Welcome to the Jungle

Jose Vilson Education

NYCTFLess than a month ago, The Village Voice published an article about the NYC Teaching Fellows entitled “Your Own Personal Blackboard Jungle” by Stacy Cowley and Neil deMause. Basically, it discusses the hardships that so many fellows go through in the NYC Public School system, and lay much of the fault on the rather accelerated training of the NYCTF.

It’s caused quite the stir in the blogosphere, and in particular with the newer fellows and teachers out there. I’m happy that the article was written: it prompts some honest discussion about a program I was fortunate enough to have been a part of. While I believe that Cowley and deMause had good intentions for writing this article, I also disagree with them on a lot of major points.

Working for the public school system is difficult, regardless of whether or not you get into it through regular certification or alternative certification. Any “rookie” in a high-stress environment will be tested thoroughly on their skills, and won’t be as efficient with their methods as someone who’s been in the school system for 4-5 years. It happens with doctors, entertainers, stock brokers …

The only difference is that we have the charge of taking children under our wings. Student teaching for a year is a great idea, but what happens next? Frankly, some people are great teachers on paper, but can’t cut it in a classroom for various reasons. When they finish their apprenticeship, they’ll be in the same situation as they would be now: all alone with 30 kids who might not necessarily have the same background they do.

Whether it’s 4 hour visits to an NYC public school and summer school teaching, or a whole year in a classroom, some people might not make it. For some people, there is no amount of training that can adequately prepare them for that first day, and the subsequent and harder days that follow. Being overwhelmed and underprepared is part of the program; it’s how you learn to manage that that defines the teacher you are.

Unfortunately, within the program, there’s a set of people who are in it to “save the children.” It’s one thing to have an understanding of the children and have a sense of idealism in one’s discourse, and another to not even attempt to understand the children and overcompensate by looking at them with pity. The ones that have the latter mentality get crushed when they got in the classroom, and those that had the former do relatively well.

Reading the article reminds me of why I didn’t tell the veteran teachers I was a Teaching Fellow until I built a good rapport with them: the program is often associated with negative connotations of a degree-focused, bi-annual turnover, whiny, lazy, mainly White, callous, privileged, and condescending individuals. These opinions come from so many of the veterans I’ve spoken to informally, and that’s created many divisions within the teacher corps of so many schools. When I finally felt comfortable with establishing my association to the program to the rest of the teachers, many of my colleagues’ jaws dropped.

But what can we do to rectify the situation and set a better example for future teachers in the program? Well, the problem is not just how the program is set up or the lackluster reputation of the CUNY classes all of us had to take (because I’ve taken issue with some of the madness), but it’s really the system the program works within. Changes need to come from the top down. Consider this:

How can we as teachers be expected to raise the achievement of students when administrators often treat their teachers like children? How can administrators be expected to develop their teachers when they’ve never been taught how to do so and the policies of their higher-ups stand in contrast to actual success in the classroom? The system is in a constant state of flux, so even teachers into their second decade of teaching often feel burdened. I like the idea of accountability and responsibility, but often it’s teachers who take the blame for the failures of the school system, but get none of the praise for the successes. No program that works within this system can expect to see some of these changes.

With that said, new teachers should be made to feel like the administrators will support their growth. No one’s first year was absolutely perfect, but the most successful teachers always find a way to find a point where both they and their students are learning. Looking around the blogosphere often reminds me that many of the veterans, when prompted, will really act like they want their students to act. They’re the most inquisitive, the most attentive, and the most active within their specific domains.

Personally, I’m happy with my Fellows experience. I read the ad with the simple “Tackle inequalities. Teach Math.” and will display it prominently in my classroom. Although some of the CUNY classes weren’t good, they made me an even better teacher. If the classes were good, I’d take the newfound information and use it with my own kids. If the classes weren’t, I just learned how to not teach in my own class. I had a couple of good administrators I could depend on, a core of teachers within the school that were readily accessible, and 2 excellent mentors (every new Fellow gets 2 mentors) so in that respect, I was lucky.

But my school was far from perfect my first year. What really helped me get through the hard times was my resilience, my maturity, my humility, my connection to my students, and a stalwart mentality that no one could take this profession away from me. I treated them like my own children and not just some charity case. Many of the characteristics that make a great public school teacher transcend but take into account a person’s background, race, class, and gender.

If we can foster school environments where the pressure is on students’ personal growth and not just their academics, raise salaries that compare fairly to suburban counties, lower class sizes, and have helpful professional development, then people will want to come into the school system and make a difference. If teachers’ schedules didn’t get the rug pulled from under them in an instant, or if they weren’t made to feel afraid to seek counseling or to feel like taking a personal day off will affect how their kids will perform on “the big test,” teachers would stay longer. I’m not asking for a cushy job, but basic respectable conditions often promote good culture.

jose, who’s got first day jitters and doesn’t fear retribution for his opinions


I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready …