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The Revolving Door Of Science Teachers

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

I saw nine science teachers come and go in the four years that I taught at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. In a small school that always had a high teacher turnover, science teachers seemed particularly hard to find and retain.

In my first year, there were three science teachers on the staff. One of them was a no-nonsense African-American woman with 10 years of experience. She was a master of classroom management but also disorganized. At one point, she did not work for a few weeks while her certification credentials were sorted out. What eventually led to her leaving, however, was her failure to properly document student lab time, a prerequisite for students to sit for the Living Environment Regents exam. When the principal figured this out, days before the test, he angrily chastised her. I was not at that meeting, but she told me that she had “never been disrespected by a man” so much in her entire life. After that, she had no interest in staying.

The second teacher stayed on the principal’s good side during the year but had aspirations of being an administrator. He took on a lot of leadership roles and wanted to become the school’s dean. When it became clear that he would not receive an administrative post at this school, he left to find one elsewhere. The third teacher stayed, but only for one more year.

My grade-level team had no science teacher at the start of my second year. For the first few weeks, science was taught by a long-term substitute with no background in the subject. We eventually found a qualified teacher, Ms. S, who had formerly worked in the corporate world. She had a positive attitude and was a creative teacher who went beyond textbooks and worksheets. She worked hard as both a teacher and grade-level team member, and so I was happy that she decided to stay on the next year.

But that next year, she came under increased administrative scrutiny because of her classroom management struggles. She was given an “unsatisfactory” rating on a classroom observation and warned about students wearing hats or headphones.

Though it is true that the students gave Ms. S a harder time than the other 10th-grade teachers, we all struggled with these issues and so it seemed unfair that she was singled out. The administrative pressure got to her, and I saw her reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Dispirited, she found employment elsewhere. Before leaving, she helped the 10th-grade students earn the highest marks for a science Regents exam in the school’s young history.

The ninth-grade science teacher at the start of my second year was a woman in her forties, but new to the profession. She was never comfortable teaching our students and midway through the year decided she wasn’t cut out for the job.  She gave enough notice for the administration to find a replacement, and they hired a fresh-faced guy who would be teaching for the first time. Students liked him but he had the misfortune of coming in midway through the school year to try to teach a freshman class testing the boundaries of authority after the ninth-grade team leader, Mr. G, was removed and replaced. He was clearly in over his head, as illustrated by an incident in which he allowed himself to get locked out of his own classroom while students got into a fight. He left at the end of the year and found employment elsewhere.

My last year once again found the school year starting without enough science teachers. The senior class had no science teacher for a couple of months, with the college counselor doing her best to fill the void. When the school finally did hire a teacher, she was a disaster and lasted a mere three weeks. By the beginning of the second semester, a replacement was found who was a lifesaver for the senior class. She quickly earned the respect and trust of the students, and helped push many of them through to graduation. She left at the end of the year, though, to go and start a charter school.

The new 11th-grade science teacher also left after just one year. Currently, there are only two science teachers at the Brooklyn Arts Academy who were teaching when I left the school in June 2010. At least one of them has already made plans to leave at the end of this year.

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.