Making the Grade Part III: New Teachers in New York City’s Public Schools
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JOHN MERROW: Unable to hire enough veteran certified teachers to staff its 52 schools, the New York City school system set up its own emergency training program; it recruited 350 men and women willing to teach, gave them one month of training at local colleges and assigned them to schools.
Twelve of these teaching fellows were assigned here, PS-25 in Brooklyn, a kindergarten through eighth grade school with 750 students. Among the 12 were: Scott Smith, a lawyer now teaching seventh grade Social Studies; Renee Cason, a former Americorps volunteer teaching fourth grade; Dayna Goldberg who grew up in a family of teachers, who’s teaching second grade; Janice Wright, who left a job at NBC Television to become a fifth grade teacher; and Jack Nastasi, who had been planning on a career in finance, but changed his mind. He teaches sixth grade.
A total of 323 teaching fellows were in classrooms all across New York City when school began in September. By Christmas, 27 had quit. That’s one of out every 12. Ironically, that’s what happened here at PS-25. It began with 12, one has quit.
TEACHER: Please raise your hand if you want to be the surveyor.
JOHN MERROW: Meghan Sutherland is 23. She had been teaching sixth grade, but in mid-October, she resigned.
JOHN MERROW: So you feel disrespected?
MEGHAN SUTHERLAND: Yes, very much so; all the time. That is a terrible part of it. They do the whistling thing, that, like making noises behind the teacher’s back.
TEACHER: Stop talking. Listen.
MEGHAN SUTHERLAND: These kids will do it. Four of them will be, like, whistling, and I’ll turn around and they have it mastered and they’ll stop. Things like throwing garbage over the floor, trying to manipulate me to get out of their desks, to get out of their seats to go to the bathroom, ten will get up and go to the bathroom at once.
JOHN MERROW: Reporter: Meghan is now working for a magazine in New York. Roni Messer, who helped with the fellows summer training says morale may be an issue for all of the fellows.
RONI MESSER, Teacher Trainer: The first year teachers come in exuberant and can’t wait to start. As they get closer to November and December, there is a dip and this dip is discouraging and that’s what they’re feeling now.
TEACHER: We’re not doing anything until we get it together.
JOHN MERROW: Certainly Renee Cason was feeling discouraged about now. One morning in mid December she told her fourth graders she would read them a story when they brought their chairs to the front of the room. She began the lesson at 8:55.
RENEE CASON: Today I’m going to read a story. We have been talking about… Victor, strike one. Now I would like a chair, but I can never have one. That’s the thing. Leave it alone. It’s fine. I want you to think, I want you to pair with your partner. We all know our partners from our groups?
RENEE CASON: It’s over because I’m very annoyed… I had… No, that we do this every day and you can’t remember your partners or you fail to remember… It’s over now. A long time ago when he was a young man…
STUDENT: Stop throwing that. You dummy.
STUDENT: Be quiet!
RENEE CASON: I want everyone to raise their hand, now. Now. Now. Turn around, Victor. When my hand is up, I can’t talk. Your hand…
STUDENT: Anybody say you.
RENEE CASON: Everyone should be quiet. Stop the talking. Now everyone has a 75-word assignment on how to behave in school. Since we don’t know how to do it, you’ll have a 75-word essay. That’s how it is. Can you please sit down.
STUDENT: I like to stand up.
RENEE CASON: You guys are so…interesting. You guys don’t want to learn much of anything, do you? Let’s go. Let’s go right now. It’s over. I can take you out. Let’s go. You’re no longer in my class. I don’t care what they tell me or say. I don’t want you ever in my class.
JOHN MERROW: Eloise Massey, who is a veteran teacher, who has been working in Rene’s classroom, isn’t surprised what happened.
ELOISE MASSEY, Teacher: Miss Cason is a person who really needs more help with management. She’s very bright. She can pick up things fast, but if you don’t have management and have techniques and you don’t have skills and techniques down with consistency, where children know I’m supposed to do this and the teacher will do this and do that, then you’ll have trouble in the classroom no matter how bright you are.
JOHN MERROW: At the end of the day, seven of the teaching fellows got together.
JOHN MERROW: You seemed to have a tough time this morning.
RENEE CASON: Starting off, things that I thought were set, like, ‘Who is your partner?’, Wasn’t clear to them, or they didn’t want to remember. “Well, I don’t know.” They have selective memory. So I had to go over just that and they just don’t seem to want to be quiet, and I can’t seem to get them to listen to me. Maybe my personality, or I don’t yell or scream. I don’t know, it doesn’t work.
JANICE WRIGHT: Probably all of us at one time have lost control of the class. Sometimes they just… it’s usually at transition time, which is the hardest time. They come back from the reading program and they’re in the halls, they come back from lunch or gym and they’re crazy.
RENEE CASON: I’m trying everything. I’m trying to be consistent with points, which I thought was working. I let them select their own teams, trying to make it more fun for them, but it doesn’t really matter to them.
JACK NASTASI: It’s a real hard job, very hard. I mean, it’s a hard job, and I don’t think after three months you’re giving yourself a fair enough amount of time to see if you failed or not.
SCOTT SMITH: Veteran teachers have told me that your first year is the most difficult, and as time goes on, it gets better and you enjoy it more.
JANICE WRIGHT: Sometimes there is nothing you can do for somebody, but there have got to be kids in her class learning from her or respecting her. Whether not that many or a lot, she has to look for those people and find them and build up.
RENEE CASON: I don’t think it’s lesson planning because that I can do. It’s trying to get kids interested in something when all they care about is talking about the next musician or singing a song. And they don’t really care.
SARAH COSTELLOE: Some of the kids have cursed me out, thrown rubber bands and thrown tacks at me. I have them for reading. Her kids are very tough and they have a lot of behavioral problems and have a lot of problems focusing. I can’t imagine teaching them all day long.
RENEE CASON: There’s nothing else — my point now is there is nothing else to say about it. It’s a tough thing. I don’t know if I really want to stay in my classroom or stay with teaching.
JOHN MERROW: Renee recovered her balance.
RENEE CASON: I want you to read, and you guys are going to do questions together.
JOHN MERROW: Roni Messer observed her a week later.
RONI MESSER: I think Renee had very good beginnings of consistency and she really said to the students, “I’m not calling on you now because you’re calling out. I would like you to sit down; I would like you to open your book.” She was being fair and being consistent and doing it in a manner that they were responsive, and they were. You didn’t see anyone getting out of their seat after she said something.
JOHN MERROW: Informal support is helping her make adjustments. She doesn’t have a classroom teacher’s aide, although Dayna Goldberg, who’s having far fewer problems, does.
RENEE CASON: I want you to put the book away now.
JOHN MERROW: Principal Leroy Johnson and Assistant Principal Jim Flannery say they’re aware of Renee’s problems.
JIM FLANNERY: We have instituted a couple of extra programs where we enable people to go in there to help her, I would say at this stage of the game maybe three or four periods a day.
LEROY JOHNSON: With her, I think she’s trying her best and putting her best foot forward, so we’re going to continue to work with her.
JOHN MERROW: Teaching fellows are paid $31,500 a year. The system is also providing tuition assistance as they work for a master’s degree. Apparently, some veteran teachers here resent what they see as special treatment.
JOHN MERROW: Is there resentment of the teaching fellows?
ELOISE MASSEY: I believe there is, because I think it has to do with not just resentment on the basis of that, but simply the fact no one really knows. They want to know, how much salaries are they making? Are they making the same salaries that we do? How come they got their master’s degrees and we didn’t get our master’s degrees for free?
LEROY JOHNSON: I don’t think there is true resentment towards anybody. When you’re here and have children in front of you, there is no time to be resentful. You have to focus on the task at hand.
JANICE WRIGHT: People think that we’re getting paid double what they’re making. They’re just rumors. It’s office gossip, but it’s through a school.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: I think they’re also a bit jealous that we’re getting a master’s degree. And they have to work and they have kids and all this stuff, and they’re trying to, you know, work and pay off their college and we’re getting it for free.
JACK NASTASI: Everyone has been cool with me, all the teachers the faculty, everyone. I really haven’t had any problems with anyone. But I think it’s just ignorance – there’s ignorance everywhere.
DAYNA GOLDBERG: We’re young – we’re inexperienced, both lifewise and in the work force. And they’re looking at us like, “Why are they here?”
JOHN MERROW: In early January, another of PS-25 teaching fellows, Scott Smith, resigned.
RENEE CASON: It’s survival and it’s every man for themselves in here. So he did what was best for him.
LEROY JOHNSON: They got another kind of education by coming here, and I guess you either decide whether you’ll continue to do this kind of work or not. And I think some folks will do it and some folks will opt to leave.
JOHN MERROW: Scott didn’t want to talk about his decision, but said he that may continue teaching at another school. But still, it’s more evidence that teaching is a lot tougher than many of these teaching fellows expected.
RENEE CASON: I think we may have more people leaving.
JOHN MERROW: How about you?
RENEE CASON: I have contemplated it, and I’m still deciding, but I’m here today.