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A New Teacher is a Teacher in Training

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.

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.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.