that do not, at least in my school. In this sense I hope that I can be helpful to other teachers who, like me, are secretly teachers-in-training.