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Teaching Fellows Make Their Mark

by Deborah Apsel, May 04, 2005
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"How many lives did your last spreadsheet change?" asks an advertisement on the downtown R train, as it rumbles toward lower Manhattan, filled with briefcase-toting professionals on their morning commutes.

The advertisement is for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, which recruits soul-searching professionals and recent college graduates with liberal arts degrees to teach in New York City's public schools. The program is founded on the premise that energetic, committed and well-educated people -- even those without teaching experience or training in education -- can help fill the critical teacher shortage in the city's poorest and hardest-to-staff schools and, in doing so, help turn those schools around. The fellows commit to two years of teaching in the public schools, receive a full salary and benefits, and earn a masters degree in education.

Now approaching its fifth anniversary, the Teaching Fellows program can point to many success stories. In dozens of interviews over the past year, principals told us that fellows have invigorated their teaching staffs and brought great enthusiasm and energy to their schools. And, while teacher retention is still a problem, the percentage of fellows who return for a second year has steadily improved.

The Teaching Fellows program, which began in 2000 with just 313 fellows, has grown into a significant presence in New York City schools. There are now 6,100 former and current teaching fellows in over 1,079 of the city's 1,300 public schools. That means that one in 15 of the city's 80,000 teachers is a Teaching Fellow. In 2004, fellows accounted for a quarter of all new hires in New York City public schools and a staggering half of all new hires in math and special education.

The program seems to have been most successful in the new small schools and in schools in which competent new administrators are seeking to improve student performance and staff morale. Even in high-poverty neighborhoods, there are effective schools in which fellows say they feel their hard work makes a difference in children's lives and where the fellows get guidance and support from their colleagues and supervisors.

Sadly, however, the program has not been uniformly successful. Fellows in poorly run schools with weak leadership tell us that they are set adrift in chaotic environments where no one helps them cope with students who have serious social and academic problems. Fellows in these dysfunctional schools say they feel completely isolated and so are more likely to quit. Even the most idealistic and hardest-working teachers cannot turn a school around without the help of a competent administration.

What Works

Many principals actively seek out teaching fellows because they have a reputation for being smart, energetic, and eager -- even if they have little formal training as a teacher.

"I've had nothing but wonderful experiences with them," says Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School in Manhattan, which opened in September 2003, and where six of the 30 teachers are fellows. "They are extremely bright, they want to save the world, and they grasp at every suggestion I make."

Administrators and fellows agree that the program has brought ambitious, motivated and talented people, who might otherwise never have considered teaching, into the public schools. " Many fellows say that the program offers a way to become involved in the public schools without spending several years -- and thousands of dollars -- to go to graduate school. "I know that I would not be teaching unless it were for the fellows," says a fellow now in his second year teaching 10th grade math and science in Brooklyn. " I've been lucky with being placed at a school with a good administration and lots of fellow fellows who I now call friends. The fellows are the best teachers at my school… [and] we are a great support network for one another. "

(Like many fellows interviewed for this article, this fellow asked to remain anonymous. As employees of the Department of Education, they are instructed not to speak with the press.)

Dozens of administrators credit the fellows with helping to change the culture and quality of instruction in their buildings. As a result, many fellows say they feel they are making a difference, not just in the lives of individual students, but in the quality and atmosphere of their schools as a whole.

What Doesn't Work

Fellows spend about seven weeks training and student teaching during the summer before they start as regular classroom teachers, but many say that summer school is not an accurate indicator of what they face in the classroom. The fellows program also matches all the teachers with mentors who visit their classroom about a dozen times during the school year. And the fellows take graduate courses in education. But, in general, the fellows are largely on their own.

As a result, their main association is not with the fellow program but with the school in which they teach. " I don't think of myself as a Teaching Fellow, except when I think about the fact that I was so poorly prepared to be a teacher," says Michelle Heller, a second year fellow at Discovery High School in the Bronx. " I identify myself as a teacher at Discovery High School. We have a strong, unified staff and take a lot of pride and ownership in our school."

Unfortunately, many schools that have the greatest need for fellows also have the weakest administrators and so provide the fewest opportunities for brand new teachers to learn their craft.

A third year teacher at a Brooklyn middle school, who entered teaching though the fellows program, says she bases her teaching largely on what she can remember from her own years as a middle school student. In her three years teaching in New York City public schools, she has not had a single opportunity to observe another classroom teacher, either within her school or outside of it.

"As a fellow, my number one support was another fellow who was one year ahead of me. He was my lifeline in the school, not because he has more experience, but because I can bounce ideas off him,” she said.

Some fellows in similar situations say that these pressures can overwhelm a brand new teacher. A former teaching fellow at a Manhattan high school, who quit during her second year, says that she entered the fellows program wanting to teach as a career, but is now seriously reconsidering that. " I am re-evaluating teaching as a profession because my experience was so miserable," she says. "What made teaching particularly difficult for me was the administration and the one-and-a-half hour math classes where the kids did not know how to add or subtract and I was trying to teach them algebra."

Vicki Bernstein, head of the Teaching Fellows program at the Department of Education, acknowledges that sending inexperienced teachers into the city's most difficult schools "would not be the optimal way to bring people into the teaching profession." But, she says, "That's where the need is."

Culture Clashes

Some principals complain that fellows, never having led a class before, often struggle with classroom management. And while some fellows wind up being excellent teachers, others are just not cut out for the job. Seasoned teachers and principals sometimes resent the fellows who they see as starry-eyed and naĂŻve outsiders. In many schools this is amplified by the fact that, despite efforts to recruit minority fellows, most teaching fellows are white, and the communities and schools they teach in are mostly black and Hispanic. Of the fellows who entered in 2004, roughly 58 percent are white, 19 percent are African American, 13 percent are Latino and 5 percent are Asian.

"I go to hiring halls full of fellows and it's overwhelmingly a white crowd," says Brian Leavy Devale, principal of PS 257 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where 99 percent of the students are black or Latino. He says the fellows he has hired are excellent teachers and predicts that at least one will go on to be a principal or superintendent one day.

But, despite that, Devale prefers to hire people from the community so that the kids can have role models from similar backgrounds. "I'm all about keeping it open to people who have a vested interest in making it a better community, not just blowing in to try it out," says Devale. "It's a community school and I want to keep it that way."

"I've met some fellows who are going to go back after two years and write a book about 'my time in the urban jungle,'" he says. "Don't come in here to do a social experiment. It's a slap in the face."

Keeping the Fellows

Across the United States, public schools lose teachers faster than they can recruit them. During the 1990s, there was a steady rise in the number of new teachers entering the nation's public schools, but the number of teachers leaving rose even faster, according to "No Dream Denied," a January 2003 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. For example, in 1999-2000, U.S. public schools hired 232,000 teachers who had not taught the year before. The next year, more than 287,000 teachers left the public schools, resulting in net loss of 24 percent. "It is as if we were pouring teachers into a bucket with a fist-sized hole in the bottom," the report said.

The fellows program aims to train and retain educators for New York City. Because it is only five years old, it is difficult to know whether teachers who enter the city's schools through the fellows program are here to stay. But, so far, the retention rate for fellows has improved each year.

This year, 88 percent of fellows returned for a second year, compared to 80 percent in the first group. This is particularly encouraging when compared to the national retention rate for new teachers. Only 86 percent of new teachers nationwide return for a second year of teaching, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Bernstein attributes the improved improving retention rate to a rigorous selection process. Plus, she says, the program works hard to prepare fellows for the reality of teaching in the public schools. "People are going into challenging environments and we are doing a better job of giving them realistic expectations," says Bernstein. "At first, many hoped and thought they could make a difference instantly."

Room for Improvement

Many fellows say the program could be improved if, during their first year, they taught fewer classes and had more opportunities to observe senior teachers or receive professional development. Plus, fellows say that the program could better prepare and support the fellows with more intensive mentoring and with classes tailored to the realities of teaching in New York City public schools. Still, many say that it is difficult to imagine how they could have really been prepared for their first year in the classroom.

"The courses we took before we started teaching were helpless because nothing can prepare you for this," says a fellow in her second year as a special education teacher at a large middle school in Brooklyn. "I look back and can't believe I actually survived. But even on my worst day, I think 'Wow, I'm so lucky.’ I really am grateful. I got to jump right into teaching, and I get my masters. It's trial by fire. And I feel if I can do it here, I can do it anywhere."

This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.

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