Sunday, January 29, 2006

size matters

I'm starting student teaching at the charter school tomorrow! I'm so excited! I had another meeting with the Principal last week, and she is so great. She actually asked ME how the SCHOOL could help me get something good out of my experience! She said, "I don't want you to go out for a drink on Friday night with your friends and have to tell them how horrible your teaching placement is." I told her that it was 100% impossible that this school could be worse, or even in the same ballpark of horrible, as the one I taught at last semester. She just laughed.

This school is a K-8, and has about 30 kids per grade. In the "upper school," of grades 6-8, each individual class period has only 15 kids! Talk about a perfect place to do student teaching! The social studies teacher I'm working with has one class of 6th grade global history, two classes (7th and 8th) of American history, and a "literature" class. This last class is a group of kids at the same reading level who read books together and talk about them. The teachers are free to choose whatever kinds of books they want, as long as they are at the correct reading level. It sounds pretty fun. My teacher's class is currently reading Angels and Demons, which, while not exactly an intellectual force, is an enjoyable and decent book, and is certainly different from books they read in English class.

I haven't worked with middle school kids in awhile...if anyone has advice they'd like to give on teaching this age group, please post a comment or write me an email. Anything is appreciated :).

Another interesting thing from this week. I went to this "policy breakfast" at NYU held by the NYU education school, MetLife, and the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (I'm still a little unclear on what the latter organization is...their name is a little scary though). They had a panel discussion on the current state of teacher training. The title of the meeting was Teaching in a Flat World: Giving Teachers a Strong Start. Since we all know that I have some opinions (you know, one or two) on teacher training, I was excited to go.

The panel included some interesting people, including the CEO of human resources and the Deputy Chancellor for Teaching & Learning for the NYC Department of Ed. I thought that these two would be, at best, defensive about NYC's teacher training. And it's true that they did kind of pat themselves on the back for starting some mentorship program for new teachers within the NYC public schools, a program which I am fairly sure is pretty dysfunctional and ineffectual. But on the whole they had it right on about what teacher training needed to be. They talked about assigning the best teachers to be mentors, not just the ones who had been in the system the longest, about the need for honest, detailed, quality feedback for new teachers, and about the need for many different kinds of supportive relationships for new teachers within the school structure. The panel moderator said something that struck a chord with me: "We need to stop this hazing ritual that we put new teachers through year after year, and which drives the most talented people out of the professsion." I think the phrase "hazing ritual" is really apt. For me, someone who always wants to be prepared and competent at any task I undertake, this year has been really terrifying. Whenever I get up in front of a class, I feel under-prepared, nervous, and un-supported. There hasn't been enough feedback or support for me to really grow. Hopefully I'll get more of that this semester, but there's really no training or structure to help mentor teachers help their student teachers. Only a few people really know how to give good feedback. Since this is the primary pipeline (the other being the similarly problematic policy of just throwing smart but inexperienced people into the classroom right away) for new teachers, the whole thing really needs to be rethought. Would you send a medical student into the operating room with a pair of scissors, a pat on the back, and responsibility for not letting someone die? Would you put a college graduate straight into mid-level management in a publishing house? No. They all get entry-level positions and then are eased into positions of responsibility. There should be some adaptation for teaching, as most people consider the product of this profession pretty important.

At one point, the CEO for Human Resources at NYC Dept of Ed referred to the need for more practical training for teachers, that more of the training should be school-based, rather than university-based. One audience member quipped, "Are you suggesting breaking the monopoly of schools of education?" She responded, "You said it, not me." Everyone in the audience laughed. It was the kind of laugh that said "Everyone knows it has to be done, but it's politically terrifying and any attempt is going to take a marshaling of forces that do not currently exist." So in some ways it was comforting, in that the people in the room (most seemed to be former or current educators and people involved with education non-profits) knew that things needed to be changed and that the world of education training needed shaking up. On the other hand it was sad, because people seemed to acknowledge that even the leaders of the public school system were pretty powerless to make the necessary changes.

You can't blame them. When someone is responsible for training teachers for 1,000 schools, all of whom are supposed to run in much the same way, it's going to be incredibly difficult to change the status quo even a little. There are just so many people, so many institutions, and so many rules involved. I've heard it described as akin to trying to change the course of an enormous ocean liner going full speed ahead. That's why charter schools are so great. Their size allows them to make necessary changes lightning fast, with one decision and a manageable amount of observation and enforcement. If a charter school thinks its teachers need to have training in a certain aspect of literacy instruction or behavioral management, they can just hold that training right then and there. The institutional size is just so much more manageable. It's too much to expect any one group of reformers, even over decades, to make all the changes necessary to improve 1,000 schools with hundreds of thousands of employees. What we need to do is break down barriers to entry into teaching (while keeping the standards for teacher knowledge and intelligence high), eliminate unnecessary union regulations, allow alternative means of teacher training, and restructure schools to favor and reward the most competent and hard-working teachers (and administrators). If you have good people within your schools, then there doesn't have to be so much top-down regulation. You can let people experiment and come up with the best ways to train teachers and communicate with each other about it. Anyway, I'm just rambling, so I better stop. The point is that the size of the institution matters, and our urban school districts are just waaaaaaaaaaaaay too gargantuan to allow any significant reform over any reasonable amount of time.

Well this post has been somewhat meandering and not funny, so I apologize. In fact, this entire semester's blog might be a lot less amusing, since I anticipate this school, as well as my class instructors, will give me a lot less bullshit than the people last semester. Good for me, bad for sad, absurd story-reading. Well, at least I can keep you updated on my plans to avoid/circumvent/bastardize for my own purposes the "social justice action project" I have to do this semester. Ugh.


At January 30, 2006 5:10 PM, Blogger yomister said...

Good to hear about your placement. Last year when I started with NYCDOE, I was assigned a mentor. She was great! Other friends, however, had less than stellar experiences with the mentorship program. It's unfortunate that it is only a one year program, as the support would have been invaluable.

Best of luck this semester.

At January 31, 2006 12:21 PM, Blogger Carrie K said...

I don't mind at all less amusing-yet-horrifying state of education stories! And it will be so much better on the wear and tear of your nerves, which will surely be tromped upon no matter how good it gets.

At January 31, 2006 5:59 PM, Blogger EdWonk said...

Well? How did it go? We've all been there, and, for better or worse, we've all had a first day! :-)

At February 03, 2006 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey let's share our experience.

Check out my blog:

I also started my student-teaching in January.

At February 07, 2006 5:33 AM, Blogger Jenny D. said...

Terrific! You ought to have a very different experience. While you're there, think about what you have to change in your last school to make it work more like the one you're in now.

At April 05, 2006 11:38 PM, Anonymous airman said...

A teacher in today's youth
environment has to decide if
his/her effort to survive is
worth the meager results.
Kids now rule over everything
and everyone. They also get
every protection to be amoral
and unteachable. Life for
most kids is rude selfishness.
This behavior derives from abdicating parents. Beer, sex
and rock trumps anything you may bring to them. The future of this
slothful kid culture bodes a Roman
ending to our nation soon.
[Congrats on making the USN&WR
Special Report p.48/100406!]

At April 06, 2006 8:49 PM, Blogger Madam A said...

I too jsut finished getting a credential at a school of education and managed to not learn much of anything. It was a waste of time. There was not even any instruction on classroom managment. Most of it was pc propaganda and how the rich people are opressing the poor. I was instructed to student teach with a black female-no mention of her experience or how good a teacher she was, those qualifications were not important. She never once gave me any advice or told me how I was doing. She just sat there.

At April 29, 2006 7:23 PM, Anonymous RShctam said...

Ah yes, the NYC mentorship program. I am currently teaching high school emotionally discturbed students in NYC. My mentor taught elementary school learning disabled students. She has told me several times that she would never be able to teach in my school. How is this person supposed to help me become a better teacher in my current situation? This is just one of the problems with the mentorship program.


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