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Retaining Our Collective Memory

What knowledge and skills do we want brand-new teachers in New York City to have before they enter a classroom? Besides the obvious — how to plan engaging lessons, how to support students with learning, and how to manage a classroom — what else is critical for the first-time teacher to know? What kind of conversations should an individual have engaged in before New York State grants that person the right to be the lone adult in a classroom full of impressionable minds?

These are some of the questions that a small group of individuals and I have been grappling with during member meetings of the New York Collective of Radical Educators. On the first Friday of every month we sit together to strengthen our analysis of these issues devise strategies to address them.

One of the very first actions that came out of this working group was the creation of an open letter from newer teachers in support of seniority rights. We feel that so-called “great new teachers” are being used as an argument to end the seniority rule for layoffs, even though we as newer teachers recognize the rule’s critical importance to keeping the most experienced teachers in our schools and protecting them from discriminatory dismissal as their compensation increases. I have had many conversations with newer teachers who initially expressed support for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to end seniority-based layoffs, but then changed their tune as they heard more about the history of the struggle to win and maintain seniority-based layoffs and why its change would negatively affect our students and the cultures of our schools. Our arguments as newer teachers against “merit-based” layoffs are more fully outlined in our letter.

Over the last 10 years under mayoral control, New York City’s teaching force has become significantly less experienced. This change can be attributed, at least in part, to the DOE’s heavy reliance on programs like New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America to do teacher recruitment, which require only a two-year commitment from teachers they hire. Recruits to these programs are required to undergo almost no training or coursework in education before beginning teaching. Not only are they less prepared in basic teaching practices, they also have even less knowledge of education history than traditionally certified teacher who take courses in which they study historical movements within education. There are many important critiques of these alternative-certification programs that are worth developing further, but as I have a tendency to write rather long posts I am going to try to save my thoughts on these critiques for a future piece.

Instead I want to reflect on something I have been thinking about a lot lately: As the teaching force becomes less experienced, we are losing our collective memory. More teachers are walking into classrooms with very little knowledge of the history of struggles within the New York City public school system and with little understanding of the importance of having a strong union to protect students and educators.

I am lucky enough to be able to work closely with quite a few more experienced teachers, and I cherish these relationships. The teachers in my school who have been teaching for a long time have an understanding of the system that I can only dream of having, and I find them to be an invaluable resource when I have a question or want to discuss an idea. After every meeting of the Grassroots Education Movement, which is made up predominantly of teachers with significant experience in the classroom, I leave feeling invigorated by what I have just learned from my more experienced colleagues. Each meeting is like an intense monthly history lesson on anything from the fight for community control and its impact on teacher-community relations to the unrelenting push for privatization that has changed forms over the years but that we are now losing in its current incarnation.

Can we find ways to fill in the gaps in knowledge between experienced educators and those who are less experienced or even alternatively certified? It would be nice if the Department of Education offered these kinds of history lessons, but with its intense focus on new ways to test and hold students and teachers accountable, the DOE seems unlikely to consider the lessons of the past to be important knowledge for its teachers to possess. The UFT could certainly take on that role, and the union does make an impressive catalog of historical articles from the union newspaper available online. But it doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which the DOE’s new recruitment and retention policies have created a profound divide in beliefs about teacher protections, DOE practices like school closings, and even what constitutes good teaching. The UFT could be countering this divide by offering history lessons in their office or encouraging school-based discussion groups among chapters. Unfortunately this is not happening.

One of the projects our NYCORE working group has decided to tackle is to develop a summer speaker series that would address these knowledge gaps. We are hoping to hold talks this summer on such topics as anti-racist education practice, the benefits and drawbacks of alternative certification programs, the impact of mayoral control, a history of the city’s school system, a history of the UFT, the impact of high-stakes testing, etc. If you’re interested in helping us organize for this series you can join us at the next member meeting.

Of course no speaker series can provide a full opportunity for individuals to develop the understanding that comes with years of teaching experience, but as most of the organizers came through alternative certification programs ourselves, we can at least create a forum that provides access to the concepts and ideas we wish we had been exposed to before our first day in the classroom.

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.

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